I’m in Liberty City and I’m Outta Control

On a class discussion board for my ENG217 course this week, a student asked me to ruminate a bit on Grand Theft Auto IV. Alex was specifically asking me to address how I felt about the weighty emotional decisions the game asks its players to make, as well as the potential impact GTA IV has on children. I’m cutting/pasting my response here on the blog because I’m pretty sure a few of you regulars are having similar thoughts, and I’d love to hear what you think.

I think the GTA series has grown up quite a lot with these last two installments. GTA III and Vice City had a lot of cartoon violence in them, and while the jokes and gameplay were definitely lowbrow enough to give parents pause, I don’t think they are nearly as mature as San Andreas and IV. These last two installments show that videogames aren’t reaching for general, catch-all audiences; very clearly, Rockstar and Take 2 are aiming for a particular demographic with their games and the spill-over effect into the larger pop culture is pretty interesting to watch.

Alex, you described having an emotional attachment in the story that directly impacted your gameplay, and I’ve had similar experiences/reactions. I’m noticing that when the game *orders* me to do things, I am willing to do them without too much resistance; this is most obviously the progression side of the game manifesting itself, where if I want to move forward I have to complete the mission regardless of how I feel about it. But when the game *asks* me to assassinate someone and gives me the choice of letting an NPC live or die, I’m finding that I almost always walk away; this is the emergence side of the game for me, and what I’m probably finding the most compelling.

My podcasting buddy Shane and I talked about this on our show a couple of weeks ago, wherein the player of GTA IV has a lot more say in just how bad a guy Niko is in the game, and the combination of progression/emergence play reveals startling things about our own character. I’ve found in my own path through the game that I only fight random people on the street and jack cars when I absolutely positively have to, and that I would much rather have a cabbie drive me to/from missions, restaurants, stores, and dates than doing it myself. I don’t like to socialize with the NPCs so much, either, which I just realized a little while ago; anytime Little Jacob or Brucie call and want to hang out, I tell them that I have something more important to do.

But there are bottlenecks in the game that put me in almost impossible choices, and like Alex, I’m having a harder and harder time making those choices and feeling comfortable with them. When the game asked me to choose between killing Hollywood and Dwayne, I really agonized over that decision in a way that I wasn’t expecting. I almost loathed the designers for making me choose between them. I’m suspecting that a younger player might not feel so conflicted, but that’s just me speculating.

Should young gamers and children play GTA IV? There are minor parts of it that are perfectly fine as far as I’m concerned (the minigames in particular are harmless IMHO, as is the street racing), but that would entail roleplaying Niko as a law-abiding citizen who drives the speed limit and never loads a single episode of the story missions. Like San Andreas, the story in GTA IV is a very mature one, and not just in terms of its violence and brutality; Niko is a pretty complicated character, and I think there’s a lot of payoff in the game for players who are already familiar with the war he’s escaped or those willing to do some research into it. Niko’s psychology and thirst for revenge isn’t just cartoon violence playing itself out like it does with Tommy in GTA III and Victor in Vice City; there is nuance, reason and complexity in what drives Niko, and I’ve found it fairly easy to rationalize his actions for the most part so far as I’ve played in the story mode. These are also character experiences and traits I find worthwhile in reading a work of literature as well, and certainly if I were to transcribe his experiences into a novel, that wouldn’t be a children’s book by a long shot.

As far as my own kids are concerned, I do not let them play the game, nor do I let them watch me play when I’m doing anything other than finding the stuntjump ramps. I’ve explained to them that the GTA games are for adults, much like big books with lots of 10-dollar words in our home, or even R-rated movies, and they seem perfectly happy with that distinction. I even think that they appreciate having a distinction made: every game that gets released has a target audience, and GTA is a game that simply isn’t made with children primarily in mind; rather, it is very much targeting those children’s parents. In my boys’ minds, GTA is a game for adults in probably the same way that No Country for Old Men is a film for adults; there will probably come a time when they are genuinely interested in a game like GTA (or maybe not, depending on their tolerances for the kinds of violence, heterosexism, and misogyny games like the GTA series revel in), rather than playing it because of peer influences or advertising hype. In the meantime, there are scores and scores of games that they *are* genuinely interested in, and a great deal of them are really good ones too. BoomBlox, anyone? 😉


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