GTA4: reintegrating the divided self

2 faces of NikoBy the close of our discussion about GTA4 on Wednesday, some of us expressed pessimism that computer games possessed any capacity to invigorate moral reasoning or reflection. Matthew remained hopeful, but expressed his dismay that the critical reception of GTA4 seems to set a ceiling, not a floor, for morally-deep games:

…The series cheered (and criticized) for glorifying violence has taken an unexpected turn: it’s gone legit. Oh sure, you’ll still blow up cop cars, run down innocent civilians, bang hookers, assist drug dealers and lowlifes and do many, many other bad deeds, but at a cost to main character Niko Bellic’s very soul. GTA IV gives us characters and a world with a level of depth previously unseen in gaming and elevates its story from a mere shoot-em-up to an Oscar-caliber drama. Every facet of Rockstar’s new masterpiece is worthy of applause…
IGN review by Hilary Goldstein

Maybe Niko loses his soul, and maybe you, the player, care. Or at least try to care. And so maybe through its long reach, however flawed, GTA4 also opens new frontiers to explore, and it becomes our duty to turn that perceived ceiling of possibility into a challenge.

Andrea Flores, responding to the recurring theme of “schizophrenia” throughout the discussion, brought in the idea of ritual, especially as described by anthropologists like Arnold Van Gennep and Victor Turner, to understand the interplay between real (the player) and game (the character). Like the “liminal space” of ritual, perhaps the “magic circle” of games offers a passage from one state to the next. If so, the tension among player, avatar, and character might well be something to exploit rather than bemoan; indeed, I find quite compelling the idea of the avatar as a “symbol” that the player manipulates to conduct the game-as-ritual.

From a positivist perspective, there is certainly much to learn from real players’ experience of the moral dimensions of a game like Grand Theft Auto. (Grand Theft Childhood is one place to start; the GoodPlay Project, where Andrea and Sam research, is another). From a normative and developer’s standpoint, there’s also so much to imagine, to build, and to test.