Slate’s Chris Baker on the morals of GTA4

I find it interesting that the subtitle for this chat about Grand Theft Auto 4 in Slate hits heavy on the parts of the discussion that implicate morality, even if a lot of the conversation is about other stuff. It also seems to me that “morality” is often discussed in the negative, e.g. “just because it’s violent doesn’t mean it’s (totally) immoral.”

Here are the relevant highlights:

Grand Theft Auto IV is definitely not for kids. (It’s rated M for Mature, the equivalent of an R rating for films, and can’t be sold to anyone under 17. I’d seriously caution any parent to learn more about the game before deciding if it’s appropriate for their kids.)

But there hasn’t been any definitive research showing that virtual violence in video games can spill over into real world behavior.

A ringing endorsement: not proven to cause violence. (See Josh’s earlier post on this kind of anemic self-defense).

My friend Will Tuttle, an editor at Gamespot, compares the game’s story to Doctorow’s novel Ragtime. But he said that the violence was frequently unnerving, and carried more weight than in past entries in the series.
“They’re using the Euphoria engine to create disturbingly realistic ragdoll animations,” says Crispin Boyer, a Senior Executive Editor at the 1UP Network who gave the game an A+. “Nail a pedestrian with your car and they’ll bounce around like Evel Knievel botching a bike jump. It’s sickeningly real—kinda makes your stomach lurch sometimes.”

The crowd does respond realistically—some people will flee, and others will run aup and help or try to fend you off. An ambulance will be called, and some passersby might dial 911. In general, the way pedestrains react to you—and to each other—is amazing. You can actually just stand around watching people, listening to their phone conversations, watching them have fender benders and getting into fights, etc. with no involvement from you.

So, some rudimentary sense of social physics?

The lead character’s conscience is mostly expressed through the game’s excellent dialogue, and through morally ambiguous situations he finds himself in.

I’d love to learn more about this… if it’s what it sounds like, it evokes my memories of playing Torment.

For people who haven’t played the game: The protagonist is a newly arrived immigrant about to go on his first date. He suggests that they go to the “fun fair”, the in-game version of Coney Island. His date is bemused and a little put out that he’d want to do something so cheesy, but she feigns a little enthusiasm to be polite. And then they go bowling. It may sound mundane, but the richness and subtleness of the characterizations surprised me.

I think the deeper writing and characterizations add a richness and a level of nuance to a the game. But it’s still sort of like the Sopranos, it’s about very bad people who do very bad things, though some characters are comparatively more ethical and honorable than others.

(Hey, anyone want to hook me up with a PS3?)

– Gene Koo

One thought on “Slate’s Chris Baker on the morals of GTA4

  1. Some games leave such lasting impressions that it feels strange starting them again for a second time. The impact has worn off, the surprises have gone, the novelties are no more. For some games such as Resident Evil 4, I wanted to beat the game on Pro mode to prove my skill – but that would have been impossible without learning the layout in a Medium difficulty first. Some people only playthrough games repeatedly for Gamerpoints – and I think thats a really good idea, as it adds actual replay value to a game – but still depends on the accessibility of the game itself.

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