RetroPost – Grand Theft Auto IV: Boycott or Buy?

In RetroPost, we feature a post from at least one year ago (ancient in pop culture time). The posts are featured because they have some relevance to current happenings, because they are timeless in nature and speak to a relevant issue, or because we plan on providing a follow-up in an upcoming post.

This Week: You would think that, after more than a year, people would stop talking about Grand Theft Auto IV. That would be true if it weren’t for the latest downloadable content that adds an extra chapter to the story: The Ballad of Gay Tony. No, we’re not kidding. You can rest assured we’ll be addressing that issue more in depth in the future, but for now here’s what Alan Noble originally had to say about the original GTA IV, sans Gay Tony.

Tomorrow, or late tonight for some people, the nearly four-year GTA drought will end when Grand Theft Auto IV is released on Xbox 360 and PS3. So far, all the enthusiast press has been extremely positive, with some critics already calling it a major contender for Game of the Year. With pre-order sales and strong marketing, GTA IV looks to have one of the strongest releases in game history, perhaps even rivaling or surpassing last year’s record-setting Halo 3 release. While most gamers and the enthusiast press are gushing over GTA IV, for most conservative commentators and those in the mainstream press, the GTA series is usually summarized by a few talking points:

  • You can sleep with a prostitute and then beat her to get your money back.
  • You can drive drunk, and it’s fun.
  • You can perform drive-by shootings.
  • You can carjack.
  • The game is a cop killing simulator.
  • It contains drug use, extreme violence, strong sexual content, profanity, and partial nudity.

While each of these bullet points accurately describe what players can do in the game (except for item #5), by presenting these gameplay elements without context, many conservative commentators have been dishonest in their appraisal of GTA IV and its past versions. What appears to be clear from the press, interviews, and previews is that this latest iteration of Grand Theft Auto is intent on exploring the relationships and characters of violent criminals and the morally depraved. So does this mean an end to the glorification of degenerate, depraved, and criminal lifestyles in the GTA series? Should believers boycott this game or embrace it?

Satire and social commentary

GTA has always had a satirical edge to its humor and gameplay, drawing attention to American’s fascination with guns, fast food, and stereotypes. Take this ad promoting the “Liberty City Gun Club” or the fact that the gun shops in the games are called Ammu-nation for example. But the core mechanic of the game that has made it one of the most popular game franchises of all time is the ability to play in the sandbox world with little to no consequences. Rockstar might have peppered their games with satire and witty pop culture references, but most of us played them because we could run over pedestrians, steal a car, get chased by the cops, fly off a bridge, and then reappear outside the hospital with only a few absent dollars to testify to our criminal adventure.

It’s always been hard to take GTA games serious as social commentary when they’ve made being a soulless criminal so darn fun! In past games there was no sense that the crimes that were committed meant anything in the game world. Murdering a rival gang member or betraying someone was merely a part of the plot, since the relationships in the games were fairly wooden and predictable. As a player there was no compelling reason to connect to the characters, and therefore, when they died it was not tragic.

But comments like this have me wondering if this new game will give a more balanced view of criminal life: “Criminals are an ugly, cowardly lot more worthy of pity and disdain than admiration. This is what you’ll learn playing through the single-player campaign in Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto IV” (IGN’s GTA IV Review).

The real world of organized crime?

The word coming from Rockstar and the critics who have been lucky enough to play review copies of the game is that there is a stark difference between GTA IV and previous iterations. Rather than treat the murder and violence of the game as trivial or merely comical, GTA IV attempts to show the reality of organized crime.

According to Rockstar Games founder Sam Houser, “We’re a long way from having just sort of a great big, white, alpha-male dude running around with a bazooka. Our games aren’t really set up like that. We want to have a character that makes you ask questions — that can be a little confusing in terms of how you empathize with them and how you relate to them….”

Serious moral dilemmas in a video game? In a Grand Theft Auto game? As unlikely as it seems, if IGN’s reviewer is to be trusted, it seems that Rockstar was able to pull off:

“You play as Niko Bellic, an Eastern European attempting to escape his past and the horrors of the Bosnian war. He arrives in Liberty City to experience the American dream, only to discover his cousin, Roman, may have fibbed a bit in his tales of success. Starting from nothing, Niko makes a living as a killer and enforcer, a bad-ass foreigner who appears to have no morals. The longer we stay with Niko, the more we see that there is a broken human being inside, one who would give anything to escape the person he once was. As Niko becomes mired in the death throes of American organized crime, he begins to become more self-aware. Niko’s struggles with his ruthless nature never inhibit the gameplay, but instead enhance the emotional gravity of a brilliant storyline. The more absurd the action becomes, the greater we feel the very real pathos of Niko Bellic.”

What this all seems to suggest is a very real moral center to this game. Where previous GTA games existed in essentially an amoral universe where judgment was as irrelevant as punishment, GTA IV’s storyline shows how truly ugly and sad these gang members are. This sense of realism was the creator’s intent, and critics who have played review copies have confirmed that the intent was successfully realized in the game. Which leads us to our final question: if Rockstar has made a game which realistically portrays the tragic and pitiful effects of violence and crime by having the player take control of a depraved character, should we support it or should we boycott it?

To hit and run, or not to hit and run?

As any of our regular readers know, here at CAPC we rarely (if ever) make universal statements concerning what is and what is not acceptable for believers to watch/play/listen to/read in pop culture. It is our hope to encourage believers to use biblical discernment about these matters rather than relying upon man-made laws to keep us from sin. So instead of offering a simple condemnation or recommendation for Grand Theft Auto IV, I would like to present a few ideas for believers to consider:

  1. Although the game strives to present the ugly truth about organized crime (which indicates that the game exists in a moral universe), players can pick up hookers and receive lap dances. Any believers who struggle with lust should probably avoid this game. However, it should be noted that to my knowledge these sexually explicit scenes can be avoided in the game (much like in Mass Effect) simply by choosing not to pursue them. Since I do not have a review copy of the game, I am not sure if any of these scenes are a part of the single player story or can be skipped.
  2. Just as the previous’ games use of satire failed to justify (for me at least) the glorification of senseless violence, GTA IV’s serious look at the criminal underworld fails to strike me as a genuine example of social commentary, since all the reviewers seem to agree that being a ruthless killer is so darn fun in the game. If the story and characters are telling us that criminals are “more worthy of pity and disdain than admiration” but playing a criminal is exciting, fun, and invigorating, what message exactly is being expressed?* Specifically, this has me wondering about Proverbs 3:31: “Do not envy a man of violence and do not choose any of his ways.” Will playing this game make me envy a violent lifestyle?
  3. And finally, in what way will playing this particular game glorify God? Is it a good use of your time? Will it tempt or cause you to sin? Will it help you cultivate righteous thoughts, attitudes, and actions?

These issues are not easy to sort out, and for anyone who is seriously considering purchasing this game, I would strongly encourage them to prayerfully consider each of these.

I applaud Rockstar for creating a game which deals with gang culture in a serious manner, showing the tragic effects of such lifestyles instead of merely romanticizing them. It is very likely that Grand Theft Auto IV will be considered an important moment in gaming history, and particularly games as art and storytelling. While I firmly believe that there are some very praiseworthy aspects of this game, for myself, the irreverence, disregard for human life, tasteless sexuality, and pleasure in senseless violence will keep me from dropping $60 on GTA IV tomorrow.

How about you? Are you going to buy Grand Theft Auto IV? Why or why not?

*To be fair, I don’t have a review copy of the game myself, so I cannot say for certain that it is fun to run people over and pull drive-bys as in the past GTAs, but frankly, I can’t imagine that Rockstar would release a GTA where the core gameplay mechanic isn’t focused on wrecking havoc on innocent people.

About Alan Noble

(Co-Founder/Editor/Columnist) is a part-time lecturer at Baylor University. He received his PhD in Contemporary American Literature from Baylor, writing on manifestations of transcendence in 20th Century American Lit. He and his family attend Redeemer Waco, a PCA church. Alan's passion is studying how believers can be a faithful presence in culture to the glory of God and the edification of others. In addition to editing, Alan writes his column, Citizenship Confusion for CaPC.

---Follow Alan on Twitter @TheAlanNoble and on Facebook.

---For questions, comments, or interest in speaking engagements please email me at noble.noneuclidean [at] gmail [dot] com.

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