TECHSPLOITATION At this point, the outraged response to the latest installment in the Grand Theft Auto series of video games, GTA4, is pretty much obligatory. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is lobbying to get the video game rated "adults only" (effectively killing it in the US market, where major console manufacturers won’t support AO games) because there’s one scene in the game where you have the option to drive drunk. Apparently none of the good ladies of MADD have ever played GTA, since if they had they might have discovered that when you try to drive drunk, the video game informs you that you should take a cab. If you do drive, the cops immediately chase you down. Which is exactly the sort of move you’d expect from this sly, fun game, which hit stores last week.
GTA, made by edgy Rockstar Games, is basically a driving game franchise packed inside an intriguing, disturbing, elaborate urban world where you become a character whose life options are all connected to the ability to drive around in various cities. Usually you’re some kind of bad guy or shady character. Think of it as the video game equivalent of a TV show like The Wire or an urban gangster flick. What has made GTA so popular among gamers is the way it combines the fun of a driving game with the sprawling possibilities of gamer choice. And I think that’s what nongamers find so confusing and therefore threatening about it.
When you jump into a car in GTA, you aren’t rated on your driving skill. You don’t have to stay on a predetermined track. Sure, you have to complete a mission, but you can choose to just drive around insanely, exploring the big worlds of the GTA games, beating up cops and murdering people at random if you want. You can take drugs and get superspeedy or ram a truck into a building.
GTA4 is set inside an alternate version of New York City and takes the player even further into a world of narrative choices. You play a character named Niko, a Serbian war vet who comes to Liberty City to get revenge or to make peace with his past. Along with several other characters, he’s just trying to get by in a huge city, but gets sucked into a world of crime and murder along the way. As you get deeper into the game, you realize that your interactions with characters are just as important as running your car missions. You can’t get anywhere without making friends, connections, and plunging deeper into Niko’s troubled past.
If GTA4 were a movie, it would have been directed by Martin Scorsese or David O. Russell, and we’d all be ooohing and aaahhing over its dark, ironic vision of immigrant life in a world at war with itself. But because GTA4 is a video game, where players are in the driver’s seat, so to speak, it freaks people out. Earlier installments of GTA-inspired feminist and cultural-conservative outrage (you have the option to kill prostitutes!), and concern over moral turpitude from Hillary Clinton (you can beat cops to death! Or anybody!).
And yet there are other video games out there, like the family-friendly role-playing game The Sims, where players can torture people to death in ways far more disturbing than those in GTA. I was just talking to a friend who told me gleefully how he’d taken one of his Sims characters, stuck him in a VR headset, and walled him into a room that only contained an espresso machine. The character kept drinking coffee and playing the headset, pissing in the corners of the room and crying until he died. Other players have reported that you can stick a bunch of characters in the swimming pool, remove the ladder, and drown them. Then you can decorate your yard with their tombstones. That’s not the point of the game, but people can do it.
The reason these horrible things can happen in The Sims is exactly the same reason they happen in GTA: these are cutting-edge video games defined by player freedom rather than locking the player into a prescribed narrative loop where veering off the racetrack means "lose" rather than "find a new adventure." When you give players the option to explore their fantasies, you’re going to get some dark stuff. Yes, it’s disturbing. But it’s also the foundation of great art.
Annalee Newitz (email@example.com) is a surly media nerd who has just started playing GTA4 but has already read all the spoilers for it.