Four Questions to Ask When Considering GTA V

For those not in the know, the next big controversial video game has been released. Years ago we heard all of the complaints about Grand Theft Auto III, then IV, and now we’ve got Rockstar’s biggest game yet: GTA V. Christians have fallen on all sides of this issue, ranging from liberty in all things, even killing digital prostitutes, all the way to suggesting we ought to avoid all video games at all times, even something as apparently harmless as Pac-Man or Mario.

Here are four questions you should ask yourself if you’re considering purchasing and playing Grand Theft Auto V.


1. Is play endorsement?

I’ve talked a little about my answer to this question, but the question is one we should all consider. Many Christians (parents especially) draw arbitrary lines in video games: it’s okay to kill in a game like Call of Duty (war simulator) and Splinter Cell (think Jason Bourne if he were mostly stealthy), but when it comes to something like GTA V, it’s time to stop. Maybe that’s because of the setting: Call of Duty at least happens mostly in the context of war; Splinter Cell you’re playing as the “good guy” taking out the “bad guys.” But in GTA V, you’re clearly just playing the bad guy. You’re fighting against cops, often, and killing innocent people on the street at will.

But violence itself, even violence enacted in clearly questionable ways, might be the right starting point for a number of discussions and personal revelations. You can learn a lot about yourself from the way you play your games. Some games deal with that by choices, as in the Mass Effect series, while others do so in a sandbox environment, like GTA V.


2. What do you get from playing?

If you play GTA V because you find murder, theft, assault, and other crime intrinsically fascinating, you should probably consider skipping this one. We shouldn’t just fascinate ourselves with evil. There may be a time when an experience is worthwhile for what it can teach us, or even how it can entertain us, but if you are filling the felony-shaped hole in your chest with GTA V, maybe you should spend less time in front of a television and more time in front of people who care about you.


3. Who else in your life is playing?

There are two routes you can take with this question. The first is fellowship. Maybe you’re a young guy, and every single kid in your youth group is playing GTA V. This might not answer the question, but it could definitely influence you if you’re on the fence. The multiplayer can be an excellent shared experience (I say this having played other video games cooperatively). In addition, teens especially seem to be sucked into certain video games so deeply that they won’t want to talk about anything else. Perhaps you should steer the conversation elsewhere, but having some common ground might make it worthwhile.

Additionally, if you’re a parent (or a youth pastor, or anyone who interacts with teens) and your teen wants to play this game, it might be worth a rental beforehand. Judge the content for yourself. Talk with your teens about what makes you uncomfortable about the game, what makes it worth playing, or what makes you forbid it outright. Teens may be rather rebellious (and they may play this game elsewhere, even if you ban it), but explaining your reason for a decision goes a long way.


4. Do you know when to quit?

Let’s assume you’ve decided to purchase this game. If a scene in the game becomes too much, will you know that you should stop? What if you look at the time and realize that you’ve been playing for 18 hours straight? What about 6 hours? Did you skip dinner with your best friend? Take time off from work?

Before deciding to invest in video games as a hobby, it is important to make sure you can manage your time well. People are more important than digital entertainment, period. I don’t think it is wrong to play video games (which is probably quite clear), but if you prioritize them consistently over people, you’ve made a pretty big error.

GTA V will likely have more hours clocked on it during this month than any other video game. That means it is worth thinking about, if only so we know how to engage it.

Is Play Endorsement? Gaming and Personal Responsibility (Part 2)

Part one of this series can be found here.

Most of us naturally think of our characters as an of extension of our selves, at least to some degree. This is more true in the age of first-person perspective games. Even if we don’t think of our characters as ‘us,’ we do become attached to them, much the way I’m told writers become attached to their fictional characters. There are some characters that I definitely associated with myself, particularly in role-playing games, and some that I simply see as an entirely external character (Master Chief of the Halo franchise comes to mind).

And so it gets more difficult to nail down whether or not our play functions as endorsement. In a comment on my article about linearity and choice, fellow writer Mackenzie had this to say:

I feel as though there is a distinct difference between violent video games of the type you describe (wherein you have a distinct choice, and the violence is, I believe, directed against fellow combatants), and a game like Grand Theft Auto, where you are not only allowed but (at times, I believe) encouraged and sometimes even required to kill the innocent in an excessively violent fashion.

We spoke about this comment later, and he argued that some games, like the Grand Theft Auto series, are simply evil to play. The games encourage the player to do all sorts of unscrupulous things (and have always been a source of controversy).

If we were to adapt Brett’s claim about film to this, then all we would need to do to make GTA a series worth making and playing is to prove that the creators of the game intended to depict the world in some truthful way. We’d have to believe that the truth in GTA was worth receiving via interaction, rather than by some other method.

But there’s something different, here, and I think most would agree. While I’ve argued that thoughtfully gaming is absolutely important for the gamer, I don’t think I’d ever suggest that completely passive intake is the same as the active participation found in video games. There’s something different happening, of course, but even more so when a choice is presented.

In a sense, I am the one pulling the trigger in a virtual game. I’m functioning as a participant, a creator or at least actor, as opposed to simply an audience member. In linear games, ones where the creators have clearly scripted everything, I tend to play the role of an actor: I embody a character, run through a scene, and may or may not provide exactly what the director hoped for. In open games, however, I tend to act as a director: I choose what happens, more or less, and sometimes even how it happens. Maybe my character is wholly evil and kills everyone he or she comes across, or maybe my character is a pacifist, avoiding violence and death even if it means never advancing the plot.

The key difference, however, between a director of a film and a player-as-director of a video game is the audience: only the former tells a story for an external audience. Even when I function as ‘director’ of a video game, I only craft a story for myself. Within the confines of whatever game I’m playing, I can only tell the story to myself, sans someone watching me play, or perhaps online games. If my character is evil, I’ve experienced evil in a way that no one else sees. My art is personal, all of a sudden. Perhaps my evil character can teach me about what the creators of the game consider evil, or what they consider good. Perhaps I can even explore my own moral intuitions in the confines of this evil character I have created, but I’ve still only created them for me.

If a filmmaker creates art for the purpose of pointing to a true world, then there must be someone being pointed towards that world. Perhaps art can point the self–and it probably should–but is that enough? Is it enough to tell ourselves these stories, if we do not share them? If we do not share them with others?

This difficulty is one we already feel when we discuss games with each other. I remember talking about the main character of Mass Effect, named Shepard, as “my Shepard,” because his actions were entirely different from the Shepard my roommate had played. Mine had stayed on the straight-and-narrow, at least what the game believed was the ‘good’ path, while my roommate had taken a piecemeal approach to his decisions: sometimes he was the good guy, and sometimes he was the bad guy. Other people played Shepard as a female–commonly known as femShep–which also led to different options and choices.

We all had our own, unique audiences, and so we created our characters for ourselves. My Shepard acted as the hero, without a trace of rebellion. I found him far more interesting than the lone wolf we currently seem to love in film (Bourne is a prime example), since we so rarely see characters who depend deeply on those around him. But my friends saw rebellious Shepards, independent Shepards (to some extent), or some other Shepard I never even heard about. That’s the point, though: my Shepard was mine, and no one really saw him act, outside of myself.

So is play endorsement? Did I endorse the actions of my character, simply because I was the only audience member for his journey?

I think we need to apply the same careful consideration Brett employed for film: if we are seeking to tell a true story, even if it is a depiction of evil, I don’t think play is necessarily endorsement. Perhaps there are some games that should never be played, and perhaps there are some films that should never be seen, but the qualification should perhaps be ‘depiction of something truthful,’ rather than ‘depiction of violence.’ We should know our own limitations–do not partake in something that will cause temptation or sin, if you can help it–but we should also strive to play games that we can learn from, much like we should watch films we can learn from.

A quick caveat, here: I don’t think we can only play games when we seek to learn. You can read a book for enjoyment, and not for the grand ideas placed within it, much like you can watch a film without learning much. Sometimes movies are an exhilarating ride, and that’s enough. Enjoyment isn’t a sin, in itself, though excess is easily classified as a waste of time. So it is with video games. I may learn a lot from playing Mass Effect or Fallout 3, but there’s not much to learn from Plants vs. Zombies, without making some rather uncomfortable (or humorous) stretches. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying it, though, perhaps for the sheer mechanics of the game. We like to master things, and so the skill involved in mastering a game might be enough.

Is Play Endorsement? Gaming and Individual Responsibility (Part 1)

This is part one in a two-part series I’m doing on video games and endorsement. Check back on Monday for the conclusion.

Brett McCracken covered the question of depiction in film as endorsement rather expertly–as he usually does–over at Mere Orthodoxy. The question came up surrounding the films Zero Dark Thirty and Django Unchained last year, and should probably be asked by all thoughtful filmmakers. It’s important that we work through what it is film means when we create it, and the question easily expands to other sorts of art (as Brett rightly points out, when discussing the historical use of violence in art).

His conclusion is simple:

But the depiction of “the ugly” in art as means to bring about reform is one thing. Should artists be given free pass to depict the extremes of ugliness (torture, unspeakable gun violence, hundreds of uses of the “n” word) when their only purpose is to convey a purported verisimilitude to the “reality” of the world in which their story is set?

In short, yes. I believe that insofar as an artist honestly sets out to tell a story that is truthful (to the world in which it is set, to the real struggles of its characters), then it is their right and even obligation to not shield us from the darker elements.

I think he’s right in his conclusion, though I’d perhaps emphasize the “insofar an artist honestly sets out to tell a story that is truthful” bit. This doesn’t seem to be the case with many artists, particularly film-makers, and that can lead to many evil films, not films depicting evil. It can be easy to confuse the two, especially when we emphasize our personal interpretations of film over the director or writer’s intention; even with the free reign Brett recommends for artists depicting violent media, we should still remember that artists can do so very poorly.

The issue here gets cloudy quickly when one of two things happens. The first is simply that a story is told by means of metaphor or stylized representation of some true thing: this is the difficulty that Brett recognized with Django Unchained. He comments, saying: “Tarantino’s Django is a bit of a harder case, because everything about it screams sensationalism and maybe even exploitation. It’s less clear whether Tarantino’s aim here is wholly oriented toward truth-telling (as opposed to merely a stylish exercise in genre and pop culture pastiche), but I’m going to go out on a limb and give Quentin the benefit of the doubt.” While the conclusion may be grace rather than accusation, even a film that deals with the obvious evils of slavery fell under question.

The other thing that can quickly cloud a discussion is when the writer or director has less control over the story actually told. This doesn’t happen too often in film, at least not in a way that we can recognize, but it happens every day in the world of video games. I’ve spoken about linearity in games before, but the more open the world is, the less control the game-makers have over the story that players will experience. Moral choices abound in many games these days, and with good reason: they make for interesting narratives that we ourselves can help form.

And so the titular question: does play constitute endorsement?

Perhaps the most famous moral quandary in a game in the last few years is that of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2‘s airport scene. The game had you playing an American spy, posing as a Russian terrorist. You were attempting to infiltrate their ranks in order to reach and assassinate their leader. The controversy came when they handed you a fully automatic weapon and proceeded to walk through a populated airport, gunning down every civilian they could find. The characters in the game expected you to follow along. You were told to open fire.

There are multiple choices here, including the option not to play. The game warns you multiple times that there is a scene that may be more graphic or controversial than you desire from your war game, and allows you to skip the level, without any penalty. You could also choose to simply not fire your weapon during the mission. This is what I chose, though I’ll admit that I sort of felt like they were going to suspect me and turn on me at any minute. The tension there was real, though not enough to force me to pull the virtual trigger. And, of course, you could open fire, and end the lives of many virtual Russian civilians.

But does pulling the trigger, so to speak, endorse the actions of the character? In other words, do our characters function as expansions of our selves, or do we act more as directors, telling the characters to act in a certain way in order to depict a certain thing?

I’ll explore this question more fully on Monday. In the meantime, add your comments below.

Violent Video Games and Linearity: What Our Choices Can Teach Us

If thrust into a game where the choices aren’t mine to make, violence (even horrifying violence) ends up making a statement about what that game’s creators are trying to express more than it makes a statement about me the player being forced into a role. […] I don’t believe that game violence causes real world violence, but I do believe that it does little to prevent it. And games with meaningful (and potentially distasteful) choice just might do better because they stand a chance of making the player think about what they’re doing on screen.

So writes a developer for the game Dishonored, a maybe-you-play-stealth-but-maybe-you-kill-everyone game from late last year. The game was well done, and I’ll talk about how I decided to play it in just a bit, but for now I want to tease out this statement about linearity.

For the uninitiated: what he means by ‘linearity’ has to do with choice in any particular game. Some games are ‘open world,’ and thus you can go where you please. Skyrim is an example of such a game: you need not follow any particular path. There are stories available, and you can follow them, but you’re free to do what you will, even if you never hear the story the developers created. On the flip side of this you’ve got ‘linear’ games, which the majority of games fall into. Everything from Halo to Call of Duty to nearly every Mario game puts you in one place, tells you to go to another, and there are very little chances for exploration (either of the virtual landscape or the narrative). Perhaps you can choose which weapon you yield, or you can look for secret warp tubes, or some other such bonus, but for the most part, these games already know what you will be doing, you just have to do it. They land much closer to the ‘watching a movie’ side of the spectrum than the ‘exploring a new world’ side.

And then there are games that sit squarely between these two extremes. Dishonored is one, but so might the Mass Effect universe, or the Army of Two sequel, or any number of games with ‘moral choices’ thrown in. The missions themselves are relatively linear (“Go from point A to point B, accomplish these objectives, kill or disable this person,” etc.), but involve choices that shape the narrative. Dishonored gives you a ‘chaos’ rating, based on how many people you kill (or don’t), and that changes not only the world, but it influences the ending you receive, and how characters react to you. Mass Effect has a bit of a static ‘Paragon’ vs. ‘Renegade’ (read: ‘lawful’ vs. ‘rebellious’) system, though other choices may alter intergalactic politics.

These choices, the ones that change the narrative or emotive experience of a game, are precisely what allow us to use games as a medium for exploring our own ethical intuitions. Particularly when a game imposes some set of morality, the way we react to those judgments can tell us a lot about the way we work through ethical dilemmas.

Take, for example, the Mass Effect series. While I didn’t always agree with the ethics of the ‘Paragon’ choices, it led to many discussions with my friends about what a moral choice would be, given the situations we found ourselves in. One particular mission in the third game (spoiler warning, if you care about such things), involved dealing with a rogue separatist movement of a particular species. The species was robotic, and so shared one mind, though this group had a code glitch somewhere along the way, and had broken off from the main species. Your mission was to go and ‘fix’ this group, and you had two options. One option was to reprogram them, with the help of a member of the primary species, in order to bring them back into the fold. This involves the least death, but seems tantamount to brainwashing, at least in our eyes. The game reassures you that this particular species does not see consciousness the same way that we do, and so such a rewriting is more like a purging of the flu virus than anything else. The other option is to simply kill the other group: finish the war, destroy the separatists, and move on. Purge the species, if you will.

The ‘paragon’ choice was to rewrite the species, though to some that felt plainly evil. Many felt that it was far more evil to completely change and alter thought than to simply kill something for being genuine. On the other hand, without more information about how consciousness actually functions in this particular species–which is clearly distinct from the human individual experience of consciousness–perhaps such a moral choice may be more difficult to make. When I chose the ‘paragon’ options at the beginning of the mission, my character objected to the rewriting of a species. The member of the species on your team explained that for them it was not the same as a brainwash, and attempted to justify it. In the end, the ‘paragon’ option was to defer to those more knowledgeable than yourself, even if the option seemed wrong based on your own understanding of the universe.

But my point here isn’t to work through the moral implications of rewriting a species’ thought patterns that may-or-may not have what we think of as individual will. The point is that this game provided a unique space to think through this issue, whether or not I wanted to. Not everyone did so, obviously: some followed ‘paragon’ or ‘renegade’ thoughtlessly, while some took a pick and choose method to their in-game morality. But for those of us who prefer to allow our entertainment to inform our thought, or at least inform us about our thought, the mission (and many others) sparked something unique.

Dishonored attempts to give players a similar choice, though perhaps it is less complex: do you kill all those who stand in your way, or do you spare them? As far as how I played the game myself, I attempted to explore how a character in that situation would act.  A bodyguard who had sworn his life to protect his queen, and who had likely killed many people for that purpose, probably was not unfamiliar with killing, even if he always did so in the line of duty. And so initially, I killed as few people as possible, as I was simply trying to restore my status. But as I assaulted the strongholds of those who were responsible for removing me from my place of honor, my character became more violent. He killed more, though sought only to kill those he felt were deserving. Sometimes guards, but primarily the higher-ups, or individuals that were clearly evil.

That should tell me something about myself. For starters, it means that I’m hesitant to put myself into the place of a game character, at least without lots of qualifications. My own morality system is quite different from the character I played, and I found myself far more interested in telling a compelling story than I was with upholding some sort of action. I felt like director rather than a character.

It is this sort of reflection, this sort of learning, that video games enable us to engage. Of course, other forms of media and entertainment can act as a moral compass, telling us which way our intuitions lie. But the choices inherent in many games, and even the lack of choices in a medium that could very well give us choices, enable a different sort of interaction than film or books, which usually only offer the option to continue or stop. For some, the best way to play a game may not be to play it at all, but at least those of us who do play can often choose how we play.

Liberty, Gun Laws, and Violence in the Media

A few days ago, I went to a local gun range with my brother to celebrate his birthday. We’d been shooting before, but hadn’t been in awhile. An experience entirely for sport, we fired a pistol, a rifle, and a shotgun. We had a blast, pun fully intended. But when we got driving home, we got talking a little about gun laws, and my brother asked me what I thought.

My response? Well, it’s tricky.

You see, I’m relatively conservative, as you’re probably aware, and so tend to support liberty over regulation wherever I can. But I also stand as a firmly committed Christian, tending towards non-violence wherever possible (though I’m not a pacifist), and it seems clear to me that some weapons were only designed for situations most of us will never be in, whether that be war or revolution. I told my brother that I absolutely support some regulations–mental health checks, background checks, that sort of thing–in regards to gun control, but it is harder to restrict certain guns outright, in my mind. We had proven that day that some shoot for fun or sport, and that a bigger, more powerful gun may bring more fun, even outside of the lethal nature of the weapon. We could have also shot paintball guns, or pellet guns, but the experience of firing an actual weapon is far more exhilarating.

Guns have been in the media lately, but that’s no surprise. Horrors occur, and tragedy strikes in such a way that I hesitate to even speak on it, lest I unintentionally make what is grave trite.

 Yesterday, President Obama proposed background checks on all gun sales, increased support for schools and safety therein, and called on Congress to reinstate the ban on assault rifles. This response to tragedy is understandable, and regardless of your thoughts on the actions of the President, it is right to respect his desire to keep our children safe. I am thankful for a President who cares about our children enough to say that if his laws save but one child’s life, then they were worthwhile laws. Agree or disagree with the President on the regulations, I am glad that his concern for children is substantial.

I haven’t read the full plan, but if the reports are accurate and President Obama simply wants to force background checks on all who purchase weapons, I’m not opposed. The ban on assault rifles I’m still abstaining from judging, at this point.

The President also called for research to be done into how violent media influences our actions. As one who plays video games, even ones that are violent, I fully support this as a future scientific effort. Gamers usually immediately speak out against anyone who says violent video games cause violent actions (“But I play Halo, Call of Duty, and Battlefield, and I’ve never shot anyone!”), but we’d be fools to ignore the possibility. In fact, some in the industry have suggested that video games can provide space to explore how violence enters into us and how we react to it. When we are placed into a linear moment in a game where we know shooting enemies is the goal, it is natural for us to shoot. But given space to make decisions, we can learn a lot about what we do: if you could play a video game through without killing someone, would you? Even if the game offered many ways to spill blood throughout? It’s worth examining ourselves, something video games are starting to figure out (Dishonored is one that does this, but Spec Ops: The Line is designed specifically to tackle the question of violence in video games: how far is too far?).

Over at the Washington Post, John Mark Reynolds has much to say about this balance between liberty and regulation. For his conclusion, he offers only this:

If the federal government decides further to limit magazine sizes in an act of therapeutic regulation, however, I think the Republic will no more be in imminent peril, then if it decided to ban certain kinds of violent video games. We were free before Grand Theft Auto and could be free without it.

I hope we do neither, but only because I believe too much liberty and privacy have been lost.

He stands in a place where he hopes to allow others to choose differently, but firmly believes that more regulation will solve nothing. I tend to agree with him on both his conclusion and his method: ideally no one should need a gun, but we live in a fallen world. Man will commit heinous crimes, and we should retain the ability to prevent that.

I’d love to choose liberty over regulation, and probably still will. But God help us if we still need guns.