Grand Theft Auto and the Sandbox of Violence

Okay, so I know I’m going to be in the minority here. Probably a very small minority. And I fully expect to catch a ton of flak for this—especially in light of a highly-anticipated new installment in the series arriving soon—but I feel like it has to be said.

I really don’t like Grand Theft Auto.

Before we jump in and explore this sacrilegious statement, though, a bit of background is in order. Lest you think that this is simply a one-sided, GTA-bashing hate blog, I want to explain that I didn’t always feel this way. In fact, I played quite a lot of Grand Theft Auto when I was younger. I got hooked on GTA III, and my infatuation with the series continued right through Vice City and San Andreas. I sunk many hours into these games, and at the time, they ranked among my all-time favorites.

But somewhere between San Andreas and GTA IV, something changed. I’m still not entirely certain what that something was, but whatever the reason, by the time GTA IV was released, I had come to realize that I had absolutely zero interest in the series anymore.

Of course, sometimes such shifts in personal taste simply happen, with no apparent cause. We grow older, our circumstances change, and we change; sometimes our preferences change as a result. It would be easy to simply leave it at that, except for one thing: I was not only uninterested in GTA anymore; I actively disliked it.

As far as I can recall, this is the only instance in my entire life in which my personal preferences (in terms of entertainment, at least) have undergone such a dramatic, polar shift. How did I go from thoroughly enjoying a series of games to actively disliking them?

Back when I played GTA, I think I enjoyed the games for most of the same reasons that a lot of gamers enjoy them. Though I did like the characters, the missions, and the humor of the games, for the most part I treated GTA like a sandbox: there was just something cathartic about racing down the streets in this realistic, open world, stealing car after car, plowing through people, and fighting off my inevitable demise at the hands of swarms of angry cops. Simply put, it was just fun to cause mayhem. So believe me when I say that I understand the appeal of Grand Theft Auto. I really do, because at one point it appealed to me, too.

Nowadays, however, the very thought of GTA leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I can hear the rabid GTA fans already: I’m a prude, I’ve got a stick up my butt, etc. Before you pounce, however, I am not saying it’s somehow “wrong” to like Grand Theft Auto. I am merely attempting to explain, as best I can, why I dislike it.

Here’s the thing: I’m a pretty nice guy. And no, that doesn’t mean I think GTA fans aren’t nice people, either. I can only speak for my own preferences and tendencies; I won’t presume to speak for anyone else’s. But I like being a nice guy, and that preference invariably carries over into my gaming as well. My Shepard was a Paragon; my Dovahkiin never once harmed an innocent. My characters in Fable sported halos over their heads, as did my Vault dweller in Fallout 3 (in the menu, at least). In other words, my virtual alter-egos tend to gravitate toward good rather than evil, toward light rather than dark.

This is, of course, assuming the game gives me a choice in the first place. Most games—especially non-RPGs—don’t. But while the vast majority of games don’t utilize an explicit morality system, many of them do at least offer players some flexibility in how they choose to conduct themselves inside their virtual worlds. Skyrim is a great example of this: while there is no “morality meter” in the game, you do have the freedom to help or harm anyone in the game world, as you so desire. And even games that offer less freedom of action often provide an element of player choice: in Dragon Age: Origins, for instance, while the game world is not “open” like Skyrim’s, and you cannot attack non-enemy characters, the in-game dialogue offers you plenty of opportunities to behave in either a helpful manner or a selfish one.

I will acknowledge that Grand Theft Auto also offers players a choice in how to conduct themselves within the game world. Yes, you can behave like a proper citizen in public. Yes, you can drive around town without causing accidents and slaughtering pedestrians. But the fact is, the game is not designed to be played that way. Just imagine, if you will, attempting to play through the entirety of a GTA game without (even accidentally) killing an innocent civilian or making a single traffic violation. Perhaps this could be done (for all I know, someone has done this), but such a painstaking exercise would, at best, only be good for a stunt. Otherwise, no reasonable person would actually sit down and try to play the game that way. That’s just not Grand Theft Auto.

And therein lies the issue. For all intents and purposes, Grand Theft Auto forces the player to be a bad guy. “Well, so what?” you might ask. If you don’t want to play as a bad guy, then just don’t play GTA. That’s a reasonable sentiment, and maybe it should be as simple and straightforward as that. No one’s forcing me to play it, after all.

But in truth, my problem with GTA runs a bit deeper than just not wanting to play as a bad guy. In fact, generally speaking, I have no problem playing as a bad guy. My issue with Grand Theft Auto is not that the game forces you to play as a criminal. My issue is that the game forces you to play as a psychotic mass-murderer, while teasing you with the illusion of personal choice—the choice to do better, to not be a mass-murderer.

Here’s what I mean. Sometimes, games offer you a choice as to how your character will react or behave. Whether you choose a righteous path or an evil one, you have made a personal decision about how you will influence the game, and you must then abide by the consequences of that decision.

In Grand Theft Auto, this fundamental relationship between player choice and consequence is broken. By making it technically possible to play the game without killing civilians and causing mayhem, GTA creates the illusion that the player is thus “choosing” to be a psychotic mass-murderer when he or she plays the game the way it’s meant to be played. In the course of normal GTA gameplay, the average player will inevitably kill civilians and cause some mayhem—even if it was not their choice to do so. Of course, the “consequence” of this in GTA is an increase in Wanted Level, which alerts you to the police. At most, this is a minor inconvenience; more often, the ensuing escalation only feeds the very impulse that triggered it in the first place. Thus, this consequence is not a consequence at all; in fact, more often it is actually an intrinsic reward for what would, in virtually any other game, be considered reprehensible behavior.

Perhaps the biggest issue for me regarding GTA is that the game pretends that it’s absolutely normal for you to be a psychotic mass-murderer. There is an inherent juxtaposition between the game’s overall realistic tone and this consequence-free, sandbox-style free-for-all. Yes, the games feature a good amount of humor and satire, but story- and setting-wise, GTA generally takes itself pretty seriously. To me, that just makes it all the more unsettling when, outside of predefined missions, the game not only condones, but pointedly encourages, such morbidly chaotic behavior.

Yes, I’m aware that I’m starting to sound a little preachy. And I have little doubt that by now, many of you are thinking that I’m drastically overthinking this. But if I am, I’m only doing so in an attempt to reconcile something that required no thinking whatsoever: the reflexive cringe of disgust I feel every time I see or hear someone praising Grand Theft Auto. And again, I am not judging those of you who do enjoy it; I’m merely stating how I feel.

And though it brushes up against it, this is really not about the age-old video game violence debate either. For what it’s worth, I personally do not believe that video game violence contributes to violent behavior. But I do believe that by rewarding and glorifying wantonly destructive, consequence-free behavior in-game, Grand Theft Auto appeals to some of the worst aspects of human nature.

I acknowledge that this is not a popular stance to take. And at first glance, it may seem like a rather extreme thing to say. It is just a video game, after all; what harm can it really do? But I’m not saying that it’s harmful; rather, I’m saying that the thing that attracts gamers (most of us, at least) to Grand Theft Auto is a facet of human nature that revels in the thrill of unbridled, destructive chaos.

And no, this does not mean that I think anyone who enjoys Grand Theft Auto is at heart a psychopath who lusts for mass slaughter. Nor are GTA fans (or even gamers as a whole) by any means alone in harboring such destructive fantasies—our society is replete with fodder for the violence-monger in all of us, from books and movies to sports and television. This is the reason why morbid violence is always front-page news. It’s just in our nature, for better or worse.

I can’t exactly pinpoint why Grand Theft Auto’s pandering to fantasies of wanton, consequence-free violence stopped appealing to me. To be sure, I’m not averse to violent games on the whole, but in most games there is at least some purpose behind the violence—either it furthers the story or the action, or provides some in-game reward. The sandbox arena of GTA, however (that is, the free-form, open-world, non-mission-related element of the game), is an unabashedly grotesque theater of chaos, designed to force the player to engage in unchecked violence solely for violence’s sake. This is the problem I have with Grand Theft Auto, and why I can’t help but wince just a bit whenever I see the series praised so highly.

And it is praised highly—overall, it is one of the most highly acclaimed series in the history of video games. So either I’m completely off base in my assessment, or there’s something more going on here. To be fair, I have focused primarily on the game’s violent aspect, and obviously, that’s not the only thing Grand Theft Auto has going for it. I can only speak to the games I played, but to give credit where it’s due, GTA also features engaging storylines, memorable and well-acted characters, and impressively detailed, realistically nuanced open worlds. I cannot deny that Grand Theft Auto has had a profound influence on gaming over the last decade or so, possibly more so than any other single series.

But I can’t help but wonder: what does that say about us? There are numerous games out there with equally great stories, memorable characters, and well-drawn worlds. So what is it that sets GTA apart? I may very well be wrong, but I have to think it is primarily the game’s open, realistically detailed sandbox of violence. Something about it taps directly into a very primal part of human nature—more so than any other game out there—and it is, quite simply, addictively pleasurable. Sure, many games could be called “addictively pleasurable,” but for the most part they appeal to other aspects of our nature, like competition, exploration, and completion. Grand Theft Auto also plays to some of these, but I believe it is its unique appeal to violent, destructive mayhem for its own sake that truly sets it apart.

Honestly, I don’t know what that says about us as a whole. I doubt most gamers give it much thought. Those who have generally don’t seem to care, at least not enough to turn them off. I’m not judging them—all I can say is that I’ve come to realize that it’s not for me. I know I’m probably in the minority, but I feel like video games have more than enough positive things going for them to keep me satisfied; I have no desire to go out of my way to embrace my inner violence-monger, especially when so much of our gaming—of our entire world, really—is already overflowing with more than enough violence and destruction as it is.

No doubt there will be those who read this as nothing more than a hate blog, another goody-two-shoes railing against video-game violence. I expect that; this is, after all, an unpopular stance to take among gamers, one that I know won’t win me many friends. But it is not my intention to denounce anyone who likes Grand Theft Auto. I merely want to spark a discussion that I think we owe it to ourselves to at least consider. Admittedly, this is an uncomfortable topic for many gamers; I for one think that’s all the more reason why we should not simply ignore it.

[gameinformer.com]

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1 response to Grand Theft Auto and the Sandbox of Violence


  1. Jake’s Grand Theft Auto blog was featured in the “Blog Herding: Community Edition” on 12/20/12!

    http://www.gameinformer.com/b/news/archive/2012/12/20/blog-herding-community-edition-12-20-12.aspx

    Seven of his blogs were herded in 2012, starting with “In Defense of Skyrim: The Consequences of Complexity” on 8/23/12. Kudos on a fantastic 4 months!

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