Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Second Thug Life

My name is Niko Bellic.

I arrived in this country only a few weeks ago from my native Serbia, where I had recently wrapped up a stretch in prison following the Bosnian conflict -- a war I reluctantly fought in. I came here at the urging of my cousin Roman, who enticed me with promises of the "American Dream," yet since stepping off a freighter onto the shores of the sprawling urban landscape of Liberty City, I've found not the fresh start I was hoping for but rather an uninterrupted continuation of the life I wanted so desperately to escape. In my short time moving silently -- and sometimes not-so-silently -- beneath even the underbelly of Liberty City, I've found that America is like any other place in the world: The rich and powerful stay that way at the expense of the poor and helpless, and often the only way up is to shut yourself down and be willing to obliterate whoever and whatever gets in front of you. That's what I've done -- what I'm now doing. I've run drugs and guns for the underworld; assassinated the dangerously unhinged head of the Russian mob; been double-crossed by friends, associates, dirty cops and even my girlfriend -- a seemingly normal and thoroughly whip-smart 20-something who likes comfort food, shoots a hell of a game of pool and says I'm great in bed. I've been shot at, beaten-up and marked for death. I'll survive though, because I'm willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive, protect my interests and keep one step ahead in the game that everyone seems to be playing.

And if that means I have to take your car out from under you and put two rounds in your head while doing it -- so be it.

I am Niko Bellic.

While there are undoubtedly a whole lot of people out there who have no idea what I'm talking about, the sales figures dictate that there are at least a million or so of you who do -- a million little Niko Bellics wreaking havoc on the streets of a million little Liberty Cities across the country. For the uninitiated however, I'll spell it out: Niko Bellic is the main character -- the role assumed by the player -- in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Whether you're an avid video gamer or not, it's impossible not to at least have heard of the GTA series in general and the latest installment in particular: XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 owners began falling all over themselves last Tuesday to get their hands on copies of the game, while at the same time, the usual suspects -- the humorless folk for whom GTA IV represents the latest step toward the complete meltdown of civilization as we know it -- began their cacophonous cries of foul. Late last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, having apprently solved every real problem in New York City, issued an official statement harshly condemning the one-man virtual crime wave of Niko Bellic, saying that it "teaches children to kill." That slightly surreal proclamation followed a demand made to the video game ratings board by Mothers Against Drunk Driving; the group is insisting that the rating on GTA IV be changed from "Mature" (which is intended to keep the game out of the hands of kids) to "Adults Only" (which would essentially ban it altogether). It's probably only a matter of time before Robert Mueller puts Niko Bellic on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and the U.S. Terror Threat Level is raised to blackwatch plaid.

If this all seems like far too much absurd fuss over a video game, believe me, it is. Critics of GTA IV make the argument that it isn't simply a game but something much more powerful. About this, they're right to some extent: Grand Theft Auto IV is quite honestly the most astonishing video game I've ever laid eyes on. It's more a 360 immersive experience than a third-person drive-and-shoot -- an entire virtual world so richly detailed that it leaves you giggling idiotically at how far these games have come since the days of Pong and Pac Man. I could try to explain the visceral thrill to be had just driving around exploring the vast cityscape that the designers at Rockstar Games have created, but you really do have to see it to believe it. Is the game violent? Yes, although how violent is really up to the player. Are there drugs, crime and sex? Yes, but once again, the player has more control over the progression of the game -- its storyline unfolding as a complex, non-linear web -- than you might expect. The most important question though, and the one that GTA IV's rabid detractors seem to either forget or ignore: Is the game for children? The answer, of course, is no.

Those currently crusading against Grand Theft Auto IV are operating under the dead weight of a paradigm that's long since past -- one which dictated that video games were strictly the domain of kids. They're not -- not anymore. At no point have the makers of the GTA series ever claimed that their products are meant for anyone but adult gamers. And while it would be naive to think that some kids won't find a way to play GTA IV, it's a ridiculous forfeiture of adult rights to push for the banning of the game altogether for this reason. If you follow that logic, then we should reinstate Prohibition and trash any film with a rating above PG-13. It's an adult's prerogative to be entertained however he or she sees fit, provided no laws are broken -- I'm of course referring to real world laws -- and though I have no doubt that a troubled mind submerging itself in the world of Liberty City 24/7 could lead to legitimate danger, a little bit of common sense will go a long way for 99.9% of the XBOX Nation.

Please understand, I don't readily disregard the argument that pop culture bears a certain responsibility in the molding of young minds; while I think it's ludicrous to blame Marilyn Manson for Columbine, it's equally ludicrous to assume that even the most attentive parent can always stem the constant onslaught of advertising, TV, the internet and so on. Pop culture is the wet nurse of today's youth. But once again, just because a clever kid can get his or her hands on something like GTA IV, that doesn't give anyone the right, while attempting to childproof the planet, to deprive adults of a form of entertainment intended expressly for them.

In the end, even though it's an extraordinary game -- it's still a video game we're talking about here.

Course, that new Audi A5 parked downstairs would be pretty easy to jack.

Isn't that what Niko Bellic would do?


Anonymous said...

What's your Gamertag? Multiplayer can be a real havoc filled giggle fest.

Ms. Mix & Bitch said...

OMG...you've written more on this subject than you did about the war, Chris Matthews and SJP combined ;-)

Isn't there a certain age when video gaming gets, well...old? Or is this the last adrenelin high left on the safe list?

VOTAR said...

I am driver guy for international shipping company. Is good job. Ay Uri, no smoosh packages! What, you kidding me?

Slim Strummer said...

I have not played GTA IV, but I can tell you that I have enjoyed GTA : San Andreas more than any movie and most books I have consumed over the last couple of years. I would expect the same of GTA IV.

As for the prohibitionists, except for a few true crackpots, I expect that the politicians will do their usual bloviating and handwringing over the decline of our republic due to this game (as opposed to cutting the deficit, for example).

That said, Rockstar doesn't do themselves many favors when they allow things like the "Hot Coffee" mod to occur. The games are good enough without the hidden deviant porn. Keep it in the open like a good skin slinger, I say.

Melissa said...

A5? Yummy. If I didn't love my VW so much, I'd definitely be driving an Audi. My current gaming wants are centered around Mario Kart, although the husband has been eyeing GTA. I have no doubts I'll wake up one morning to see him laughing maniacally while causing as much carnage as possible. It might even be a nice change from watching endless hours of Call of Duty 4.

Still working my way through the memoir; trying to draw out the experience instead of devouring it at once. I'm actually reading it on my mobile phone whenever I get a few spare minutes, which says something about the quality of the work.

Anonymous said...

It's also very strange how many people claim that GTA IV GLORIFIES violence drugs and sex. I think there's a more compelling argument to be made that it's a morality tale. The most sympathetic characters are those who don't involve themselves in drugs or killing, and Nico, the main character, is tortured and miserable about the violence he inflicts on others. In past GTA games there was also the matter of the cops, who would crack down with insane fury if you stepped too far out of line (In IV the cops are mostly reduced to a flashing circle on the minimap and a few minor inconveniences on the road.)

Why is it assumed that kids can understand the fun of stealing cars and shooting fools in the face, but not the clearly presented consequences (Death, prison, misery) of the same actions? If you're old enough to understand how to play GTA you're old enough to understand its story.

It's like with the drunk driving. It's nearly impossible to successfully drive drunk in the game without getting hassled by the cops, crashing into EVERYTHING, and generally finding yourself squeezing the controller with frustration. Yet MADD thinks this is an advertisement FOR drunk driving?

Just showing something isn't the same as advocating it.

jen said...

my husband got his 6 stars last night. he's obsessed. and every time we leave the house he's eyeing cars to jack, and driving a little faster when he hears a siren.

me = xbox widow.

Vermillion said...

and the U.S. Terror Threat Level is raised to blackwatch plaid.

Or worse: Rush's Moving Pictures.

Let me add my voice the the obviously growing number of folks singing praises for your latest. It amazes me that folks still think that video games are still, if ever, only for kids.

And if folks think this adults-only tack is a new development, they need to check out Leisure Suit Larry or the utter moral abomination that was Custer's Revenge.

Aloysius Stitches said...

Ms. mix & bitch, I can only speak from personal experience, but I've been playing video games ever since I could hold a controller.

I remember being enthralled by Super Mario Bros. 2 at my babysitter's house when I was 4. I'm 22 now.

My interest in gaming ebbs and flows, but never really goes away.

I'm a lot more picky about what I play now that I have other interests and responsibilities to take care of, but I think I'll be playing games for a good long time to come, and I think a lot of gamers would agree with these sentiments.

Of course, maybe I'm just a great case study for arrested adolescence. I do, after all, still enjoy the hell out of '80s slasher flicks and professional wrestling.

slouchmonkey said...

Nothing says "stress relief" more than holing up in Ganton and trying to take down as many police helicopters as possible.

VOTAR said...

Hmm. But here's a little nugget of provocative stew to chew on:

VIDEO GAMES THEN: Cute little ghosts and cartoon aliens skitter around the screen eating mushrooms or shooting colorful lazer beams at each other.

RAP MUSIC THEN: An often creative, if not also often cartoonish, artistic subcultural musical phenomenon.

VIDEO GAMES NOW: Dismemberment, decapitations, gore, satanic imagery, ultraviolence, simulated virtual sex, crime, and instant gratification.

RAP MUSIC NOW: Imagery and lyrics that blur the line between machismo posturing and violent gang warfare; a subculture that glorifies criminality, quick and effortless self-enrichment at all costs, degradation of women, and eliminating (in a number of cases, literally) one's "musical" rivals; the trappings, fashion, weaponry, mannerisms, and behavior of which are emulated and celebrated by a rapidly growing population of young people of every race and class.

Not to get all Jack Thompson on everybody, but there is something going on here, doesn't it seem? When politicians started having musicians arrested and banned for fear of the influence their work would have on "impressionable kids," I was right there in line signing petitions in support freedom of expression. Years later, we have kids with ridiculous platinum grills in their teeth and chrome plated .45 gats shoved in their droopy basketball shorts, wilding on their girlfriends and ultimately heading toward a choice between dying like Tupac or dying like Biggie.

It makes me wonder if there wasn't something to all the congressional hearings and Tipper Gore press conferences back in the day. Clearly, pop culture exerts a powerful influence on people, sometimes in surprising and devastating ways.

I grew up on Wizards and Ozzy Osborne. I turned out okay, despite all the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth that I and all my long-haired metal head friends would grow up to become devil-worshiping baby murderers.

This and future generations are growing up in an increasingly "virtual" world that is not, and can not be controlled, supervised, or regulated. All we can do is hope for the best.

MelodyLane said...

I am a sane(mostly)and well adjusted adult. I played the hell out of GTA:3. I usually did not attempt the missions because it was more fun to get the tank and jack up as much things as you could before the FBI took you down.

I am anxiously awaiting GTA:4. First, I have to beat Halo 3. Stupid school work is keeping me from a good week-long marathon of playing.

b80vin said...

What is it about this country that people feel justified in demanding that EVERYTHING fit their idea of "wholesome"? Am I wrong or are there twenty bazillion video games of various "moral" levels?

And who says ALL children are ill-equipped to play games like GTA IV? Isn't this a decision made by parents of said children not pundits of questionable authority? Doesn't a little involvement by parents modify the supposed influence of such experiences? Talking to kids about what they see and how they think about it is called "teaching". Sure, some kids may be overwhelmed, but as a parent don't you know your children are not ready for such games?

I became a gamer in my mid-forties BECAUSE of the GTA series not despite it. "Oblivion" is my true vice, and I treat it like alcohol- it can become so immersing that it's an addiction, so I ration my use. I use this personal experience to teach my grandson moderation. It has more resonance being personal.

celery said...

i'd rather play pinball.

Anonymous said...

Wow, finally, a topic I care nothing about either way. And yet, I comment anyway!

Sheriff Bart said...

Blah blah blah...

This kind of over the top outrage has been going on ever since Fred Wertham wrote Seduction of the Innocent and Jerry Lee Lewis was lighting his piano on fire.

Comic Books, Rock and Roll, Ozzy Osbourne, Alice Cooper, Dungeons and Dragons. Prince for Christ's sake...
And, of course, video games. These will all cause our children to go out and murder people.
And the more and louder the special interest groups bitch and and moan, the more units of GTA4 will be sold.
Bob Goldthwait said it best when he said, "I want the Washington Wives to ban my record so it can sell a million copies."

Deacon Blue said...

A pox on GTA IV! May it burn in hell! May rapid sewer rats feed on the entrails of the wicked Niko!

Of course, all this venom has less to do with righteous indigncation and more to do with the facts that:

1. I don't own a console but am forced to play all my games on PC, which means I have to wait forever for a lot of games to be ready for PC platform. I'm guessing GTA IV would be in that same vein.

2. I don't have enough disposable income these days to invest in games that are new, so I have to wait until they've been out long enough to be dirt-cheap on eBay

3. I don't have friggin time to play these games, with little girl, wife and all my clients for whom I have to write.

4. And because of this, I never even finished GTA: Vice City yet, haven't purchased San Andreas...and probably won't see GTA IV until I'm approaching retirement (and I'm 40 now)


Vermillion said...

Interesting point, Votar.

But for every grilled-out goon, there are several unknown artists still trying to use the genre to do more positive things. For every uber-violent video game, there are hundreds that are pure fun without the need for it.

The problem isn't that folks were wrong to fight for that freedom. In fact I place the blame for this boom of smut and dumbassery on the shoulders of the uptight crowd: their attention mongering only made their targets more appealing.

Sad truth is, people love controversy. They feed on it. When someone puts up the latest straw man in order to avoid real problems, others just lap it right up.

Ask yourself this: if it wasn't for all the Congressional hearings and such, would you have ever gave a damn about 2 Live Crew? If it wasn't for Heston's rant, would you have honestly thought "Cop Killer" was a big deal? For me, the answer is a confident no. I barely gave a crap about them then.

Similar to the recent "scandals" involving teenage girls and their supposed sexual exploits (which I still believe was blown way out of proportion), they only became an issue when some asshat decided to slap it on the bulletin board (or nowadays, the internet) for all to see and open their big yap about it (present company excluded, but barely). They draw the attention to it, taking it all out of context and slapping innuendo and slander on top. Then nobody can separate the truth from the fantasy that has been spun around it.

I have to go now, but my point is this: What happened to the idea that life influences art, not the other way around? Why is it that pop culture is always at fault for a person's choices? Could it be that it is merely the lunatics running the asylum?

God, I hope I made some sense.

VOTAR said...

Did I miss another teenage girl sexual exploit scandal? Shit...!

Yeah I picked rap because it was a (really) easy choice to make an immediately demonstrable point. There may be other examples but that one was within reach.

I would like to take a stab at the question you pose, Vermillion. I do not believe it was ever more true that life influences art, than the other way around. Art has always influenced life. "Art" began as a way of explaining and enriching (and therefore informing) life. In the beginning, art and religion were inseparable; from the first cave paintings that documented a successful hunt, to the instructions for the afterlife left carved in the walls of Egyptian tombs, to the erotica painted on the walls of Pompeiian brothels, to the icons of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic, and Renaissance cathedrals, to the socially conscious folk music of the sixties.

Never in our history has art had a more direct influence over life, I believe. Advertisers understand this: every product you own was paraded before your eyes before you bought it, probably more often than you are consciously aware. And the purveyors of so-called "pop culture" definitely understand this.

All the years I spent listening to "scary" music and playing "satanic" games did not turn me into a cannibal, so I fully understand the role that individual responsibility plays in this conversation. But even though my relatively conservative upbringing denied me any good opportunity to have this kind of debate with the parents I tried so hard to terrify, I was also blessed with a solid moral and ethical foundation that served to remind me that the music and the games were just music and games, not instructions from Beelzebub.

So, yeah, I get it. Give kids the benefit of the doubt. But we are in uncharted territory. Alcohol, tobacco, firearms, and porn, are kept out of the hands of minors (with varying degrees of success), according to the consent of society. The safeguards that society has put in place for those elements of pop culture simply don't exist in the era of "new media." I could, astonishingly easily, download as much free music, media, video games, computer software, and pornography as I want -- if I were [cough] a person so inclined [cough cough] to do so... and I'm years behind the technological abilities of the average thirteen year old today. So, while I don't necessarily subscribe to the belief that violent video games train children to be murderers -- and while I'd be at the head of the torch wielding nerd mob assembled to prevent anyone from taking away my copy of DOOM3 -- I am never the less reminded of the line from Jurassic Park: "The problem with the power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You are so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn't stop to think if you should. "

Anonymous said...

Of course, there's this guy who had to steal his copy of GTA4...


Vermillion said...

I am never the less reminded of the line from Jurassic Park: "The problem with the power that you're using here: it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You are so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn't stop to think if you should. "

Damn. Never thought I would get knocked over by a Jurassic Park quote, but there you have it.

I still think a few more asswhoopings wouldn't be out of order for some of these kids, though.

Stephen said...

You're missing the big picture here: Chez is a nerdlinger!

Manny said...

Let me weigh in on this, if you guys don't mind:

I have been playing video games since arcades were still prominent landmarks in neighborhoods. My first gaming system was an Atari, and I've continually upgraded since then, and I now own an Xbox 360 (gamertag is Crazyblogger, btw). I've played all manner of game, from Pac Man to Bioshock. I've watched the gaming landscape evolve as our culture has evolved. As the saying goes, "Art imitates life". Gamers tastes have grown more refined, and as technology has progressed the gaming industry has changed to meet the needs of the gaming community. Gamers these days are looking for an engrossing, well designed, and challenging game. How does a game developer accomplish this feat? By creating a game that reflects real world issues, such as violence, drugs, sex, politics, and the moral dillemas that accompany each issue. Case in point: in Bioshock you're faced with an ethical dillema. Do you "harvest" a Little Sister, thereby killing her but removing more valuable Adam from her system, or do you "cure" her, returning her to normal, but sacrificing half the Adam you would normally get, thereby lowering your chances of survival?

Game developers also have another issue to contend with: on some level, gamers play games because they want to play God. The lure of being able to act with impunity is always tempting.

There is one common factor in all of these scenarios. Choice. You can choose to harves a Little Sister or cure her. You can choose whether or not to jack a car and kill the driver. You can choose to play the game or not. Don't want to run drugs or be an assassin? Fine. There are a multitude of game choices out there for all types of gamers. Whatever method of brief escape from reality you choose, you at least have the ability to make that choice.

Now, as far as "children" go: As you said, it's naive to think that pop culture doesn't have some kind of influence on our children, thanks to the internet and non stop marketing. It's also fair to say that a constant barrage of violence, computer generated or celluloid, can desensitize someone. In my own household, my kids aren't allowed to watch films with graphic violence, or play games that allow for subject matter that is beyond their maturity level. That's a decision that I have made, a choice. Of course I could let them partake in all of that if I felt they were mature enough to handle the subject matter, and any consequences that stem from that choice would be on my head.

Puritanical censorship, even under the guise of some kind of moral imperative, is the usurping of that ability to choose.

I hope these politicians have a whole lot of bedrooms in their homes if they want to raise everyone else's child.

UneFemmePlusCourageuse said...

Okay, I'm just going to say it right now: I don't like Grand Theft Auto. I don't like most violent video games, or most violent anything, for that matter. And I don't like being in the presence of people who are playing this game.
But is it responsible for all the evils of society? No, those existed long before any game.
And should it be banned? No, as long as the people playing it are able to see that what it being done onscreen is fiction. Which anyone with the ability to purchase an M-rated game should have the ability to do.
And if some Grand Theft Auto fan were to go off and commit and million crimes? Well, I doubt he'd be doing so because of the game. More than likely these'd've been impulses he would've felt long before any video game came along.
All in all, though, good post. I like what I like and don't like what I don't like...and one of those things is censorship.

Anonymous said...

I was at a major company in this bizness a week ago. By far the main demographic is 18 to 35 year old males. An interesting tid-bit - 50% of sales is on the first day. The threat to the children seems a "bit" overblown.

Anonymous said...

Ha Ha! Next terror watch is Moving Pictures by Rush.