Grand Theft Auto and the Problem of Evil

Grand Theft Auto and the Problem of Evil

Whose fault are the GTA games, really?

Niko Bellic has libertarian free will in different area codes.

Matt’s recent post on morality in first person shooters provoked my thoughts more than a little bit.  And it got me thinking about Grand Theft Auto, always something of a lightning rod for videogame morality.  Specifically, it had me thinking about the scenario all the pundits kept kicking around back when GTA3 first came out:  the fact that, in that game, you can hire a prostitute, have sex with her in the back of your car, pay her, then jump out of the car and beat her to death with a baseball bat, and take your money back off her corpse.  It’s certainly not the only thing you can do in GTA3 that might give the moral guardians reason to be concerned, but for some reason it’s the only one people talked about.  And to be fair, it does capture what’s a stake in the game pretty nicely.

The interesting thing about the prostitute scenario is that it’s up to you.  At no point are you required to take these actions.  They don’t even benefit you very much.  I mean, yes, some health points, a few dollars.  Neither of these are at a particular premium in the GTA games.  So if GTA is an evil game, and Rockstar an evil game studio, it’s because they created a world where it is possible to do evil.

There are two other worlds, two other moral universes, that we ought to consider here.

This article is full of link bait.

One is the traditional video game universe — take the original Legend of Zelda, just as a convenient example.  The possibilities for creative depravity in games like this are rather impoverished when you compare them to Grand Theft Auto:  next to Liberty City, Hyrule looks downright idyllic.  Here the car rests unjacked, here the ass goes un-cap-busted, here the prostitute can ply her trade in peace — or could, if the Great Fairy wasn’t out there giving hearts away for free.    The player can’t murder innocent bystanders here either:  if you try, you just get zapped by fireballs, or bum rushed by angry chickens.  But he/she can, and must, murder all the non-innocents, which means just about everything that crawls, swims, flies, or most vexingly teleports.  (Freaking Wizzrobes.) There are some games where it’s possible, although difficult, to do a “pacifist” run where you avoid killing enemies altogether.  But Zelda is not one.  Violence is literally built in:  the levels are designed such that you often need to kill all the monsters in room A in order to open the door to room B. Which is, incidentally, like, the stupidest security system ever.  “Manager does not know combination to safe, but try killing the entire staff and see if it pops open automatically?”

Now, there are people out there for whom even this is too much, but they are not thick on the ground:  Link-on-Oktorok violence is never going to touch the same nerve as man-on-woman violence. This is partially because Oktorok’s aren’t visually designed to evoke an empathic response.  (For notes on what happens when a videogame character is designed to evoke an empathic response, see Perich’s post on Bioshock.)  But that’s not really a moral issue, it’s just a gut reaction masquerading as morality.  In moral terms, the reason we don’t care that Link is killing Oktoroks is that the Oktoroks are all out to kill Link.  Every violence done in Zelda is done in self-defense, and therefore justified.  The game is stupifyingly colonialist in its mindset — or rather, the mindset programmed into the game is the same one that tends to give rise to colonialism:  all that is other to me (an Oktorok, say) is hostile to me, therefore my violence against the other is justified; as is my exploration, mapping, and domination of the other’s territory, and my exploitation and consumption of the other’s strategic reserves of Triforce.  Which are, after all, just sitting there unused.  If anything I’m doing them a favor by coming in and putting those resources to work.  (There’s even one level where you have to coopt the local elites by buying off a Goriya with a piece of meat!  All that’s missing is some way to process the Triforce into opium and sell it back to the Oktoroks at a markup.)   Phrased in those terms, Zelda may not seem so moral after all, but that’s not what I’m trying to get at in this post.  We can’t blame Zelda for the excesses of real-world colonialism, because Zelda presents us with a world in which the colonialist fantasy is verifiably and objectively true. The Oktoroks really are hostile, they really don’t have human agency.  And in such a world — which isn’t the real one, just so we’re clear — there really wouldn’t be anything wrong with colonialism.  In any case, most people who complain about GTA don’t complain about Zelda.  It is impossible to do evil in Zelda, therefore Zelda is not an evil game, and Nintendo is not an evil company.

The other moral universe we ought to consider is our own.  Let’s not forget that Rockstar, those evil, evil bastards, still only created a game containing the image of violence.  Fortunately, creating a world in which actual prostitutes are murdered by their clients is beyond their capabilities.  Unfortunately, such a world is all too familiar to we who dwell therein.  And this brings me to the other thing that has been on my mind these last few days: the theodicy problem, also sometimes known as the problem of evil.

The problem of evil is, plainly stated, is the “why do bad things happen to good people” argument against the existence of God.  Slightly more technically put, it runs like this:  God is supposed to be omniscient, omnipotent, and morally flawless, right?  Well, evil exists in the world. This suggests that God either doesn’t know that evil exists (and therefore is not omniscient), or knows but doesn’t care (and therefore is not good), or knows and cares but can’t do anything about it, (and therefore is not omnipotent), or some combination of the three.  Therefore, God does not exist. Or at least, God lacks one or more of the attributes traditionally held up as divine in modern religions.  The problem of evil doesn’t really work as an argument against the existence of Zeus.

Theodicy, properly speaking, is the defense of God against this kind of charge, although it sometimes gets tossed around more casually than that, simply to refer to the whole issue.  Perhaps the most notable and popular theodicy is the argument that the capacity to do evil is a necessary element of free will.  To quote C.S. Lewis’ The Problem of Pain (or more accurately, from my perspective, to quote Wikipedia),

We can, perhaps, conceive of a world in which God corrected the results of this abuse of free will by His creatures at every moment: so that a wooden beam became soft as grass when it was used as a weapon, and the air refused to obey me if I attempted to set up in it the sound waves that carry lies or insults. But such a world would be one in which wrong actions were impossible, and in which, therefore, freedom of the will would be void; nay, if the principle were carried out to its logical conclusion, evil thoughts would be impossible, for the cerebral matter which we use in thinking would refuse its task when we attempted to frame them.

Sounds awesome, right?  But in such a world where it is impossible to do evil, it would also be impossible to do good.  And this is where it gets really interesting.  Because if that really is the case…

…then Grand Theft Auto is not evil.  In fact, Grand Theft Auto is the most moral video game ever created.   After all, no other game allows us to choose not to murder prostitutes.

Remember again that those who consider Rockstar Games to be evil over stuff like this, or the hackable “hot coffee” sex minigame in GTA:San Andreas, are getting angry at the company for giving the players an option to do evil.  They would prefer games with less options, games like Zelda where the player lacks moral agency.  To a certain degree this is understandable.  Video games are still marketed to children (although less and less), and our society systematically and categorically denies children certain options for their own protection.  Or at least ostensibly for their own protection.  This is an issue where our sense of cause and effect can become confused:  when people ask us to think of the children, they often seem to be less concerned with preventing material harm and more concerned with preserving “innocence,” that is, with preserving the child’s absence of moral agency, with preserving the child’s status-as-child.  The free-form sandbox of cruelty in Grand Theft Auto is certainly not the best way to invest a game with moral agency.  You’d want to include options for good behavior that go beyond simple avoidance of bad behavior. (And better attempts along these lines have been made with games like Bioshock and Fable, although these have problems of their own).  Still, GTA is a pretty good start.  To advocate a return to the “innocent” morality of Zelda is like picking Teletubbies over the Brothers Grimm, a vote for children’s entertainment designed quite precisely to keep children infantilized.

16 Comments on “Grand Theft Auto and the Problem of Evil”

  1. Darin #

    Well played. The same discussion comes up in my extended family regarding drugs. My nieces and nephews are in high school. One set of the family is European and let’s their kids drink, experiment, and otherwise do things with their own decision matrix. The other is a traditional American family keeping close watch on their kids and eschewing any exposure to drinking, much less drugs. Exercising decisions is a skill that requires the freedom to choose and the responsibility to accept the consequences.

    Zelda, has one moral imperative – save the princess, save the world. (Hey wait! That sounds very familiar.) Sandbox games allow for the variety of creation and perversion that humanity offers (Minecraft anyone?). Humans don’t inherently won’t to believe that other humans can and will do abnormal things. The uncertainty is scary. Yet, Law and Order: SVU, Scarface, Apocalypse Now and so many others are successful exploring what man is willing to do. Given the opportunity, many will explore humanity for entertainment and that’s a good thing, morally speaking.


  2. David #

    In Zelda, you can choose not to break everyone’s pots…


  3. Redem #

    While I do see the point the article trying to make, does this apply to mission and storyline, where the players ought to kill people at some point or another.

    and well in a way most of the time stealing car are the only way to go (at least in GTA IV) you had one car in Vice city and San andreas that was always near your main HQ and could be considered your, but otherwise it stealing all the way

    In fact the only way you can buy a car in San Andreas IIRC, if you steal one bring in to the harbor, sell it and they buy it back


  4. Richard #

    “All that is other to me (an Oktorok, say) is hostile to me, therefore my violence against the other is justified; as is my exploration, mapping, and domination of the other’s territory, and my exploitation and consumption of the other’s strategic reserves of Triforce….”

    I can not help but think: “YOU. ARE. NOT. A. DA-LEK. YOU. WILL. BE. EX-TER-MIN-A-TED!”


  5. Will #

    Having played some of the GTA games it always seems that the evil choices are the ones that either advance the story, or have some actual game play associated with them. There was a lot of time put into the car chases and gunfight mechanics and they where very entertaining. By contrast the only non criminal activities in San Andreas where walking around, changing clothes and this terrible little Dance, Dance Revolution clone mini-game.

    The choice in GTA seems to boil down to either evil or boring. You either climb to the top of the seedy criminal underworld on a pile of corpses or you get bored and stop. The option to be good doesn’t seem to be something that the developers even considered.

    You argue that ehe Zelda games don’t give you the option to be evil. I’d say that the GTA games don’t give you the option to be good. At least not in any meaningful way.


    • Boybaboy #

      The problem with these kind of games is on people with severe mental and emotional issues. It desensitizes these people of any feeling of empathy and remorse when they actually do bad things. There were studies that demonstrates the positive effects of some video games on critical thinking and solving skills. I feel like these kind of games (GTA) has the same effect on the deterioration of such emotions especially on these mentally/emotionally challenged people.


  6. Nateiums #

    One of the best examples of I’ve seen of moral choice in a game, or at least giving weight to your actions, is a PS3 title called Demon’s Souls. While you’re still forced to do violence to your inhuman enemies, you also have the option of attacking friendlies to take their stuff or undergo assassination requests for rewards. If you decide to backstab your allies, they will be hostel towards you when you draw near and if you manage to kill them, they and the unique services they provide are gone for the remainder of your playthrough. That concept isn’t entirely original (Elder Scrolls, Fallout) but what really makes it stick is that the game auto-saves after any important action you take and there is no way to make it stop but a hasty shutdown. So what in many games could be viewed as an amusing distraction instead becomes irreparable damage with no option to hit reload.


    • Nathan Hanks #

      This was a really well written and thought out article but I find myself agreeing with Will’s response on the diminished capacity for doing Good in GTA as the prime motivator for violent in-game decisions. Moral decisions in GTA are couched in an action-oriented framework of violence(weapon inventory, murder missions) without the means to cultivate moral respect for others. I heard that the Fable 3 dog was awesome because of the empathy you came to feel for it throughout common experiences in the game. Maybe if we could just talk to hookers about their childhoods in GTA, then we’d be getting somewhere.

      To be sure though, just because something is possible doesn’t mean that we have to do it. But, the ‘killing hookers’ phenomenon certainly owes alot to the violent context within which our decisions are made, plus the removal of extending consequences for our decisions. Which is why Nateiums comment seems so important when considering morality in games, by changing the virtual context and consequences of our decisions we can also change the meaning of our decisions.


      • Brian #

        But Zelda is in an action-oriented framework of violence also, the difference is the non-human figures and the “moral universe” it’s locked into doesn’t allow for evil actions. With all its fantasy aesthetics it hard to see the creepy undertones, but if it was a Vietnam war game taking place in that ‘everything I do is justified moral universe’ it would feel unsettling, to me at least.

        Surely there’s people who want that comfort of infantile morality, honestly I do too and I use to get that from Zelda. Which is why this article is so great as it debunks that “if it’s pretty than it’s good” myth. So, I don’t know if it’s just a “won’t someone please think of the children” thing, simple morality is comforting for adults too. But it does make for a sad state that GTA is most moral game out there. As far as fans of Zelda and The Sims go, as true as it is, I think it’s just too bitter a pill for them/me to swallow, mainly because of what everyone else was saying with GTA’s lack of doing more than avoiding bad behavior; it just makes for a very theoretical argument as it’s hard to point to something sound bitey 10 sec argument like beating hookers for the case GTA is the most moral game ever.


  7. Outis #

    Good article. I appreciate the point about the game only allowing for evil, but I have the same problem with this article as I did with the one that inspired it, though I didn’t post on that one. My problem is that the characters in video games don’t actually represent real people. There is no inherent similarity in killing a hooker in GTA and murdering a prostitute in real life. It’s really a choice of the gamer in how much they want to invest in the morality of the game world. You can play Mario with a fierce hatred for King Koopa and those treacherous goombas, or you can play it as a simple test of your reflexes. It is slightly easier to care about the hookers in GTA than the enemies in Zelda, but it doesn’t take much time playing the game to not care about anyone at all. I consider myself a moral person, but when my friend let me play his copy of GTA, I was seeing how many police I could kill within 10 minutes. On the other hand, I won’t play any games with dogs as enemies.

    If I were going to say anything about the effects of video games on the moral development of children, I would say that they reinforce an egocentric worldview, but even that is a bit of a stretch. Most so-called morality systems revolve around the consequences for the player. All that teaches children is not to get caught. The only way that I see to make a morally instructive game is to have NPCs that the player cares about, and demonstrate the impact that the player’s actions have on those NPCs, or on the game world.


    • stokes OTI Staff #

      Well, that is a good point. If you subscribe to a vaguely utilitarian, consequentialist ethical system, then it becomes dashedly hard to suggest that anything one does in a videogame has any kind of ethical weight at all. If it makes you happy, and harms no one, then the overall utility of the system has been increased, yeah? The only way to get around it would be to suggest that doing bad things in videogames makes people more likely to do bad things in real life — which is perhaps a legitimate concern, but one which is difficult to prove, and not really what I’m trying to get at.

      Because not all ethical systems are consequentialist. There’s also deontological systems (loosely speaking: ethics involves obeying certain rules), and virtue ethics (kind of a tricky one, and perhaps best read up on here, but VERY loosely: ethical behavior involves acting in a way that demonstrates — or perhaps helps to instill? — virtuous traits in the actor).

      Deontology is a hard one to apply to videogames, IMO, because they’re such a new phenomenon. The rules need to come from somewhere, after all, and Moses brought no tablet down from Sinai concerning the treatment of Mobs. (If anyone has thought about what kind of rule-based ethics could apply to video games, do please chime in.) Virtue ethics, on the other hand…

      Virtue ethics would suggest that someone who is fundamentally honest, to their core, will likely flinch at lying in a virtual scenario. Someone who is fundamentally opposed to killing will likely flinch at acting out a murder. Now, it probably would be just a flinch — being unable to distinguish between a real person and a stack of polygons isn’t morality, it’s just foolishness. That’s why I think it’s important that the GTA example isn’t a story mission. There may be no moral failing in a statement like “well, this is what’s required to progress in the game, and nobody’s actually being harmed by this, so I’ll suppress my flinch and act out this little massacre.” If on the other hand the behavior is not required, if one has no incentive to suppress the flinch…

      The morally instructive aspect of the game might lie in the player performing the “evil” act, and then feeling gross about it. (The morally dangerous aspect might lie in the player feeling gross about it at first and then through repetition becoming desensitized, something which I have experienced myself playing GTA, although not with the prostitute scenario.)

      Or to take a completely different approach: let’s say for the argument’s sake that games like GTA, Fable, etc. do not present us with real moral choices. They nevertheless present us with opportunities to choose to pretend to be moral, or to choose to pretend to be immoral. (And again I feel that these choices matter more when they’re not linked to gameplay objectives.) If they aren’t ethically better games because of this, they still might be aesthetically better, because more interesting.


      • Paul #

        I believe it has been talked about on OTI before, but I think it needs mention in this context. Bioshock 2 has an interesting ‘moral choice’ aspect to it. Bioshock 2 spoilers coming up if anyone cares at this point. You don’t really need to ‘make the right choice’ to finish the game, but how it ends will be different. In the game you make moral choices to save the little sisters or to harvest them for more Adam, and when you encounter some other characters, you can decide whether to kill them or not. If you make the moral choice, your “daughter” Eleanor sees this and follows your lead, saving her mother from drowning. If you make the immoral choices during the game, the little sisters are dead, Eleanor lets her mother drown, and she goes to the surface to use her power for malevolent self serving purposes. I think this fills Outis’ idea of an NPC being affected by the moral choices of the player. You are the role model for Eleanor.

        There is the odd choice to be made that in order to adopt a little sister, you must first kill her current big daddy, who can’t really be considered evil. The big daddies have pretty much had their free will removed. They have to protect the little sister. If given the choice, they might happily give up their lives so the little sisters could be set free, but we don’t know. I suppose it could be argued that we are making the moral choice for the big daddies since they are little more than programmed automatons.


        • stokes OTI Staff #

          Very interesting. I like how the moral consequences are displaced onto an NPC. If it had ended with a cinematic of YOU letting the woman drown, it would be easier to detach from — it’s easy to say “well, I wouldn’t have actually done that, if I had control at this point.” Making it the daughter character takes away that defense.

          It’s also amusing that they’ve adopted the moral causality that the people who would like to censor video games have always proposed: apparently watching violent imagery turns children into sociopaths. If that kind of conditioning works on Eleanor, why doesn’t it work on the player, too? Way to concede the issue, guys.

          I’ve always felt that the original version of Bioshock has way less moral agency involved than is commonly thought. Yes, you can save the girls or not save them. But if you choose to save them, the game becomes fractionally harder, and has a better ending. Which leads me to believe that the virtue at stake here is not mercy but rather l334ness: harvesting a little sister is only wrong in the sense that using cheat codes is wrong, it’s a sign not of brutality but of weakness. (Just like if you were to beat the original Mario without ever harvesting a powerup, it would not be an anti-drug message.) Is it the same setup in Bioshock 2, I wonder? i.e. that the morally right path is also the harder path?


  8. Timothy J Swann #

    CS Lewis + GTA. Awesome. I really liked this article… but I’d love to see more on on games with ‘moral’ choices that end up being very binary, like Bioware, and a lack of nuance in morality…


  9. Will #

    I was thinking about games that get morality right and I my best example is Fallout: New Vegas. It let’s you play anything from a justice dealing law bringer, to a pacifist negotiator to a terrorizing murderer and enslaver, and all of those extremes feel like they are supported by the game.

    The epilogue is particularly satisfying because it goes through all of the different communities and people that you met during the game, and tells you what happened to them afterwards. These vary wildly depending on what you did while playing.

    New Vegas does a good job of giving you a lot of choices to play with and a strong sense that you actions matter and shape the world. At least as much as pixels ever matter. I will admit that I have stacked up a lot of bodies in GTA games over the years and I don’t really feel very guilty about it, other that spent time it hasn’t influenced anything in my real life.

    I case I didn’t make it clear earlier I did really like the article and found it very thought provoking. Great stuff.


  10. Foxbat40 #

    I think the deeper message in Bioshock 2s ending is not that children are susceptable to the violent imagery around them, but instead is to show how children are affected by the morality and and actions of their parents. The point that parenting is the most inportant factor in child development does not concede the argument it advances it further. It shows to that busy body parent, “Stop letting your kid play video games all the time and be a parent.”

    If you don’t like the game don’t let YOUR kids play it. Dont wory about censuring it for the rest of the world.

    The best parents today play video games with their kids. They demonstrate that when its time to do the dishes or pay some bills they turn off the game and do it. So when the child is asked to turn off the game and do homweork they have a role model to look up to.

    Parents have to get involved in whatever the child is doing it is part of the job.


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