Grand Theft Auto’s Bad Shake

Violence in gaming has always been an issue of concern to parents and politicians, from the old days of Mortal Kombat—where players celebrated as they pulled an opponent’s heart out of his chest—to the modern days of Call of Duty, where players are put in the shoes of soldiers in Kabul or Karachi.

The topic has been the subject of numerous congressional hearings, and was first in the spotlight following the 1999 shooting in Columbine after it came out that the shooters were particularly fond of the game Doom. A group of Columbine parents sued numerous game developers a few years after the shooting. Perhaps no game stokes the fires of this decades old debate more than the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series —the poster boy for violent games. The fifth installment came out last week, bringing with it all the controversy usually associated with a GTA game and more.

For those that have never heard of GTA, the series puts players in an open world, always accurately modeled on an American metropolis, with very few limitations. Players can go on random shooting sprees of innocent bystanders, blow up police cars with rocket launchers and have sex with prostitutes. Grand Theft Auto games also come with a heavy dose of satire. Its humor is similar to that of South Park, taking shots at the right, the left, show business, the hypocrisy of political correctness and numerous other aspects of modern American culture in an extremely crude but intelligent manner. With a new installment released once every four or five years, enormous amounts of detail are put into GTA games. Players can listen to talk-radio, play tennis or sit down on a couch and watch TV shows like Republican Space Rangers, in which the characters attempt to ‘bring freedom’ to other planets by force, usually killing all life forms in said planet.

The latest installment is reported to be the most expensive game ever made and has already sold 15 million copies since its release on Sept. 17 putting it on track to become one of the best-selling games in history. Apart from the usual suspects, GTA has aroused criticism from a new group—human rights advocates—due to a particularly disturbing part of the game. In one of the game’s levels or ‘missions,’ the player is made to torture a suspected terrorist under direction of the FIB (read FBI). The torture is extremely graphic, and the game forces the player to actively take part in it, offering a variety of torture techniques ranging from pulling teeth with pliers, to electrocution and even waterboarding. Players toggle on the joysticks and pull on the controller’s triggers, simulating the torturer’s movements. When the suspect’s heart stops, the player injects it with adrenalin, Pulp Fiction style, so that the torture may continue. Freedom From Torture, Amnesty International, the American Teacher’s Union and prominent politicians have repudiated this specific part of the game, accusing developers of glamorizing torture and desensitizing its audience.

“Torture is a reality, not a game and glamorizing it in popular culture undoes the work of organizations like Freedom from Torture and survivor activists to campaign against it.,” said Freedom from Torture chief executive Keith Best, echoing the statements given by representatives of numerous other anti-torture groups.

It’s not difficult to see why people who have never played GTA, or any game for that matter, are irked by the thought of people sitting at home, reveling while water-boarding a suspect in a virtual, but strikingly realistic, world. I would argue that these people have an old-fashioned perception of video games, and are unaware of how gaming has evolved over the past decade. Cream-of-the-crop games like GTA have become legitimate storytelling devices, with complex and interwoven story lines filled with political commentary.  Walking the streets of Los Santos, GTA’s rendering of Los Angeles, or listening to its talk radio, the satirical note of the game is extremely clear – the owner of a Facebook/Apple hybrid brags about the number of child workers he employs; a talk show host talks about how we live in a new age “where no one says anything mean, or crude.” Satire and caricature are everywhere you look in GTA. Everything in the game, no matter how absurd or disturbing, has some reflection in the real world; torture is one of these things.

If the torture scene had been fun to play; if the torture in it had been presented as effective, if the suspect had been vilified and the FBI agents running the whole thing glorified, then I would agree with human rights group who have criticized Rockstar for putting torture in the GTA. But the reality is far from it.

The developer’s goal was to make the player feel empathy for the suspect, not joy in torturing him.

First, the FBI agents are clearly the antagonistic, jock-types who make insensitive and unfunny jokes and who are made to be extremely unlikeable, making them the most one-dimensional characters in the game. Secondly, the suspect is willing to talk from the beginning, but you are made to torture him anyway. Third, he is not a terrorist, but a Middle Eastern man who sets up home theaters for the Azerbaijani community in Los Santos, and one of his clients happens to be a suspected terrorist. It is also made clear that the man being tortured is a father and a husband. Furthermore, the character doing the torture—one of the three playable characters in the game—is a reckless psychopath, implying that the other two characters who have less faltering moral compasses are above committing egregious acts like torture. The injustice of the whole situation comes through very clearly. The developer’s goal was to make the player feel empathy for the suspect, not joy in torturing him. Yet, the player is still made to torture the suspect, inducing feelings of guilt. The whole thing is intended to be deeply disturbing, and it is.  Doubtless the satirical mark was lost on a minority. Yet, everyone I know who owns GTA (meaning 90 percent of my guy friends) felt uncomfortable playing the torture mission, even those who believe that torture is sometimes justified. Players question themselves when they have to toggle on a joystick in order to pull the suspect’s tooth. It feels wrong, and that’s because it is.

After the torture, the FBI agent says that the suspect has ‘outlived his usefulness’ and tells the player to kill him. Instead, you drive him to airport, while discussing the practice or torture: “The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing. We need it to get information, to assert ourselves,” says the player. The suspect replies he would have said anything under pressure. “Exactly,” the player continues, “You torture for the good times! We should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.” He then tells the suspect to spread his message as a torture advocate.

If this isn’t a commentary on the United States’ use of torture in the “War on Terror”, then I don’t know what is. It’s not subtle commentary either. The use of water-boarding, especially, should indicate that the developers had ‘enhanced interrogations’ in mind when writing the scene.

I would also argue that it is an especially powerful commentary. Forcing players to take part in the torture makes them grapple with their own views on the subject. The man being tortured screams in agony at every touch, calling for his family while FBI agents crack jokes in the background. It is not easy to watch, much less to do.  The game doesn’t give us a choice, however. Every player is forced to play through the torture mission in order to progress in GTA. My guess is that very few people enjoyed playing it. Far from glorifying torture, GTA depicts its practice as unjust and cowardly. The interaction required in the scene is a powerful tool, making the player feel personally responsible for the injustice being done. The intention is to make the players feel bad about what they are doing, and attribute this feeling to the overall immorality of torture as a practice.

Games like GTA are indicative of the fact that modern gaming has become much more than just interactive fun. Ten years ago, few would believe that games would have to power to evoke feelings as intense as empathy or guilt, even if just momentarily. Some games can do everything that television and films can do and more, because of the added ingredient of interactivity. More than just an amazing technical feat, games like GTA elevate gaming to an art form, and should have the freedom to experiment with controversial issues. The mere fact that a spoiler warning was included with this article supports the idea that people play games not just for mindless enjoyment, but plot and storytelling as well.  It’s difficult for previous generations to understand this.

Games are not only for kids anymore. In fact, games like GTA are expressly not for kids. A 14-year-old is bound to miss the game’s satirical note, but it becomes a parenting issue whether or not to let your child play it, since no one under the age of 17 can buy the game. Considering that the game involves killing, sex, nudity, drugs and torture, it would be mad, in my opinion, to buy your kid a copy. The rest of us though should celebrate what video games like GTA represent—a new and legitimate medium for storytelling that, believe it or not, can make us reflect on critical issues like torture.