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Grand Theft Auto is a game that at its heart is about immoral activities. In fact, one of the few criticisms critics have leveled at GTA V is that its protagonists are unpleasant and reprehensible. As a result, you’d think that the GTA series throws morality and ethics out the window entirely, but you’d be wrong. Morality – or rather, subverting morality – is a major design component of the series. In fact, if you want to reveal the complex morality in GTA‘s world, you can do it with one simple question: Whose morals are we talking about here? GTA isn’t a monolithic structure, but a spectrum determined by the player, the character and the environment. The result is that discussing morality in GTA‘s internal world might not be very useful at all.

It’s undeniable that the player ultimately makes most ethical decisions in a game. Even by opening the box and booting up the game, the player consciously decides to opt-in to a story that’s specifically about law breaking and is likely contrary to their personal ethics. But there’s the rub – a player’s personal moral system doesn’t always follow them into the virtual world, nor should it, necessarily. The appeal of the GTA franchise is that it lets players run down pedestrians, fight armed battles with law enforcement and steal cars in a controlled environment where no one gets hurt. Unlike real life, the consequences for breaking the law are minor inconveniences rather than life-ending tragedies. GTA is a series where anyone can feel like a rule breaker, whether it’s something as minor as wearing inappropriate clothes in public or as major as robbing a bank, GTA‘s whole shtick is to let you do things you’d never do in real life. You’d think that this would lead to a principal-free environment where players check their ethics at the door, but that’s actually not the case.

Playing GTA doesn’t make the player’s moral compass disappear – it just focuses it on plot points and NPC relationships, where players tend to react differently than to run-of-the mill driving and shooting gameplay. We don’t think too hard about running down a faceless pedestrian, for instance, but agonize over whether to kill Darko Brevic or decide which boss to betray. Developed characters, ones that we interact with and register as something more than cardboard cutouts, kick our ethics engines into gear because we’ve been given a reason to care about them as having a role in the story.

Added to this, a player’s internal ethics could inform gameplay choices in unexpected ways. Some might see Darko’s pathetic, drug-addicted state and spare him out of cruelty – in many ways a more fitting revenge. Others might consider putting a bullet through him to be mercy killing. Part of games becoming a medium with worldwide reach is that people with different backgrounds, religious beliefs, ideologies and philosophies will all interpret moral choices a variety of different ways – and may come to different conclusions. Even when you assume that the player controls a character’s ethical compass, you’ll probably find differing interpretations of the “ethical” choice from player to player. Even then, it’s absurd to think that players have complete control over their characters – in fact, the characters themselves play a role.

Rockstar has created the most memorable and fully formed characters in the open-world genre. Though players can change their outfits, beneath their clothes Rockstar protagonists always have a style all their own. John Marston is a rough man trying to do right. Cole Phelps is restrained and anal, but only because he fears what lurks inside him. Niko Bellic is a mature cynic with a protective streak. Even though Rockstar doesn’t make RPGs per se, with characters this strong it’s impossible not to engage in role-play while controlling them. Therefore, when we’re talking about a sense of morality in GTA, we have to understand that the player’s ethics aren’t applied directly to the world, but are first filtered through the character’s personality.

Take Grand Theft Auto IV, for example. When I picked up that game I was ready to raise hell. I was going to rob stores, have shootouts with police helicopters and throw grenades into traffic – except I didn’t do any of that. Sure, I had adventures and got revenge, et cetera, but my Liberty City tour had a distinct lack of gangster verve. The reason for that was Niko Bellic. Niko was a violent thug, but I sympathized with his plight as a reasonable man amidst unreasonable people, a guy who could do horrible things but wouldn’t do them without reason. It wasn’t until halfway through the game that I realized I hadn’t gone on a single rampage. Niko just didn’t seem the type to throw grenades into traffic and run away laughing. He wasn’t an agent of chaos, and his morals were in the diver’s seat, not mine. If I came across a side mission or achievement that I didn’t feel fit him, I left it undone. While I was in control, I cared too much about Niko and his world to upset the apple cart.

But the power of suggestion isn’t the only thing driving player-character ethical interaction. At other times, the character may assert his or her own brand of ethics through events that don’t involve player choice, like cutscenes, dialogue and required missions. Here the player’s values aren’t filtered through the character, but rather the game dictates to the player about what kind of person the character is. Maybe it’s Cole Phelps cheating on his wife, for instance, or Trevor torturing someone. These unchangeable constants draw the character’s boundaries so that they’re a separate, even opposing force to the player’s morality – one you’re informing rather than fully controlling. Setting a character against the player may be accidental, or it may be a specific design decision to alienate the player from the character and emphasize a particularly terrible or significant act. Every crime game does this at one point or another, but if it’s handled improperly the developers are in danger of losing the player.

When you create strong characters that have different values from the player you risk going too far and creating a character that’s unrelatable. Hypocritical as it may be, audiences will generally allow criminal protagonists to do reprehensible things provided they’re motivated by a larger idea like redemption, justice, or the American Dream. We’re more comfortable with people who kill for their values than those who kill for greed. Rockstar, it seems, has decided to push this envelope in GTA V. Only time will tell if it pays off, or if they’ve made a vast misjudgment and made their characters unlikable.

But players and characters aren’t the only moral forces in games – we also have to acknowledge the moral and ethical codes of the world itself.

Psychology tells us that environment has a major influence on people’s behavior, and crime fiction as a genre understand this implicitly. Like the crime dramas it appropriates, GTA both uses its cities as a character and an excuse for protagonists to break laws. Both Liberty City and Los Santos have a corrupting influence familiar to crime fiction – the big bad metropolis that takes ordinary men and makes them into monsters. Nobody’s clean, especially the people who claim to be. A car repo dealership treads the boundaries of legality. Girlfriends turn out to be shadowy government agents. Politicians lie and cops break the law. San Andreas showed a city carved up among gangs allied with dirty cops, where family ties were the only thing defending social order. GTA IV focused on the fallen American Dream from the perspective of a cynical migrant who saw the country as no different from Eastern Europe. GTA V explores post-recession trauma and the self-obsessed digital age. These games portray society as a scam, elevating its lawbreaker protagonists as people who refuse to be duped by the system. According to the GTA‘s philosophy the world is a dirty, dog-eat-dog place, and the only logical reaction is to become the meanest, dirtiest dog. Rather than fighting the system, they’re rolling with it.

This isn’t something Rockstar created. Gangster movies propagated the idea in the 1930s, when the Great Depression made the population lose faith in society. In the 18th and 19th centuries the British poor celebrated criminals who used illegal means to break out of poverty. Even ancient myths celebrate Prometheus stealing fire from the selfish gods – the original heist. Rule-breaking narratives are potent stories to anyone who feels society has disenfranchised, ignored or cheated them. It’s as old as human culture and probably the most powerful tool Rockstar uses to shape the ethical framework of its world. After all, if the police aren’t following the rules, why should we? Why let the rich game the system when we have the tools and intelligence to make money too? If society has abandoned its own rules, does it not make us superior for keeping our own code of loyalty and brotherhood? The bankrupt shell of civilization turns into a playground in this view, with moral equivalency giving the player license to do as he or she pleases. This is how GTA V casts Southern California bank robbers as entrepreneurs, suggesting that a stickup is the same as a startup.

Of course, this narrative is a lie and it always has been. In real life police corruption, though it does happen, is nowhere near what you’d expect from the crime genre. Society, overall, follows its own rules and is not on the brink. But GTA is not reality, it is fiction, and is therefore entitled to construct its own vision of reality even if it’s entirely skewed. This is not to suggest that Rockstar cannot bear any responsibility for unethical or gross elements in GTA V – indeed, I’m sure we’ll hear a great deal about this in the future – but to suggest that when we look at the game’s internal morality we understand that there’s more there than meets the eye.

Robert Rath is a freelance writer, novelist, and researcher currently based in Hong Kong. You can follow his exploits at RobWritesPulp.com or on Twitter at @RobWritesPulp.

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