10th Oct 2013

Grand Theft Auto V: A Formation in Nihilism

by Christopher Menzhuber 

We need games to play. “Play is a kind of other world, an oasis of freedom, where for a moment we can let life flow freely,” wrote Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI, in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy (Ignatius Press, 2000). “We need such moments of retreat from the pressure of daily life if its burden is to be bearable.”


Perhaps it is a sign of how unbearable life is for many people in our culture that Grand Theft Auto V, the latest incarnation of the interactive video-game series first released in 1997, made over $800 million in the first 24 hours after its Sept. 17 release. Two weeks later, the online component of the game went live, and its millions of fans — or at least some of them, as Rockstar Games’ servers were immediately overloaded and most users found themselves frustrated by numerous technical glitches over the first several days — were able to gang up and engage in all manner of virtual mayhem. Such is the popularity of this role-playing, “open-world,” action-adventure game that perennially receives wide criticism for its racy and violent content.

I grew up enjoying video games. I even have played GTA V, although probably not enough to have credibility with its fans and too much to have credibility with those who want to see the offensive video game banned. But at the risk of provoking both sides, I would like to make a few observations about Rockstar’s newest record-breaking installment of GTA.


A large part of GTA’s popularity has to do with the immense degree of player freedom it provides. The Grand Theft Auto franchise was revolutionary in establishing the “sandbox” format, where the player controls and modifies a graphical character — an avatar — who is situated in a detailed three-dimensional environment that he can freely explore at leisure. Back in 2001, Sam Houser, one of the creative geniuses (or evil masterminds) behind the series, described the unlimited freedom within the Grand Theft Auto series for the entertainment website IGN:

There aren’t that many single things that you can do in the game that you couldn’t do in another game in terms of the actions you do — fighting, shooting, driving vehicles, running, exploring, buying stuff, speaking to NPCs (non-player characters), watching cut scenes and so on. What is unique about the game is the seamless way these are linked, and the fact that you can do them all at the same time — this is a limitless game world with action game play — the player has complete freedom to do things in a living 3D world. This is the new territory — no limits, but very easy to play, with a game plot that unfolds and draws you through the adventure at your own pace.

Each successive game has developed this basic vision of player freedom by adding on new layers of complexity as technology made them possible. The concept of “freedom” advanced in this game means players can do what they want, whenever they want it. They don’t have to follow a two-dimensional map or a plotted-out storyline as in so many other video games.


In fact, in GTA, a player’s freedom extends even to moral choices within the game: A player, through his graphic avatar, can participate in objectionable activities such as theft, fornication, pornography, and murder within this fantasy world into which he is immersed — and for many the experience becomes something of a virtual thrill ride. For this reason, GTA-V has been described by many fans in terms such as “narcotically fun.” Not everyone agrees with that conclusion, however. Even other video-entertainment experts, like Greg Tito of the gaming magazine The Escapist, found that the “defining emotion” of the game isn’t “excitement or elation, but sadness.”


Not only is the game’s appeal built on breaking limits of convention or socially acceptable behavior, but it also can be argued that GTA cultivates an appetite for such behavior. In the world of GTA, once a player enjoys the thrill of one excess, he finds himself searching for the next. Think of Pleasure Island, the lawless amusement park from Disney’s Pinocchio. In the online version of the game, GTA-V becomes a virtual-reality environment in which a player’s character interacts not only with resident characters programmed by the game’s designers, but also with characters created and controlled by other online users — in other words, a virtual world populated by virtual characters who are controlled by real people. A player can use his avatar to fight, rob, or kill the avatars of other players or collaborate with them in such activities, almost as though he is indulging in evil pleasures vicariously through his GTA character.


Although GTA-V might be dismissed as only a video game, its implicit treatment of moral choices is relativistic and troubling precisely because it is so much more than a game, as most critics attest with their perfect praise. And unlike many other video games which also allow a player to engage in virtual killing and theft, GTA actually aspires to raise questions about morals and choice. This becomes really problematic when the context for exploring these questions is built up around the illusion of my freedom; a world where my will is complete and autonomous. Law is viewed as a constraint on my freedom. In GTA, each choice I make is independent and complete in itself: It is not affected by previous choices, and has no effect on any subsequent choices. This opportunity to “choose between good and evil,” even in a simulated environment, is easily mistaken for freedom, but in fact it is a parody of what freedom really is.


True freedom, by contrast, consists not in being able to do whatever one pleases without judgment or consequence, but in being free to choose the good. Dominican professor of moral theology Servais Pinckaers describes this “freedom for excellence” in his 1995 book The Sources of Christian Ethics:

The greatest freedom is God’s. He, being impeccable, is fully creative; his power has no interior limitations. The nearer man approaches to God through the moral progress that weakens his inclination to sin, the more he grows in full freedom, sharing in the divine freedom itself.

According to Father Pinckaers, freedom is a process that involves growing in virtue, where each decision is connected with others, and where the law is important because it helps us internalize right and wrong. Choosing to sin, in this view, actually diminishes freedom because it draws us away from the source of freedom.


Some video-games producers are picking up on the idea that having a virtue-like moral system is engaging. Take for example, Bethesda Games’ use of “Karma” in its Fallout titles. It is an imperfect model, to be sure, but in Fallout making a good or bad choice builds up good or bad “karma” with definitive consequences. GTA takes a different approach: Instead of helping to form individuals in the critical and satisfying process of making prudent choices and practicing self-sacrifice, it appeals to our lower nature, perhaps more than any other popular video game, by exploiting the alluring but short-lived thrill of “being bad.”


One might object that GTA-V is just a game, after all. “I know the difference between simulated murder and real murder” is the chilling retort of fans who will also defend its corrupt notion of freedom and other objectionable content under the guise of being good satire (situations, dialogue, and sight gags in GTA often parodize elements of popular culture, even of video-game culture). Playing the devil’s advocate, one might even say the in-game choices which basically are “all bad” and often lead to discomfort and sadness — for example, in some scenes the player is given a choice as to how to torture another person but not whether to torture them — demonstrate how the game is wickedly satirical about real life. Being bad in real life, just like in this game, does lead to unhappiness, after all. So why doesn’t this complex experience deserve praise for being a dark work of satire displaying the frustration of a hedonistic consumerist American mentality? GTA-V is a formation in nihilism more than a biting satire because of how it subverts the very framework of truth, good, and evil.


Even good satire necessarily has to mock and display what it judges to be “wrong” from within a framework of good and evil, of objective truth — something that doesn’t exist in the world of GTA. Or, as Foster Kamer, senior editor of the trend-watching website put it: “The game itself seems to be goading you into becoming a vapid, violent, numb participator in a world where existentialism reigns supreme above all.” The game “hates you and the world that created GTA V as much as it hates the world of GTA V,” Kamer writes. By contrast, if Father Pinckaers is right, and freedom “develops in us principally through a sense of the true and the good, of uprightness and love, and through a desire for knowledge and happiness,” then GTA-V fails to deliver a sense of true freedom both as a game and as satire.


In his earlier remarks about the necessity of “play,” our Pope Emeritus was careful to caution us: “It all depends on what we are playing.” The oasis of freedom in Grand Theft Auto V turns out to be a mirage. The freedom we long for has to be received from God; we cannot seize it for ourselves, any more than we can plan our own surprise birthday party. I think some of the many players of Grand Theft Auto V are noticing the joylessness that comes with trying to do just that, and I hope they are not so beguiled driving around in the world of GTA as to pass right by the truly joyful and recreative experience of God’s freedom.


Christopher Menzhuber writes from Minnesota.

(The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Catholic Pulse or the Knights of Columbus.)