Slate contributor Chris Baker was online at Washingtonpost.com on May 1 to chat about the narrative richness and moral conundrums of Grand Theft Auto IV. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Chris Baker: Hi everyone! This is Chris Baker, and I'm a senior editor at Wired magazine. I'm here to answer your questions about a piece I wrote for Slate about Grand Theft Auto IV, as well as whatever you'd like to know about the series or about games in general.
Bethesda, Md.: I own a PlayStation 2, any chance that they eventually release a modified version of Grand Theft Auto IV for the PSP and PS2? Do I have to bite the bullet and get a PlayStation 3?
Chris Baker: Hi there! GTA4 really pushes at the edges of what the Playstation 3 (and the Xbox360, it's available for two game consoles) can do. I don't think there's a chance of it appearing on the last generation of game consoles like the Playstation 2 or the original Xbox. I'd say you'll probably need to bite the bullet ...
Cleveland, Tenn.: Does it still have that stupid eat/exercise dynamic?
Chris Baker: You're referring to the way that Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas let players customize their appearance by eating a lot to become fatter or by starving themselves to become thinner. There were also in-game gyms where you could log time on an exercycle or doing reps on a weight bench to make your character more buff. This actually figured into the game play—certain female characters preferred guys who were a little big-boned, or who had lots of muscles. You needed to alter your body type if you wanted to woo them.
That's gone from this game. Eating food still replenishes your character's health, though. (Just shot in the face? Stop off and get a hotdog, and you'll be good as new!)
GreenwichJ: This game is evil and should be banned ... that's what my wife said when I bought it. Her opinion was entirely based on a couple of newspaper articles. Which really begs the question—what's more dangerous, "murder simulators" like Grand Theft Auto IV, or sensationalist journalism designed to scare the masses half to death?
Chris Baker: There certainly is a lot of hue and cry in the mainstream media surrounding games, especially GTA. Jack Thompson, a lawyer who's often tapped to appear on TV news and comment on games, had this to say:
"Grand Theft Auto IV is the gravest assault upon children in this country since polio. We now have vaccines for that virus. ... The 'vaccine' that must be administered by the United States government to deal with this virtual virus of violence and sexual depravity is criminal prosecutions of those who have conspired to do this."
Grand Theft Auto IV is definitely not for kids. (It's rated M for Mature, the equivalent of an R rating for films, and can't be sold to anyone under 17. I'd seriously caution any parent to learn more about the game before deciding if it's appropriate for their kids.)
But there hasn't been any definitive research showing that virtual violence in video games can spill over into real world behavior.
There's an excellent new book out by David Hajdu called the Ten Cent Plague: The Great Comic Book Scare and How It Changed America. It looks back at the hue and cry surrounding comics in the early 1950s. I think to a certain extent, the hysteria surrounding video games nowadays is similar to what Hajdu describes, and lots of new mediums seem to spark this kind of reaction—especially mediums that are very popular with young people.
Manassas, Va.: Well, I am a big fan of Grand Theft Auto, and I love the game. The fact that I like the game does not mean that I go killing people in real life. Would you consider that the game somehow helps relieve stress in teenagers, and that it is better to play a game that is somehow sadistic but doesn't hurt anybody?
Chris Baker: I think playing an action game can be cathartic. Here in the Wired office, my fellow editors and I will take breaks a couple of times a day to go kill each other for 5 or 10 minutes in Halo 3, and it's a great stress reliever.
I'm not sure about the appropriateness for teens. But certainly a lot of kids' play involves imaginary good-versus-evil combat—cops and robbers in the park if not cops and robbers on a game console.
Chicago: Have you talked to other people who are morally disturbed by the game's story? Is this a common reaction?
Chris Baker: Yes, I've talked to a few other reviewers who've played through the game. My friend Will Tuttle, an editor at GameSpy, compares the game's story to Doctorow's novel Ragtime. But he said that the violence was frequently unnerving, and carried more weight than in past entries in the series.
"They're using the Euphoria engine to create disturbingly realistic ragdoll animations," says Crispin Boyer, a Senior Executive Editor at the 1UP Network who gave the game an A+. "Nail a pedestrian with your car and they'll bounce around like Evel Knievel botching a bike jump. It's sickeningly real—kinda makes your stomach lurch sometimes."
Arlington, Va.: Is there anywhere in the new Liberty City where I can get some good coffee?
Chris Baker: You can't get "hot coffee," but there is a mission where you can get some "warm coffee." (Inside joke for GTA players; not sure it's worth explaining to non-geeks.)
Bethesda, Md.: Chris—you commented that the violence is more realistic and disturbing in GTA IV. Suppose you shoot someone and then hide around the street corner ... do passersby start to assist your victim? Do an ambulance and police car show up after a short time?
Chris Baker: The crowd does respond realistically—some people will flee, and others will run aup and help or try to fend you off. An ambulance will be called, and some passersby might dial 911. In general, the way pedestrains react to you—and to each other—is amazing. You can actually just stand around watching people, listening to their phone conversations, watching them have fender benders and getting into fights, etc. with no involvement from you.