Unjustifiable Carnage, Uneasy Alliances, and Lots of Self-Doubt
What Grand Theft Auto IV gets right about gangland and illegal economies.
The story lines of GTA IV's missions also resonate with life on New York's streets. Should our protagonist help his cousin even if it is not in his own interest? Should Niko remain with his girlfriend, even if it might jeopardize his personal safety? Could an enemy gang be befriended and turned into an ally? I was always left with a residue of self-doubt after making these decisions. Right and wrong are never so clear—at least in terms of the consequences of one's actions—and Niko's mission can fail because you either did or did not do the right thing.
While GTA IV is both a dizzying and dazzling experience, I definitely won't be playing the game up until the final mission. I could never master the joystick in time to stop running over pedestrians while I'm steering Niko's car. But I am curious to see what comes next. GTA IV was, by all reports, a huge improvement over Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and I can imagine GTA V taking us to even greater heights (or depths, depending on your perspective). *
If the creative team needs some fuel, they might want to visit Chicago's South Side. There, they will find that gang killings and mercenary actions have some interesting consequences—beyond the tragedy of injury and fatality. When a real-life mission fails and gangs are indicted, the remaining players must first form a gang before they can move on. No one can move forward until they come together and develop shared interests. The result can be a powerful feeling of solidarity—albeit in the South Side, it is one often wasted on disreputable pursuits.
Another logical step for the creative crew at Rockstar Games would be to extend the logic of the current game: Why not let us form gangs ourselves in virtual space? Imagine the possibilities: My friend and I could form a gang of nasty South Asian suburban nerds. A bunch of middle-class frat boys might realize their common interests. Let women join in the fun, too. They could create a group of disgruntled ex-corporate lawyers who, after failing to make partner, go after their pig-headed male superiors. In this way, the enemies would depend on the gangs we formed, and, over time, the landscape would reflect our decisions.
And, hey, maybe different gangs can advertise online and play each other? I, for one, would love to form a group of writers who could take on the editors at publishing houses who zap my creative juices with their unintelligible feedback. I'd like to run them over in the streets, get out of my car and bash their heads in, steal their keys and money, break into their homes and destroy their furniture, and then I'd … You get the point.
Correction, May 12, 2008: This story originally and incorrectly referred to Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas as the "third version" of the Grand Theft Auto series. It was actually the fifth Grand Theft Auto game—two titles, Vice City and San Andreas, were released between Grand Theft Auto III and Grand Theft Auto IV. (Return to the corrected sentence.)
Sudhir Venkatesh is a sociology professor at Columbia University and author of Gang Leader for a Day.
Still from Grand Theft Auto IV copyright 2008 Rockstar Games.