Unjustifiable Carnage, Uneasy Alliances, and Lots of Self-Doubt
What Grand Theft Auto IV gets right about gangland and illegal economies.
If you are a fan of the new Grand Theft Auto video game, I have just the neighborhood for you. The setting of GTA IV, Liberty City, is an amped-up version of the New York metro area. If you want a slice of the real thing, however, I'd recommend Chicago's South Side. The last time I visited Chicago, I stopped by 59th Street, near Washington Park (and only a few short blocks from the picturesque University of Chicago). Two of the local gangs were fighting each other in full view for control of a prime sales spot, a hotel. For a monthly fee, the proprietor had promised to allow one gang to turn the place into a bordello—drugs, prostitution, stolen merchandise. For the gangs, winning meant more than simply getting rid of their enemy. Neither controlled the area surrounding the hotel. Anyone bringing drugs (or women, or guns, etc.) to the hotel would have to run the gantlet formed by other enemy gangs, who would be at the ready to shoot down the transporter.
There is nothing funny about this situation. The residents of this neighborhood are living a nightmare. Their elected political officials have offered little help, and the police don't answer their calls to stop the gang wars. So you guessed it: Their only hope is to pay yet another crack-dealing gang to intervene and keep the peace between the warring outfits. To put it bluntly, they can rely on street justice by turning an enemy into an ally, or they can sit, suffer, and hope for the best.
I thought of these Chicagoans and their moral conundrum when I played GTA IV for the first time a few days ago. Nearly every review has championed the unparalleled technical accomplishments of the creative team—and there are many. But I also found GTA IV to be a compelling commentary on urban life, gangland, and illegal economies.
This may sound strange, but I found that Grand Theft Auto actually offered a less sensational portrait of gangland and ghetto streets than the one put out by most cops, politicians, policymakers, and even academics. There is nuance in the game that exceeds most of the conventional portraits of American cities; the game goes beyond a black-and-white tale of innocent law abiders fending off the obnoxious criminals. Not that I'm suggesting that we turn to GTA IV to solve the gang problem or that we should we make it required viewing in our high schools. The game is a carnival of violence, deceit, and cruelty that makes you slightly nauseated after playing for only a few hours—I had to periodically rest and play a Neil Diamond song just to calm down. But I have to admit that I was surprised a video game had such a well-developed, fine-grained understanding of human nature.
The game's success can be traced to a simple principle: Niko Bellic, the protagonist who roams around Liberty City, making his way in the world by building relationships. Even in a city dominated by warring gangs and unjustifiable carnage, people have to find ways to work together not only to commit crimes but to resolve disputes, respond to injustice, and otherwise fulfill their assigned missions. As you move the dashing Niko through beautifully rendered streets, you build up his network of friends and comrades. Of course, in the exploitative terrain of the black market, you can't trust anyone for long; this is one of the key challenges that animate GTA IV. But the point is that a lone wolf can't survive. Niko has to take a risk and trust somebody.
Even the criminals must follow this rule. In the real Big Apple, the local gangs are made up of self-interested mercenaries who move about as money and circumstances dictate. A Jamaican "posse" may control one project one day, but they'll move over a few blocks if the money is right. A gang member might also become a turncoat and join another outfit, even one run by a former adversary. In other words, free agents abound on Wall Street and ghetto streets. GTA IV's Liberty City gets this fluidity of enmity and alliance exactly right. A friend can become a foe; a gang member can turn on you; an ally is never to be trusted for too long. You can't do it alone, and the game forces you to make your bets.
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.