What Grand Theft Auto IV gets right about gangland and illegal economies.

The art of play.
May 9 2008 6:46 AM

Unjustifiable Carnage, Uneasy Alliances, and Lots of Self-Doubt

What Grand Theft Auto IV gets right about gangland and illegal economies.

A scene from Grand Theft Auto IV.
A scene from Grand Theft Auto IV

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.

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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.

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.

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