Tuesday, 24 September 2013

GTA V, Cycling and Ethics.

As an avid gamer, I went out and bought GTA V the day it appeared on game store shelves. In my opinion, this is the best of the series so far - and it features cycling (yay!), so I have an excuse to do a blog post about it. So let's get the cycling bit out of the way before moving on to the more juicy stuff.

For those of us who might want to see how far the game can be pushed into being a cycling simulation, the game suffers from the same major problem that the game's cars suffer from - twitchy steering. It takes a while to get used to. Also, there are no gears, but it's not really a problem - going up hills is just slower. Riding itself, which involves pressing a single button over and over again like a maniac (to simulate pedaling) can get tiring.

In terms of bikes, you get the choice of a couple of variations on mountain bikes, a few racing bikes, or a cruiser. So far I haven't seen a touring bike (shame!) or a BMX. Oh well, you can't have everything.

In terms of places to ride, only a few of the game's side missions involve cycling. But there are lots of places to cycle. The game takes place in 'Los Santos' - GTA's version of Los Angeles and the surrounding countryside, so you get cityscapes, mountains and rural areas to cycle in. The mountain biking potential would seem to be a good chance to enjoy cycling in the game - there are a lot of areas that would be fun for the mountain bike enthusiast. The problem is, I'm not sure that there are bikes available at the top of good mountain bike routes - you'd probably have to cycle out to the good places.

One area of the game that really does focus on cycling is the triathlon side missions. These are fun and have good replay value - but there are not all that many of them.

All-in-all, the game gives us cycling that's just a bit more than an afterthought (and given the fact that there's no other cycling game out there I guess that's pretty good). Cycling can be done in the game, but it's a bit tedious and not all that rewarding. But it can be fun for a while, and hey, at least it's there.

I've also been interested to see how the usual videogame blame game develops after the game's release. It is, after all, the latest iteration of the series that is considered by anti-gaming activists 'Public Enemy #1'. So far, the standard straw man arguments are appearing - boiled down, they amount to "The ability to murder virtual prostitutes is WROWWWWNNNNGG and will turn 10 year-olds into violent psychopaths". The fact that the game's prostitutes are game code and not real, the fact that the game is rated 'M', meaning that parents are warned that it might not be appropriate for kids, and the fact that real life crime statistics have dropped like a stone since videogaming became a popular form of entertainment, apparently count for nothing.

Contrary to the way videogame detractors see these games, I have a bit of a different perspective, in that I've actually played every GTA game since GTA II: Vice City. So I know all about how the game approaches ethical questions, and it's a bit more complex than the critics seem willing to admit.

For instance, I think GTA V does a great job of allowing players to experiment with how they would handle certain ethical situations. Sure, players 'can' engage in all sorts of virtual immoral acts, up to and including mass murder. But do they? In my experience seeing people play the answer is most often "No". In my case, what I notice is that even given the ability to kill without consequence in a game where nothing is real, I choose NOT to do so unless severely provoked. I'm NOT going around killing lots of people for fun. In fact, I try to avoid doing so unless someone does me harm. I may drive way too fast, but I'm not purposefully ploughing down pedestrians on the sidewalk. I think many players do the same - acting in ways that would be seen as dangerous in the real world, but not actively trying to do harm to the game's innocent civilians.

So I think maybe the game's detractors are looking at this the wrong way - instead of looking at what's possible and criticizing it, they should be looking at what's really happening with players in the game - I think they might be surprised at how often we bring our real life ethics into these games, and at how invincible our personal ethics are when assailed by a virtual world filled with the potential for mayhem in a consequence-free environment.

And when we are forced to participate in scenes where our characters do bad things - GTA V's infamous torture scene, for example - the game makes it pretty clear that being unethical is stupid. Even Trevor, the game's complete psycho, understands this and explains at length to the corrupt FIB (FBI) officer who is forcing him to perform the torture. Far from being a game that plumbs the vicious depths of an amoral virtual reality, GTA V has a strong moral core. While you 'can' and sometimes 'must' make your characters do things that are not nice, the game helps players to understand WHY unethical behavior is counter-productive.

I have now reached the end of the game. The major characters go through some moral turmoil and the game's finale involves an interesting ethical choice. I'm not going to spoil the ending in case anyone reading this is a gamer, but I was happy to see a game present the player with a lot more than the usual "These are obviously really bad people, now kill them". While the GTA series is often accused of 'Mother Night' syndrome - i.e. blurring the line between satirizing bigotry and engaging in it, the latest version gives players a lot more to think about than the average shooter.


  1. I am trying to figure out how to make comments on your very enjoyable blog. I've tried registering with Disqus, did it work ?

  2. Err, Vice City was actually the fourth game in the series. The first GTA games were arcade-style top-down 2D.

  3. Fucking hate cyclists, shouldn't be allowed on the road!