Grand Theft Auto V presents a virtual universe that is so complete in the illusion it weaves, I’ve started to wonder whether killing people in GTA V says anything about me.
That’s the kind of sentiment I’ve been reticent to admit for years, mostly over the long-running narrative about whether violent video games cause violent behavior. The idea has been disproven enough that I’m willing to look at a game like Grand Theft Auto V, which creates such a compelling, virtual reality for me to play in, as an experimental lab in which I investigate my virtual behavior.
I only bought into the idea for the first time, however, when I caught myself laughing over a blood splatter on the hood of a white car.
I had no appreciation for death until I lost my first cat. His name was Gabriel. I remember looking into Gabriel’s eyes while the vet pressed a plunger on a needle, and I said goodbye. I’ve since looked into the eyes of three other feline friends and watched the light go out of them, while I stroked their heads and told them I hope we’ll see each other again, some day.
The only human being I’ve ever lost who meant that much to me was my maternal grandmother, and I will always regret not having taken the time to record her life story on the digital recorder I use for interviews. Or going home the moment I heard from my father that—after grandma had been in the hospital for a week or so—she could go at any time. He told me to stay home, that there was nothing I could do. Maybe I could have had a chance to say goodbye, though.
I have an understanding of death, and it’s changed the way I play video games. I have gone into emotional revolt while playing a video game on two separate occasions over the past three months. The first time was while playing The Walking Dead: Season Two. When I had to choose between issuing a virtual death sentence to a character I cared about or putting an infant’s life in jeopardy, I quit the game. I have not gone back since.
When I played This War Of Mine, a game about the civilian experience of war, I refused sanctuary to people who were sick or starving. I denied assistance to a woman who was afraid of being raped. I made these decisions out of self-preservation for my group of survivors. I bailed on the game, because I couldn’t stand thinking about the horrible repercussions of my decisions, even if the experience was entirely virtual.
Most of the innocent people in GTA V are like satirical performance art, three-dimensional walking and talking mockeries of the kind of sick consumer and fame-obsessed values prevalent in American culture. But the way I came to judging the nature of my decisions in GTA V wasn’t through caring about these innocents. It was through caring about a character I portrayed in part through my actions.
Franklin is one of the three main characters in GTA V. He’s a former street soldier in a Los Santos gang who wants to graduate to bigger and better things, like bank heists. He’s undeniably a criminal, but he is never depicted in cutaway scenes as bloodthirsty or sociopathic. He genuinely cares about his friends. When I played GTA V the first time on the Xbox 360 I never killed innocents when I played as Franklin. It felt out of character and wrong.
All the action in GTA V on the Xbox 360 is presented in third person. The newest version of GTA V, which I play on the Xbox One, introduces first-person view. And within minutes of jumping into the story as Franklin, and driving a white sports car to an auto dealer as part of a repo job, I lost control of the car and slammed into a pedestrian.
I got out of the car to view the results of my accident and saw a huge blood splatter all over the hood. Where I might have felt bad about it before, this time I laughed, and all bets were off. I cared not one bit about what happened to pedestrians. It wasn’t until I found myself shooting down crowds of innocent people on the sidewalk, enjoying the novelty of starting down my gun sights in a GTA game for the first time, that I stopped and thought about what I was doing.
Franklin hadn’t changed from the last time I’d played the game. In fact, having finished GTA V on the Xbox 360, I ought to have been even more reticent to engage in wholesale murder while playing his role for how much better I knew him, and just how well I knew this sort of thing wasn’t in his nature.
What had changed was my perspective through the camera. That’s when it occurred to me, clear as day and maybe for the first time, just how used to killing people in first-person perspective games I am. Viewing a video game through that lens is enough to instantly turn me into a virtual psychopath, if a virtual gun is put into my virtual hand.
What I started to think about after I laughed at the bloodstain on the hood of Franklin’s white car, and again after staring down a gun sight through Franklin’s eyes, is how it felt when I wanted to save lives in The Walking Dead and This War Of Mine. For all the sadness of those two game worlds, the fact that death was something to be feared and avoided in those worlds made them so much more compelling than game worlds in which aiming, shooting, and reloading took up the bulk of my time.
It took a game like Grand Theft Auto V to make me think about how I behave in video games because of the specific kind of illusion it weaves. I have no intention of giving up violent games altogether, because most of them are the purest fantasy. Titanfall is a game about people killing each other with giant robots. Destiny is about killing aliens. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is about Kevin Spacey trying to take over the world with exoskeletons. It’s all ridiculous. However, it also still reinforces that learned behavior of aim, shoot, and reload.
Given a video game with reference points to reality—like deciding whether an infant lives or dies, or whether or not to protect a woman from being raped, or an alternate universe which by design reflects the world we actually live in, like in GTA V—I’m willing to think about what my choices actually say about me. And in the case of GTA V, it felt like once I snapped into a first-person view, my violent response was autonomic.
If my experiences from outside the game (i.e., having an appreciation for what death actually is) are affecting my experiences in-game, is it possible that my experiences in-game bleed out to the real world? I’m willing to entertain the question, if for no other reason than in certain game situations I like how I feel when I choose not to pull the trigger, more than I like how I feel when I do, and that has everything to do with how I’ve changed over the past few years.
I know the influence works one way, so maybe it also works the other way around? Even if not in the sense of inspiring outright behavior, but in any way, at all? I’ll never be able to answer the question unless I admit that it might be possible.