Grand Theft Auto V: on morality and digital people.

Grand Theft Auto V is a great game. It’s taken a franchise that was focused on generic organized crime drama and turned it into a story about a group of individuals with widely varied backgrounds who come together for various reasons. The last few games were all about mobsters; this game is about planning and pulling off heists, which is a lot more interesting and is an area that hasn’t been explored much in video games.

(If you’re playing the game and don’t want any spoilers, stop reading now.)

But as I play it, I find myself running into interesting moral dilemmas. While you’re driving around, you’ll randomly encounter situations that you can react to, like a woman having her purse stolen, a store being robbed, a criminal having a shootout with the police, and so on. You can choose the selfish route (like killing the purse snatcher and keeping the money for yourself), which will usually give you more money, or you can be more benevolent and get a smaller reward. I haven’t played the game long enough yet to see if there’s any particular reason to decide one way or the other, but I wouldn’t be surprised.

The weird thing is that I often find myself being more altruistic and benevolent in these random situations. Meanwhile, I’ll happily punch out random people on the street to pick up a few bucks from their unconscious bodies, or pull off a jewelry store heist and score hundreds of thousands of dollars. With one character, I’ll go on a rampage that results in over 50 deaths, and with another I’ll do everything I can to refrain from running people over or even hitting them with my car.

The game rewards your actions on each mission with a bronze, silver, or gold medal, based on certain actions that you perform in the mission. In one of the main story missions, you have to torture a man to get information about a potential national security threat. In this case, if you use all of the available torture methods on the victim without his heart stopping, you’ll get a gold medal. This mission made me incredibly uncomfortable… and yet, to be able to proceed with the story, I had to do things like waterboard a guy and pull his teeth out with pliers.

I felt terrible about waterboarding a digital person in a game where I can gun people down or run them over with relative impunity. I don’t know what the difference is, other than maybe that the torture victim was given a unique personality and seemed more like a relatable person than the generic pedestrians.

The fact that Rockstar has made a game where I’m constantly shooting and mowing down people with vehicles, and yet they can still make me empathize with certain characters and feel dirty about doing them harm, is pretty surprising and marks them as a talented bunch of game designers.

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