Grand Theft Legal System

Last week’s release of Grand Theft Auto IV (actually somewhere between the sixth and ninth game in the series, depending on how you count) was big news in the gaming world (even if some observers questioned the suspiciously universal acclaim). Players cleared their calendars and in some cases emptied their wallets to play the latest installment in this series of open-ended games, which drop the player into a vast city of cars to steal, bystanders to gun down, insane stunt jumps to make, and real-life references to spot.

Among lawyers, the games may be best-known for the regular moral panics they induce over fears of copycat violence, and for attorney Jack Thompson’s increasingly bizarre crusade against them. We might also ask what kind of a legal world the GTA series envisions within its famously capacious in-game universe.

The series’s built-in attitude of rampant lawlessness—it’s named after a crime, after all—might suggest a kind of deliberate criminality. That’s certainly the interpretation that fuels the regular calls for the games to be banned. And yes, the plots typically chart the protagonist’s Scarface-style rise as he carries out errands both murderous and larcenous for an entertaining assortment mob bosses. This interactive representation of lawlessness—the player playing at the role of criminal—puts the Grand Theft Auto games squarely within the tradition of deliberate shockers like Postal.

But this may be an unduly harsh take, and not just because the claim that playing violent games leads to violence in meatspace rests on some dubitable social science. San Andreas may well show us the world as Holmes’s bad man would see it, but consider the lessons he’d learn from it. Crime doesn’t always pay. In fact, offhandedly casual offenses—driving on the sidewalk to circle around traffic, say, and in the process clipping a pedestrian—can put the police on your tail. And the aggresive things you do to try and shake them often wind up making matters worse. Before you know it, you have a six-star wanted rating, they’re sending in the black helicopters, you’re crouched in a doorframe, and there’s pretty much only one way this story can end. Exaggerated though the arc may be, it does illustrate some of the vicious circles trapping the poor, the desperate, and the criminal.

Or consider the in-game depictions of the legal system itself. Get arrested by the police, and you’re back on the streets within seconds—minus some bribe money. Call it an indictment of revolving-door-prison liberalism, or call it an indictment of police more interested in protecting their turf than in doing justice or confronting Liberty City’s very real problems. The lawyers don’t come across much better: Ken Rosenberg is a paranoid cokehead who asks our hero to fix a case by intimidating jurors.

One last thought. Given the games’ increasingly humongous alternate reality, how about building in a penal code? Grand Theft Auto’s legal geekery index would soar if every unlawful act were accompanied by a statement of exactly what crime the player had just committed. “Arson in the second degree!” “Involuntary manslaughter!” “Grand theft garbage truck!” For added fun, the crimes could be correlated with a set of sentencing guidelines, so that the in-game statistics screen would tally up precisely the number of years of imprisonment the protagonist deserved.

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6 Responses

  1. Jason says:

    The police in the game do a vastly better job of taking all your guns away when they arrest you than they do in real life.

    Also, it’s interesting that the level of police monitoring has been amped up as the series has gone on — in GTA III, you could get away with *a lot*, and the cops weren’t all that tough: you could blow through a lot of them before the SWATs and the helicopters really came into play. It was later games that really made them formidable, actually forces to avoid rather than merely an annoyance. I wonder if we should start drawing real life parallels from this or just use Occam’s Razor and chalk it up to pure game design?

  2. Joel says:

    Interesting comments on the games, especially about the escalating impacts of what might start as semi-petty actions (driving on the sidewalk to dodge traffic). It reminded me of a theme that ran in the first season of “The Wire” where they had different characters on both side of the drug game asking why it couldn’t be done without “the bodies” which brought the cops, which led to running, which led to…

  3. Jeremy Blumenthal says:

    Without trying to redirect the thread to over-analysis of the empirical causal question, I’d simply note that the social science is less “dubitable” than this particular post suggests. For useful examples see work by Nicholas Carnagey and Craig Anderson (both empirical and theoretical).

  4. I’ll stand by my “dubitable” remark; claims of a link are open to a great deal of doubt. I haven’t read Carnagey and Anderson’s work, but Ted Castronova utterly took apart one of their papers.

  5. CT says:

    Another interesting tidbit is the game’s conception of jurisdiction. I haven’t played GTA4 yet, but in prior versions a sufficient number of state law violations mysteriously gave the FBI and the National Guard power to pursue you.

  6. A.W. says:

    i think the big lesson to come out of GTA is how if 1) you dehumanize other people (characters in the game are literally not human at all), and 2) have few consequences for bad behavio, you get really awful behavior. But that doesn’t seem like a legal issue so much as a sociology issue.