S1E06 Does it Matter What we Put in a Game? Kevin Schut and Grand Theft Auto



Does it matter what we put in a game?

This conversation isn’t theoretical, our game dev hosts are trying to decide what features to include in the game they actively work on.

Games like Grand Theft Auto explore the evil side of life.  How do we decide what to and not to include when create authentic satisfying emotional experiences?  Join us for a special episode where we deep dive the issue of content and context in our games.  Joining us is professor and author of Of Games and God Kevin Schut.

Show Notes

This topic came out of serendipitous reading of the book “Jacked: The outlaw story of Grand Theft Auto“, (an excellent read for anyone interested in the current state of “M for Mature” video games), and then Kevin’s GameChurch article on The Marvelous Miss Take.

What games we’re playing:

Key Points of Interest

Background and Reference

For those who want to explore this issue deeper, below are the questions and reference materials that went into making this podcast.

Questions for further reflection:

  • Some Christians I have met feel very strongly murder in a video game is sin because it happens first in the head/heart then happens in the game.  But when asked if doing good in a video game counts as virtue, they then conclude that is meaningless because it’s “just a game”.  Are they right, are they wrong, and why?
  • Some Christians I have met feel very strongly nothing that happens in a video game matters, in a sense (don’t read too much into this) it is totally outside of God’s domain.
  • The most violent game ever made (in terms of people killed) is not Hatred, Manhunt, Postal, Call of Duty, or GTA.  It is Defcon.  You click a button, and 20 seconds later, 2 million people die.  Or 4.5 million, or 1.2 million.  It’s an incredible eerie indie game about nuclear war.  The website says “World’s first genocide-em-up!”  I have not encountered anyone protesting or disgusted by this game.  But even if they saw me playing it they likely wouldn’t because it’s little squares, triangles, and lines on a screen.  Why is this game, which theoretically is so much worse than any other game, doesn’t stir up any strong feelings?
  • This moves us into “context”, as described in this article from Geeks Under Grace on Hatred.  He wrestles with context verses content.  What do you think?
  • I love Tradewars because it is based in space with cool star trek references, like genesis torpedoes and ferrengi.  If all the mechanics were identical, but it was about my little ponies and accumulating hair decorations, it would just be something less.  Why is that?
  • Many games justify the players actions through a “just war theory” either of self-defense (kill or be killed) or you are good (Max Payne) and they are bad (all the hitmen and drug dealers).
  • Non-Christians struggle with this issue.  For instance, the president of Sega of America struggled with whether to release Mortal Kombat with blood, or to produce Night Trap.  Ultimately he decided the responsibility was with consumers on what they bought and not with him on him to censor what he made.  Warren Spector, a prolific designer, challenged Rockstart to stop making “thuggery simulators” (see the whole quote below).  Nintendo of America didn’t allow men to hit women in video games.  How can we help our industry find answers to their questions?
  • The actual creator of GTA 1, 2, (David Jones, who also created Lemmings, Crackdown, and APB) ultimately quit because he didn’t want to pollute the world.  What does that say to us as game designers?
  • Romans 16:19 says “For your obedience is known to all, so that I rejoice over you, but I want you to be wise as to what is good and innocent as to what is evil.”  1 Corinthians 14:20: “Brothers, stop thinking like children. In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults”  How do you portray evil authentically (so as not to ruin immersion, jeopardy) without making players wise in evil?  For example, I know more about torturing people having watched 24 and Homeland than I did before.  I know more about bank robbing having played Payday 2.  I’m not sure that I should.
  • If we look to God as the “First Artist” and how he allows all sorts of terrible choices to occur in His “game”, does that help bring clarity or muddy the waters?  Why or why not?
  • Something I’ve been thinking about recently: will my game be playable in heaven.  When I and you are sinless, when the world is cured, will my game make it through the “fire of purification” or not?  And if not, does that mean I shouldn’t have included some aspects?  Or is it because my game is made in a sinful world for it to have any authenticity of the human condition as it exists now, it simply will contain some of the taint and there is no escaping it?

Highlights From Jacked:

  • As media theorist Marshall McLuhan once said, “The games of a people reveal a great deal about them.” P 3
  • One producer who had been there since 1999 thought the company was taking on “shades of Miramax,” the legendary but volatile film company. Manhunt became especially divisive. “There was almost a mutiny at the company over that game,” as Rockstar producer Jeff Williams later blogged, “…there was no way to rationalize it. We were crossing a line.” And the powers-that-be didn’t take kindly to being told otherwise. “Every day, someone would say something they didn’t like about a game,” Pope recalled, “and they’d tell them, ‘You’re a **** idiot.’” P 138
  • Two murders confessed to GTA being a part of their decision to kill.
    • Yet after breaking down in tears and confessing to the crime, the boys volunteered a reason of their own: Grand Theft Auto III. P146
    • A man who killed a police officer while in custody in a police station
  • King (GTA producer) believed that their games were cathartic. “We’re human beings,” he said. “We’re the only species on the planet that commits genocide on our own race. We are barbaric. We are warring nations.” Rather than “suppress it and then have outbursts that are catastrophic, put it in the living room, and allow you to engage in it . . . in a video game exercise, those feelings of frustration and anger. See it for what it is, laugh about it, smile and have fun. Versus ‘I don’t have an outlet I don’t have a video game I don’t have a book, I don’t have a film I don’t have anyone to talk to, I’m feeling alone, I’m getting trapped, and I’m building up, building up so I express them through some extreme fashion.’ For whatever reason we often as human beings don’t like to confront things that are uncomfortable.”  Yet they also wondered, what if Thompson [main critic] was right? What if the games were having some kind of effect? p 161
  • Email from Dan Houser (head of GTA) to Jennifer, legal counsel:
    • [J]ennifer, how are we going to handle the approval of certain bits of content in sa [San Andreas], we are keen to include new functionality and interaction in line with the ‘vibe’ of the game. to this end, in addition to the violence and bad language, we want to include sexual content, which I understand is questionable to certain people, but pretty natural (more than violence), when you think about it and consider the fact that the game is intended for adults. Here are some examples of content that will be displayed graphically: blowjobs full sex (multiple positions) dildo sex (including being able to kills [sic] someone with a dildo) whipping (being whipped) masturbation (one of the characters is compulsive; this MUST be kept) all of these items are displayed both through cutsecnes [sic] and in-game. I know this is a tricky area but I want to find a way for this work; the concept of a glorified shop (walmart) telling us what we can/can’t put in our game is just unacceptable on so many levels. All of this material is perfectly reasonable for an adult (of course it is!), so we need to push to continue to have our medium accepted and respected as a mainstream entertainment platform, we have always been about pushing the boundaries; we cannot stop here. . . . how do we proceed with this? we really don’t want to cut these areas. please advise. P 173
  • Second suicide at Rockstar within weeks of Blake’s only exacerbated the sense of despair in the company—how could such a beloved long-time employee with a family take his own life? To treat the bad energy in the office, the company brought in a spiritual healer. In her hand, she held a string with a crystal hanging from the end and swung it slowly like pendulum. One by one, she passed the desks of the hipsters and the gamers, their computers, their Xbox controllers, and their desk tchotchkes. She stopped at an empty desk, where she felt, as said, “pretty strong readings.” The fact that this incident had been reported by the Wall Street Journal sent a clear message to those worried about the future of Rockstar and their parent company: a new era had begun. P 257
  • “Successful art tears away the veil and allows you to see the world with lapidary clarity; successful art pulls you apart and puts you back together again, often against your will, and in the process reminds you in a visceral way of your limitations, your vulnerabilities, makes you in effect more human,” he wrote. “Does GTA IV do that? Not for me it doesn’t, and heck, I love this damn game.”  P 269
  • “Like the protected books, plays and movies that preceded them, video games communicate ideas—and even social messages—through many familiar literary devices (such as characters, dialogue, plot, and music) and through features distinctive to the medium (such as the player’s interaction with the virtual world),” Scalia wrote. “That suffices to confer First Amendment protection.” P 274
  • [Pope is one of the lead developers] Pope went on to make a very non-GTA game for self-help doctor Deepak Chopra. “It’s taking everything that’s amazing about games and doing something positive,” he said. “With video games you’re either creating or destroying; with GTA we were definitely destroying.” P 277

Warren Spector speaks out, Nov 2005

“I’m really angry at the Rockstar guys,” said Spector, speaking at the Game Summit. “Not like I’m going to go beat them up and yell at them, but they frustrate me because Grand Theft Auto III, in particular, was an amazing advance in game design. It was a stunning accomplishment as a game design. And it was wrapped in a context that completely for me undid all the good they did on the design side.”

The acclaimed designer continued: “It’s like I want to tell my mother ‘This is what games can be.’ But I can’t because they don’t get past the beating people up with a baseball bat, stealing cars and crashing them, and the foul language and stuff, and I don’t think it is necessary. At this point, GTA is the ultimate urban thuggery simulation, and you can’t take a step back from that.”

“But I sure wish they would apply the same level of design genius to something we really could show enriches the culture instead of debases it,” Spector said.

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