Before you read on, this is most definitely NOT one of those "actions-in-videogames-reflect-children's-real-life-actions" articles that's already been done over countless times. No, this is more something I've been thinking about in the last few weeks, and felt it posed an interesting topic of discussion.
I'm going to be blunt. It's the year 2011, and if you haven't at least sampled the testoresterone-fuelled mayhem that is the sandbox massacre, "do whatever you like" genre, then I'm sorry, but you're the gaming equivalent of a crotchety old coot clinging to his black-and-white television. Okay, maybe that's a little harsh. But even if you haven't experienced these games, you must be at least aware of the controversy surrounding the content.
Next week marks the 10-year anniversary of Grand Theft Auto 3, a game that most definitely dealt a stern reality check of what games can be. It was, to the best of my knowledge, one of the first games that required a parent present to rent/buy Jack Thompson's reason for going grey. Fortunately I was the offspring of what was, in my eyes, the ideal relationship that consisted of a parent who was very sympathetic to my wants, and a parent who simply didn't give a shit about video games, so long as it didn't interfere the daily read of the newspaper.
The only person who simply couldn't wait to wreck havoc among the innocent citizens of Liberty City more than me, was my best friend at the time. It simply blew our juvenile minds in a similar fashion to unloading a shotgun shell right in an authorities' face with no real-life consequences. This was the closest thing to breaking nearly every single law of the land in real life... and we did... over and over again. Even as a youngster, I knew the rights and wrongs of the world. I had a basic moral code that a majority of residents of planet Earth seem to follow. GTA3 was an escape from reality, that I took pleasure in. Almost as if this moral code was nothing more than an annoyance to follow.
The Grand Theft Auto series evolved as I grew older, and enjoyed them more and more. San Andreas took the cake in what could be possible. But this moral code, or lack thereof, within the GTA games remained the same. I enjoyed jacking cars from the innocent, I loved attempting the world's first jet-pack drive-by, and I adored plowing through police road blocks using their very own arsenal. The available freedom in a somewhat accurate portrayal of a lower-class society was addicting.
It wasn't until I become acquainted with a character named Niko Bellic that the line between the virtual world and reality became blurred to me. Unlike the previous protagonists, Bellic showed a more human side; something that was most definitely missing from the GTA series. Tommy Vercetti stopped at nothing to get what he wanted - revenge and a whole lotta cash. Carl Johnson just wanted his life back on track, taking on an entire corrupt police force and rival gangs in the process. But what about Niko? He had his own tale of revenge, sure, but only seemed to kill when necessary. He is a man who, while having no evident qualms about breaking the law, seemed to care. He only seemed to break the law when he felt it was right to, and not just for the hell of it.
Grand Theft Auto again opened my eyes. Playing through the game as Niko, I began to control myself, or limit my freedoms, as it were. I, too, killed only when necessary. I limited my jacking of cars, and often resorted to re-using cars I had stored in my garage. It was like I had developed a virtual moral code, in an environment where literally nothing, short of a power failure, could stop me from doing anything within the game's mechanics. It was a strange sensation that I actually felt empathy for these people whom I've never met, but above all, aren't even real.
Of all the games I have played, San Andreas seems to have the most reckless and limitless environment. The upcoming Saint's Row game appears to have lifted that bar even higher, and I, too, look forward to play through it. I have only focussed on these sandbox shoot 'em ups, but there are a lot of games out there that accommodate a moral code. Taking the Fable series, for example. This is a series that dictates your gameplay based around your decisions, whether they be right or wrong. Fallout 3 is another classic example where you take control of your actions which have consequences in an eerie postapocalyptic environment.
Are these decisions reflective of our real moral code, or are they an escape from reality to do what you like, and view the consequences from an outside perspective? You would be crazy to expect to play through Grand Theft Auto without killing a few people, but a lot of the time we have a choice. And, for whatever reason, choose follow the laws as much as I can, barring driving responsibly, because that would be boring...