Grand Theft Auto, that most lavish and notorious of all modern videogames, offers countless ways for players to behave. Much of this conduct, if acted out in our reality, would be considered somewhere between impolite and morally reprehensible. Want to pull a driver from her car, take the wheel, and motor along a sidewalk? Go for it. Eager to steal a bicycle from a 10-year-old boy? Get pedaling. Want to stave off boredom by standing on a clifftop to take pot shots at the screaming gulls? You’re doing the local tourism board a favor. For a tabloid journalist in search of a hysteric headline, the game offers a trove of misdemeanors certain to outrage any non-player.
Except, of course, aside from its pre-set storyline, Grand Theft Auto doesn’t prescribe any of these things. It merely offers us a playpen, one that, like our own cities, is filled with opportunities, and arbitrated by rules and consequences. And unless you’re deliberately playing against type, or are simply clumsy, you can’t help but bring yourself into interactive fiction. In Grand Theft Auto, your interests and predilections will eventually be reflected in your activity, be it hunting wild animals, racing jet-skis, hiring prostitutes, buying property, planning heists, or taking a bracing hike first thing in the morning. If you are feeling hateful in the real world, the game provides a space in which to act hatefully. As the philosophers say: wherever you go, there you will be.
“All parts should go together without forcing. You must remember that the parts you are reassembling were disassembled by you. Therefore, if you can’t get them together again, there must be a reason. By all means, do not use a hammer.” —IBM Manual, 1925