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Thou Shalt Deal, But Thou Shalt Not Use: The Curious Ethics of Grand Theft Auto

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Wednesday, Jul 29, 2009
Engaging a prostitute, stealing a car, and straight up murder are all forgivable offenses in the GTA universe.

This discussion does contain some spoilers about the plots of various games in the Grand Theft Auto series.


While a hue and cry arose over the drug dealing simulation that served as a secondary gameplay element in Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, critics of the Grand Theft Auto series would likely be surprised by the series’s rather moralistic approach to the question of drug use and abuse.


Despite the fact that the games most popular setting, Liberty City, bears an appellation suggestive of a commitment to a libertine philosophy, when it comes to drugs, the Grand Theft Auto series has always had a very simple message: “Just Say No.”


Certainly, Chinatown Wars does feature a protagonist, Huang Lee, that largely depends on drugs as his primary source of income and the catalyst of the plot of Vice City is a drug deal gone wrong that that game’s protagonist, Tommy Vercetti, was involved with, but despite the fact that the main characters in these games are drug dealers, they are never users.


Drug usage in the GTA games is left largely to the minor characters, and most often, these secondary players in a GTA drama are made to look like fools.  In Vice City, Tommy Vercetti’s first underworld contact is the crooked lawyer and lunatic cokehead, Ken Rosenberg.  Rosenberg (a character likely inspired by David Kleinfeld from Carlito’s Way, a similarly coke addled, shady lawyer played by Sean Penn), is a less than competent, extremely neurotic compatriot of Vercetti’s.  Both Rosenberg’s ineffectuality and paranoia seems largely attributable to his coke habit.  Other “friends” of GTA protagonists that are featured as crazed by their dope habits include CJ Johnson’s hippie, peacenik pal, The Truth, from San Andreas.  While one of The Truth’s kooky conspiracy’s concerning alien technology being secreted away in a government facility does prove to have some veracity, nevertheless, The Truth’s role throughout the game is largely as comic relief.  He is a paranoid dude that hasn’t woken up from the marijuana haze of his hippie youth.  Neither of these characters’ problematic personalities probably even compare to the peyote induced stupidity of the members of the fictional band Love Fist in their appearance late in San Andreas.  From getting themselves lost in the Las Venturas desert to sleeping with a red neck gal infested with all manner of sexually transmitted diseases, these bozos clearly cannot handle their illicit substances.


However, it isn’t just intellectual retardation and generalized insanity that GTA typically associates with imbibing in pharmaceuticals.  Drug use is quite simply put, an easy enough marker for recognizing villainy.  This tendency is especially true and noticeable in San Andreas.  Part of what makes anti-hero CJ Johnson sympathetic and even potentially heroic in the game is his mission to clean up his hood, specifically by ridding it of the dealers that are enslaving his home.  An early cutscene in San Andreas introduces the player to one of CJ’s former Grove Street crew, a now rather broken down junkie named Big Bear.  Big Bear has been reduced through his drug dependency to slavery.  We find him cleaning the toilet of his dealer for the sake of protecting the source of his next fix.  Big Bear’s degradation inspires CJ’s commitment to “freeing” his people from this insidious chemical master in a that perhaps nods to Malcolm X’s opposition to drug use and observations about the effects of drug abuse on his community, specifically its tendency to become a new means of enslaving them.


If dope becomes an identifiable plague in CJ’s hood, his former friends that prove to be traitors to the Grove Street cause, Big Smoke and Ryder, are incarnations of that plague.  Big Smoke’s name has an obvious association with a chemical hobby while Ryder is almost never featured without a joint in his hand or a commentary on how he would rather be smoking.  As CJ discovers towards the close of the first act of San Andreas, Big Smoke and Ryder have betrayed Grove Street and are partly responsible for the invasion of dealers in the Los Santos neighborhood through their dealings with Grove Street outsiders.


San Andreas‘s main antagonist, the crooked cop Officer Tenpenny, likewise, is partially responsible for the surge in the drug trade in Los Santos.  He, too, is featured as a user in the game’s cutscenes; CJ watches him take a hit off a bong in a scene in which Tenpenny manipulates our beloved thug to do some dirty work for him.


The only time that CJ does get high in the game is accidental.  He does so as a result of torching a crop of marijuana in an attempt to dispose of evidence for The Truth when federal agents raid The Truth’s farm.  Appropriately enough given the negative connotations associated with being stoned in the GTAn series, this accidental high proves no end of trouble as CJ’s flight is impaired by a greenish haze and wavering camera.  The impaired gameplay itself indicates the problematic nature of being under the influence.


Interestingly, GTA‘s prohibition against drug use does not apply to legal drugs.  Alcohol abuse is entirely permissible in GTA IV.  While driving drunk is a possibility for Niko Bellic, it is a choice that can be avoided as Niko can do the responsible thing and take a cab following a night of binge drinking or otherwise suffer from ill effects similar to the accidental impairment of CJ Johnson.  That Niko does have this choice, though, may be related to the fact that drinking can have positive effects in this game and that legal drug use is treated in a more evenhanded fashion.  As one of numerous activities that can be selected from when Niko dates or builds relationships with his friends, drunkenness provides a for a kind of bonding experience between Niko and his chosen drinking buddy.  Like all social activities in GTA IV, drinking is a way of provoking dialogues that further reveal the personalities that he interacts with.  In particular, the dialogues that Niko takes part in with his drunken friends are especially illuminating about who these people really are as the drunken dialogues are completely uninhibited reflections of these individuals’ ids (for instance, note that the stool pigeon, Michelle, most overtly spills about her duplicitous nature when she gets smashed).


However, corruption, betrayal, and foolishness are the consequences of illegal drug abuse in what is otherwise a series of games that encourages the most illicit and questionable behaviors from its protagonists.  Engaging a prostitute, stealing a car, and straight up murder are all forgivable offenses in the GTA universe.  They are the cost of doing business.  But the protagonists’ bodies are generally treated as if they are a temple as the main characters may serve as distributors of drugs but never as users of these products.  In this emphasis on self restraint as a moral virtue, GTA may be reflecting a growing brand of moralism that focuses less on how the individual treats others as it does on how the individual treats him- or herself.  The “bad guys” in our culture are those that cannot control themselves: the tobacco user, the overeater.  Though, this emphasis on making sure that the individual does no harm to the self may reflect a belief that less evilly intended individual choices may have negative consequences on community.  We fear the perils of second hand smoke and the rising cost of health care for the obese maybe more often than we do the people directly or intentionally doing harm to someone else.  Thou Shalt Kill, Thou Shalt Steal, Thou Shalt Generally Interfere With the Life, Health, and Well Being of Others, these are the libertine commandments of Grand Theft Auto.  But when it comes to protecting the long term well being of the main character himself, the GTA games eschew the liberty of jacking up yourself for a clear imperative: Thou Shalt Deal, But Thou Shalt Not Use.

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