Grand Theft Auto III takes place in Liberty City – a completely unique universe with its own laws, standards, ethics, and morals (or lack thereof).


There are dozens of ways to take out the inhabitants – punches, kicks, head butts, baseball bats, handguns, Uzis, AK-47s, shotguns, M-16s, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, grenades, Molotov cocktails and flame throwers. 


… Let the crime wave begin!

Page 4 Grand Theft Auto III Official Strategy Guide.


Why Grand Theft Auto is wonderful for teaching ethics and morality


Grand Theft Auto is the latest thing to send our kids and society in general to hell in a hand basket. We have been warned about watching out for everything from the written word, to the novel, to film, to comics, to rock music, TV, rap music, the internet and a steady stream of video games which are  corrupting minds and morals at an ever increasing pace. Before it was Doom & Quake, now at is GTA as it is affectionately known. I beg to differ.


I teach game design at Indiana University in the MIME program so I actually 'have' to study games. I have a research budget some of which I use to buy Play Stations and lots of games. I also buy strategy guides because these games are in reality too difficult for a guy with a PhD in Information Science from the University of California at Berkeley to figure out in a normal time frame, like say a term. This term I have been spending a lot of time trying understand how GTA is corrupting minds and morals. I haven’t figure out the minds and moral thing but I have discovered that there some amazing areas where using GTA in the class room with the kids is a wildly enlightening experience for both myself and the kids.


The most recent edition of GTA, Vice, sold close to 1.4 million units in 2 days at $50s a pop which means two things: this is a really big industry and most of the kids I normally meet in a classroom are more likely to have played GTA than they are to have watched the Sopranos or Buffy. Like rock music in the 60s & 70s, the game industry is driving culture at the moment.


Because so many kids have played GTA it is really easy to get a runaway conversation going in class with little prompting from me other than questions such as: So, what do you think of GTA?


Remember, I teach game designers so what they don’t reply with is ‘cool’ no matter how you spell the word. The usual response is that the game is terrible in a moral sense. And, then the class explodes in amazing directions.


Some folks will point out that the alleged violence is virtual and not real and probably a great improvement on spectator violence of the past such as picnic outings to witness hangings, stonings, beheadings, various battles during the Civil War in the US, and crucifixions which were actually a regular occurrence in the days of Christ. That the Coliseum, that great tourist destination, in Rome was the sight of regular real mayhem witnessed and cheered for by many. So, maybe the virtual violence of GTA and Doom and Quake serve a survival need in human beings. Maybe this thirst for blood is slacked by the game. This sort of discussion tends to bring a moment of reflection and then someone will launch into the whole aspect of censorship.


The students look at GTA and other games and talk about violence in the Last Exit to Brooklyn, the Dutch film 'The Vanishing', Hamlet, Lear, Othello and Rashomon where evil and lies succeed and thrive just as they do in the real world. The discussion moves to the difference that GTA is a game so the audience disappears and the interactor appears and this makes us all nervous: pseudo consequential decision making. Remember GTA is a game where you play within a crime wave most of which you are creating.


Then the discussion hones onto the real hot button issue of GTA, the fact that you can hire a prostitute to have sex with you – depicted by a rocking car you have entered. After the deed has been done you can kill the prostitute and take her money. This is obviously a really bad thing to do and as far as I can determine none of the students have gone out and actually done such a thing in real life but just the idea of such an event mortifies most. The discussion will wander on and someone brings up the fact that as far as anyone can determine this specific action was not hard wired into the game but may be an emergent action which combines two rules of Liberty City: you can have sex with prostitutes and you can kill and rob anyone in Liberty City, therefore after having sex with a prostitute you can kill and rob her and get your money back. The idea of this action freezes most students no matter what the discussion but they do note that in context of the logic of Liberty City with “its own laws, standards, ethics, and morals (or lack thereof)” it makes sense. You are in a crime wave, any one in Liberty City can be robbed beaten or killed. Cars can be hijacked and crashed into walls and people. But if you hit someone they will hit you back. If you hit a street walker they will hit you back and if you are in the Red Light district all the street walkers will gang up on you until you run away or they kill you. If you crash a car into enough objects or over turn the car it will explode and your character is dead. There is a definite consequence to actions in GTA. But, still, killing and robbing prostitutes is a little too Clock Orange-ish for most.


I don't worry about this too much simply because of media effects research which basically says that media can increase the probability that someone does something they are inclined to do but has almost no ability to make most folks do something they are not inclined to do.(1) The soap opera Simplimente Maria reported in Entertainment Education by Singe and Rogers explains this very clearly. Lots of Singer Sewing machines were sold during the run of this soap because most folks are inclined to better their lives by sewing. I also see this in Joe Bates' paper Dramatic Presence where his 'interactors' can not bring themselves to 'make believe' kill a person in a theatrical enactment. Can a nut case be affected? Sure. Remember when Kubrick pulled the movie 'A Clock Work Orange' out of distribution when some kids almost kicked a street person to death? Some folks are whacko and there is nothing we can do. I forgot to mention that the kids who did the kicking never saw the movie; they read the book.


Eventually the discussion always comes to the BIG point. GTA is art like it or not. May or may not be great art; only time determines this. But, it needs the same protection and respect as DuChamp's Urinal, Picasso's Guernica, Serrano's Piss Christ and the Garbage Pail Kid cards. Years ago there was a fad called the Garbage Pail Kid cards which were disgusting gross out cards aimed at little boys who loved disgusting gross outs. The odd thing about the Garbage Pail Kids was that the idea was developed by Art Spiegleman, a comic book artist who eventually went on to take his disgusting talent and give us Maus, the retelling of the Holocaust with comic versions of cats and mice. Maus won a Pulitzer prize award. We can’t have it both ways. We can’t protect some speech and some words and some images and some games. Art tells us who we are and what are capable of. Unfortunately GTA does this well which is what I think scares us.


GTA seems to encourage my students to consider why the game is successful as a game and it also forces them to make decisions as to whether they would spend time building something like GTA. This is what teaching is all about. I can not get this discussion out of Pajama Sam, I can't not get this discussion out of Rockett, I can't get this discussion out of the Sims or Black & White. I can get this discussion out of GTA. For that I am thankful.



Thinking about GTA and my kids making decisions as players and designers working in the world causes me to think back to grade school decades ago. I went to Catholic school in Philadelphia. My teachers were nuns and for the most part they were obsessed with the sins we might commit. The consensus seemed to be that they could scare us into being good. Promising us an eternity of fire and brimstone worked pretty well until 6th grade at which time the hormones kicked in and some things seemed worth the risk, mostly anything having to do with sex. I guess the nuns knew we had passed to another level so they brought out the heavy hitter. They brought out Father Ellwood E. Kieser. Father Kieser founded Paulist Productions in 1968 to produce life-enriching programming and preaching the gospel. Father Kieser created a weekly anthology series called Insight (7) which the nuns showed us every Friday around 2:30 pm just before school got out for the weekend. I think the nuns thought of Insight as a potential weekend inoculation against sin. For me I waited for Insight every week. It was the highlight of my week. It was excellent television with a message but the message never seemed too heavy handed and Father Kieser never seemed to tell the me what to think so much as to suggest points of view. Watching Insight made me feel as if I had a choice in decisions which would affect my future. I can imagine a Father Kieser in the world today. I imagine that Father Kieser would look on GTA and see possibilities to produce life-enriching programming and preaching the gospel in ways never imagined by creating consequential situations where choices are made which are fun, ethical and moral. I have no illusion that any of the folks who designed GTA gave much thought to real morality but I don’t think they should have. They created a fun, tightly modeled world which kids love to play. I think it is important that folks who work with kids understand the media which is attractive to them and why it is attractive to them so that they can use this media in ways Father Kieser might have for similar impact. The potential is there but only if you are willing to play and learn.


"A communication system is totally neutral. It has no conscience, no

principle, no morality. It has only a history. It will broadcast filth or inspiration with equal facility. It will speak the truth as lightly as it will speak falsehood. It is, in sum, no more, no less than the men and women who use it."

-- Edward R. Murrow of CBS Broadcasting.




1. Grand Theft Auto 3 Official Strategy Guide -- by Tim Bogenn; Paperback

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2. My Lunch with Annie Lang: Children, Violence, Imitation (and a darned good house salad)

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3. Singhal, Arvind; Everett M. Rogers

         Entertainment-Education A Communication Strategy For Social Change

       Lawrence Erlbaum Associates 1999. Hardback Textbook. No Dustjacket. Tight Sound Copy In Very Good Condition with no Apparent Markings to the Book. ISBN 0-8058-3235-1.

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4. Dramatic Presence

Margaret Thomas Kelso, Peter Weyhrauch, and Joseph Bates. Technical Report CMU-CS-92-195, School of Computer Science, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh, PA, December 1992. This paper originally appeared in PRESENCE: The Journal of Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Vol 2, No 1, MIT Press

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5. Maus : A Survivor's Tale : My Father Bleeds History/Here My Troubles Began/Boxed -- by Art Spiegelman.

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6. Wayne’s Garbage Pail Kid References.


7. Father Kieser eventually produced the movie Romaro which was nominated for an academy award. )