Grand Theft Auto Online: Negative Decision Architecture, Consent and the Sociopathic Contract

From a rooftop, through a 16x scope on a horribly simplified in-game version of a Barrett M99 in a notional fictive universe, I’ve seen things.

I know Barrett M99. Barrett M99 is a friend of mine. And you, sir, are no Barrett M99.

I know Barrett M99. Barrett M99 is a friend of mine. And you, sir, are no Barrett M99.

I’ve seen impromptu car shows develop with players in front of their player housing drawing garishly colored Mustang and Camaro look-alikes out of their garages to show off to each other, then seen those car shows devolve into pointless mutual murder sprees when an unrelated third person happens by. I saw a heavy lift helicopter tow a giant dump truck to the top of the highest building in the city, draw in the police, then drive off to have a 10-mph police chase.

Nice parking job.

Nice parking job.

I’ve seen people randomly kill passersby to attract police, steal a police car, park it under a freeway then start hitting it with baseball bats in order to make the siren make funny noises like some demented musical instrument.

So you know how you got this game for your kids for Christmas? Yeah, maybe you shouldn't have done that.

So you know how you got this game for your kids for Christmas? Yeah, maybe you shouldn’t have done that.

I saw a player in a car with an NPC prostitute once. I shot the prostitute, then the player. He re-spawned a block away, stole a car, and started ramming the base of the building I was in trying to run me over.

I’ve seen a guy running frantically running around, hitting cars with a golf club. I nailed him with a torso shot with the heavy sniper and when he “spawned” back in, he ran right over to another car and started beating that up with a golf club. Watching in disbelief – who does that when you’re being hunted by a sniper? – I waited, verified that was indeed what he was doing, and shot him again. Back up he came, a block away, and what’s the first thing he did? Pulls out a golf club and starts beating up a parked car.

At its best, the idea of a free-world game presents the idea of some kind of freedom to participate in the world, shaping it and developing narratives and new forms of play out of it. But instead, at the fin de siecle point of the Xbox 360/PS3 generation of hardware and development, what has been created instead is the development of a final, highest state of logic that shows the limitations of interaction design and decision architecture as much as the state of advancement.

The critical, most flawed element in these games – indeed, in all so-called “triple-A” or blockbuster muti-million dollar, celebrity-endorsed, heavily advertised games – is that the only real form of interaction that is ever offered with the world is shooting parts of it. The only decision you ever really face with respect to any object in most notional worlds is, “Do I shoot it or not?” In a way, this is a depressing showcase of the limitations of what is conceivable and enjoyable in our times. Given the freedom to create new worlds and forms of experience, time after time, the brightest and best minds of our generation have essentially developed very expensive militaristic shooting galleries targeted for men and children in a nation which experiences constant war yet has less than 1% of its population in its armed services at any given time. Of all the experiences that we could choose, time after time, as a country, America chooses a simulacral militaristic experience with essentially zero training value for actual firearms; it chooses a form of simulated, elective, useless trauma.

Much can be said, and quite easily, of the odiousness of these games from the perspective of real military men – I have yet to meet one who has said “Yes, Call of Duty was exactly how it was in Afghanistan”. Yet for most people who live in liberal regions, shooting in video games is as close as they will ever choose to get to any aspect of what it means to wield the tools of a modern professional warrior, much less live the life of one (which turns out, from most first-hand accounts, to involve much less shooting guns than the average bellicose civilian couch-warrior might think).

The rise of violent video games gives support to that argument that Americans as a country, perhaps even human beings as a species have an innately warlike aspect. The longing to commit meaningful, sanctioned, righteous violence informs many otherwise inexplicable aspects of American life; after all, we recognize – as most civilized nations do – that the recruitment of child soldiers is a morally repugnant and militarily suboptimal practice; yet hold a relatively uncomplicated belief in the sanctity of a pointedly brutal quasi-militaristic children’s game (i.e. football) and readily, as a culture, purchase inaccurate military training as entertainment for a generation of increasingly alienated children. Indeed, our own Constitution guarantees us the means of violence to serve as a bulwark of resistance against encroachment of rights by our government. Violent video games offer the enactment of what we feel, as people, that we were born to do: to commit acts of violence to stay alive. This is why video games resonate so strongly with Asian cultures that inflict upon their members strongly repressive cultural and political regimes as well as recent histories of territorial or ideological war. In a bourgeois nation in a state of military detente like South Korea, is it any surprise that military styled video games should be even more popular than in America?

Keeping in mind the essential militarism or martiality of our culture, the particular form of violence that GTAO offers and how it is taken up by its consumers says some profound, and not at all immediately obvious things about the state of game design and the culture that it participates in. For, when put into a player-versus-player context wherein players make that most fundamental “Do I shoot it?” decision with the personified representations of other players, the result is – from a cynical point of view – inevitable: a constant, omnipresent, perpetual downwards slide into the chaos of repeated mutual antagonism and the infliction of purposeful unpleasantness, termed “griefing”. GTAO, as much as any violent video game that has ever existed, not only permits that downwards slide into griefing, but incents it and encourages it.

But instead, what GTAO presents in view of its place in history is a paradox. In a time of soldier-worship and the collective desire to be a meaningful warrior, GTAO offers the opportunity to be a criminal; indeed, in some cases, even a terrorist. In a time when entertainment has becoming increasingly good at pleasing consumers, GTAO offers an essentially agonistic experience – the opportunity to enact criminal violence, to steal and be stolen from, to murder and in return, be murdered. GTAO offers the opportunity to enact and experience the effects of sociopathy, a form of sociopathic contract.

This can most clearly be seen in the game’s mini-map. At any given moment, players in the free-roam “hub world “of GTA Online are able to see a map representation of everyone within roughly a quarter-mile radius; pressing “start” and going momentarily defenseless, a player can monitor the real-time location of every player in the same free-roam instance. Players can only avoid being seen on the map for 60 seconds at a time, and at any given moment, players can leave the world for either a mission-oriented instance or another free-roam.instance. As with almost every violent video game, “death” is merely a time-out with no real permanent cost; after “dying”, the victim re-enters the world, usually in a position to re-inflict “death” upon the original antagonist. Any situation of being trapped, chased, or even fighting is not really violent at all; unlike real violence, it has to necessarily require the consent of all involved parties, and it proceeds until one or both parties no longer consents.

An example GTA V minimap. Circles represent other players. Note how the map view extends a significant distance around the player.

An example GTA V minimap. Circles represent other players. Note how the map view extends a significant distance around the player.

This is the condition of mutual consent that characterizes all adversarial games, no matter how violent or unpleasant the negative aspects of that game are. For whatever reason – honor, the desire not to be seen as a poor sport, the wish for an opportunity to inflict violence upon one’s antagonist – the notional “victim” consents to the temporarily distasteful or unpleasant condition of being representationally victimized. In this situation, then, where violence has so little cost, and where consent is implied or elided or in some cases given without real awareness of the consequences, what develops is a condition that might be aptly described as the paranoia of propinquity. Players will often chase and inflict violence upon each other simply because they are nearby, and simply having someone in your crosshairs is sufficient reason for so many people to kill each other. A language of position develops amongst players – pointing away and moving at right angles means lack of interest in engagement, while moving forward and maintaining a course to intercept is incontrovertibly hostile intent. Proximity becomes conflated with consent, distance with safety.

In addition to mutual consent, to fully understand GTAO and indeed any form of adversarial online behavior, we have to also recognize that this is a decision architecture based on constraints. Really, this game – indeed, any form of self-representation in a “distal” or self-detached representational forum – is only a forum for social interaction insofar as it is a system of effective constraints on behavior. It’s not that “Hey, this game has a feature where you can press a button and smoke a cigarette!” – rather, it’s that “One of the few things your character can show others besides shooting things is displaying this pointless cosmetic behavior.” A form of social definition emerges from players who choose to take on similar forms of constraint on behavior: we only shoot XXX and YYY, we always appear as ZZZ. This may be termed “negative decision architecture” – this form of design shapes behavior not by offering choices but rather by constraining available actions.

At this inflection point in interactive game design and theory offered by the transition between generations of consoles, it’s an easy answer to merely state that processor and memory technologies haven’t advanced sufficiently to offer a representational experience with sufficiently large number of possible choices to offer the player while still maintaining an acceptable level of verisimilitude and realism. Negative decision architecture, it might be argued, is simply a symptom of the limitation of the technologies designers have had to work with.

This type of argument, however, lets game designers off too easily. Not every limited system is necessarily a negative decision architecture. The representational system of six-digit color codes in design are one instance of a positive decision architecture based on constraints. In exchange for accepting a theoretically finite number of choices – that blue that we choose may not be quite the blue that we had in mind, but does it make much difference? – we gain the ability to manipulate and express a practically infinite number of combinations – practically infinite in that for most purposes, it might as well be infinite. Psychologists have suggested that there are seven fundamental flavors – but since there are infinite gradations in the levels of flavors applied, for all intents and purposes there are an infinite number of flavors. Chess, an ancient and fairly static game, has a relatively limited set of pieces and objectives but a range of possible outcomes that ranges into the near-infinite. In other words, the fact that you have only a few pieces to play with does not excuse the fact that you haven’t done anything creative with them.

The issue with limited – and easily subverted and hacked – negative decision architecture is endemic to the vast, now-multi-generational creative endeavour that we call “video games”. It is not a hardware issue, and it is not even so much a design issue as it is a cultural issue. Cultural expectations on behavior, allowable self-expression and forms of self-definition determine how players consume and participate in the structure of constraints on volition (negative decision architecture) and implied consent.

For all its lack of technical sophistication, what GTAO has that distinguishes it positively from any other form of entertainment is the presentation of a framework for purposeful misuse, and thus a means of meaningful self-construction. Players do not necessarily have to go on murder sprees or engage in constant mutual antagonism; in fact, it’s quite common for completely non-violent gatherings or “meetups” to occur where players are scrupulously careful not to infict accidental violence upon each other.

A fairly typical improptu player car show, located in a place that is typically a high-traffic war zone.

A fairly typical impromptu player car show, located in a place that is typically a high-traffic war zone.

From the perspective a system built to encourage and perpetuate mutually consented antagonistic griefing, then, the emergence of positive, pro-social behavior is all the more startling. What GTAO shows is that that the most positive, enjoyable, indeed marketable effects of games is not what the game is but rather how the game is played. The most profound positive or negative effects that video games have upon players comes from how players interact with each other and develop and dissolve groups to achieve in-game goals.

Thus, for instance, few people could argue that a group of incongruously highly-skilled yet high-pitched and obviously young children committing a complex heist involving notional hijacking and cargo container theft with immense coordination and mutual skill is a bad thing. Ominously, too, crews of players banding together to commit purposefully nuisanceful or hateful acts upon others should be of significant concern. Remember – this is what people do instead of meaningful violence, and in a society as safe as ours, the lessons that meaningful violence is supposed to teach are being replaced by those learned in the context of notional violence.

What has emerged in GTAO and should really be considered startling is a full-fledged sense of what might be termed normative play. Players try on morally acceptable and repugnant roles and eventually, due to the necessity of having to work with others to advance in the game, players are forced into pro-social leadership roles. There are certainly a plethora of players too stupid or unambitious to successfully plan and carry out a mission, or too slow or naive to win a road race; but at some point, sooner or later, for the first time for some, players are asked to lead others in a meaningful way to achieve a shared goal – at which point they then have to develop at least a modicum of the some kind of people-leading skills and planning. Players are able to kick out or remove from session other players whom they find annoying or antagonistic, and thus players are forced to be, in some sense, good to each other in order to be able to be bad enough to other players or NPCs to have fun.

My preferred form of normative play: Sniping in-game assholes and cheaters.

My preferred form of normative play: Sniping in-game assholes and cheaters.

Normative play, as I’ll argue in my next essay, presents an important educational and cultural opportunity that should force us all as a society to re-consider what we think of RPGs and video games in general.

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