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Opinion:  GTA IV : The Immigrant Issue
Opinion: GTA IV: The Immigrant Issue
May 1, 2008 | By Simon Parkin

May 1, 2008 | By Simon Parkin
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[In his debut opinion piece, also printed on sister editor blog GameSetWatch, British games journalist and producer Simon Parkin takes a look at protagonist Niko Bellic, arguing that criticism that he unfairly plays up Balkan stereotypes and immigrant plights borders on the ridiculous.]

Niko Bellic is the most likable Grand Theft Auto protagonist we’ve yet seen.

He’s smart, funny, loquacious and you get the feeling that his brushes with (and reluctant employment by) Liberty City’s criminal underworld are born from poverty and necessity rather than an inherent tendency toward violence and viciousness.

He’s seen things.

This much we know from his infrequent moments of soul-bearing wartime recollection (which never feel forced) and so he exudes the kind of scarred, tough maturity that comes from surviving the bleakness of battle rather than the posing immaturity of so much gangsta pastiche.

That Rockstar decided to cast the player as an illegal immigrant for their hero is cause for celebration, not eye-rolling derision. He is an asylum-seeking protagonist with more depth and character than ten thousand lantern-jawed American heroic archetypes.

In fact, his portrayal (at least to those with half an eye open) should do more to warm viewers to illegal immigrants than any of the (nevertheless awesome) characters in, say, the culturally-acclaimed TV series, The Wire.

As a result, the press statement from the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants saying that the game’s portrayal of a Balkan in the game plays on untrue stereotypes seems ridiculous.

It’s the kind of accusation that could only be directed at the game from a brief reading of its synopsis (if that) rather than extended time spent in Niko’s shoes. GTA IV’s world is ethically diverse, with law abiding citizens and criminals alike drawn from a wide range of creeds and races and to argue that it promotes racial stereotyping is to disastrously miss the point.

Indeed, my experience of the game has been to find that Niko’s level-headedness, character and sense of justice (a skewed but consistent moral standard that reminds me of that of Anton Chigurh in the Coen Borthers’ latest, No Country For Old Men) has influenced the way I’ve been playing the game.

Whereas in previous iterations I wouldn’t think twice of car-jacking a vehicle to get from A to B as quickly and effectively as possible, in assuming Niko’s role I feel more comfortable hailing a taxi cab and paying a fare for the journey.

Besides the fact that viewing the city from the back of a cab is a lovely way to pass 5 minutes, the game is clever in its use of inconvenience as a deterrent to ‘unnecessary’ crime. Why not take a cab when, in doing so, there’s no risk of a police pursuit or the irritation of having another ‘death’ blighting your stat record?

The increased fidelity of the city and its citizens therein raises the sense of immersion and the sense of virtual responsibility. Previously games would have to rely on asset-based penalties to encourage their players to ‘do right’ in a game world (e.g. by removing some in-game currency or hard-won weapons as a deterrent).

But as the realism of open game worlds increases they are more able to rely on a player’s real-life sense of justice and fairness to temper their behaviour.

GTA IV, ironically - when considering the media backlash it has already generated - is very effective at this pressing of responsibility back into the player’s hands – hence now you get to keep your weapons after you get sent to the hospital.

There are, of course, scripted moral decisions to be made in the game (do you step on your enemy’s fingers and let him drop to his death from the roof top or hoist him up to safety).

But more important than these are the thousands of incidental moral and ethical decisions that must be made through the natural course of play. There is an excellent blog site to be written by somebody who tries a victimless play-through of the game.

There is much that needs to be written about the issues GTA IV’s realism raises for gaming. Gamers are, of course, already on the back foot in defending their hobby and, specifically, this game from the blind onslaught of the mainstream, faux-outraged media.

But the deeper, more real and true issues the game raises deserve proper appraisal and criticism – especially from those who understand their implications. However, Niko’s status as an illegal immigrant is certainly not one of them.


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