And having played it for a few hours, as a follower of Jesus Christ I would like to recommend that my mature brethren in the Christian faith (both spiritually and those who are not teenagers anymore, parse that as you will) play Grand Theft Auto IV as well. And not to gleefully look for reasons to condemn the game either.
Because I think that a lot of people who play Grand Theft Auto IV are going to end up condemning their own sense of self-righteousness instead. And I can't say that it would be a bad thing at all if they did.
Grand Theft Auto IV, whether by design or not, might be the closest thing there's been to an actual "Giant's Drink". In the classic science-fiction novel Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, the child Ender Wiggin is given a computer simulation called "the Giant's Drink" as part of his battle training. Nobody is supposed to beat the giant. The whole point of the exercise is to test a student's morality. After countless times of getting killed in the game Ender finally tears loose from the constraints of his scruples and murders the giant in grisly fashion. He becomes the first student to defeat the giant but instead of elation he feels disgusted with himself and abject shame. Ender doesn't like the fact that in order to save his own life he had to kill another... even if it was just a computer game. He "wins" the game, but he finds himself crushed for violating his own principles.
It only took a few hours of playing Grand Theft Auto IV to finally understand what Ender went through after beating the Giant's Drink. And I don't know if I would have fared as well as Ender did either. Because every time I accidentally hit a pedestrian in Grand Theft Auto IV, I have to stop and re-start from my last saved game, and attempt it all over again from there. Because you can do lots of things in Grand Theft Auto IV: Drive cars, shoot guns, make calls on a cellphone, change radio stations or watch television, even eat food... but saying "I'm sorry" is not one of them.
And I'm feeling so bad about the people that I inadvertently hurt in this game, that I feel compelled to go back and try it again, and try to do it right this time, without the wrongfulness of my actions being something that weighs on my mind. If only real life could afford that kind of opportunity...
The technology of Grand Theft Auto IV at last drives the nail into the coffin for the clean kill in video games. This isn't the "twinkle and they're gone" effects of bygone days. When you hit an innocent person in Grand Theft Auto IV, and you hear their realistic cries of pain and you see them grimace in agony and trying to nurse their injuries as they limp away, it becomes a very hard thing indeed to want to have to experience that again. It's even worse when you run over a person and they don't get up again. Ever.
I bought this game expecting something like Death Race 2000. You know: over-the-top cartoony pseudo-violence. Instead Grand Theft Auto IV's graphic ultra-realism completely horrified me. Intellectually, I know that Liberty City doesn't exist. But the depiction of this world and its denizens is so convincing, that it's almost impossible to completely disassociate myself from having empathy for these people.
I don't know if God will ever judge me for an action that I take in a video game. And that's why I think that Grand Theft Auto IV might do a lot more good than harm for many of my fellow Christians. Make no mistake: the world of Grand Theft Auto IV is a lawless one where malicious behavior runs rampant. But the real world is no less vulgar and cruel, and rife with temptation.
But it's not the temptation itself that is sinful. Even Jesus was tempted in the wilderness by no less than Lucifer himself. It's whether we choose to succumb to the temptation that makes a sinful act.
Here, with Grand Theft Auto IV, you can at last confront the evil world like never before... and be confronted by it in turn. Without fear of eternal consequence: the ultimate exponent of the lure of temptation.
In Liberty City, there is no "Christian counter-culture" to run and hide behind. Not that you should try to hide either. It's just you and whatever conscience you can claim to bring, set loose in a world that will destroy you if you're not strong enough in your convictions and your faith. In short, it's exactly the kind of bold life that the Bible instructs us as believers to live in the real world. It's just too bad that it takes a video game to demonstrate that. Maybe Rockstar Games and Take-Two Interactive should have been given the rights for what became the disastrous Left Behind: Eternal Forces game instead, but I digress...
So if you are someone who considers himself (or herself, no chauvinists we!) a righteous Christian, consider this a test of your character. Either buy Grand Theft Auto IV or rent it or borrow it from a friend. Don't just merely play Grand Theft Auto IV: immerse yourself completely in the character of Niko Bellic. Let your own raw morality become his own.
Just know this: here, in the game, there are no everlasting consequences. You can be as sinful as you wish, and you won't be condemned by your peers. You can steal cars, beat up defenseless people, commit vehicular homicide, and brutally murder your enemies without turning the other cheek. You can supposedly even pay prostitutes for sex. And then kill them in order to get your money back, if the fancy strikes you.
All of these things and more, you can do in Grand Theft Auto IV.
The question is: Will you choose to do them if given the chance, if you knew for certain that there would be no real-world ramifications of your actions?
I have to wonder also: there are a lot of people in America who cheer for the war in Iraq, or even war in general. Too many of those are professing Christians. They cheer for war, I've little doubt, because they themselves have never had to face meaningless death. Deaths in a foreign land are just a statistic to them, and if "one of our own" is hurt or killed then all too often I only hear something about "prayers for the family".
These people don't see past their own lives. They don't bother to realize that God has blessed others with life too, deserving of as much opportunity to seek Him out as anyone else. To such people, a reasonless war in a foreign land is like a video game. And they don't particularly care to understand that those killed in the real world are neither a high score or flickering sprites that quickly vanish when shot.
Could a game like Grand Theft Auto IV actually soften the hearts of people who have such callous disregard for the sanctity of human life?
If there's the slightest possibility of a game like Grand Theft Auto IV driving it into these people's heads that the lives of others are precious and worth fighting for, even at the cost of laying down our own if need be, then all I can say is that I hope that Rockstar Games has many more Grand Theft Autos on the drawing board... because this world sure as hell needs 'em.