Understanding The Carjacker: What a Privileged Player Learned From GTA

“If Niko is a stereotype of a Slavic thug, I am stereotypically opposite.”

Written by Jordan Ekeroth / Published on March 21, 2012

In the 1957 film Funny Face, Audrey Hepburn plays a demure bookseller who is turned, against her wishes, into a supermodel. She only signs the contract because her job would take her to Paris, where she has always wanted to go to meet her idol: the philosopher who founded the “Empathicalism” school of thought.

Empathicalism seems to have one main tenet, that the world would be a better place if people would be more understanding of the feelings of those around them. If you can feel what someone feels, the logic goes, you’ll be more interested in loving them than judging them.

That makes sense to me. Jesus taught that the greatest command, after loving God, was to love your neighbor as you love yourself. We even have that golden rule, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Of course that’s far easier said than done, because while it’s not difficult to intellectually agree with a proposition like that, living it out is another story. That’s the problem that I run into. I can make all the claims I want about being a follower of the most compassionate, gracious, and merciful person who ever walked the earth, but what I say doesn’t really matter if I find myself frustrated and judgemental, getting irritated at the slightest provocation, and despising a person because of their bad choices. So what can I do to remedy this disparity?

The simple solution, as the old saying goes, is to “walk a mile in their shoes.” That’s why I decided to buy Grand Theft Auto 4 a few months ago. I certainly wasn’t interested in vicariously experiencing a life of crime, drugs, sex, alcohol, and general mayhem just for the fun of it. I wanted to see firsthand what exactly made it the highest critically-rated game of all time.

I found the story of a man named Niko Bellic, an immigrant from the eastern bloc, just off the boat; fleeing his troubled past. His past catches up with him quickly, and it’s not long before he’s drawn back into a life of crime; perpetrating violence against whoever stands in his way.

Meanwhile there’s me, playing the game. And if Niko is a stereotype of a Slavic thug, I am stereotypically opposite. I was born into a Christian family. I have led a comfortable middle-class life. Hello, I am white. I was sheltered too, much to my teenage chagrin. Had I ever wanted to try any non-prescription drugs, I wouldn’t have known where to get them. I certainly was interested in sex, but sex wasn’t interested in me. As far as violence goes, as a child growing up, I was punished with time-out in the corner if I ever fought with my siblings. I had my wings trimmed and my claws clipped from an early age.

I know there’s a centuries old debate over how much a person’s environment determines the course of their life, (nature vs. nurture), but I can undoubtedly say that were it not for the love and patience of my parents and the safe environment they created around me as I grew up, I might have led a very different life.

I (Jordan) am playing a game. When Niko got off the boat I had resolved to actually role-play through this game. Niko had a new lease on life and wanted to fit in as he got to know this new country. He delighted in strolling down the street at a leisurely pace. He calmly waited for a light to turn green, looking around and marvelling how much life was to be found in the world around him. He didn’t steal cars. He didn’t want to hurt anyone.

Compromise is slow and sure. The slope is only a little bit slippery when you’re starting down it. Niko is not me, but I am becoming him, and we are uncomfortable, but only at first. We only kill when something important is at stake, like our cousin’s life, or his business, or our reputation, or because we were paid to, or because we were asked to, or maybe just because someone got in our way. We won’t steal cars either, unless it’s an emergency, or a job, or ours has been destroyed, or perhaps just because that one over there looks like it handles a lot better than this piece of junk we’re driving right now.

I (Niko) don’t really care anymore. I tried to leave this all behind, but here it is again. It’s not just a matter of the past catching up with me, it’s just that the present, this present world, is broken.

Could Niko have led a different life? As I wandered the vast concrete jungle of liberty city (Through and through a dark parody of the excesses of our modern misinterpretation of the “American Dream”), I stumbled into an Internet cafe. Checking my email I noticed that my mother Milica had tried to get in touch with me from back home. After skimming the formalities, I saw a glimpse of a true mother’s heart. “I know life has not always easy for you, Niko. I know you had many trouble, and I know you have done many bad things, but please know that I am mother, your mother, and I do not judge you. I judge the world for making you so, you who has so much to give people, who is man of principle, who always tried to live the correct way.

I can’t say I truly recommend this game to anyone. It made me uncomfortable. But in my discomfort there was growth. More importantly, in my discomfort there was empathy, because Niko was uncomfortable too. I realized that we weren’t so different, we just took different paths. Niko did terrible things, but I did them too. I can no longer judge him and others like him. So who is to blame?

Perhaps, like Niko’s mother, I might judge the world. I might judge it and find it wanting. I might judge it and find it broken. I might judge it’s brokenness and find it in need of restoration.

Maybe, if I cared enough, I might pray that I could be a small part of that restoration.

About the Author:

Jordan Ekeroth has the crippling inability to say anything more than what he thinks he means. Follow him on Twitter: @JordanEkeroth