When Gamers Assumed the Role of the Antihero

At Gamespot, an excerpt from David Kushner’s book Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto, which details the origin of the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Initially, designers devised a game where the player would assume the role of a police officer who had to obey traffic lights and avoid hitting pedestrians. Players found the gameplay boring. Everything changed when the designers decided to let the player assume the role of a bad guy:

One day a new build of Race ‘n’ Chase arrived for Sam and the others to try out. At first, it seemed the same. With the top-down perspective, the gamer felt as if he were hovering over a city in a balloon, looking down on gray and brown rooftops. Puffy green trees poked of out of green parks. Horns honked. Engines roared. When you tapped your forward arrow on the keyboard, you saw your unnamed character, a tiny guy in a yellow long-sleeved shirt, stride across the street.

With a few more taps of the arrow keys, you maneuvered the character toward a stubby green car with a shiny hood, then tapped the Enter key. That’s when it happened. The door flew open, and the driver–some other little dude in blue pants–came flying out of the car and landed on the pavement in a contorted pile. He got jacked. As you held down the forward arrow, the car careened forward, supple to the flick of the side arrows–left, right–with a satisfying vroooom. You headed toward a flickering traffic light. Why stop? This was a game, right? A game wasn’t life. A game takes you over, or you take over it, pushing it in ways you can’t for real.

So you drove through the light, squealing around a corner. As you took the turn too wide, you saw a little pedestrian in a white long-sleeved shirt and blue pants coming too close, but you couldn’t stop. Actually, you didn’t want to stop. So you just drove. Drove right into the ped–only to hear a satisfying splat, like a crushed grape with a wine-colored stain on the sidewalk, and the number “100” rising from the corpse. Score! This wasn’t the old Race ‘n’ Chase anymore.

The moment that DMA let players run over pedestrians–and be rewarded with points, no less–changed everything. Instead of cops and robbers, the game became robbers and cops. The object was to run missions for bad guys, such as jacking cars, the more the better. The leap was radical. In the short history of games, players had almost always been the hero, not the antihero. You were the heartsick plumber of Super Mario Bros., the intergalactic pilot of Defender, the glacial-paced explorer of Myst. One obscure arcade game from the 1970s, Death Race 2000, let players run over virtual ghosts, and it got banned. Nothing put you behind the wheel to wreak havoc like this. As Brian Baglow, a writer for DMA, said “You’re a criminal, so if you do something bad, you get a reward!”

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