In their attempt to create fire from smoke, it seems that the NSW Police and the mainstream media have apparently missed the point in their judgement of a Grand Theft Auto mod.
Late last week, NSW Police Minister Troy Grant appeared on 7 News to condemn what host Mark Ferguson described as “an online video game that allows the NSW Police officers to be shot, run-over and killed”. The report elaborated that the game in question, a “modified version of Grand Theft Auto”, features perverted scenarios where police are shown to be the perpetrators of violent crimes, as well as the victims of gruesome murders at the hands of players. Footage from the game accompanied the story, depicting virtual characters dressed in NSW Police garb, harassing, accosting and shooting innocent civilians, only to be then violently run over and killed by equally bloodthirsty rival players.
“The game that I’ve seen, where they’ve arrested somebody, and then shoot them – that doesn’t happen, that’s perverse,” Grant said. “There’s a fear that this desensitises people to the real risk the police face, and I find it offensive,” he added. The report then goes on to state that “the online world is virtually lawless – explicit games and their underground versions are easily available to people of any age to play.” An ambiguous promise that NSW Police plans to take action against the game’s designers rounds out the piece.
Given that we’re almost three months into 2017, I believed such reporting was behind us. Firstly, let’s touch on the facts that were reported correctly. Yes, the featured “game” is a “mod” (a modification for a video game that is crafted unofficially by the public). Yes, this mod features painstaking recreations of the NSW Police Force, and injects them into the widely acclaimed video game Grand Theft Auto V.
The Grand Theft Auto franchise has suffered its fair share of misrepresentation in the press, and the series of mature-content video games have repeatedly been denounced and stigmatised as a harmful influence by detractors. The violent, darkly-comic tone of the series has been decried as socially irresponsible, a judgement which flies in stark contrast to the experience of anyone who has actually sampled the games of the series, who know them to be richly detailed, expertly crafted satires of mainstream consumer culture (although certainly aimed at adult audiences). The GTA games themselves are some of the best of the medium, but like all interactive experiences, the scope of possibility is often limited to the imagination of the player. This game does grant players the option to participate in glorious escapades of ultra-violence, provided they are able to survive and out-match the ever-mounting law enforcement presence that continually surges in hostility to match the player’s crimes. And this is where the LSPDFR mod comes in.
The ultimate cause of the confusion surrounding the LSPDFR mod pertains to one of the oldest misunderstandings concerning video games: developer intent vs player execution.
In contrast to the image of lawless “computer geeks” painted by the mainstream media, the developers of LSPDFR (Los Santos Police Department First Response, referring to the in-game GTA V police department) have designed their mod with one purpose in mind: to exist as a police force simulator. Far from the murderous anarchists depicted in the report, supporters of the years-old mod are actually law enforcement enthusiasts. LSPDFR devs are seeking to expand upon the game’s original design (one that sees you planted firmly in the role of a criminal) by granting players the ability to bring order to the chaotic streets of fictional Los Santos. The mod allows interested players the chance to act out realistic police scenarios (ranging from routine traffic stops to dangerous car chases) and even encourages players to practice genuine police protocol in solving problems. In fact, the mod (or at least its ancestor) precedes GTA V itself, a fact made amusingly obvious to keen-eyed fans of the series, since the news report actually features footage from the game’s predecessor, GTA IV, released back in 2008.
Fans of LSPDFR are quick to clarify their purpose and intent for the mod. A member of the Emergency Australia mod community reported to online news outlet Kotaku Australia that the mod was the result of the combined work of over thirty artists and designers:
“It’s a harmless mod designed for those enthusiastic about emergency services based in Australia who would like to roleplay it out as officers, firefighters and medical personnel performing good deeds… Over the years individual police officers have actually helped with the mod getting to where it is by showing support and providing reference pictures and encouraging the creation of the mod because they supported the harmless effects that it has… It inspired kids to think of a career in the emergency services field. It put emergency services members in a positive light and gave kids somewhat an insight into our emergency services and encourage and inspired them to want to join them when they were older.”
Later, the actual developers of the LSPDFR mod issued a statement concerning Channel 7’s story:
“Over the past couple of days, we’ve noticed a flurry of activity on LSPDFR, seemingly sparked by some media coverage in Australia. The initial story, run by Channel 7 News was that our modification for GTA V, LSPD First Response, was being used by “underground geeks” to simulate the killing of Australian police officers. This is simply a gross misrepresentation of what we, as software developers, and our users, as passionate members of a diverse and overwhelmingly pro-law enforcement community, stand for. In reality, LSPDFR is a mode which allows you to play as a police officer within the game – players can make arrests, pull over speeding vehicles and respond to emergency situations. Indeed, if there’s any story here, it’s the story of how LSPDFR has actually empowered law enforcement, by playing host to tens of thousands of young people, from across the world, who would rather play as the good guys than the bad guys.”
The ultimate cause of the confusion surrounding the LSPDFR mod pertains to one of the oldest misunderstandings concerning video games: developer intent vs player execution. Virtually all video games allow the player a certain level of freedom to “mess about”. Very rarely is a player required to obey the rules of a game in order to merely play it. Granted, rarely will a player be able to progress in a game without obeying its rules, but almost every game will grant players the ability to wander aimlessly or perform meaningless actions. They are, after all, virtual environments, and time-wasting can exist in any dimension. When it comes to the genre of games classified as “open world” (a genre in which the GTA games take centre-stage and in which the player is granted relative freedom to do nearly whatever she or he chooses inside a virtual ecosystem), this freedom to “mess about” often extends to the ability to wreak havoc upon the game’s digital populace. In short, like any video game, players of the LSPDFR mod can choose to ignore the intent of the developers, and simply go berserk. Such is the nature of an open-world game, and such is the fancy of a certain portion of the gaming population that occasionally enjoys ignoring the rules. It was behaviour like this that was featured in Channel 7’s accompanying video footage and, ironically, this behaviour clearly flies in the face of the original intent of the mod’s developers.
Ultimately, the minor controversy surrounding the LSPDFR mod is a microcosm of the traditional controversy that the GTA games have been suffering since the birth of the series. Troy Grant’s response is a generalisation, in my opinion retrogressive one which I feel is entirely off the mark. Like any video game, players in GTA can break the rules. Sometimes, that extends to their ability to modify the rules themselves to suit their tastes. Regardless, all gamers are merely searching for an opportunity to dabble in escapist entertainment. In the case of the LSPDFR mod, typical players are looking for an even more engrossing experience: one where they make a diligent and enthusiastic effort to simulate the role of law enforcement – not mock or defy it.