The latest update to Grand Theft Auto Online – “High Life” brings with it a new gun, new cars and other tweaks… but also something more significant: A plan to bring peace to Los Santos.
In the 17th Century, the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes wrote pessimistically about the so-called “state of nature” – how he believed humans behaved without anything to constrain them. “The condition of man… is a condition of war against everyone”, he wrote.
This might sound a little familiar if you’ve ever taken a drive around the streets of Los Santos in GTA Online. It’s every man for himself, it’s dog-eat-dog, kill-or-be-killed and a number of other hackneyed cliches. If you encounter another player, you have to be quick to draw your weapon, or you’re going to die. It’s like the Old West in… umm… The Old West (Los Santos is supposed to be an analogue for California). Can anything be done to bring order to this chaos?
Hobbes came up with the idea of a “Leviathan” – a word he used to describe how order could come from chaos: if there is an actor in a system with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force and the ability to exercise this power, then they could bring peace. In other words he conceptualised the idea of the state in providing security: People wouldn’t have to fight each other, or assume the worst of each other, because they had all entered into a “social contract”, by which they would obey the state’s rules, and in return, that state would provide security.
And it is this which GTA Online lacked. Though the game has “rules”, these are like the laws of physics – “if you drive a car into a wall, it will crash” and so on – there’s no ‘law’ in the game that can be broken – it was not stated that doing a certain action is against the rules, but which the players can choose to break if they wish.
Brilliantly though, what Rockstar have managed to do with the latest update is invent a social contract.
In fact, Rockstar have managed to go one better than Hobbes. In lieu of a state and an effective police force to enforce voluntary laws, their social contract is simple: If you go running around shooting people and crashing cars, your in-game “mental state” indicator will turn red. If you choose instead to play nice – it will tend towards white.
These indicators are a big deal, as for the first time it will give other players an insight into how other players on the map are likely to behave. If you’re approaching someone who’s temperament is red, then approach with caution, and a loaded gun. If their indicator is white… then you might just be able to peacefully live side-by-side.
The way it will work is that if you kill “red” people, then your mental state is not affected – if you kill peaceful people, you’ll find yourself quickly turning red. In fact, lawfulness is incentivised by the game offering increased RP (experience points) if you take out the misbehaving players – so if the peaceful players team up to take out the ones who misbehave, they will be rewarded.
In other words, if you play by the rules of the Rockstar social contract, the Leviathan that is GTA Online’s servers will provide with more security, by telling others that you’re not a threat, and by warning you if other people are.
So will this bold experiment work? Can Rockstar use a little Hobbes to bring peace to Los Santos? Will this new “mental state” system work? To paraphrase Hobbes on his deathbed, GTA Online is about to take a voyage. A leap in the dark.
By James O'Malley | May 14th, 2014