GTA Online adds “Mental State” stat to police the un-policeable

Since its launch, the online portion of Grand Theft Auto V has been plagued by bugs and complaints. With each new free update, Rockstar games has tried to fix old problems while introducing enough new content to keep players interested.

Today saw the release of a new update called “The High Life.” The update adds all the usual superficial flavouring players you would expect in the form of a few new cars, new clothing, a new weapon, etc. Players are also now permitted to own two distinct properties, a feature that gamers who long ago filled their existing 10-car garages to capacity have been begging for for some time.

All the obvious complaints are popping up: “It’s still glitchy,” or “We wanted the apartments to be customizable,” or “The new cars aren’t fast enough,” but for the most part, people seem content with the new toys.

Drawing far more attention, however the addition of the new “Mental State” statistic to the game.

When GTA Online first launched, players were told that if they behaved badly, they would be labelled “bad sports” and forced for a time to play only with other bad sports.

What qualifies as bad sportsmanship in a game thats core gameplay consists of theft and murder? According to the game’s developers, destroying someone else’s car. This meant that, while you could shoot each other in the face and steal from each other to your heart’s content, if you happened to destroy someone else’s vehicle, you ran the risk of being banished to the bad-sport servers with all the other delinquents.

Mental State is the latest attempt of the game’s developers to impose some sort of strange morality on an an immoral world.

The online description of the new stat says that it is meant to allow players to tell each other apart based on how violent and erratic their behaviour is. Believe it or not, many people are happy to roam the world and interact with other players without murdering them, and these players will now be identified with a white blip on the radar. Players who habitually cause chaos by attacking anything that moves will be identified by a bright red blip.

On the surface, this identification system seems ideal. When I first started playing, I tended to avoid killing other players until they attacked me. After being gunned down one too many times, I adopted the practice of pre-emptively killing anyone who came near me. In theory, this new stat would allow me to go back to my semi-pacifist ways, opening fire on red blips and letting the white ones be.

But of course it isn’t that simple. While the exact rules regarding Mental State are still fairly difficult to discern, several problems are already rearing their head. To begin with, blowing up non-player cars, robbing armoured trucks, and even accidentally running over NPC pedestrians all cause your Mental State to rise and redden your blip. This is an odd choice on the part of the developers given that the stat was marketed as a way to identify players who were hostile to other players. Now you could appear hostile without ever killing another player.

This would only be a minor quibble if not for the most problematic of the new stat’s features: players receive a point bonus for hunting down and killing players with an aggressive mental state. This means that having a red blip not only identifies you as a prick, it also puts a bounty on your head.

The result — if an hour of play this morning is any indication — is that players who have always been violent continue to do so without pause, while those who wish to be more peaceful are afraid to retaliate, especially given that even killing a player who is trying to kill you will turn your blip a shade redder.

I’m not complaining. After all, it’s just a silly game that I shouldn’t really be wasting my time on. The plight of the developers is an interesting one, though, and one I intend on following. On the one side, they have to contend with complaints from the more chaotic players, to whom any attempt to regulate their behaviour is a violation. On the other side, they have players who want a rich, immersive experience that doesn’t always boil down to a straight-up shooting match.
Obviously the game’s developers are not concerned with morality in a simulated world. Their first and only concern is money. They want people to buy the game and play it. Interestingly enough, though, this purely economic concern depends exclusively on customer satisfaction, and the two main demographics within their customer base, good sports and bad sports, want very different things.

Reading the online comments on the Rockstar homepage, it almost seems as if two political parties from opposite ends of some weird new spectrum are butting heads, and it won’t be an easy job keeping them both happy. How do you police a game when its selling point is immorality and chaos?

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