I am one of those (very few, I imagine) gamers whose gaming repertoire hasn’t seen much of the GTA (or Grand Theft Auto) series in it. GTA, for the uninitiated, is a game about gang wars, drugs, guns and fast cars. For the regular GTA buff, even those who aren’t high on tablets or coke, the game is soma. Drive around New York (Liberty City in the game) or Los Angeles (called San Andreas) and kick ass. GTA does seem to have an endless flair for attracting controversy – whether it is for portraying in-game sex, containing heavy duty violence and gore, valourising crime and showing issues connected to substance abuse. I’m not a squeamish player and although I do not particularly fancy GTA , I’ve completed a reasonable section of San Andreas. While I have been mulling over whether to install GTA IV on my pc for the past two years, my interest in GTA as a phenomenon hasn’t really disappeared. So I was reading this book on the game: Jacked. That is where I discovered ‘Gouranga.’
Gouranga, says the author David Kushner, means ‘Be Happy’. As far as I know with my little knowledge of all things Hindu, Gouranga or ‘the fair-skinned one’ is another name of Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, a sixteenth century reformer of the Hinduism who belonged to the Vaishnava sect. Members of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON) popularly known as the ‘Hare Krishnas’ use the word as a slogan for peaceful coexistence and happiness. A quick Google search, of course, never ceases to surprise. A Lucy Norcliffe has posted this rather inventive explanation on the Guardian forum:
The word 'Gouranga' can be traced back to the early Victorian settlement of Saltburn, on the North East Coast line. It is said to originate from the 'code phrase' that the famous smuggler and vagabond, Oliver Kitson used when arranging meeting points for his booty to be transported. Today, this phrase lives on as people daub bridges with Kitson's phrase 'Gouranga!'
However, the Lucy Norcliffes apart, although most people the world over might not know what the word exactly means, many know of its Hare Krishna connection. Many also know of its GTA connection. On the same forum as Ms Norcliffe, someone else points out that ‘[i]n the infamous-at-the-time computer game Grand Theft Auto the award for successfully running down an entire group of Krishna followers was known as the 'Gouranga bonus'. Kushner describes Gouranga in GTA as follows:
The inspiration came from his own real-life travels. Whenever he passed through London airport, he always got hassled by Hare Krishnas, urging him to be happy. "Gouranga!" they'd say, a Sanskrit expression of good fortune. Baglow hated it. Then a lightbulb went off over his head.
Back at BMG, a new build of the game arrived. King slipped it into his PC and began to play. As he tore down the road, he could see a line of small orange-robed figures moving down the street. The closer he came, the louder he could hear them chanting and drumming. Holding down his forward arrow, he careened toward them, plowing down each one as a point score floated up above them. As he smashed the last one, a bonus word flashed onscreen: "Gouranga!"
"Dude!" King exclaimed, "I'm running over Hare Krishnas!"
In GTA: Vice City, the word ‘Gouranga’ unlocks the cheat mode. Gouranga! Very loosely interpreted as the bliss of unlocking all the cheats in the game. Incidentally, a Youtube search for ‘Gouranga’ gives you this: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dZe9M6DD-wI. You can watch the blue car (the player) run over six tiny pixelated orange figures and some people clearly love it as the comments below the video tell you. Some people find it ‘hilarious’. You run over peaceful characters chanting a religious mantra and looking different in their orange dresses. Gouranga!
The point I am trying to make? Am I to laugh at the hilariousness of the ‘Gouranga’ episodes, or am I to feel uncomfortable and play on – after all it’s just a game! So how do I respond ethically?
A while ago, I wrote an article on ethics in videogames and even earlier, one on violence in videogames. In both, I spoke of having an open mind. I spoke of morality versus ethics and instead of defining good and bad within a moral system, I preferred Spinoza’s ethics, I said, ‘Even though the moral systems may seem to be based on binarisms such as good-evil, human-inhuman and right-wrong, these categories often collapse and give rise to complex possibilities that are characterised by ambiguity.’ Morality is characterised by transcendent values whereas Ethics is the typology of immanent modes of existence. Ethics exists as an immanent relationship based on the continuous relations between different actions. Good and bad, for Spinoza, have a primary objective meaning and also one that is relative and partial. Expounding Spinoza’s immanent ethics, Gilles Deleuze states that ‘the good is when a body directly compounds its relation with ours, and with all or part of its power, increase ours’ and the bad is what when it combines ‘decomposes our body’s relation [...] as when a poison breaks down our blood’. For Spinoza, the act itself is not bad or good; it is the relationship between the act and what it does to the environment that constitutes badness or goodness. Badness or goodness are not tied to the essence of a particular person or a particular act but rather to the person at a particular moment and place. I referred to Spinoza’s famous responses to the querulous grain merchant Blyenbergh’s letters about the nature of evil to come up with the following formulation for videogame ethics:
The player can only choose within the extent of his or her capability within the game system. According to the framework of immanent ethics, the mode of the game in relation to the mode of the player-subject will form the basis of evaluating his or her actions. If the player’s decision creates relationships that compound his or her power in the game as well as that of other elements in the game, or if it increases the potential for action, then it is ethically a good choice. Anything that breaks down or destroys relationships and diminishes the potential for action will be an ethically bad choice. The ethical description of the choice will obviously depend on the situations of the game and the player at that particular moment of choice.
I had written this to comment on the infamous ‘No Russian’ level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 where you infiltrate the Russian mafia and get involved (unwillingly) in an operation where people are gunned down in a Moscow airport. It is a gruesome scenario where you are expected to shoot harmless people who were reading their newspapers or complaining about delayed flights. When you leave the scene it is a bloodbath. The game lets you skip the level by warning you that what follows might be disturbing for you. Of course, you can also choose not to fire any bullet and remain a silent witness to the crime. I tried to shoot one of the bad guys (my teammates in this level) and the others killed me immediately and the game ended. The ‘No Russian’ level, I had argued, wasn’t immoral. This is a risky comment but one that allows for a context-dependent judgment. The role of the player is limited and at the same time it puts one in the position of the people who commit such acts. Could you ever do this? Do you not feel your hands shaking and the trauma of such an action? In Spinozist terms, the action is bad because it decomposes the relationship between one’s idea of peace and sustenance of life when one kills so many people indiscriminately albeit in a game; on the other hand, for some people (and dependent on the situation) the action can recreate a real life trauma and problem so that they can better understand the value of the sustenance of life and of peace. I felt traumatised when I played this level and maybe the designers wanted me to be. I had lost a few people I had known in a similar massacre in Bombay. Wonder what the people who were the killers in Bombay would have made of the ‘No Russian’ level! In Spinozist terms, even if they considered themselves morally correct (as per their systems of morality), they would still be ethically bad because of the decomposition of relationships and life – these scenes in a film or a game might act as a heightened warning but real life mass murder itself does not have a constructive angle.
Anyway, so when we run over the tiny Hare Krishna figures and the game exults with us saying ‘Gouranga’ what are we to make of the scenario in terms of ethics? The sentences ‘Whenever he passed through London airport, he always got hassled by Hare Krishnas, urging him to be happy. "Gouranga!" they'd say, a Sanskrit expression of good fortune. Baglow hated it[…]’ are interesting. So if I hate their chanting should I run those people over ? I was playing yet another Rockstar game yesterday, Max Payne 3 (not their original franchise, I agree), and as Max Payne, I was in a nightclub complaining about the techno music. So should I have shot the people around me and blasted the high power speakers with my double berretta pistols? The game would have ended and anyway it was unnecessary violence in terms of a game where otherwise violence is the norm and you kill over 30 bad guys in two minutes on an average. In terms of immanent ethics, I would be breaking down the relationship between myself, my actions and the surroundings but there would be no constructive corresponding result. For example, I tell a lie to save a person’s life – I have done something very bad but ethically I win as the good offsets the bad by sustaining someone’s life and peace. I tell a lie and get people killed because they trust me and there is nothing that supports the life-forces in my action.
In the instance of the ‘Gouranga’ event (I prefer this phrase), running over the orange-pixel ISKCON monks is unnecessary in game terms. I mean this is not even you being clumsy and driving over pixel pedestrians. It is you wilfully destroying / decomposing (to use the Spinozist term) the forces of life and their relationship to you and there is no positive build-up of these forces in any other sense. This kind of action, Spinoza says to Blyenbergh, is characterized by badness. What I object to this otherwise almost forgotten game event is that it celebrates the destruction of a certain community although this does not contribute in developing our very precious human relations in any way. My problem is not with the killing: I have killed more realistic-looking pixel figures in videogames than I can bother to count. I do not think videogames make us violent (pace research this way or that); they make us more acutely aware of the trauma of violence so much so that people might want to eschew it. My problem is with the blasé shout, ‘Gouranga’ to signal eternal bliss after killing those people who were shouting the same thing but to foster peace and life. Yes, it is virtual and little pixels that we destroyed but they stood for people and peace. The problem according to Spinoza would still be one of badness. Let the reader/ player decide when to say ‘Gouranga!’
(Disclaimer: The author does not have any link with the Hare Krishna movement or with Rockstar and although he does happen to live about 120 kilometres from Mayapur, the ISKCON headquarters, he is not much of a visitor to religious places. He also happens to be a strict non-vegetarian and has not yet thought out the Spinozist implications of this; the Hare Krishnas , of course, strongly disapprove of eating meat. )
'Literature is a combinatorial game that pursues the possibilities implicit in its own material [...] but it is a game that at a certain point is invested with an unexpected meaning' - Italo Calvino