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A Few Good Men

With great power comes great responsibility

November 14, 2008

Video games are not the medium most conducive to probing moral dilemmas. Slaying the undead? Sure. Leading the beleaguered Mets to the World Series? Why not. But pondering the meaning of life, the virtue of compassion, or the quality of mercy? For that, you’re probably better off listening to NPR.

Imagine, then, my surprise when, playing a video game earlier this year, I found myself having to make a difficult moral choice, the sort of conundrum often contemplated by characters played by Meryl Streep.

There I was, atop a building in Liberty City, the thinly veiled version of New York in the hit game “Grand Theft Auto IV,” with a gun in hand”or rather in the hand of Niko Bellic, the game’s surly Slavic protagonist. Niko and I had just out-chased another character, a petty gangster we were sent to assassinate. But the man did not behave like most video game villains do: instead of perishing wordlessly, he begged for his life. Spare me, he told Niko, and you won’t regret it.

For all the game’s endearing qualities, this bit of human drama”there are several like them sprinkled throughout the game’s narrative”was a revelation. Working in a medium as deeply enamored with mindless violence as video games, the designers of “Grand Theft Auto IV” have nonetheless arrived at that most profound of human realizations: power is never without its limits.

If he attended Sunday school in his war-torn, imaginary Balkan homeland, Niko Bellic might have learned that very lesson from this week’s parasha. After all, it’s all about Sodom, a town even more wicked than the gray and grimy Liberty City, and features the kind of wanton sex and mayhem the players of the “Grand Theft Auto” series have come to know and love.

But hovering above the portion’s carnival of carnality”featuring, for example, Lot pleading with an angry mob to violate his virgin daughters rather than, well, sodomize the two angels who had taken shelter in his home”is God.

Now, for video game players, “God” is a loaded word. Cheaters all, we very often punch some buttons in a certain sequence and observe giddily as our characters are allowed into so-called God Mode, in which we’re endowed with unfailing health and unlimited ammunition. And it was in such a state of digital divinity that I guided Niko, armed to the teeth and virtually invincible, to the rooftop encounter with his pleading foe. As the man groveled, my mind wandered far away from Liberty City and toward the Cities of the Plain.

In Sodom, we find God in an ambivalent mood. Even as he prepares for the town’s total annihilation, God takes the time to listen to Abraham make the case for pardoning the city were 50 righteous Sodomites to be found. Convinced, God agrees that 50 men is reason enough to suspend his smiting, and Abraham, well aware that 50 virtuous dudes were much more than anyone could expect to find in the Bible’s most notorious town, begins his bargaining. Perhaps, he asks the Lord, you would still spare the city if only 45 were found? God consents, and Abraham, like an American tourist in a Mediterranean bazaar, haggles on: Thirty? Twenty? Ten?

This, I realized, is what God Mode truly means. It is not, as in video games, a state of omnipotence, but quite its opposite: true godliness calls not on absolute power but on the capacity for mercy, not on unfettered access to bigger and better weapons but on the willingness to grant absolution to the multitudes on account of the purity of the few. It depends, in other words, on realizing that power would get you only so far.

So great is his grace, that God thinks nothing of discussing his agenda with a mere mortal. Rather than interpreting his role as the great decider in the sky, he is tolerant and temperate, realizing that prior to wiping an entire city off the face of the earth, even he must think carefully of the consequences and must, whenever possible, favor forgiveness over fiery justice.

And if thus does God, so must man. I pressed the button that instructed Niko to withdraw his weapon. The blandishing bandit had to be spared. As Niko got back in his souped-up sports car”another of God Mode’s perks”and as power rock ballads blasted on the car’s stereo, I felt an eerie peace descend on me. Like Lot, Sodom’s one righteous man, I drove away and never looked back.
Liel Leibovitz is the author, most recently, of Lili Marlene: The Soliders’ Song of World War II. To put it mildly, he lacks the temperament for the rabbinate.