05/06/2008 08:33 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Second Thug Life: Who's Afraid of GTA IV ?

My name is Niko Bellic.

I arrived in this country only a few weeks ago from my native Serbia, where I had recently wrapped up a stretch in prison following the Bosnian conflict -- a war I reluctantly fought in. I came here at the urging of my cousin Roman, who enticed me with promises of the "American Dream," yet since stepping off a freighter onto the shores of the sprawling urban landscape of Liberty City, I've found not the fresh start I was hoping for but rather an uninterrupted continuation of the life I wanted so desperately to escape. In my short time moving silently -- and sometimes not-so-silently -- beneath even the underbelly of Liberty City, I've found that America is like any other place in the world: The rich and powerful stay that way at the expense of the poor and helpless, and often the only way up is to shut yourself down and be willing to obliterate whoever and whatever gets in front of you. That's what I've done -- what I'm now doing. I've run drugs and guns for the underworld; assassinated the dangerously unhinged head of the Russian mob; been double-crossed by friends, associates, dirty cops and even my girlfriend -- a seemingly normal and thoroughly whip-smart 20-something who likes comfort food, shoots a hell of a game of pool and says I'm great in bed. I've been shot at, beaten-up and marked for death. I'll survive though, because I'm willing to do whatever it takes to stay alive, protect my interests and keep one step ahead in the game that everyone seems to be playing.

And if that means I have to take your car out from under you and put two rounds in your head while doing it -- so be it.

I am Niko Bellic.

While there are undoubtedly a whole lot of people out there who have no idea what I'm talking about, the sales figures dictate that there are at least a million or so of you who do -- a million little Nicko Bellics wreaking havoc on the streets of a million little Liberty Cities across the country. For the uninitiated however, I'll spell it out: Niko Bellic is the main character -- the role assumed by the player -- in Grand Theft Auto IV.

Whether you're an avid video gamer or not, it's impossible not to at least have heard of the GTA series in general and the latest installment in particular: XBOX 360 and Playstation 3 owners began falling all over themselves last Tuesday to get their hands on copies of the game, while at the same time, the usual suspects -- the humorless folk for whom GTA IV represents the latest step toward the complete meltdown of civilization as we know it -- began their cacophonous cries of foul. Late last week, Mayor Mike Bloomberg, having apparently solved every real problem in New York City, issued an official statement harshly condemning the one-man virtual crime wave of Niko Bellic, saying that it "teaches children to kill." That slightly surreal declaration followed a demand made to the video game ratings board by Mothers Against Drunk Driving; the group is insisting that the rating on GTA IV be changed from "Mature" (which is intended to keep the game out of the hands of kids) to "Adults Only" (which would essentially ban it altogether). It's probably only a matter of time before Robert Mueller puts Niko Bellic on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list and the U.S. Terror Threat Level is raised to blackwatch plaid.

If this all seems like far too much absurd fuss over a video game, believe me, it is. Critics of GTA IV make the argument that it isn't simply a game but something much more powerful. About this, they're right to some extent: Grand Theft Auto IV is quite honestly the most astonishing video game I've ever laid eyes on. It's more a 360 immersion experience than a third-person drive-and-shoot -- an entire virtual world so richly detailed that it leaves you giggling idiotically at how far these games have come since the days of Pong and Pac Man. I could try to explain the visceral thrill to be had just driving around exploring the vast cityscape that the designers at Rockstar Games have created, but you really do have to see it to believe it. Is the game violent? Yes, although how violent is really up to the player. Are there drugs, crime and sex? Yes, but once again, the player has more control over the progression of the game -- its storyline unfolding as a complex, non-linear web -- than you might expect. The most important question though, and the one that GTA IV's rabid detractors seem to either forget or ignore: Is the game for children? The answer, of course, is no.

Those currently crusading against Grand Theft Auto IV are operating under the dead weight of a paradigm that's long since past -- one which dictated that video games were strictly the domain of kids. They're not -- not anymore. At no point have the makers of the GTA series ever claimed that their products are meant for anyone but adult gamers. And while it would be naive to think that some kids won't get their hands on copies of GTA IV, it's a ridiculous forfeiture of adult rights to push for the banning of the game altogether for this reason. If you follow that logic, then we should reinstate Prohibition and trash any film with a rating above PG-13. It's an adult's prerogative to be entertained however he or she sees fit, provided no laws are broken -- I'm of course referring to real world laws -- and though I have no doubt that a troubled mind submerging itself in the world of Liberty City 24/7 could lead to legitimate danger, a little bit of common sense will go a long way for 99.9% of the XBOX Nation.

Please understand, I don't readily disregard the argument that pop culture bears a certain responsibility in the molding of young minds; while I think it's ludicrous to blame Marilyn Manson for Columbine, it's equally ludicrous to assume that even the most attentive parent can fully stem the constant onslaught of advertising, TV, the internet and so on. Pop culture is the wet nurse of today's youth. But once again, just because a clever kid can get his or her hands on something like GTA IV, that doesn't give anyone the right, while attempting to childproof the planet, to deprive adults of a form of entertainment intended expressly for them.

In the end, even though it's an extraordinary game -- it's still a video game we're talking about here.

Course, that new Audi A5 parked downstairs would be pretty easy to jack.

Isn't that what Niko Bellic would do?