How Niko’s intrusive phone grounds Grand Theft Auto IV in the modern world


Anyone who makes the erroneous claim that videogames are all about ‘escapism’ probably hasn’t powered on their game console in several years. We’re always online now, our activities broadcast to whoever cares to look. The theory is that we want to be social, that we’re entirely happy with being reachable no matter where we are or what we’re doing. Why else would we carry mobile phones with us at all times?

When players expressed outrage that Niko was constantly being called by his friends in Grand Theft Auto IV, that he seemed unable to escape a constant barrage of requests to compete in minigames and scope out several pairs of ‘beeeeg Emerican teeeettees,’ it was, in part, a declaration of their frustrations with the modern world. The increased social awareness of our gameplay has gone hand in hand with a loss of privacy in our lives. Niko’s phone, and the inundation of calls he receives from his friends and business contacts, remind us of how much our personal spaces have truly eroded.

Indeed, Niko’s phone is all about the divide between personal and public space. It’s rare in the pantheon of videogame objects in that it serves three different functions and appears in three different ways: it exists within the world, serving the fiction; it exists within the HUD, providing realtime information; and it exists as part of the UI as a method of choosing options. Just what is Niko seeing, you wonder, as you’re scrolling through the game’s multiplayer settings? The screen is a contested space in GTAIV – there’s no clear way for Niko to comprehend his exact ammo count, nor see the GPS available to the player at all times – and yet the phone appears both onscreen and in Niko’s hand at the same time once you press the button to pull it out.

When you enter into a multiplayer game, the phone becomes a communication tool, used for contacting other players. It’s an obvious yet clever gameplay device, but it’s also a way for the game to signify that Niko’s phone is, in part, the player’s phone. It’s telling that it’s used in a way that alters the privacy of your space into the shared space of multiplayer, moving you into the kind of shared environment of disembodied voices that tends to make players acutely aware of their surroundings.

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