Screenshot: The art and politics of Grand Theft Auto

As usual, there has been much discussion of Grand Theft Auto’s politics, in particular its attitude toward violence and its misogyny. — photo by Rachel Jessen

The highly (and happily) controversial series Grand Theft Auto (GTA) just expanded on Sept. 17 with GTA V for the XBox 360 and Playstation 3. The number V, as with the nominal before the decimal in a software program, is meant to indicate some essential changes in the way the game functions. For gamers with lingering disappointment over GTA IV (2008), the decision to re-number the series without waiting for the next generation of consoles also indicates developer Rockstar’s promise to atone for IV’s perceived sins—its more serious storyline and pared-down gameplay options (no more parachutes!).

The new game brings back the parachutes, the planes and the setting from the series’ crowning achievement, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004), while introducing a novel new form of gameplay: three playable characters whom the player can switch between at will. As in every game in the series since GTA III (2001), the game takes place in as large and detailed an environment as is imaginable on current consoles, and allows the user to strike his or her own balance between exploring (or exploding, as it were) this environment and participating in the narrative.

As usual, there has been much discussion of the game’s politics, in particular its attitude toward violence and its misogyny. For its part, the series clearly courts this kind of controversy, with each installment exceeding the bounds of what would have been acceptable in the games before it. GTA V, for example, includes a playable torture sequence and (more) explicit sex scenes. These days, killing civilians en masse and also picking up prostitutes and then killing them to retrieve money are among the most thoroughly entrenched options in the game.

The series actively disavows the notion that it has any politics to speak of. Radio ads in previous games have mocked “both sides” of the political spectrum; an ongoing subplot in the new game also sets a “severely conservative” male politician against a bleeding-heart liberal woman. Other satirical elements that mock big business, the big state, the love of guns, patriotism, a variety of ethnic groups and even gamers and violent games proliferate in the series, making the series’ only professed politics a distaste for the kind of commitment to ideals that a political position requires.

As an implicit defense of the games’ content, this disavowal of a political stance is tenuous at best. It serves mostly to provide a great excuse for the series’ most dedicated adherents to not think seriously about the game’s politics at all—or, in the sublimely libertarian-capitalist false choice the game implicitly endorses, to insist that “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it.” After all, on the free market—which games like GTA V replicate both in structure and in gameplay—the game is just one of many choices.

So beyond (often simplistic) questions of how video game representations of violence affect the real world, there are some pretty obvious ethical and political issues troubling this game series. But I think there might be something redeemable in these games, as both political objects and as works of art.

First, there is something highly liberating in GTA‘s gleeful anarchy, even if it’s more than tinged with narcissism, white male privilege and misogyny. Speaking about the games as an “outlet” for antisocial behavior feels just as reductive as speaking about them as instigators of the same, but the idea that there’s something positive about the virtual ability to undermine the social order—to expose its contingent, and perhaps only ostensible, stability, to let the repressed chaos reign—rings true to me. At the very least, it’s antithetical to the authoritarian position first-person shooters put the player in, as they usually take the side of militarism and order. In contradistinction to such games, the fun of GTA consists in upsetting the status quo, not protecting or enforcing it, and in that way the series really does manage to stake out a political position that’s neither “liberal” nor “conservative.”

Second, an anecdote: I was 15 when exposed to the first open-world game of the series, GTA III. It was probably the first game that many people my age actually told each other stories about. That is, many of the stories I found myself describing to my friends had happened to me in the game—and not the missions with their pre-determined solutions, but my free-roaming adventures, unlikely escapes from the police, outrageous orchestrations of violence. For most games made before this, this wouldn’t have made sense: You either finished the game, or you talked to your friends for advice on how to finish the game—virtual experience was predetermined, programmatic and distinct from the way the real world operated. By incorporating free-form play into the basic structure of the game, however, GTA III liberated video games from this model, in the process effectively collapsing what had been a relatively strict divide between virtual and actual experience.

At the same time, in 2001, the Internet and cellular telephones were really beginning to affect contemporary life, as memory, knowledge and presence was moving first to chat rooms and hard drives and then to Facebook and the cloud. Much of our lives now exist in abstract, virtual spaces, our actions conducted in concert with programmed machines, our virtual presence expected to be just as constant as our actual one. Video games were both a part of, and often play with, this cultural phenomenon, and the GTA series has continued to thematize the confusion of virtual experience and actual, going so far as to include in-game television programs, films, video games, cell phones and yes, an in-game internet in GTA V.

In this way, video games broadly, and open-world games in particular, might represent something like the culmination of the goal of much of 20th-century modernist art to unite aesthetics and experience. The GTA series’ chaotic, often incoherent and almost infinitely variable gameplay stands self-consciously at the vanguard of such simulated-reality video games even while assaulting down the borders between simulation and reality, and can be considered an artistic achievement whatever one thinks of its politics. (Plenty of highly regarded modern art movements also had questionable and even hateful politics, to say the least. I’m looking at you, Futurists.) GTA has been an important artistic reflection as well as a manifestation of a widespread change in how we experience and talk about video games, in the role that media play in our lives, in what we do with our electronics. And this time we finally get to do it in multiplayer.

Pat Brown is a graduate student in Film Studies at the University of Iowa. No, that doesn’t mean he makes movies; he just likes them a lot.

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