PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 27.2 (2005) 91-98
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High Art/low Life
The Art of Playing Grand Theft Auto
I am not a thug . . . but I play one on my PlayStation. Armed with a cache of weapons that would make your garden-variety sociopath blush with envy, I slip into a simulated territory, in the hopes of conquering the underworld that is Grand Theft Auto. While on one level Rockstar Games's Grand Theft Auto series (GTA) is all kitschy, gratuitous violence for entertainment purposes, it is also a masterpiece of interactive design. Arguably, it presents one of the most sophisticated developments in commercial video gaming to render a highly traversable urban space, one in which a player performs actions with a tremendous degree of freedom and unscripted spontaneity. This accounts for its wild popularity in the gaming market. The best-selling video game in America in 2001, GTA III's success was usurped only by the release of the game's next evolution, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, which became the year's bestseller in 2002. With the October 2004 release of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, likely the most anticipated game of the year, Rockstar has once again set the gaming world on fire with its latest sprawling work of twisted genius.
Electronic games, with their technological roots in the military-industrial complex, are commonly associated with childish play and lowbrow entertainment for the antisocial—all of which damages their credibility as objects of serious cultural consideration. When critics of violent electronic games view Grand Theft Auto, they see a lurid delivery device for the militaristic culture of violence—one that targets the impressionable minds of children.1 And in terms of the gore factor, extreme vulgarity, and the sheer gall of game designers, there probably isn't anything detractors could say about the game that wouldn't be true.Grand Theft Auto is a bloody mess, and developers have clearly drawn on Hollywood genres of classic slasher films, mob sagas, car chases, and a rich legacy of action adventures. Presented are a series of American clichés, packaged, marketed, and sold back to us. The game seems equal parts social commentary and logical cultural outcome of combining America's ruthless capitalistic impulse with a valorized national legacy of barbarism and hegemony.
Still, what is more interesting than the moral panic around the depiction of violence is how GTA, through a simulated "realistic" sense of space and time, conveys an [End Page 91] expansive sense of "place." That is to say, a player's ability to act within a gaming environment is made palpable through the successful combination of image, tactility, and sound. By learning how to effectively navigate a simulated body within this manifestation, the quality of place comes to life. As such, it represents a compelling human-computer encounter between informational space and lived space. And it is through unscripted, performed, free-play in this highly-articulated place that the potent social critique underlying Grand Theft Auto snaps sharply into focus.
In terms of its storyline, GTA: San Andreas is fairly simple: having fled San Andreas upon the death of his brother five years prior, Carl Johnson reluctantly returns on the occasion of his mother's murder. But before he can even begin to set things right, he finds himself under the thumb of a corrupt police officer, framed for a cop killing. Meanwhile, CJ's neighborhood and his surviving family are in shambles, due to the corrosive influence of guns, drugs, and crooked law enforcement. The player's objective is to guide CJ through a harrowing series of missions that lead him from his childhood stomping grounds to outlying rural areas and bordering cities, in an attempt to save his family and regain control of his neighborhood. Notably, in a deviation from previous games, CJ is not initially configured as a criminal, only trapped under the stigma of criminality by his circumstance. In GTA III, the central protagonist is an escaped convict out...