Saturday, May 15, 2010

That old chestnut: Grand Theft Auto, objectionable content, and mixed messages

It's a name that includes within it so many conflicting ideas: Grand Theft Auto.  The series, which started out as an arcade-like PC game played from a top-down perspective, and transitioned to a fully-3D, open-world action game with many "life simulation" elements, is certainly not a stranger to controversy, and arguably relies upon it to stay in the spotlight.  It seems like at minimum, once a year, a moral guardian publicly attacks the supposed evils the games encourage, often demonstrating a lack of understanding about both the Grand Theft Auto series and videogames in general.  Violence, racism, and sexism are the most common complaints, but there have been others, including the game's graphic sexual imagery, and a general disrespect for social authority.  This controversy has been not just one of the most visible in games, but it's also been perhaps the one that gamers have become most involved in.

It's very easy to see where both parties are coming from.  Gamers love Grand Theft Auto not only for its addictive and freeform gameplay, as well as its comedic satirising of American pop culture and politics.  The incredible sales of the franchise, not to mention the number of successful releases it's had, demonstrate that even if it does feature content some find objectionable, the quality of the games is enough to overshadow any of those objections.  The games may even be popular among certain demographics precisely because of the way they skirt the limits of what is considered socially acceptable; much like how teenagers try to sneak into R-rated movies, there's a certain "forbidden fruit" quality to the games due to the more conservative standards for adult content in games.

On the other hand, those who object to the games have every right to do so, and I can't say that they aren't justified in some cases.  The games allow for a blatant disregard for human life, and even encourage it in some situations.  Although the most recent game in the series, Grand Theft Auto IV, features a reluctant protagonist, those in the series' older titles featured heroes that never seriously questioned the chaos they spread.  Moreover, in an open game like Grand Theft Auto, the story is just as much the player's as it is the writer's, and the player can simply choose to ignore whatever messages the creators may have included.  That it takes place in a modern-day setting, accurately modelled after actual American cities, is also somewhat suggestive and, arguably, distasteful.

Gamers are often quick to defend Grand Theft Auto by saying that the titles encourage law-abiding behaviour, rather than law-breaking, and cite the fact that players are punished by the police for their negative actions.  Such claims, however, are transparent and disingenuous to the nature of the game.  Stripped away of all the satire and window-dressing, Grand Theft Auto is still essentially the same game it was a decade ago.  The goal is, and has always been, to commit violence and then evade the police for as long as possible.  This is the primary mechanism the game's entertainment value comes from, and while Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in particular focused more on the aforementioned "life simulation" elements, they are very clearly not at all the main reason the game exists.  A cursory glance at most of the game's story missions make it obvious that it encourages violence and mayhem over everything else.

This isn't to say, of course, that the moral guardians are totally right.  Games, and their relationship with players, is extremely complex, and is studied in a large number of fields, including psychology, sociology, culture studies, narratology, etc.  Were it easy to say that a game was a bad influence or not, we wouldn't need so many different perspectives on the matter to help us understand it, nor would we have so many conflicting ideas.  Context in particular is one of the main deciding factors in how we interpret a game's subject matter.  Much of the graphic imagery in Grand Theft Auto could be taken as offensive, but set within a story, its meaning is altered: it's no longer just a series of images, but a narrative.

However, one question keeps coming to mind for me, and it begs to be asked: as gamers, why do we care so much whether Grand Theft Auto has mainstream acceptance or not?  Its sales show that it has the support of millions in North America alone, and while it is routinely attacked in the news media, often in a reactionary and poorly-researched manner, this isn't anything new for gaming (or for any other vaguely controversial topic for that matter).  My belief is that it comes out of gamers' own reactionary qualities.  We are used to being looked down upon by mainstream society, and despite the games industry's large size, we still find ourselves fractured and without a positive, stable place in public discourse.  When someone criticises us, no matter how valid the critique may be, we jump at it, furious that someone would even dare question our hobbies and lifestyles.

As gamers, it's important to look at Grand Theft Auto, and admit that it's less than wholesome.  In fact, it's often downright crude, sexist, racist, violent, and juvenile.  This is exactly what Rockstar, the developer of the series, intends the games to be.  Why is it that some gamers don't seem to want to accept that?  Moreover, when it comes to the "do games affect us?" question, why don't we want to acknowledge that there might actually be truth to it?  When we go on a killing spree, mowing down innocent pedestrians by the dozen, giggling with glee as their bodies go flying left and right, can we really deny that we're revelling in violence?  When we go check out the strip club to watch a virtual lap dance, can we really believe anything other than that it was made to appease our own sexual fantasies?  The reactionary side of gamers seems to overrule all potential consideration of the other party's claims, and that is not a healthy stance to take in any debate, even one where the arguments can sometimes be insulting and patronising.

The fact is, Grand Theft Auto is a mishmash of ideas.  It's got social commentary and satire, it's got humour, it's got violence, it's got sexism, it's got racism (and often the three are combined), it's got anti-authority messages, it encourages personal profit at the expense of others, and it states that the law is there as something to be broken, not respected.  Of course, it's also a lot of fun, and the gaming community needs to acknowledge that that's the reason they play it.  At the same time, it also needs to recognise that it's something that needs to be examined critically.  We can't afford to be so naive about a game as popular as Grand Theft Auto that we outright dismiss any objections to it; we are responsible and intelligent people, but our passion for gaming isn't something that should be blind.

[Image credit]


  1. "why do we care so much whether Grand Theft Auto has mainstream acceptance or not?" Personally I don't, I play any types of games as long as they are fun. Why would I care about it being "accepted"? Then again I am quite the rebel. Known to act irresponsibly such as ending comments mid-s

  2. Thanks for your comment. :P

    I actually put up a rough draft of this accidentally, rather than the edited version. Sorry for the poor writing in a few places, it should be much more readable now.

  3. GTA is a true example of a video game, you can do something in GTA which you can never do in real life and that is the reason why its so popular.

    I people often think that juvenile things are inherently inferior to "mature" things. Which is something i disagree with myself but its one of the reasons why people try to maturify it. People need to realize juvenile isnt always bad and that sometimes its just either plain fun or just plain better than so called mature material.

  4. You two seem to be missing the point. Eric's entire thesis as outlined in the introductory statements is that games can be vessels for far more than simple entertainment, socializing, unwinding, or "fun." They can and do communicate messages about society and much more.

    The point is that Grand Theft Auto represents a system that could never exist, and plays off of that. Any healthy, justified society cannot exist without the laws, morals, and norms that Grand Theft Auto works so hard to violate. There may be sections with underhanded messages of morality that show its exclusivity from the law and the more pedantic constructions of society, but for the most part the game's target demographic just enjoys to violate the hell out of society's regulations and morals.

    Don't put the game on a pedestal because it's simply entertainment, basically.