As debate continues to rage over video games and violence, Nathan Gardner considers whether GTA V imitates life, or life imitates GTA V.

Rockstar Entertainment recently released its latest instalment of the incredibly popular GTA series, Grand Theft Auto V, this September.

Get set for the ka-ching of massive international sales, typed applause of fan-boys and girls from all corners of the internet, and a predictable fresh round of vitriol spewed by concerned members of our so-called ‘Liberal-Western’ society, all thanks to the cannibalistic nature of mass culture.

I doubt there is anyone reading this article who is not familiar with the GTA series. Many will be aware of the popularity, and infamy, that has surrounded the franchise since its 2-D inception nearly fifteen years ago. Although manifestations of the game have become increasingly sophisticated, the premise has remained completely the same: you take control of a criminal, immersing yourself in the game’s narrative by completing various missions, committing numerous felonies and ‘accumulating rewards’ while avoiding the forces that wish to bring you death or arrest.

Given this tried-but-true recycled formula, one might wonder why the latest incarnation of the series will once again earn Rockstar Games massive sales (ed’s note – GTA V earned 1 billion smackers in the first three days after its release) while raising the ire of parents and politicians around the world.

The answer, generally speaking, is because we live in a hypocritical society—one that shamelessly self-references, yet ‘self denies’ itself at the same time.

I don’t mean this in a cynically jaded, cigarette-smoking way.

What I mean is, well, consider this…

‘All the classic hallmarks of the ground-breaking series return, including incredible attention to detail and Grand Theft Auto’s darkly humorous take on modern culture.’ (Rockstar Games Website, GTA V press release).

This is nothing more than advertising shtick. It means, ‘We know what makes you want to buy this, because you bought it before’, tacitly suggesting you should buy it again. But the premise of this statement – that ‘all the classic hallmarks’ are returning,  that GTA V has ‘attention to detail’ and that it is a satire of modern culture – is saying to me more than it intends.

Dig under the press release’s superficiality, and at once the essence of the series, and why GTA V is set to repeat the success and infamy of its forebears, is revealed: it is a product inescapably of the culture it attempts to criticise.

It is not guiding society as much as it is being guided by it.

‘All the Classic hallmarks…’

Saying the games are a product of culture does sound like stating the obvious, and in a way it is, and should be, yet such a perspective is often overlooked.

We are blind-sided by more ostentatious claims. Concerned parents and politicians and the outrage they whip up are obvious and loud distractions. In this case, much like rap and heavy metal music in the 90s, the GTA franchise has been charged with inciting acts of violence both directly and indirectly. Such opponents, like easily-offended, disbarred-attorney-cum-anti-video-game-activist Jack Thompson abhor the glorification of violence and crime, fearing that virtual violence may cross over to the real world. But, in essence, this is short-sighted bullshit that misses much of the mark.

Similarly, Edward Smith missed the point in his article, GTA Continues Videogames’ Over-Reliance on Satire, in the International Business Times.  He chastised the GTA franchise for its trend in ‘relying too much on satire’, labelling it a game too afraid to engage meaningfully with reality and ever retreating behind dick jokes. Smith laments the absence of ‘non-fiction games’, solemnly concluding:

‘When future generations want insight into America, they’ll get it from television, films and books. There’ll be no reason for them to play Grand Theft Auto.’

Oh really, Mr. Smith?

(With respect), that is a double dose of bullshit.

The GTA series, or anything popular for that matter, is a product of a host culture. This is a truth that cannot be overlooked. Like a piece of art is made to convey the ideas and impressions of an artist, the GTA series is created according to Dan and Sam Houser’s (GTA’s creators) imagining of American culture, which, true or not, is a valid expression packed with notions born from observation and experience—even if it is, admittedly, full of dick jokes.

‘Incredible attention to detail…’

The game’s ‘attention to detail’ not only refers to the realistic graphics or physics in the game. Please remember that running someone over or blowing someone’s head off is a symbolic act, regardless of it looking realistic. The attention to detail is simply what we recognise or comprehend in game.

What other caricatures do we recognise?

The stereotypes of fast-food consumerism; of corrupt and incompetent governance and police; the degenerative jokes relying on some form of sexist, racist and homophobic awareness in society. They are represented in the game because we recognise them in the world we live in—we, as in us participants in 21st century culture. Such aspects of the current social fabric appear in all forms of media, and all forms of media use them as commodity or ‘cultural stock’ to trade meaning to an audience.

The series is so popular because it lampoons our existence. It doesn’t give us anything new, only what we’re used to, and that’s why it’s popular. In fact, half the enjoyment of the game is being able to decode the various in-jokes, ‘Easter eggs’ and inter-contextualisations (those things that make you say, ‘Oh, that’s a reference to …’). It gives us what’s familiar because it is what we, as consumers, demand and reward through our enjoyment (and purchases). The shtick in the game’s press release, as an example, confirms this.

If all the details within the game are interpretations wrought from ‘real life’, society and culture, criticisms of the creators’ interpretations actually become criticisms of our reality. As such, criticisms of violence, sexism and racism in the game by extension trivialise, and to some extent deny, the existence of these notions in our reality. But disagreeing with the creators’ interpretation of reality, as its detractors do, is a flaccid stance to take when concerned parties could instead be targeting the real inequality, injustice, crime and corruption that inspire such games.

‘Darkly humorous take on modern culture…’

So what does this all say about the game’s premise or message? Is the ‘dark satire’ a lamentation of all the ills in our corrupt society? Does this game suggest that our society hypocritically rewards criminal behaviour?

Well, maybe.

But I think the very existence of this game – its popularity and infamy – says something else.

The popularity and infamy accorded to this series, a series that keeps materialising in repackaged forms, shows that it is actually contributing to culture as much as it is constructed by culture.

It shows the reciprocal nature of mass culture in action. From incorporating player feedback in development and responding to public criticisms, to recycling bites of modern culture into a freshly-assembled product that the faithful will hungrily line up for to buy more of the same, we glimpse the ‘culture industry’.

The criticisms of the game appear as bumbling, indirect criticisms of society and culture that, simply put, lack critical self-awareness.

After all, such games would never be made unless there was an audience willing to buy them.

And it is patently clear that we do have a culture willing to throw their wages after games like GTA.

That is what the game says to me. I’m aware that I am a participant in the culture that is being perpetuated as much as the next guy, but we should all also appreciate the whole semiotic system that’s going on here.

It’s what makes GTA way more interesting.


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