In one of those media events so global — perhaps solar-systemic? — in scope that you hardly need me to remind you about it, Grand Theft Auto IV launches today. Early word on Rockstar’s latest is everything it ought to be: game reviewers are enraptured, moral guardians enraged. Me, I’m just waiting to get my hands on the thing, which manifests in this world as a silver disk in a bright-green plastic case, but becomes in the space of the screen another totemic circle: a steering wheel. Maybe more than any other virtual-world franchise, GTA toggles its players smoothly between human and automotive avatars, encasing us in cars for such long stretches of gametime that, as Tycho at Penny Arcade writes, you might end up just “sitting in a parking lot listening to the radio.”
The webcomic associated with Tycho’s post makes another good point about Grand Theft Auto, namely that its possible pathways are so seemingly infinite in number that they risk numbing the player with the paralysis of “total freedom.” The opposite of the rail shooter to which I compared the Harry Potter novels a few posts back, GTA and its ilk are better described as sandbox games, which emphasize the open-endedness of play. Now, I admit to being skeptical of such neat distinctions, believing in my curmudgeonly way that the sense of unbounded possibility offered up by most “interactive” experiences is just that: a phantasmic structure of feeling, conveniently packaged and sold to us in the same way that advance hype about the summer movie season is more the actual commodity than the movies themselves. (That said, I’m looking forward, same as always, to things like Iron Man, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, The Dark Knight, and — mmmm yes — Speed Racer.) It’s a matter of perception, not pathways. The most scripted of videogames (if done well) can get my heart thumping with the sense that anything might happen next, while GTA, no matter how many gigabytes of gamedata and corresponding square mileage of explorable diegesis it may offer, can still wear out its welcome. Though I played both avidly, I never finished either Grand Theft Auto III or its sequel, Vice City.
That said, I never played anything as gripping, anarchic, and sensual, either. My friend Chris Dumas calls GTA the “id machine,” and he’s right. Like the Krell technology buried beneath the surface of Altair IV in Forbidden Planet, GTA is a visualization engine for the subconscious, pipelining our nastiest, bloodiest impulses into daylight, setting loose neon monsters we didn’t know we had in us. It’s insane fun to play and, like the best videogames, cinematically engrossing to observe. It’s also perversely Bazinian in form. As a grad student in 2002, I wrote a paper called “Grand Theft Auto 3 and the Interface of the Everyday,” arguing that GTA is at heart a simulation — not of mechanical or physical processes, but urban experience. Here’s the intro:
With its heightened violence, black humor, and mise-en-scene reminiscent of blaxploitation and vigilante films from the 1970s and Quentin Tarantino’s postmodern recyclings in movies such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), GTA3 seems to stand apart from the tradition of simulation games, so much so that its simulationist tendencies are perceptible only upon reflection; on first glance it is more likely to be put into the category of “shoot-em-up” games such as Doom, Quake, and other first-person shooters, or hand-to-hand fighting games such as Tekken and Mortal Kombat. I argue, however, that GTA3 actually represents the culmination, in a form so pure as to be almost unrecognizable, of a particular simulationist logic that has heretofore stayed comfortably submerged in videogames: the notion of urban realism. Or rather, a refracted and stylized realism whose excesses should not be allowed to obscure its essential goal: the representation of modern urban existence, complete with dead time, bad weather, traffic lights, blaring radio stations, law enforcement by turns oblivious and aggressive, and a totalizing motif of passage – endless motion through the city’s spaces on foot or (more often) behind the wheel of a car, from the vantage point of which Liberty City’s bridges and skyscrapers, storefronts and pedestrians, become spectacles simultaneously mundane and beautiful.
In this sense, GTA3 follows a logic of modernity articulated by Walter Benjamin and Siegfried Kracauer, and before them Baudelaire, whose epigrammatic summation of modernity as “the transient, the fleeting, the contingent” set the terms for a discourse of ephemera – the idea that the truth of contemporary existence, and perhaps the key to its revolutionary reform, resides not in the monumental and “historic” but in the unnoticed and ordinary. In this paper I shall explore the idea that GTA3 makes the everyday its object of simulation, interaction, and pleasure, enabling users to play within the environs of a stylized urban reality as a way of experiencing, and reflecting upon, their own place in the world and position in society. In the second half of the paper I move toward a consideration of videogames in general, setting them against a backdrop of twentieth-century technologies, in order to argue that videogames share a function that Benjamin identified as “subject[ing] the human sensorium to a complex kind of training” in which “perception in the form of shocks [is] established as a formal principle.” Under this view, the content of Grand Theft Auto (which concerns itself textually with an alternating rhythm of shocks and boredom) merges with the formal operations of videogames, which, consumed in unmarked leisure time, reflect changes wrought in consciousness by technology and industrialization, similar to Benjamin’s description of the Fun Fair whose Dodgem cars achieve “a taste of the drill to which the unskilled laborer is subjected in the factory.” I begin with a consideration of three main components of GTA3’s play: the city, the flâneur, and the car.
Looking at this argument today, it doesn’t seem too earthshaking; Gonzalo Frasca explores some similar ideas in his 2003 essay “Sim Sin City.” It may be that with the advancing tide of computer graphics, we’re less scandalized by the notion that videogames can stand in, even substitute for, the visual and auditory sensorium through which we filter and know reality. Games, that is, increasingly engage in a double simulation, first of our lived sensory existence and only secondarily of more ephemeral (but nonetheless meaningful) matters: ethics, aesthetics, class consciousness. In the case of GTA, the subjectivity tourism is that of a violent, animalistic, unforgiving struggle to survive on the streets, something that its player demographic will likely never confront. GTA provides in musical flashes a world we recognize as our own even as we comfortably disavow it through the technological trick of switching off the console: inverting the hypodermic needle’s injection, we anesthetize ourselves precisely by unplugging, retreating from the raw truth of the made-up game into the ongoing dream of our privileged, protected lives.