Sunday, May 4, 2008

Video Games and Art :: Grand Theft Auto IV

This article was previously entitled Why I'm Not Playing Grand Theft Auto IV. I've changed the name because I have in fact, since writing the article, played the game. And enjoyed it. As far as I'm concerned, my enjoyment of the game does not invalidate what I say below. This article, though about GTA IV, is really a criticism of gaming itself. That said, perhaps I'm just a hypocrite.

In the last little while, I've got myself into a few discussions, some of which were rather heated, about Rockstar's latest release, the controversial and much-hyped Grand Theft Auto IV. Let me be clear about myself: I am a gamer but I am also a critic of the arts and sometimes I think those two are mutually exclusive. I've been playing video games for many, many years now and I think it's generally expected that all gamers, in some ill-defined act of solidarity and affirmation, will always rise up and defend a game like Grand Theft Auto against such critics as the now-famous Jack Thompson on the grounds that it's fun, dammit. However, I don't defend GTA. I do think gaming can be intelligently and critically defended against its many vehement critics but I do not think that Grand Theft Auto is the platform upon which such a defense can be successfully mounted.

These days anyone in the gaming community who challenges the merits of a video game is considered a puritanical, raving fundamentalist. It does not really matter if you are talking about Manhunt or Halo: if you suggest that some violence is too excessive or that some scenarios go too far you are ridiculed, ostracized and ignored. Not even film critics are this blindly devoted to their chosen art form; most will have the honesty to say that not every film is justifiable or healthy regardless of the ideology they embrace. Gamers, on the other hard, perhaps betraying a deep-seated anxiety about their chosen form of entertainment, see every single game as a representative symbol of gaming as a whole. It's as if censoring one game will lead to the censoring of all video games. The mainstream media outlets do not help on this point since as soon as a particularly violent video game is released they use it as an opportunity to attack all of gaming instead of the game in question.

Now, I'm not really a fundamentalist or a radical conservative; at least, I don't think of myself as one. I am not particularly bothered by depictions of either extreme violence or sexuality when both are connected to artistic and metaphoric purposes. I just finished a Takashi Miike marathon, for crying out loud. My shelves are filled with the movies of David Cronenberg, Stanley Kubrick, Quentin Tarantino, etc, etc. As I see it, film, along with most of the art forms working with the concepts of narrative or character, is built upon fundamental notions of irony and detachment. It's one of the first things you learn as an English student: don't confuse the narrator with the author; don't mistake the main character's views with the author's. There's a fundamental disconnect between what happens in a poem, a novel, or a film and between what the author or the text actually means. This disconnect is called irony and it is perhaps the most important hermeneutical principle any critic should recognize. Video games, however, lack irony. Actions are not connected to a larger metaphoric scheme; stories, most often lacking real characterization or narrative innovation, are simply pretenses for gameplay. This is true of almost every video game, not just Grand Theft Auto. There is no moral disconnect between a players actions and a game's "artistic" purpose.

What makes Grand Theft Auto such a lightning rod for controversy is that, unlike most games, the gameplay is based upon criminal action. Players, instead of taking on the role of a superhero, cop, soldier, whatever, take on the role of a criminal who, through murder, robbery, arson, etc, rises through the ranks of a particular criminal organization. This sort of gameplay, severed from ironic or metaphoric intentions, becomes extremely hard to justify. It is, perhaps, unjustifiable. In GTA, there's no moral disconnect between the crimes performed by the protagonists and the financial rewards derived with those actions. This is different, much different, from the depiction of crime in cinema. In a crime or gangster movie, the idea that crime destroys lives is built into the very narrative framework. It may be exciting to see Ray Liotta in Goodfellas gain mafia power but we know that it's all going to end badly for him because of it and we know that it's right that it should end badly. It is this moral disconnect, the ability for the audience to recognize the inverse relationship between crime and mental or moral health, that makes films such as Goodfellas and The Godfather justifiable, compelling and important. In video games, however, there is no moral disconnect; there certainly has never been one in and of the GTA games. The player takes on the role of a criminal and never once is encouraged to think reflectively or critically about this.

(I don't agree with everything Glen Beck says in the video above, but I do think that his point about the desensitizing program used by the military and how that relates to video games should be thought about quite seriously.)

I haven't played Grand Theft Auto IV yet so perhaps I'm not qualified to comment on the game like this. I am a gamer, however, and I have played most of the games in the series that came before it, though I never really found any of them to be all that compelling. So I think I'm qualified to say that unless GTA IV is so radical in its narrative presentation that the player, instead of feeling rewarded for his actions, feels like his character should die or spend the rest of his life in jail, then it is once again just another un-ironic glorification of criminal action.

If there is one thing that in my mind could invalidate gaming as a legitimate form of entertainment and that could challenge the notion that games are art it is this lack of irony. Roger Ebert has famously said that video games are not art and, frankly, I'm inclined to agree with him. For every Bioshock that gets released (which is perhaps the closest that a game has ever come to being a work of art) there are a hundred games like Grand Theft Auto released. They may be entertaining, and games like Grand Theft Auto may be entertaining in a very prurient, misogynistic way, but as long as they lack irony, mere entertainment is all that they will remain and it should never enter into our minds to call them art.

And, since I'm not entertained by 30+ hours of mindless and un-ironic crime, I've decided not to play Grand Theft Auto IV.


Anonymous said...

Very well written. This is TinPanAlley by the way.

I will agree with the majority of your points. The games up to this point have been do what needs to be done, and don't worry about who you kill/maim/etc. while doing it. They took a step forward in this version in my opinion.

Niko the main character states throughout the game that he come to Liberty City to start over to experience the kind of life his cousin had been emailing him about. He had done some things that he was not proud of, but wanted to clean the slate. During the story Niko is unwillingly drawn back into the crime that he sought to escape by his dumb-witted cousin. It plays on the family factor heavily. As Roman, Niko's cousin is heavily in debt to some sinister groups, and Niko vows to help his cousin.

Also, new elements within the game allow you to let "hits" go free. In one instance I had to chase down a snitch for this Russian mob boss. He escapes into this construction site and accidentally slips. When you get to him, he is hanging on for dear life and begging you to help him. The game then gives you the choice to kick him to his death or help him up, I helped him up. He in return is grateful(of course) and offers to help you later in the game. This is only one of several choices you are allowed.

I think the main reason that the player will not feel that his character should go to jail is that many of the people that the protagonist has to kill are criminals themselves. Drug dealers, mob bosses, etc. I guess that might give some feeling of justice to the player.

While one mission in particular has you getting busted by a swat team, while overseeing a heroin deal. In order to escape you have to blast your way through the police force.

In closing, I think it is enough of a mix between outright violence and required violence that it doesn't step too far over the line.

dcornelius said...

Hey, TinPan,
I see the point that you are making, that the narrative presents Niko as an unwilling participant. But does this absolve him, and the player, of moral responsibility? Does the narrative of IV offer you the option of not being a criminal or of just being a less murderous criminal?

I know certain things, like being able to murder the hooker you just had sex with, are not really narrative aspects of the game but are rather actions that are simply available to the player as part of this free roaming world, but I don't see how such a "moral" system is really all that moral. Players may feel like they get to chose between right and wrong but the game, GTA itself, allows for a murderous response in nearly every situation. Unless the narrative actively penalizes players who chose to kill cops and pedestrians with anything more a short police-chase mini-game, than the game itself, as an "artistic" achievement, amounts to no more than outright nihilism. Presented with the option of doing whatever you want, most gamers will spend at least some time walking around, beating up and killing pedestrians just for the hell of it... I know I have in previous versions of the game.

TinPanAlley said...

It offers some redemptive qualities. While you are a criminal, the story line does a good job of making you feel like Niko(you) is just a pawn caught up in a larger game and doing whatever it takes to survive.

I honestly think it's the free-will factor of the game that gets it in so much trouble. You are allowed to do what you want. If you wanna kill a hooker or innocent civilian you can, but It is your choice that drives the game. Which makes me angry when people like Thompson come out and say that this game forces you to these things. Which it doesn't.

Why people take him so seriously is a mystery to me, I watched the interview with him, and he says that there are graphic descriptions of oral and anal sex, which is an outright lie. I've played through the majority of the game, and nothing of that such material exists. You can go up to your girlfriend's room following a date, but see nothing. Strip clubs are even mild. The strippers have pasties on and you see partial nudity. Just like the box says.

But once again I see your point and understand where you are coming from

Nevis said...

Very well written article.

My one comment is that you actually haven't played the game. And it actually has a very good storyline. I'm not a fan of the series (I don't like any sandbox game, really) but I am quite intrigued by the story and the writing during the cut scenes is actually quite good.

I think you would be surprised to find you actually like the game if you would ever play it.

dcornelius said...

It's not that I don't think I'd like it... it's that if I start playing I think I'll like it against my better judgment. There's no denying that it makes for some fun gaming.

Nevis said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Taliesin said...

There's a fundamental disconnect between what happens in a poem, a novel, or a film and between what the author or the text actually means. (from the post)

Great point. One need only to read Flannery O'Connor stories and know something about her to realize how true this is.

As for GTAIV, I have some reservations about the activities pursued in-game. I will not say others should not play, but for me to do so would be to wound my conscience. Fortunately the gameplay is not appealing to me either.

FYI: Taliesin (on Google) = Deschain (on TaG)

dcornelius said...

Flannery O'Connor is a good example of that, I think. The disconnect between her Catholic faith and the often disturbing content of her stories is practically a study in irony.

And I hear what you are saying about the conscience. When it comes to video games, it often seems like I end up playing the game that offends my conscience the least. Sometimes I just have to pass on something.

Adam said...

Nice post! I share the same opinion about games like GTA IV. I have friends who say, "If you want to take the game seriously and be corrupted by it, that's your choice." But the fact is that kids are impressionable! I am one! If you spend a lot of time being exposed to this type of "entertainment", you find it more acceptable. I'm one of the most liberal people I know, but when it comes to media and video games, I don't agree with some of the ideas being released into public.

Life of Turner said...

I think you have created one of the most cogent and coherent arguments that I have ever read about having an intelligent perspective toward video games. I can think of only a very small handful of games that I would consider "artful" (though I do not tie that in to irony as you do), the most evident of which is The Legend of Zelda: The Ocarina of Time. The scale and wonder of that game is so huge and breathtaking at times - though I suppose that is more "spectacle" than "art". In fact, I'm not sure that the nature of video games allows for the creation of art in the genre. Perhaps one of the biggest indicators for me is that I have nearly eliminated video games from my life in the past two years. As I have pursued other interests and sought to make my hobbies "worthwhile", I have not found the time to engage in simple entertainment, but I have pursued art (the same reason that my movie, TV, and music tastes are being continually refined). If GTAIV is not art, its sole value is derived from being entertainment; if it fails to do that for you, you are correct in your neglect. Bravo.

dcornelius said...

Thanks, Turner. I thought of you as I wrote it since it would have been fun to bounce some ideas off of you.

I like your distinction between art and spectacle. It's very helpful. I think the terms "entertainment" and "art" are often, and erroneously, used as synonyms; just because something can entertain us, or distract us, does not mean that it in anyway is beneficial or edifying for us. We can be entertained by porn, for instance; the Romans were entertained by gladiators; yet it would take quite the apologist indeed to convince me that either have artistic merits. I'm not saying that games and porn are comparable (though maybe, now that I think of it, they are) but I think as a society we should be more careful about what we call art.