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My New Book!
My New Book!

Monday, November 28, 2022

November 28, 2022: Video Game Studying: Grand Theft Auto

[On November 29, 1972, Atari debuted Pong, one of the earliest and most influential video games. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy Pong and four other groundbreaking games—I’d love the responses and nominations of gamers and noobs alike in comments!]

Forgive me for focusing this post less on GTA itself and more on broader gaming topics. But that seemed like a good way to begin this week’s series, and plus I’ve never played any of the GTA games (and welcome comments from those who have). So to wit, here are three aspects of video games that a focus on GTA can help us discuss:

1)      Their Effects: The elephant in the room when it comes to GTA, and really all violent video games for that matter, is the question of their potential effects on (especially) impressionable young players. From what I can tell, the first GTA featured mostly just cartoonish car violence; it was with the series’ fifth game in particular that the stakes were significantly raised, with players for example having the ability to rob and kill prostitutes after sleeping with them (and, it seems, being rewarded by the game for choosing to do so). I don’t believe that any form of art (which games on, on which more in a moment) can or should be directly correlated with any particular effects on their audiences; it’s nowhere near that simple. But at the same time, it’s worth noting that unlike most other art forms, video games ask their audiences to make many of the choices themselves, and it would be disingenuous to suggest that choosing to kill a woman is the same as watching a character do so in a film (for example). So while I don’t believe a game like GTA makes its players more violent, it does at times ask them to act violently in troubling ways that are worth recognizing and critiquing.

2)      They’re Art: Perhaps it’s now widely accepted that video games are an art form; certainly disciplines like Fitchburg State’s groundbreaking Game Design Major have that idea as a key starting point. But I’m not sure that the communal conversations about games tend to incorporate that definition, as it seems to me that they are still often seen more as a combination of toys (and thus more appropriate for children than any other age bracket) and distractions (and thus taken less seriously than other cultural forms and media). Obviously any definition of art is open to interpretation and argument, so I can’t claim with absolute authority that video games are an art form (although I believe very strongly that they are). But I will say that narratives which treat games more dismissively lead directly to less thoughtful and helpful engagements with questions like the ones I raised in point one, to perceptions of games as (for example) simply delivery systems for violence rather than an art form featuring artistic subgenres that include violence as a key element (just as action and horror films do, to name two other such art forms).

3)      They’re Flexible: If we do see video games as an art form (as I do), what differentiates them from most other such forms (other than Choose Your Own Adventure books, I suppose!) is that they are interactive, depending on the choices of their audience members (who of course are far more than just audience members) for how their stories and thus their art are ultimately created. I know that’s a well-known point, but I have a specific and surprising GTA anecdote related to it. When my sons were relatively young, a babysitter took them to his house and let them play one of the GTA games on his gaming system. I was initially horrified when they told me this, but then they described their game play at length, which involved all sorts of driving craziness and silliness (driving into swimming pools, trying to drive off bridges onto moving trains, etc.) and relatedly only self-directed violence (seeing what would happen if they climbed to the top of a tall crane and jumped off, for example). Not exactly the highest form of art, perhaps, but far different from a game focused on killing others. In this case, at least, the game’s flexibility had allowed my sons to make it their own in a silly but also, I would argue, very significant way.

Next game tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other video games you’d highlight and analyze?

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