Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Generation GTA?

The Grand Theft Auto is by far one of the most popular, if not the most popular, series of video games produced over the last 15 years. The games typically follow a male anti-hero on his journey through the underworld of an American city. Character motivation varies from revenge to greed. Common motifs include narcotics, prostitution, murder and car theft. The setting is usually a satire of a major American city like Miami, New York or Los Angeles. Of course, the games are a conservative's wet dream as the player is placed in a semi-autonomous environment where they can indulge indulge in various acts of crime, ultra-violence and general depravity. Though conservatives focus in on the violence as training children to be cold-hearted murderers. Despite the fact that 500 million copies of GTA 4 were sold in the first week of it's release and very few violent incidents have been linked to the game since it's release 2 years ago.

The self-proclaimed "culture warriors" of the United States are ignoring the exploitative aspect of the character's criminal career in relation to capitalism. This should be expected from modern conservatives in a way, as they are typically conservative on social issues. So economic exploitation and devastation would not interest the majority of them. The fact that the player takes on the role of the Randian hero, an exceptional and creative individual who will rise above the passive conformist masses. This is so because the player is more intelligent than the game and can pass the missions using their capacity to thrive in a predictable and controlled world. The player-character has an advantage over the "herds" around him, as he is not held back by simulated emotions and can plan how to dispatch pedestrians at random. This is even more true if the player has access to cheat codes, in which case not even the game's police can interfere.

The game play is characterised by a degree of "freedom" not available in most games. But this should not be mistaken for true liberty, as the freedom accessible to players is merely the ability to act autonomously in constructed environments and situations. Like with the freedom to choose, the options have already been made for you and all you have to do is take your pick. So the universe of Grand Theft Auto is one in which you can act in ways which you cannot in reality, but only as far as the game allows as part of a constructed scenario. It should be noted out that games are an unusual medium of entertainment as they actually deprive the consumer of content. This functions to keep the consumer playing for longer, in order to complete the game and acquire the desired abilities. Though once the consumer has completed they often don't want to play the game any more, as it was the competitiveness built into the game that was truly thrilling and not the "carrot" they were chasing.

After all, once the game is completed the character has gained millions of dollars, and participated in a few thousand murders, but has nothing much to spend it on except guns, prostitutes, alcohol, food etc. In a sense, the game play reveals the limits of negative liberty - the freedom from constraint - by leaving a player with meaningless choices. The consumer choices a player is confronted with are even more meaningless in a gaming environment, where one is engaging in a simulation of consumption. In many ways the games are libertarian, you are free to make choices and indulge. Ultimately, the games do not judge the player in a strictly neutral and permissive manner. But if you violate the Harm Principle - you can do what you want, so long as you harm no one - the police might come after you. In some of the later games, like GTA 4, the police even go after pedestrians and petty criminals who have attacked you. This notable advance in technology is only the step forward made by classical liberal thinkers in the 19th Century.

Despite the barrage of satirical messages in the games, the specifically political messages are often ignored by critics and reviewers. Even the "culture warriors" of America have failed to notice the "anti-American" sentiments embedded in the games. Because it is easier to accuse a game of "corrupting" the youth and instigating violence than it is to analyse its political idiosyncrasies. That takes work and may not be easily "linked" to extreme violence. It could also easily turn into a debate on American politics with liberals and conservatives engaging in the acceptable dialogue over whether or not the game is "anti-American". A debate which would not amount to much even in the likely outcome of a victory for conservatives. It would be difficult to ban a game on the grounds that it is "anti-American", whereas if the game is overly violent and sexually deviant a case can be made. The video games are works of satire in a way.

In the games American politicians are presented as sleazy, corrupt, opportunistic and cynical figures. Like all satire it carries a greater truth about politics than we can see in our day-to-day lives. It highlights what we see in politicians at the most basic level, they are all the same, liars, thieves and murderers etc. There are references to a "Jingoism act" being rammed through Congress by the government, which is an obvious allusion to the USA Patriot act. Early on in GTA 4 the bridges of Liberty City are closed off to combat terrorism. Passing pedestrians can be heard calling the government "fascist". The games even include parodies of it's critics, in GTA 4 the "culture warriors" are amalgamated into an extreme right-wing radio-show host named Richard Bastion while Jack Thompson is turned into a do-gooder lawyer who expresses a disdain for computer games claiming that "Guns don't kill people, video games do" - before being murdered by the protagonist.

The criminal world is not so far from capitalism in its most unconstrained version, there are no regulations and no taxation of illicit profits. In the underworld there are merely costs and revenue, supply and demand - the "invisible hand" - with the state looming over them seeking to deprive the people of their freedoms. The gangs are competing firms in a dog-eat-dog world where the most brutal and ruthless thrive. These organisations are hierarchical and tyrannical as the individuals belonging to them have no say in the decisions made, they are there to follow orders. Of course, this generalises to the real world and not just virtual reality. Organised crime is not that far from the functions of the market, it differs in that it is illegal and viewed as immoral. In the Grand Theft Auto series, the player is selling his labour to various bosses in completing missions for pay which is far less than he could be paid. Eventually the player ascends the ladder, usually by killing a boss and usurping his position. This is the brutal underbelly of meritocracy.

In real life meritocracy is a farce, people do not rise according to merit and nor should they as it is the hierarchy which is fundamentally wrong. We should not seek to rise to the top of the pyramid but seek to level that structure. So the vehement attacks of the games on the American establishment are irrelevant as the games celebrate the essence of what they are mocking. It's as ironic as it is almost self-parodic.

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