I linked to a newspiece a few days ago. The story was about how celebrated game designer Warren Spector was giving his views on the perception on gaming. The part of Warren’s comments that appear to have stuck in the gamer’s collective consciousness was his criticism of GTA.
Warren is “really angry at the GTA guys” for doing so much for gaming on a technology and design level but for pushing the content in such a confrontational and alarmist way. I can see the guy’s point. GTA3 was an absolute revolution for gaming. Gamers had pined for a truly three dimensional GTA for a few years but what they got was a hell of a lot more. Take 2 and Rockstar had succesfully created what felt like a living city for the game to take place in – one that was so convincing that the player was compelled to wander around and discover the world for themselves.
Of course, a player can only play a game in the way it was designed to be played. With such an open-ended style of game as GTA the core A-to-B mission represent a fraction of what can be done. After that, it’s up to the player to exploit the tools and elements in the game world set by the designers to see what they can do. GTA is primarily about cars. So the player is grabbing cars and doing things you’re not normally allowed to do in real life – stealing, driving too fast, crashing, aiming at pedestrians, looking for impossible jumps, driving on the wrong side of the road, creating pile-ups, baiting the police – you name it. And then there’s weapons – you don’t need to think to hard to consider your options here. To GTA’s credit, there’s a heck of a lot more than just doing stuff in vehicles. The game responds to your actions in a variety of ways and opens up goals for you. Steal a taxi? Start getting fares. Steal a police car? Go on mercenary missions. There’s property development and even basic RISK style territorial gameplay challenges in the later games.
But what is GTA known for? Encouraging you to misbehave.
You know what? People are always going to misbehave. In fact, it’s one of life’s great pleasures! How many of you surf the internet at work when you shouldn’t? What about making a personal call on the work phone? Do you park selfishly? Do you veer away from your diet?
Misbehaving and not getting caught is our guilty pleasure – and videogames have opened up a huge array of different ways to misbehave and actively encourage you to. It’s not just GTA. On Warren Spector’s CV you’ll find titles like Thief – not the most morally pure game on the planet. How many people, after they bought a DS started sharing rude doodles with their friends? You have the freedom to draw – so what do you draw? Something rude. It’s silly but you can get away with it!
Give enough possibilty to people in *any* area and the naughty, impish side of humanity will come out. Some people put more effort into that others – such as the strange skins people have created that you can apply to your Sims avatars. What about email scammers or those eBay auctions that are carefully worded so as to fool you? The new Lionhead game The Movies has launched this week. It has a sandbox mode that allows you to virtually direct computer graphics movies (also known as Machinema). The support for the game extends to a community for players to share their home-made movies with each other. I wonder what people will come up with with this particular set of tools the developer has given them..
On a grander scale, some of the things the Garry’s Mod for Half Life 2 on the PC have produced are easily on par with the worst GTA can offer.
GTA isn’t totally innocent of course. Stealing cars and using weapons is necessary to make progress in the game. The game points the player in that direction, suggests that misbehaviour equates to success and let’s the gamer run with the idea. Gamers, on the whole, adore it. GTA’s crime is that the skill and artistry in creating such a cohesive world for the player to run amok in works so damn well!
GTA and videogames as a whole are greatly misunderstood. They are books that are judged by their covers. Typically, a harsh critic outside of the culture might only read the first chapter. If we’re lucky they’ll have read the story to the end. But I don’t think anyone makes any effort to understand the author. I don’t want to suggest that GTA has some deep political subtext, I think it revels in its own adolescent bravado. It’s not shallow, it KNOWS it’s adolescent. It goes out of it’s way to drive the point home – sometimes in obvious, sometimes in not-so-obvious ways. Listen to those fake adverts and talk-radio in the game’s radio stations – they’re not fart gags, that’s observational satire! GTA Vice City and San Andreas are almost a satirical commentary of the era’s they’re set in. The fact that GTA itself will be referenced in commentary of gaming culture for years to come seems poetic justice.
All this is eclipsed by the attitude of critics that want to ignore the subtleties and achievements of the game and point out singular instances of out-of-context moments in GTA. GTA is perfect fodder for anyone who wants to act alarmist. It’s consciously designed that way.
I personally experienced this sort of mentality a while back. I was, once again, trying to justify why I didn’t take the over-authoratative rantings of gamers praising one thing or bashing another. I explained that their assumptions were incorrect and that they were not qualified to comment on, in this case, how easy or difficult game development was if they had never undertaken the task themselves. Metaphors are useful for demonstrating a point of view by putting it into a context that the other person isn’t so attached to. In an attempt to show these people why I couldn’t really accept their ‘wisdom’ as authorative I asked:
If you were a sexually active adult would you accept love-making tips from a group of virgins?
I felt that the topic of sex was fairly universal and this particular question could be appreciated by young and old alike. It also offered those I was speaking with ample oppurtunity to live up to their claims of maturity. So it was disappointing to be greeted with answers that amounted to xenophobic comparisons of British and American libidos (apparently gathered from an animated satire) and accusations of me being a pervert. In fact, the phrase was dissected and savaged from every angle other than the one in which it was presented. I have no doubt that the metaphor was understood but getting angry and waving your arms can often be enough to distract from the core issue and make your own interpretation of events appear to be the ones that matter.
GTA, like any video game, is not to be taken literally!
Is Mario Bros to be branded a ‘tortoise shell jumping murder simulation’? Is Pacman a ‘lesson in gluttony for the undisciplined McDonalds generation?’. Is The Sims *really* training people to be paedophiles? REALLY?
The answer to all of these is yes – if you insist on interpreting the movements of zeros and ones and pixels in an absolutely literal context.
So Warren, I agree with you that it’s a shame Rockstar’s talents gave the player so much freedom but immediately encouraged the player to misbehave. Given half the chance in any situation, we’re going to misbehave anyway. If a game can be made more fun by misbehaving, then gamers will do it – whether the designers intended to or not.