Grand Theft Auto
posted: May 12, 2008
One of the most provocative pieces of writing I’ve come across recently was a  New York Times review of the video game Grand Theft Auto IV. It was the first time I’ve been asked to consider a video game as a legitimate work of art, in the same vein as motion pictures or literature.  And here I was, just thinking it was about killing, raping, and all sorts of until now unimagined mayhem.

I’ll say up front that my video game exposure in the last 25 years has been limited to getting my tail kicked by my kids on their Wii, and wondering how the hell to turn a Nintendo DS off so that it would stop…that…music. Still, reading  the Times GTA review made me feel as though the train for pop culture’s future was leaving the station and I hadn’t bought a ticket.

A couple of months ago Chuck Klosterman wrote in Esquire about never having read any of the Harry Potter books and never intending to. What concerned him was the thought that he was willingly letting a generational gap open up between where he stood and those who had read the books. His point was that from here on out, the people who read the books would integrate the ideas and catch phrases into everyday life, and he wouldn’t even know that he wasn’t “getting it”.  He seemed to be at peace with the idea of not being in on whatever joke these kids are playing.

I feel the same with video games. To me, it’s just a bunch of noise, killing, and bad behavior. But when you look at the numbers – Grand Theft Auto IV has claimed two entertainment industry sales records, posting the best ever single-day and seven-day sales totals for a computer game. Last year’s Halo 3 sold $300 Million it’s first week. That makes your typical Hollywood blockbuster opening look like peanuts.

But is it or can it be art? I don’t even know what art is most of the time, so yeah, sure, it’s art. What I do know is that this is a huge industry that is only going to grow in the years to come. If I were a young artist getting out of school and blinking in the harsh bright daylight of the professional world, I’d seriously consider the possibility of killing, carjacking, and drugging my way to a career.
Steve Wacksman May 13, 2008
Food for thought, Dale, to be certain. Animation has long been one of my most enduring influences and an artform which I am passionate about. While I loathe the hyperreal CGI that's so pervasive these days, I recognize that ultimately the process has been retained; the characters, backgrounds and props all need to be designed. That starts with pencil and paper, just as it always did. Video Games are no different - every frame needs to be designed and rendered. Characters need to be compelling enough for the player to have some sort of visceral attachment to them or they have no incentive to continue. There is, in my opinion, a tremendous amount of artistry under the hood - even in the most unforgiving slaughter-a-thon - that can't be overlooked.
Tim O\'Brien May 13, 2008
Ah video or no video. As a parent, the issue is out there. My wife and I feel that it's just so sedentary and detached that it's something we want to avoid. My son does have an iPod and can tune out his parents in long rides but his eyes are out the window and his mind is least I hope. I came of age in the day of PONG. We had that simple game as kids but somehow never got hooked. There were arcades everywhere and a quarter a play kept the mania at bay. The girls sprinkled through the room also helped and when they walked out to their cars we followed. I hope to resist the games for as long as I can. Other friends of my son have a myriad of games including Wii. The heavy pressure now is that getting friends to come over, according to my son, is a harder sell without games. Clever boy. We're holding firm. The graphics are amazing and the most interesting thing to me is being able to zoom around a space and begin to feel you are in it. Oh, and this weekend I played Guitar Hero. I know enough about my obsessive personality to recognize that I should NOT get that EVER.
laura t. May 13, 2008
art or no, please let me know if someone has this and wants to hang out and shoot people. PLEASE. i am dying in a low-tech ps2 world. bonus if you've unlocked the flamethrower.
Leo Espinosa May 13, 2008
I bought my new pup some treats because they came in a really cool box with awesome graphics. I didn't even read the ingredients. As a result he pooped the smelliest, most disgusting stuff. Shame on me. That's what videogames do to the mind. People (mostly kids without supervision or clear understanding of what live really means) chew them and swallow them because the taste of violence and the more you feed them that stuff the smellier it gets. The graphics are just a gimmick to sell, sell ,sell. Besides some nice death metal guess what they feed the army to pump them up? Hmmm, let me guess... There's no art in videogames if the end result is promoting violence. To me, content is perhaps the most important part of art. The rest are just senseless graphics for the sake of making money. Thanks for this kind of post, Dale.
Steve Brodner May 13, 2008
In the end the only thing that saves any of us is the ability to think for ourselves; make our own judgments. But for small children their way of seeing the world will color this ability. I don't know how marinating in violence and sadism will affect their development. Will it make them angry or more passive, just ready for the next explosive distraction to take over their brains. In any event I can't imagine it touching off a rebirth of human empathy and compassion. On some basic level, it's our job as a species to take care of our kids. We've given it over to the entertainment industrial complex (everything now has an industrial complex, except of course illustration).
Dale Stephanos May 13, 2008
So we can agree that most of us are old farts who don't "get it". And if there's anyone out there who's letting their under 16 year old kid play this particular game, then they need to reevaluate what they're doing as a parent. But. The argument can be made that engaging in a problem solving activity like a video game is "better" for the mind than just passively watching tv. Yes, I know those aren't the only two choices in life, but I'm just sayin'. At the ripe old age of 43 I've probably watched millions of deaths on tv and the movies just for the entertainment of it, but I still maintain a healthy respect for human life and an aversion to violence. Hell, I've never killed anyone who didn't deserve it! (Joke! Ha!) I think a game like Myst is a great example of puzzle solving and beautiful artistry. It doesn't get the attention that GTA or Halo does though. And Tim, Guitar Hero has changed things for the better in my house. Before Guitar Hero arrived, I had all but run up the white flag in my battle to get these kids to listen to decent rock music instead of that top 40 gahbage the someone else plays in our car. Now, my kids are interested in Santana, Cream, and other classic rockers as well as learning real instruments. So far, if video games are a gateway drug of any kind, I'm liking it. Also, close to where I live there's a new film production company opening in Pymouth, Ma. I saw an article in the Globe a while ago that said they planned on hiring 250 illustrators and graphic artists. I think we've turned a corner here. CGI in movies and video games are going to be the norm, and there's going to be a much bigger demand for young talent to keep it fresh. I find it pretty exciting.
Johnny May 13, 2008
Good post Dale, and a very interesting subject. Leo, I totally agree with you about art that promotes violence--It's much like pornography--it's fine for what it is but people need to realize that it is, ultimately, empty. I'm not saying I haven't enjoyed long sessions of Grand Theft Auto, or that I don't admire the work that goes into making them. But it's very sad to me that games like that get all the attention from media, and thus it's all people know of video games. They don't see the more artistically interesting Ico and its sequel, Shadow of the Colossus...Loco Roco...the upcoming Little Big Planet...look up these games and you'll see that the medium isn't a lost cause, and like any other medium it has the potential to enrich the imagination as well as stifle it.
Jason Crosby May 13, 2008
Tim and Dale, I have to admit, my wife and I are Guitar Hero addicts! Instead of watching the TV, we'll play the game together - I play lead while she plays bass! She has been introduced to many new musicians/songs through the GH series (she was mostly a 'pop' or 'country' fan beforehand). We have no children yet, but I cringe thinking about the amount of violence on today's video games. Growing up having only the Atari 2600, I spent most of my time outdoors playing in mud. The only violence in games I remember was Pac Man getting eaten by ghosts. I'm sure the day will come when my wife and I will have the video game debate (to 'buy' or 'not to buy') when we have children. I just hope I introduce them to activities which don't involve sitting on their behinds for hours on end.
Brian Stauffer May 13, 2008
I can't stand Grand Theft Auto more for it's glorification of violent stereotypes etc than for it's being a video game. We have a Wii, I have an xbox in the studio only because it doubles as a DVD player. Exposure to the games is inevitable but that doesn't render parents powerless to teach children a set of respectful use and behavior. It's quite wonderful to watch a 6 year-old bowl a 220 and thus crush his 42, 67, and 75 year-old opponents. Quite the confidence booster. But the most important lesson he learns is that after a little while, it's time to turn it off and go do something else fun, like build cable-car logo cities etc. My 5 year old is quite awkward with his dexterity etc but has made some amazing progress because he learned how to fly a plane on the xbox. His ability to focus has been greatly improved and he also gained confidence to take on other things outside the game, things he once thought he was too little to do. The other day he told me that I was the best pilot in the world because Iwas able to land a jet on an aircraft carrier. When I asked him if he would like for me to fly real planes he said "no, because I don't want you to die, this is just a game, it's not really real."
laura t. May 13, 2008
whoa, let's not all get all anti-gta here! granted, it is insanely violent, but just because i spend my evenings unwinding crashing up police cars and running drug missions and killing opposing gangs doesn't mean i'm gonna go out and actually do it. i'm not saying you should buy it for your baby childrens, but kids aren't the only target market for video games- this is a total favorite among my pals, and none of them have gone on shooting sprees lately either. i think it should be along the same lines as movies- gta has an R rating or whatever it is for adult games, you shouldn't buy that for your kids any more than you'd buy them a box set of david lynch movies. also, i grew up with super mario, and at no point have i pinned a raccoon tail to myself and tackled a rabid turtle over a pit of lava.
laura t. May 13, 2008
grr, i just wrote out a whole post and it got zapped. in any case, it's not like kids are the only target audiences for this game- it's quite a hit among my pals, and yet none of us go out on real-life shooting sprees. it's a way to relax and unwind without going out and having to punch real people. also, they do have the rating system- i wouldn't buy gta for a kid any more than i'd buy them a david lynch box set. just cause it's not appropriate for kiddies doesn't mean it's not a fun game! and if you think gta is bad, you should see some of the video games they've got going in circulation in japan... ps, i grew up with super mario, and at no point have a pinned a raccoon tail to myself and flown around attacking rabid turtles over pits of lava...
Matt May 13, 2008
I completely agree with Steve that it's our job to take care of our kids. I used to work at a video game store, and I'd like to describe a scene I saw almost daily: A kid, 9 or 10 years old, comes in with his parent. The kid picks up a game and hands it to his parent. The game's box has bloody art on it, and right on the front cover there's a sticker that says NOT INTENDED FOR PLAYERS UNDER 17. The parent brings the box to the register and hands it to me. I say, "you know that this is a really violent game? It's not intended for children?" The parent shrugs, gives me a blank stare, or maybe replies with, "It's just a game." I'm not saying that the games themselves are 100% without blame, but they are NOT the biggest culprits here. Ideally, children should not even need to be considered in a discussion like this, as they wouldn't be considered in a discussion of a R rated movie like 300 or Pulp Fiction.
Leo Espinosa May 13, 2008
Again, it goes down to content and bet not everything is guns and gimmicky graphics. Sadly those are the ones that sell like crazy. Mister Brodner, marinating in violence from such an early age makes you accept it as part of life and be less troubled by it (which is totally absurd and wrong). I can tell you that not from games but from growing up in Colombia. Fortunately I had parents that cared and helped me do the thinking for myself part you also mentioned. Being angry when you are young is normal and kids only need help channeling those feelings. I remember whole afternoons with a soccer ball, a brick wall, tears of anger and sweat. Man, that felt good!
Robert Hunt May 13, 2008
We resisted and managed to keep video games out of the house until both our kids were in high school by providing alternatives. We filled the void with music lessons, books and sports. I don't begrudge anyone their xbox- I just think there's not a need for young kids to be desensitized to violence- and the opportunity cost of time spent is huge. If you cold be a kid again, how would you use your time? I sure wouldn't use it to play Grand Theft Auto. But that's just me.
daveB May 13, 2008
I like Robert's point above. Ask any "gamer" 20 years from now if he could have his youth back, how he'd spend it and I'm guessing he might choose going outside and living to years spent on the couch working out his thumbs..
Christoph Hitz May 13, 2008
As a parent of a 13 year old, I try to make educated choices for the media we consume. Since repetition is an important factor in a child's development the learning potential of electronic devices like computers, games and television are tremendous, unfortunately sifting through quality content is work. A few years ago I read in Wired magazine that the military contacted the gaming industry asking them to network several game stations together in order to train soldiers how to group assault the enemy. To me it becomes quite apparent, one can learn good and bad stuff from these machines. I talk to my son, Emmett, about bad animation, weak content, excessive violence, sloppy driving habits picked up in video games (no turn signal) etc. Soon research will show smart games make our kids smarter and dumb games do their share. I'm with Leo: check the content, insist on quality content and produce great content. Grand Theft Auto IV does not pass the "must-art".
Zimm May 14, 2008
Cool post, Dale. I was the creative director of a computer gaming company back when home computers still ran on 64K. The criteria for a winning game formula was the same then as it is now, though - it has to be addictive to be successful. We realized early-on that it was a lot easier to addict people to concepts they already understood (shooting stuff and blowing things up) than it was to get people hooked on themes that were more difficult to grasp. We also realized that if you could get people to explore more challenging themes (being a detective looking for clues is a good example), people would play those with much more frequency than games that are easier to understand and master. The downside to this reality for a gaming company is that there's no money in people playing games with more frequency. There's a lot of money in selling what is easily understood. Just sayin.
Dale Stephanos May 14, 2008
Zimm, that's interesting. I'll bet that if Drawger had a section where you could detonate your enemies - hell, even your friends, you'd have people just hanging out in there all day. Call it the Killeasy? Nah, it would never work. ; )
rag May 14, 2008
Dale, great post. I want to point out that you have to differentiate the application and the medium. The application is GTA. The medium is 3D virtual environment technology. This technology is used for games, manufacturing, movies and many global online communities. It is a powerful medium in that it is immersive; you are interacting in a way your brain identifies as a very real experience. Second Life, one of many virtual online communities, is an application that mimics the Real world by letting the participants invent the cities, environments, interactions, communities and their avatars. It is no more inherently violent or peaceful as the real world, as people are interacting and collaborating in creating what goes on. I have seen new and very interesting art forms developing in Second Life by artists who are using the tools available both in programs like Poser and 4D and through Second Life building software. Its the next generation's creative medium and like any good artistic tool, requires training, discipline, and a mind that is rich in experience and humanity to produce art worthy of its moniker.