In Praise of Bad Mommies and Daddies
Some parents might be horrified by the thought of junior playing Grand Theft Auto, the game that is always brought up in stump speeches and congressional resolutions as emblematic of the nihilistic sex and violence that supposedly dominates the experience of videogame play. As proof, small snippets of game action from the series are often shown on the network news to support the thesis that this particular form of digital media encourages the young to imitate the engrossing actions of the immoral behavior that is depicted. Of course, it's an argument that goes back to Plato's Republic. and -- as McKenzie Wark might argue -- not as relevant to the questions of representation raised by videogames as other parts of the Republic or even other works in the Platonic canon.
This time, however, coverage in print and broadcast media is actually indicating that the game can also be read as a pointed cultural satire. For example, in "Grand Theft Auto IV Exceeds Every Expectation," a PC World reviewer writes:
Let's say everything you know about Grand Theft Auto is wrong. Humor me for a moment. Remember the scene in "Kill Bill Vol. 2," the one where David Carradine tells Uma Thurman that Clark Kent is the costume that Superman--an alien--wears to blend in with humans? That that's how Superman views us? "Clark Kent," says Carradine, with obvious relish, "is Superman's critique on the whole human race." Sort of the way GTA IV, the quintessential version of Rockstar's sandbox crime opus, is less the lurid celebration of homicidal tendencies the mainstream media sophomorically reduces it to, than a deeply satirical commentary on and critique of contemporary American society by legal aliens (British expats) Dan and Sam Houser. To that end, you can almost hear the Houser brothers reacting to all their sanctimonious finger-wagging critics by saying something like "If you refuse to gaze into the satire, the satire still gazes (smugly) into you."
Similarly, in "Grand Theft Auto Takes on New York," a reviewer for The New York Times describes the game as "a violent, intelligent, profane, endearing, obnoxious, sly, richly textured and thoroughly compelling work of cultural satire disguised as fun."
Last night, at a friend's house in the Hollywood Hills, my kids got to take their first stab (and punch and kick) at Grand Theft Auto IV. We all stayed up late watching my tykes -- a teen and a tween -- play, although sadly time did not allow for the adults to get many minutes at the controller. As a family -centered evening, I think it was actually a pretty wholesome affair and a form of playing with your child that deserves a digital Dr. Spock to legitimate. Many of the media satires were probably too far over their heads generationally speaking, such as the game's National Public Radio spoof, but the kids did seem to appreciate the constant multitasking at work in the life of the game's main character, an Eastern European immigrant with a military past at the front lines of post-Cold War ethic conflict. Your character can listen to various radio stations -- including offerings from DJ Iggy Pop and the moody soundscape of Philip Glass, talk on a cell phone capable of everything from arranging for a rendez-vous to making a virtual 911 call, navigate via GPS, and periodically stop to check ATM balances or surf mock blogs and web pages in the game's very meta Internet cafés. The audio onslaught of sonic information in this iteration of the game is probably already too self-parodying to be improved much by the send-up "mods" of Mark Marino, which include mp3 files of a driver's ed instructor and a nagging backseat-driving Italian mother.
As to the plot of the game, my kids -- relatively experienced GTA players -- spent their valuable controller time on the new game simply tooling around the vast urban landscape, beating up random inconsequential strangers, and trying out the feel of various vehicles as they became progressively more dented and the worse for wear from collisions and wrong-way chases. Like video artist Jim Munroe in "My Trip to Liberty City," they seemed to enjoy many of the ironies offered by the possibility of aimless action and an unfettered urban landscape. Even as youthful consumers, they expressed admiration for the sophisticated lighting effects and physics of the game, which seemed to show how next generation procedural animation could be used for more lifelike and rapidly changing scenarios.
As Scot Osterweil has argued, the experience of wandering around and even getting lost in a large, sprawling city may actually represent the ultimate forbidden fantasy for cloistered suburban kids being raised by predator-panicked parents, when they aren't even allowed to cross the street or play in the front year in between sessions of their over-scheduled enrichment activities and heavily monitored playdates.
I hope that GTA V will feature a middle aged female academic heroine, preferably with a couple of videogame-playing kids and a lot of books of critical theory, but in the meantime I like this send-up by my college pal Conan O'Brien.