Grand Theft Auto Is Today’s Great Expectations

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Rockstar Games

If there were any lingering questions as to whether video games are the defining popular art form of the 21st century, this week’s release of Grand Theft Auto V should put them all to rest. The massive sales, growing popularity and – most of all – generally uninformed attacks on video games as morally suspect perfectly parallel the rise to cultural dominance of once-derided forms of creative expression such as movies and the novel.

Take a moment to consider the immense draw of Grand Theft Auto V, the 15th installment in a controversial series that dates back to 1997. The new iteration allows players to roam around a fictionalized California, assume a variety of different identities, and engage in sex, drugs, and violent criminal activities rendered in state-of-the-art graphics by Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles (a version for PCs will be released sometime in the future). It pulled in an amazing $800 million during its first day. That’s about eight times the total box office of all movies in the U.S. last weekend and, as Deadline Hollywood reports, about $170 million more than cumulative ticket sales for Man of Steel, the nation’s third-highest-grossing movie of the year.

Despite modest growth over last year’s receipts, Hollywood watchers fret over a “summer of flops” and the ever-dwindling number of top-tier book publishers have forever been bemoaning the dire straits of the “mid-list author” for years (as a grad student in English in the late 1980s and early ‘90s, I knew the “Death of the Novel” had been more firmly established than Alger Hiss’s guilt ever could be).

You’ll search in vain for downbeat assessments of video games’ future. It’s not just ultra-graphic, violent shoot-em-up series such as Grand Theft and Call of Duty that are drawing gigantic followings. Created by Swedish programmer Markus Persson, Minecraft, in which players of all ages create whole worlds out of simple building blocks, is nothing less than an international phenomenon. Millions of players all over the globe – often cooperating or competing via real-time shared servers – build open-ended imagined worlds for hours on devices ranging from Microsoft Xbox 360 consoles to PCs to iPads to smart phones.

(MORE: The Mystery of Minecraft)

Long stereotyped as an acne-ridden, male adolescent shut-in, the typical gamer is anything but. The Entertainment Software Association (ESA), a trade group for gaming companies, reports that 58 percent of Americans play video games, that women make up 45 percent of gamers, and that the average age of gamers is 30 years old. Since the prehistoric days of Space Invaders and Pac-Man, gaming has become ubiquitous among all age groups, says the ESA. That trend will only continue.

But are video games art? The short – and long – answer is yes. While it’s impossible to categorize all games easily (just as it is impossible to categorize all fiction, let along writing), there’s no question that gaming is a thriving form of participatory creative expression.

Indeed, the notices for Grand Theft Auto V aggregated at the site metacritic read like the pages of The New York Review of Books. Apart from honoring the game’s technical advances (“the pinnacle of open-world video game design and a colossal feat of technical engineering” reads a typical review), the critics rightly stress the social commentary built into the game. It is, writes the reviewer for Italy’s SpazioGames, “a game that is able to make a sublime parody of today’s society, taking advantage of all the excesses and insanities to which the world is slowly getting used.”

Such insights and distinctions are lost on plainly uninformed commentators such as Ed Schultz, who denounced Grand Theft Auto V on his MSNBC show by declaring, “If you’re a parent and you allow your son or daughter to watch this [sic] – even if they’re beyond 18-years-old, you’re a lousy parent.” Schultz compounds his error of referring to the game as if it was a movie by then calling it “the latest Xbox 360,” confusing a console with a particular title.

Ironically – and tellingly – people such as Schultz are repeating the same sorts of criticisms that dog all forms of popular culture in their early stages of developments. As novels became increasingly available to non-aristocratic readers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, they were frequently criticized for impairing the morals of their then-mostly female readers by allowing them to imagine themselves in new and exciting worlds. Movies, comic books, and rock and roll – which like novels are often drenched in sex and violence – came in for exactly the same opprobrium. What good can come of allowing large numbers of people to imagine themselves transgressing conventional morality and playing different social roles for themelves, critics have asked for centuries.

Yet is precisely that feature that explains why certain forms become culturally dominant at different times. As Joli Jensen argues in Is Art Good for Us? (2002), culture needs to be understood as a staging ground by which all members of society attempt to “understand and symbolically engage the world” and their place in it. The novel, the movie, and all the rest became popular forms to the extent they let us do that.

And now it is video games’ time in the sun. They are the perfect medium for a digital, networked, globalized age in which previously unimaginable social and technological developments have opened up human possibilities that are intoxicatingly invigorating and terrifyingly anxiety-inducing. Games like Grand Theft Auto V – which allows players to switch among three protagonists at any moment and to encounter pimps, millionaires, reality-TV stars, and every other type of person and situation you can imagine – are the platform by which we can roam freely around a world that is very similar to our own. As Keith Stuart wrote in his review for the Guardian, Grand Theft Auto V is a “dazzling but monstrous parody of modern life” whose fictional “world drags you in. It begs you to explore – and then it rewards you.” If that isn’t art worth celebrating, then nothing is. And as long as video games deliver on that score, they will only grow and grow in popularity and importance to the 21st Century.

15 comments
XiraArien1
XiraArien1

I can't wait for games on a chip I can stick in my head and 'live' them. That's the next great form of 'art' (assuming we don't all ill ourselves first).

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

carnivalofcinema
carnivalofcinema

To say that video games are 'art' is to misunderstand the definition of 'art' and the purpose of games.  I do not believe games are art anymore than intricate carnival rides would be.  They are however something different.  Much like comic (er, 'graphic novels) are the lesser cousin of novels and other forms of writing, video games are the relative of film.  Like comics, video games are a lesser form that does not rise to the realm of 'art' - unless you believed everything you were as an undergrad and think that the mere act of expression brings about Art.  

RationalHippie
RationalHippie

I think games like GTA are more blatant evidence that we no longer need "Art" as it has been, and will continue to become a culturally irrelevant concept. They allow for a new dimension of artistic interaction between creators and participants, in fact, calling games, or other interaction technology art does no justice to the new perspectives they bring to people. As long as art keeps being defined as investment potential and not as expression containing reflective meaning and aesthetic contemplation we will continue to be blind to the relevance of what art should brings to us as a society.

wes.montgomery
wes.montgomery

Art is defined by the market, not by any of you.  I don't think anyone could actually play GTA5 and conclude that it isn't as serious and as valuable of a a human expression as a painting or a sculpture or some other vestigal form of art.  Yes it's extremely violent and obscene but its also pure satire...  

Delivers
Delivers

One step closer to Idiocracy.

Durandal
Durandal

Saying GTA V proves games are art is like saying Transformers III proves that movies are art.   And Nick Gillespie should be ashamed of himself for posting such a mind-boggingly stupid assertion.

greyngold
greyngold

The game that proves video games are art is The Last of Us. GTA V and Bioshock Infinite, while incredible video games, are merely support for that argument, not its main thrust. 

garoud
garoud

@carnivalofcinema how could the art work of hundreds of artist could not be art? Since you clearly have a definition of "the realm of art", I would appreciate to read it.

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

@carnivalofcinema 

I would argue that video games are actually the greater form of art, and film the lesser.

Video games offer more than film. They are generally longer, more involved, allow a greater range of stories, allow direct user input, and generate a visceral experience.

Of course, I wouldn't really equate the two at all. Films are mostly passive, video games are not. I would liken video games to a live debate or round table discussion.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

XiraArien1
XiraArien1

@RationalHippie 

Video games are mostly investment potential too, especially the big ones like the GTA series.

Smaller art, hobbyists and political cartoonists and the like, do it for expression. Indie studios (and some political groups) make video games for expression too.

http://llltexas.com <- my blog

RainbowSandvich
RainbowSandvich

@Durandal It isn't stupid, Grand Theft Auto V proves that games are art and Transformers III proves movies are art.

Sure, Transformers III is, in my opinion, not the best artwork of film out there, and GTA V isn't your idea of the best example of art of video games. This argument can easily be transferred over to art in the traditional sense of a creative sculpture or picture. I love Salvador Dali, Matei Apostolescu, and Daniel Danger, but you might look at these artists as being rubbish, and perhaps prefer more traditional impressionist artworks or whatever.

It is still art, and some people think it is great art, whilst others think it is bad art. But its still art. Its a creative piece designed with a purpose to make someone think, and/or to illicit emotion from them!

If you still disagree, then fair enough, but these are my thoughts on the matter.

wes.montgomery
wes.montgomery

@greyngold what makes a video game incredible?  Visuals, storyline, dialogue, interactivity?  Creativity = expression = art to those who derive pleasure from experiencing the work

JoeyA
JoeyA

@greyngold  You forgot about Braid, Limbo, and Shadow of the Colossus. At this point, there's a lot of awesome games that each prove video games are art.

garoud
garoud

@JoeyA @greyngold Okami cannot be left outside that list. And, on a more personal basis, the metal gear saga, even overcoming the self-imposed self-jokes and shortcomings, is art. Then again, I do not think there is a definition of what "art" is, but more of a general consensus. Therefore the discussions and arguments if something is art.