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.