Grand Theft Auto Is Fun

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Every time I read something from Tom Bissell, I find myself instantly turned off from a few perceived factors: the narcissism, the constant use of “big words” that any writer could otherwise render in plain language, and the constant use of “I”s, the name-dropping. I accept that when reading Tim Rogers, for whatever reason, but something turns me off about Bissell. There’s a time and place to write in the first person, but it’s certainly not in espousing an open letter to a made-up video game character. Are these true of the man himself? Probably not, but one’s writing does reflect parts of your personality, so I would not say my inferences lack foundation in their entirety.

When I came upon this little ditty about Grant Theft Auto V, though, this really took the cake. Honestly, I imagine I disagree with everything in here, but let’s take a few lines out of the whole to see why:

Almost everyone I know who loves video games — myself included — is broken in some fundamental way. With their ceaseless activity and risk-reward compulsion loops, games also soothe broken people. This is not a criticism. Fanatical readers tend to be broken people. The type of person who goes to see four movies a week alone is a broken person. Any medium that allows someone to spend monastic amounts of time by him- or herself, wandering the gloaming of imagination and reality, is doomed to be adored by lost, lonely people. But let’s be honest: Spending the weekend in bed reading the collected works of Joan Didion is doing different things to your mind than spending the weekend on the couch racing cars around Los Santos.

So let’s take this one step at a time. First, nearly any entertainment media activity provides a risk-reward compulsion loop. Just observe the functioning of the Internet, for example; most conversations devolve into the usual flame wars about some issue, large or infinitessimal, that someone somewhere care about deeply. Whether the state of world affairs or the badly matched colors of socks (slight hyberbole), everyone uses the power of anonymity to argue about things that don’t matter. We call them “trolls”, but we’re all trolls about something (and mine happens, particularly, to fit into the video game realm).

Just talking about games turns into a constant feedback loop; the more positive response you get, the more you want to write, and on it goes. The same works for just about any activity on earth, including that of Christian charity and love. Practice at something long and hard enough, put the time and effort into it, and achievement will come…if not in the form you originally imagine. “Ceaseless” activity isn’t an exclusive category for video gamers alone, nor are we all “broken people” who need some sort of psychological “soothing”. Such generalizations certainly don’t help at all. I can understand lonely people attaching themselves to games, but lonely people read books, loudly complain about television and film, and become insufferable people over most anything; it isn’t exclusive to video games by any stretch of the imagination (nor does it take MMOs into account). So, what do we make of this? Pop culture’s a bastion of lonely people, all said.

Also, Jean Didion is depressing, which explains a lot (kidding).

Again, not a criticism. The human mind contains enough room for both types of experience. Unfortunately, the mental activity generated by playing games is not much valued by non-gamers; in fact, play is hardly ever valued within American culture, unless it involves a $13 million signing bonus. Solitary play can feel especially shameful, and we gamers have internalized that vaguely masturbatory shame, even those of us who’ve decided that solitary play can be profoundly meaningful. Niko, I’ve thought about this a lot, and internalized residual shame is the best explanation I have to account for the cesspool of negativity that sits stagnating at the center of video-game culture, which right now seems worse than it’s ever been.

I am trying to pinpoint the moment that solitary play became a internalized, vaguely masturbatory shame, but that moment never occurred. Perhaps your experience, Mr. Bissell, leads to such categorical generalizations, but some of us do not see video games in that light. In fact, I don’t for a second think of anything as a profoundly meaningful exercise in and of itself, whether or not the author thinks so! Entertainment simply looks like entertainment; profound meaning, in most cases, never crosses from the author’s brain to yours. It might produce a cathartic effect on them to convey the idea of failed American masculinity (apparently what Grand Theft Auto V wanted to communicated though you’d be hard pressed to find it), but the audience of the Houser brothers honestly didn’t care. Instead, they wanted to wander around an open world, blow things up, and have lots of fun. The “offensive” content of Grand Theft Auto V, though obviously there for shock value, covers the “fun” parts of the game in an attractive, accessible gloss to the mainstream. Voila, lots of money. Game critics point out myriad offensive things in the game, but notice how no one really cared who bought and played the game to completion.

Me? I’m just not interested in that particular experience anymore. I played that stuff over a decade ago, and while it brought fun and joy back then, the same experience exists in Grand Theft Auto III much as it did in Grand Theft Auto V. Higher production values improve everything to a massive degree, yet I had my fill of craziness long ago. I tend towards linear, focused games out of complete mainstream spotlight. That doesn’t mean you still can’t drive along Los Santos and run over people. I am sure that this would entertain me, due to how hilariously unrealistic it all is. Still, it’s fun for millions of people, either as a stress reliever or just as a game. So when Bissell says this:

I don’t know if you’re aware of this, Niko, but the job of a video-game writer often boils down to figuring out ways to fictionally justify the fictionally unjustifiable.

I’m a little confused! Perhaps my playing video games for so long gives me a different perspective on this, summarized as such:

Video games are, by nature, unrealistic.

Let me explain. You cannot realistically simulate anything in a video game…the moment you can, it ceases to be a “game” and becomes a “simulation”. Look at the contrast between, for example, any arcade racing game and Gran Turismo/Forza Motorsport. One seeks to achieve a particular feeling – namely, to drive fast in sports cars – and the other wants to recreate how a car drives in real life within a digital world. The desire to recreate “life”, as it were, within a video game remains strong if the constantly advancing graphical technology says anything about it. But, of course, it can’t truly be real; it will always pale in comparison to the real thing, merely a fantasy. Hence, “games” and “simulations”, while both fun in their own way, strive toward a different objectives (of course, both GT and FM both integrate arcade-style controls into the mix, so they offer both gamers the opportunity to achieve different experiences).

So, if games don’t intend to recreate reality, then, what’s the main objective? To replicate the feeling of doing that particular action in a game-like way. I imagine we’re not going to see robots running around blasting everything in sight within the near future. Just citing Mega Man, we can point out that this replicates no actual possible experience on earth at the current moment. But the intent, from what any person could tell you, isn’t to replicate an actual experience but to entertain through presenting a fake one. It’s why, for example, Mega Man never took realistic damage, or that he never permanently “died”. It’s the same reason why just pressing the buttons felt good, and playing the game provided more of that feeling.

Think of Pro Evolution Soccer versus FIFA, for example. The former is what we’d call ‘arcade physics”. The latter, a “realistic simulator”. PES is, simply put, a heck of a lot more fun because it gets how soccer fans watch soccer, and then tries to replicate a footie fan’s 90 minutes of tension and sheer excitement/desperation (depending on whether your team wins/loses) throughout a 15 minute video game. As the old saying goes about soccer “the only rule is that there’s a ball”, and anything goes within that ninety-minute period, and that really does mean everything. That’s what you want: the mechanics “simulate” the fun of fútbol without making you play it…because, really, just go play soccer if you want to simulate soccer, you know?

PES, or Winning Eleven as fans more commonly know it, succeeds brilliantly in this respect while FIFA, on the other hand, tries to realistically simulate the game…with a controller. You cannot just make a soccer controller like a racing game, so things go a little far afield in this attempt. It doesn’t make you feel like you’re playing soccer with the same emotional charge as the former, simply because it can’t; I can compare real life to the game, and it’s not the same. Knowing the intent, then, helps in making these determinations.

So, in the case of Grand Theft Auto V, what justification do you need? It’s just making a particular aesthetic fun, one that the developers (I hope…) haven’t experienced for themselves. How do you recreate the fun of being a complete psychopath? Well, you obviously don’t become one to make the game. You show players what they can do within your world, and then you craft a world that makes those actions fulfilling and interesting. It’s the feeling of total freedom to “do what you want” that makes Grand Theft Auto V work, not “are my protagonist’s actions justified”? The game isn’t about anything; it’s about you playing it. Seriously, the plot isn’t even half serious this time (the part where Michael smokes something and kills “aliens” just might clue you into the humor), and you can invade a military base to hijack a fighter jet. Is this getting through to you, seriously?

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Let me say it again: Grand Theft Auto is fun. The fundamental appeal hasn’t changed. That’s why people buy it. Jack Rivlin of The Telegraph seems to agree:

It’s partly down to the growing stature of games as art and entertainment form, and partly by our need to give moral meaning to meaningless things. Just as we try to distinguish the goodies and the baddies in Syria, we want to explain why millions of people are paying more to play a game where they can torture people than they would give to charity in a year…We like GTA because it lets us do things we’d never do in real life. It may take the piss and “hold up a mirror”, but that in itself is not a social comment. GTA is not a threat to morality, or a biting social satire. In fact, it’s not subversive in any respect – it’s just a very fun game.

The critics have a much larger problem with the game than anyone playing it, rest assured. Not everything needs to fit in the vein of expansive satirical social commentary, or biting satire. Some things simply entertain without any real direction or purpose. Good writing doesn’t change the fact that it exists primarily to keep you playing and happy with your purchase. Then, other people play, make videos, and share the experience of all the things they did in Grand Theft Auto. Surprise, surprise!

Sometimes, we get so caught up in the surface elements of any particular thing – media, or people – that we miss the core of it all. We mistake the aesthetic for the interior, and that leads down a path of no fun, no enjoyment, and certainly a judgmental attitude, not a Godly one. I’ve certainly used 1 Samuel 16 before, but let me use it again:

7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look at his appearance or at the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for God sees not as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

So why do you play video games?

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.