Grand Theft Auto: The Great Public City via the Great Video Game

Posted on August 22, 2008 by

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Usually at this point in life, she would be thinking about internships, career development, boyfriends, and sex and the city.

Thank god that the former 2 things haven’t been developed in her consciousness yet. I couldn’t be happier.

At this point in her life, before she hits the 2nd decade of life in the Gregorian calendar, my sister decided that this would be the summer that she’d finish something she had always meant to finish.

Instead of a summer sitting down doing bitchwork or working at Jamba Juice, she’d steal what she needed to steal, she’d shoot at who she needed to shoot at, she’d take what she needed to take.

All so that Carl Johnson could reclaim the city of Los Santos.

Ironically, my kidly sister is playing a very adult-themed game.

When I was about 11, I had written in some Playstation game fair my idea of the best video game ever. My idea didn’t necessarily mean violence, but I wanted a game that integrated elements of someone’s life together. I wanted the person to be able to do a variety things rather than just fight, or just shoot or just play basketball, or just drive. I wanted to fight, shoot, play basketball, AND Drive within some kind of progressie storyline.

Enter the Grand Theft Auto series.

Grand Theft Auto San Andreas is the latest rendition and centers around a fictional character named Carl Johnson who’s mission is to re-gain prominence on his city block. Its a game I bought because I kinda liked GTA 3. As this fictional character/protagonist, Carl Johnson or “CJ”, your “job” is to work for a variety of bosses to progress through the game. Your means of accomplishing missions requires a deal of technical precision fighting, shooting, and driving. You can also simply choose NOT to progress through the game, but you won’t be able to access the storyline.

The storyline is loosely based on the Los Angeles Riots of 1992, which was quite scary as an 8-year old. Should you choose to progress in the storyline, you will encounter a city-wide re-enactment of the Riots where everything is on fire, and no one is standing around.

I know that there’s a new Grand Theft Auto for the Playstation 3, but I don’t really care because I don’t have one, and therefore that iteration doesn’t exist.

There’s a sense of Bladerunner-ish dystopia. It’s a land where only the objectified, personality-less Other exists in abundance. It’s a world of mysterious, fallen, and disparate adults.

Along with these themes of adulthood, personality-less, disparate Others, I noticed a few other things:

1) No one comes in pairs or groups. It is a world of wandering individuals. There are no families and no kids here unless they are on the satiric talk radio station. Only old men, prostitutes, ambiguous men, tough guys, big shots, prostitutes — a world built by adults for adults.

People bunched together usually have guns and exist for the dual purposes of aiming poorly and shooting you.

2) Along that line of thinking there are no schools, social services with foundations and muckety muck dinners to infiltrate, playgrounds, no libraries, museums or places of cultural interaction.

3) With no groups of people together, there are no festivals or fairs happening as events in the game. Closest thing you get are street races.

4) It’s very quiet in the game, unless you’re attacking someone and they’re screaming, you’re in a fist/gunfight, and/or the police are chasing you.

5) Open and green spaces are places of no space or social interaction. There are no Madame Matisse Hipster joints or beer gardens or dog parks.

6) There are no other animals in the game, other than the humanoid ones. It would be cool if they added roaming cheetahs, monkeys, elephants, camels, deer, tigers, hawks, hippopatami in their next renditions of the game. However, if they added Ecco the dolphin, or Free Willy I’d return the game as soon as the discovery was made.

I wonder….what would PETA do (WWPD)?

7) There are no seasonal or long-term cyclical demarcations. Every day can differ from sunshine and rain, but it’s generally all the same. There’s no KOST Christmas songs despite the progression of days in the game. There ain’t no Easter Bunny, unless in reference to some kind of joke.

8) Without any of these spontaneous things, there is no room for passive consumership. Everything has a purpose within the game whether its the video game arcade or your fashion sense adding to your sex appeal. My sister got really rich in the game, grabbing over 11 million dollars, but

9) There’s the economic development maxim that cheap transportation equals economic activity.

Cheap, dispensible, transportation is the key to you making money. The jetpacks, the planes, the motorcycles, firetrucks, garbage trucks, taxis, ambulances, go-carts, the cars are the vehicles needed to help you complete most of your missions from which you earn your money.

This is all transportation that the protagonist takes all by himself. There are no passengers, except when he’s stealing taxis or ambulances He’s not waiting at a certain time for any subway or bus or train. He moves whenever he needs to move.

The highways, the lakes, the airport runways, the basic two-way streets, are the infrastructure you take. Oddly enough, construction is seen in the game, particularly when you are prevented from going to another city early in the game, but we don’t really to get interact with infrastructural maintenance.

10) There are no banks to rob, surprisingly, but you can rob casinos!

11) There are no landfills, or prisons. There is no sense of waste as things simply disappear or are blown up. You don’t destroy the green spaces by speeding on it at 90 mph.

12) It’s a world of unlimited infinite supplies. You can always get guns. You don’t have to gas up or maintain your car, unless you want to take it to the paint shop. There is room for water treatments plant, power plants, or gas stations. You can waste cars as needed, and people will keep buying them and putting them on the road no matter what! The sense of ecology is one where things don’t really ever get destroyed, but they simply disappear, and re-appear as part of the mass produced generic products.

What prevents us from seeing all this stark human reality is the obvious cartoon-like feel to the game. The producers try to give an inverted or warped sense of reality from the different puns, metaphors, and commentaries. There are the obvious rip-offs of name brand clothing like Zip posing as an imitator brand for Gap or Caligula’s Place as the mock hotel for the world famous Las Vegas hotel Caesar’s Palace. There’s the satiric societal commentaries on politics and mass media, progressive happenings in the game about drug use, capitalism, etc. You’d have to be a cynic or at least have some cynical sense to really relish and enjoy this game.

These add up to an overall sense of fragmentation in the city-state of San Andreas or the Grand Theft Auto series in general. It is this fragmentation and disconnection which the game exploits to provide a space for the gamer to do what they wouldn’t do normally. Other than the people he meets in the mission storyline, CJ’s sense of disconnection from people and place is what makes it acceptable to be killing random people, running over the different types of infrastructure. We don’t know any of them, we don’t know their stories, we aren’t sensitized to them, so it’s all OK. (However, you might be a little sensitized to that prostitute that you decide to take in your car for a few minutes and choose not to kill her.)

The lesson I take from the fragmented and disconnected virtual Grand Theft Auto city is that in our real cities, perhaps we’d do best to encourage ecological and personal connection. By connect, I usually imply a sense of “play.”

One way to encourage a sense of play is in the physical public space along the lines of the Jane Jacobs school of thought. It’s hook, line, and sinker within the ideas of walkable cities and taking back the streets. It’s about making the streets places to be. It’s about building a place where seemingly random connections are likely to be made, where people are not on guard.

One intriguing topic within this stream of thought is the playground within the public space.


Courtesy of Worldchanging.

Courtesy of Treehugger.

It strikes me that effective community-building things usually have an element of play within them. I touched on the Water Pump merry-go-round. Play has a certain randomosity to it, which enables you to make connections in concept and potentially to other people. How many times by instinct could you just kick that soccer ball that comes sailing towards you? Maybe you could’ve made a new friend?

The play-oriented city is the type that connects people more. The type where people simply seem to do things for no purpose other than fun and enjoyment. What was interesting in the video is that one group of people thought they would take a picture of the fun they were having. It’s the kind of stuff that makes the space a place.