Grand Theft Auto is Today's Great Expectations

Why video games are the defining cultural medium of the 21st century.

This article originally ran at Time.com on Friday, September 20, 2013. Read the original.

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.

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 likeGrand 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 GuardianGrand 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.

This article originally ran at Time.com on Friday, September 20, 2013. Read the original.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Hyperion||

    Video games are not art! They are awful toys that will turn your children into violent anarchists!

    Please, Senator Feinstein, can't you do something to save the children? Why can't congress do something? Does congress hate the children?

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    If we just had common sense video game control...

  • Almanian!||

    99% of the public supports common sense control

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    It's just common sense!

  • mtrueman||

    "that will turn your children into violent anarchists"

    Maybe so, but more importantly, they turn adults into children. They are too banal and predictable to be art.

    That longing for the immersive experience these games fulfill is, like, totally infantile.

  • A Series of Tubes||

    Can't tell if serious ... In case you are being serious, it's pretty clear you don't know what you're talking about. And if you aren't being serious, well ... good job I guess.

  • mtrueman||

    "Can't tell if serious ..."

    Accept the mystery...

  • Jordan||

    Round 2, eh? This should be fun. In this thread: People who never play video games tell us why they aren't art.

  • kinnath||

    I don't play video games, so they can't be art.

    Are you satisfied now?

  • Jordan||

    It was a prediction, not a command. But I'm satisfied.

  • kinnath||

    Ok. I just wanted to make sure you were fulfilled.

  • Almanian!||

    Not art. Art of this generation continues to be music. Rap.

    OK, NOW WE GET THE ARGUMENTS FROM THE RACISTS THAT RAP IS NOT MUSIC, THEREFORE NOT ART!

    And this is why we can't have nice things...

  • sarcasmic||

    When did the 'c' in crap become silent?

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    RACIST

  • Almanian!||

    HIYO!!!

  • Hyperion||

    It's just a damn shame that once again, another H&R thread is ruined by racism.

  • Brett L||

    Almost as much a shame as when people be throwin' away a perfectly good white boy.

  • NotAnotherSkippy||

    Funniest movie ever.

    Monique Junot: I figured if we had nothing to say to each other he would get bored; go away. But instead he uses it as an excuse to put his testicles all over me.

    Lane Myer: Excuse me?

    Monique Junot: You know, like octopus? Testicles?

    Lane Myer: Ohhhh. Tentacles. N-T. Tentacles; big Difference.

  • Snark Plissken||

    Rap music is my favorite oxymoron. I invented that on the Usenet back in the early 90s.

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    I always appreciated the GTA games' world design over their supposedly great storytelling. I thought the art of the worlds was amazing, like watching an astonishgly complex Rube Goldberg device in action. I think the "complex social commentary" stuff is pompous. I mean, I laughed at stuff like ads for De Koch Diamonds ("Nothing says 'I Love You' like a lump of carbon mined by slaves in Angola"), but it's mainly just cynical humor. Which I like.

  • Jordan||

    Agreed. The game is an amazing technical accomplishment.

    I'm sure Tony can't comprehend how thousands of people could cooperate to produce such a thing.

  • ||

    Art can be visceral.

    GTA is very much a piece of visceral art.

    Also I am wondering why the story telling is supposedly great. It is at least as good as say HBO's boardwalk Empire.

    It is certainly better then all of this last summer's movies.

  • Ska||

    The writers do a great job at satire, whether something as low as vulgar puns and corporate logs, or something a little deeper - like commentary on the nanny state and security theater.

  • Brandon||

    Tanks showing up at 1 star wanted levels would be relevant social commentary.

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Well, there is (unintentional?) commentary to the fact that you can blast through an intersection going 155 without getting a star, while brushing a cop cruiser will start a chase.

  • UnCivilServant||

    I've bumped into a cop car while walking in GTA (III and IV) and gotten a 1-star rating. They're a bit uptight about that paint job - despite the damage it takes in the chase that ensues.

  • CE||

    They're not really worried about the paint job on the car. They are worried about your lack of respect for their authority.

  • CE||

    Or the protagonist getting randomly raided by a SWAT team who meant to bust his neighbor.

  • Knarf Black||

    The satire is so widely aimed and varying in quality that it really just feels like an alternate reality where everything is worse or exaggerated. It's nigh impossible to find signs of authorial intent or worldview.

    The story in 5 is pretty shapeless (at least at the halfway mark), too. It's less a narrative than a series of excuses for putting interesting characters in cool chase set-pieces.

    Then again, it all works incredibly well in service to making the player feel like a part of a living world. One of my favorite moments so far was speeding through the hills to meet up with one of the franchise's many Fed handlers/blackmailers/mission-dispensers, and just barely missing a pedestrian who had the gall to step onto a crosswalk, causing his paper coffee cup to fly up and into the camera.

  • CE||

    The "story telling" in GTA is mostly ripped off from every gangster movie ever made. The characters and acting and chase scenes are pretty good, but it's the free from, open access world that is great.

  • Bam!||

    How about this: People who play video games explain why video games should never be considered art so they remain fun, joyful activities instead of pompous acts of snobbery.

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    How cynical. You know that once Rockstar starts taking NEA grants, the quality of GTA games will vastly improve.

  • Hyperion||

    Despite modest growth over last year’s receipts, Hollywood watchers fret over a “summer of flops”

    Maybe it's time for an executive action to confiscate some of these obscene profits made by these horrible video game companies, and donate some of it to the noble and righteous, but poor and oppressed Hollywood folks, so that they can continue to make their wonderful movies that inspire total virtuousness in our children.

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    ...so that they can continue to make their wonderful movies remake successful movies from the 70s and 80s.

    Get ready for Dirty Dancing 2.

  • Almanian!||

    Nobody puts Baby's daughter in the corner...

  • Hyperion||

    Next thing I know, you're going to suggest there be a Ghost 2.

    That's like wishing for more cover bands who only do Nickelback songs.

  • Almanian!||

    fucking NICE!

    +eleventy!

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Well, they've already re-made Footloose, so the obvious choices are a Dirty Dancing remake or, God help us, a Flashdance remake.

  • Mainer2||

    I wish I had never seen the SNL parody of Flashdance with Jim Belushi as Jennifer Beals. Some things cannot be unseen.

  • Brett L||

    Swayze is more ready for Ghost 2 than Dirty Dancing 2.

  • UnCivilServant||

    But how does a ghost age?

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    However the CG designers want him to age.

  • UnCivilServant||

    So you admit they'll have to put in a nightmare cg-swayze?

  • ||

    Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights (2004)

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    But that's a sequel, not a remake. I'm talking a full-on return to Kellerman's.

  • Winston||

    Yeah but Dirty Dancing 2 is the title of a sequel.

  • db||

    The major subplot involves a girl fighting to keep her baby while her rich baby-daddy's family tries to force her into having an abortion. She realizes the error of her ways when her plight becomes Twitterized by Sandra Fluke and enormous support from all across the nation leads her to YouTube her late term abortion as an act of inspiration to young women the world over.

  • CE||

    Remakes and Sequels 'R Us:

    Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2 (clever title)

    Machete Kills (sounds like high art)

    Carrie (more gore)

    Thor: The Dark World (Loki, again)

    Great Expectations (to prove they can act, even if we all know the story)

    The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (like she would totally risk her life again)

    The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (who says you can't make the movie series longer than the books?)

    Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues (okay, sometimes they do achieve high art)

    And that's just in the last 3 months of 2013.

  • Winston||

    You are aware that GTA V is a sequel?

  • ||

    More of a remake really new character new story etc.

    Though the references to all the other characters in the GTA expanded universe is fun.

    Is the Johnny you kill when you first play Trevor the same Johnny from GTA 4?

  • PACW||

    Catching Fire was a complete novel years before Hunger Games was made into movie. Not arguing whatever point is being made, just pointing out that it is different than Carrie or the others.

  • Smilin' Joe Fission||

    A society which awards based on status, not merit.

  • Hyperion||

    Why can't we award based on empathy?

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Right! Maybe we can even award based on a natural sense of empathy for members of "our tribe".

  • UnCivilServant||

    You can't trust those Empaths, always playing on people's feelings.

  • Mainer2||

    Maybe it's time for an executive action to confiscate some of these obscene profits made by these horrible video game companies, and donate some of it to the noble and righteous, but poor and oppressed Hollywood folks,

    Hey, it's a dog eat dog world.

  • Hyperion||

    We'll never know for sure if video games are art, or not, until congress decides the matter. But first, they have to figure out what a journalist is. So, if they then don't get sidetracked with other issues of major national importance, like deciding whether tomatoes are vegetables or fruits, then maybe we can finally get the answer.

  • Jordan||

    As long as they continue to define pizza as a vegetable, I'll continue to trust in their wisdom.

  • Hyperion||

    So are you saying that my 3 meat pizza is not a vegetable? It's clearly a vegetable!

  • RBS||

    I believe SCOTUS draws the line at 2 meats. Sorry.

  • Almanian!||

    Two meats or not two meats, that is the question...

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Hah! SCOTUS already .

  • Hillary's Clitdong||

    Squirrelz! Here's the Link.

  • Hyperion||

    Botanically, a tomato is a fruit because it is a seed-bearing structure growing from the flowering part of a plant.

    That effectively makes all vegetables, fruits, except for roots like carrots and potatoes. I'm having a hard time imagining zucchini as a fruit...

  • Almanian!||

    Mmmmmm - zucchini with tomato and onion (i.e. another fruit and a vegetable...or a fruit and a fruit...not sure where the bulbs fall)

  • Hyperion||

    I grilled some last night. I just put olive oil and salt on it, and stick the slices on a skewer. It's great that way.

  • Almanian!||

    Yep - that and the pepper. Needs LOTS of pepper.

    I love zooks.

  • Doctor Whom||

    Biologically, bulbs are not fruits.

  • Almanian!||

    Way to "other" the tulips and onions, Doc.

  • Hyperion||

    He's trying to collectivize bulbs. Obvious racist.

  • Jordan||

    It is not for you to question Top Men.

  • Doctor Whom||

    That effectively makes all vegetables, fruits, except for roots like carrots and potatoes.

    Not exactly. Also, potatoes are tubers, not roots.

  • Hyperion||

    Also, potatoes are tubers, not roots

    Well, if you were a poor Peruvian mountain person and only had potato and llama soup every meal, you wouldn't be acting all uppity, now would you!?

  • UnCivilServant||

    I don't think they'd kill too many of their beasts of burden if they were 'poor'. It'd be too much of an economic loss.

  • Hyperion||

    Of course not, that's not what I meant. The llamas spit in the potato soup and that makes it llama and potato soup. Duh, I have to explain everything around here.

  • UnCivilServant||

    No, that's potato and llama soup. You have to list the major non-water mass first. llama and potato soup has more llama, carved from the freshest andean bleaters.

  • UnCivilServant||

    you had it right the first time and switched!

    Troll!

  • Hyperion||

    No, that's potato and llama soup

    Well, obviously, you hate the poor Peruvians and want to take away their llama soup.

  • UnCivilServant||

    They could always go into the coca business, I hear the margins are fairly good.

  • Dan||

    You're missing the distinction between what is scientifically categorized as a fruit or a vegetable with what people commonly refer to them as.

    The wiki page isn't discussing at all actual scientific classification. It's just listing things as people commonly refer to them.

  • Zeb||

    Oh, good. Vegetable vs. fruits. The on;y argument stupider than what is art.

    Here's a hint: Sometimes words have different meanings in different contexts. What counts as a fruit for culinary purposes might not coincide completely with what is a fruit biologically speaking.

  • db||

    Yes, like "reasonable," "liberty," and "shall not be infringed" in our founding documents.

  • CE||

    I didn't see anything about the freedom of video game creators in the Bill of Rights, so let's get rolling with the common sense regulations against them.

  • Loki||

    I'm getting the strangest feeling of deja-vu...

  • UnCivilServant||

    ...all over again?

  • Hyperion||

    I know, I feel it too. I keep expecting someone to do a review of Bioshock Infinite, any time now...

  • Anonymous Coward||

    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.

    Ed Schultz has spent his life in a haze of self-imposed, unassailable ignorance. Why should he change his ways now?

    As to whether video games are art, why does it matter? Art is subjective.

  • UnCivilServant||

    If dadaism is art, then video games must qualify.

  • Acosmist||

    It is?

  • Anonymous Coward||

    Some say it is.

  • Zeb||

    Who fucking cares? Video games are a amazing technological product that people like and want to buy. I'm really not interested in them at all myself, but I can see why people do like them and I don't really care if you want to call them art. There is certainly art in them.

  • PapayaSF||

    It just got blocked on YouTube, but GTAV has a 15-minute cartoon called "Impotent Rage: The Liberal Superhero" that's pretty funny and is quite a shot at the left.

  • Matrix||

    Yeah. That cartoon is hilarious. GTA takes shots at a lot of people from different sides of the political spectrum. They do seem to go more after the right-wing, but the left certainly is not safe from satire in that game.

    But GTA has been like that for a while. I remember San Andreas poking fun pretty hard at both sides.

  • PapayaSF||

  • db||

    Nothing that is available for console systems and not the PC can be art.

  • juliajulii||

    uptil I saw the bank draft that said $9401, I didnt believe that...my... friends brother had been truly receiving money part-time on their apple labtop.. there moms best frend had bean doing this 4 only about 17 months and just now cleared the dept on their cottage and bourt a brand new Fiat Multipla. go to website

    ------
    ​http://www.communityjobfinder.pkm.ddp.net/

  • Winston||

    Isn't it a bit early to proclaim something to be the defining element of the century?

  • Mongo||

    Remember that late '70s arcade game DeathRace? I remember the controversy and then it miraculously (for me it was a miracle) showed up in the arcade tent that carnies built when our county fair arrived in summer!

    --The graphics were blocky, black and white, and primitive, but the "gremlins" looked more like stick men and the game's working title had been Pedestrian, so its implication was clear. In spite of Exidy president Pete Kaufman's denial that the intent of the game was to promote violence, Death Race touched off a media onslaught of controversy. The National Safety Council called it sick and morbid. The CBS news program 60 Minutes did a show on the psychological impact of video games. It was also covered on NBC's Weekend news show, in the National Enquirer and Midnight magazine. It is also rated on several 'most controversial video game' lists.--

  • Mongo||

    One local art gallery had a video-gamed theme art shew. I met a University of Minnesota student who majored in video game history(!).

    He was very serious and inquisitive. I regaled him with my stories of playing Battle Zone with the original periscope viewer (I thought that was the only manifestation of the game until he informed me of others); the original Donkey Kong (my friends hated playing that); and a cranked-up Pac Man that was extremely fast that would hit a glitch and black-out with just a ghost slowly 'floating' down from the top of the screen through the walls.

  • somercet||

    tl;dr

    "sh**ty game attracts sh**ty review."

    GTA3 was a glorious cartoon, a '70s exploitation flick turned into a playable game. GTA4, which I abandoned early, was vicious, hateful propaganda.

  • Winston||

    Well Gillespie is a shitty writer and his "cultural commentary" is superficial shit. His Christmas "Things are getting better because we have fancy toys" article was nonsense.

    vicious, hateful propaganda.

    So it really is art then?

  • ||

    GTA4, which I abandoned early, was vicious, hateful propaganda.

    Propaganda for what?

    I played it all the way through. Hard to say that the story was propaganda from Niko's point of view as he pretty much hates himself and what he does throughout the game.

    This is actually a new thing that the GTA franchise has adopted. They have it in GTA V as well. Essentially you have the story protagonists hate themselves for the horrible things that the players make them do....well except Trevor.

  • christopherolken||

    my buddy's aunt makes $83/hour on the internet. She has been laid off for 5 months but last month her pay was $12861 just working on the internet for a few hours. Read Full Report
    http://www.Rush60.com

  • Dan||

    I'm still waiting for Dungeons & Dragons to turn us all into murderous satan worshiping cultists.

    This same idiotic rhetoric has been spewed about just about everything ever invented. It has once to yet be proven correct.

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    Cummins INSITE 7.6 is a PC-based software application that provides quick and easy access to your engine's electronic performance information, which enables faster service turn around times. INSITE helps to ensure accurate procedures and diagnosis and limit downtime, while increasing productivity and profits.
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