Mass Murder or Interactive Literature?
I see a future unit plan on Alienation and Disillusionment in American Literature. The assigned texts: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Catcher in the Rye, and Grand Theft Auto 4. I also see an imaginary supervisor glancing at the unit plan then glancing back at me with a look of confusion and dismay. This idea always amuses me, but a game like GTA will never get the academic analysis it warrants due to its reputation, which it undoubtedly earned–the game is violent, highly amoral, and a version of Grand Theft Auto 3: San Andreas has an interactive sex game.
But do games deserve the level of consideration given to literature or art? Debate rages on: Roger Ebert said that Games could never be high art; the government recently disagreed. If there is a difference between art and entertainment, I often feel that it is a matter of message or its capacity to make you actively engage in a dialogue, either with the work or with yourself. I have encountered many video games have that capacity, and GTA 4 is a strong example.
A Tale of the American Dream
To those of you who have never played the game GTA 4 is a game about an eastern European immigrant, Niko Bellic, who arrives in Liberty City (a fictionalized New York City) after fleeing his own country. He has come to meet his cousin who is, supposedly, living the American Dream: money, a big house, and a life of ease with a large-breasted American wife. Niko quickly finds out that his cousin has greatly exaggerated and in fact lives alone in a dilapidated apartment and runs a small cab company, barely getting by. This is the first of a set of disillusionments that Niko endures throughout the game, and the player decides how Niko navigates his new life.
GTA 4 is the first in the series that actually allows the player to make some (though not many) moral choices. Niko will still end up deeply involved in crime families, murdering people left and right for money, but there are key moments where you deal with people outside the world of crime where Niko can choose to either bring that world to them or spare them from it. When a gangster named Dwayne, who has just gotten out of prison, wants you to check up on his wife who left him while he was locked up Niko will find her with a new lover and the player has a choice on whether or not to spare the wife from Dwayne’s jealous revenge.
As you play through the game, you experience Niko’s anguish. He often rails against his cousin for not telling him the truth about Liberty City. He rails against the various crime lords who try to control him and force him back into a violent life that he tried to leave behind in his home country.
Yet while he rails and resists he also falls into the company of these mobsters with great ease, showing a hypocrisy that would make Holden Caulfield proud. While Holden fails to consider his own “phoniness” while criticizing that of the adult world, Niko has his criticism of Liberty City’s corruption and violence as he participates and profits from it.
We Live in Liberty City
Another part of the game which holds up to scrutiny is the satire it relentlessly piles onto our society. Liberty City is an incredible replica of New York, but a hyper violent and incredibly corrupt replica. Jokes throughout the game are digs at the US. At the beginning of the game you are locked off from areas of the city to ensure the player really explores the beginning area and the game justifies this as a police overreaction to a terrorism scare. The radio stations in the game which you can listen to while driving (and you will be driving a lot) pile on the sarcastic portrayals of both right and left wing politicians, healthcare providers, and citizens. One could easily compare the satire from the game to Twain’s passages from Huck Finn about the Grangerfords and Sherpherdsons listening to a preacher talking about loving their neighbor, agreeing whole heartedly, and then going back to killing each other over an old feud.
Hopefully once I explain this my curriculum supervisor will nod sagely and allow me to teach the game in conjunction with other literary works (obviously to a senior class due to its 17+ rating), but I am not too hopeful. Like Catcher in the Rye, GTA will have to go through a time of censorship before it gets its chance to be studied.