The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto, Ed. Nate Garrelts

McFarland, 2006, 256 pages, US$35.00 tpb, ISBN 978-0-7864-2822-9

Yes, it’s true: I dearly love the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) series of videogames. I have been playing them on PC since the demo of the first game, and they’re the only series that can get me to show up in stores on their release date. But I love them for more than the automobile mayhem and the top-notch storytelling: They’re among the most brilliant virtual experiences on the civilian market, and I have come to look forward to new GTAs as fondly as real-world trips to other cities. And that’s without counting the subversive satirical content, the ways the series meshes gameplay with storytelling, or the ramifications of the series free-form playing over the realism/gameplay balance.

It turns out that I’m hardly the only person to enjoy seriously thinking about GTA. I didn’t know about The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto before getting in by mail as a Christmas gift, but it quickly shot up to the top of my pile of books to read: A collection of 14 critical essays about the series and its relationship with contemporary society, it’s a book that could have been written just for me.

The first thing one notices about Nate Garrelts’ anthology from a quick flip through the book is how important the Hot Coffee controversy of early 2005 has turned out to be in defining GTA as a serious subject for study. The public furor over a relatively tame sex mini-game hidden in the source code of the application turned out to mark an important turning point in the evolution of video games, argue several of the authors: By clearly forcing outsiders to see GTA: San Andreas as an adult gaming experience rather than get another game “for the kids”, the Hot Coffee episode signaled a belated turning point in gaming. It also brought a lot of academic attention to the significance of the series, partly leading to this essay collection.

But don’t let your eyes glaze over the prospect of academics writing about video games: One of the greatest strength of this collection is how nearly every essay seems to have been written by a gamer-turned academic, with obvious benefits for the accessibility of the content. Despite a few hermetic pieces toward the end of the book, each essay here can be read without too much knowledge of academic jargon (although, as is usually the case, some sympathy for the way pop culture is formally dissected can be useful in shaping one’s approach to the essays.) If you’re expecting a denunciation of the series, you’re also up for a surprise: all the essays here have a strong sympathy toward GTA, even when pointing out the failings of the series so far.

In fact, some of the most interesting material concerns the links between GTA and the rest of society at large. GTA: San Andreas (GTA:SA) was particularly interesting in that, for the first time, an audience predominantly composed of young white suburban men could live vicariously as a black ghetto hero trying to fight against a corrupt system. This, suggest some authors, may not have been coincidental to the controversy surrounding the game. Other good moments come when authors dissect GTA:SA’s politics as it briefly tackles US foreign policy (the same “Mike Torrino” moments are cited in two successive essays) or the racial ramifications of the game’s storyline, through both easy stereotyping and more textured characterization. Other installments consider GTA’s satirical radio stations, and how they become a way to criticize American society. (Though few essays highlight the fact that GTA comes from an overseas developer.) Several essays suggest new and exciting directions in which future GTA installments could evolve.

On the other hand, there are a few disappointments. One of my least favorite aspects of the series has been the misogyny of its universe, and there’s preciously little commentary on this issue here. Meanwhile, the last few essays seem to be wasting time talking about “the semiotic self” and “narrative agency”, dragging the reader kicking and screaming in dull analytical pastures.

Still, there’s usually something interesting to be learned even when the essays get deep in academic references. One of my favorite essays in the book, “The subversive Carnival of GTA:SA”, stretches the “game-as-carnival” metaphor until it snaps, but not before presenting an intriguing look at how games are played. Two other essays about urban aesthetics and experiencing place managed to articulate a number of things I felt after playing GTA heavily, then visiting the cities in which they were based.

I’m still amazed that despite a few years of GTA fandom, I still hadn’t learned about this book until recently. But that may be more a problem with my information sources (let’s just say that gaming blogs aren’t big on serious critical analysis) than with the book itself: The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto is a perfect choice for every GTA gamer with more than half a brain to bear on the issues raised by the games. As gaming become a bigger part of culture (keeping in mind that Grand Theft Auto IV‘s first week of release saw sales bigger than the opening weekend for The Dark Knight) and comments that culture more aggressively, there will be more and more of a place for critical analyses and serious thought about those games. GTA may be the first gaming series to earn that kind of attention, but there will be many more in the future.

[January 2009: Published in 2006, The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto can obviously only comment on the series up to and including Graft Theft Auto: San Andreas, completely missing out on 2008’s GTAIV. But one of the best compliments one can pay to Nate Garrelts’ anthology is that its points are reinforced rather than undermined by GTAIV: The series has evolved but not changed dramatically in this latest installment, although Rockstar’s obvious pursuit of “realism” can be seen as a conscious reaction to embrace the “mature gaming” reputation earned in the wake of the “Hot Coffee” episode. In other ways, it’s sad to see that GTAIV has not managed to push the series in other and more subversive directions: There’s still a strong disconnect between the game’s liberal politics and its misogyny, and the lack of scope sabotages some of the social gains made during GTA:SA. On the other hand, GTAIV’s relentless realism introduces new questions about the balance between realism and gameplay that could be pursued if ever McFarland pursues a sequel to this critical anthology.]

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