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July 09, 2003

Video Game Blues


I want to announce a very minor milestone of contemporary cultural history. This is the first movie-style billboard ad I’ve ever seen for a video game:

I must say I didn’t find the ad particularly alluring, especially since it appears at a suburban intersection within a few miles of my home. It also visibly recycles cliches about the gangster life which I'd rather not see reinforced, as there are quite active street gangs (responsible for a growing number of murders) operating within about a mile of this particular billboard.

Granted, I’ve never played the game, but the descriptions on Rockstar’s website (which you can visit here) didn't exactly reassure me:

Having just made it back onto the streets of Liberty City after a long stretch in maximum security, Tommy Vercetti is sent to Vice City by his old boss, Sonny Forelli. They were understandably nervous about his re-appearance in Liberty City, so a trip down south seemed like a good idea. But all does not go smoothly upon his arrival in the glamorous, hedonistic metropolis of Vice City. He's set up and is left with no money and no merchandise. Sonny wants his money back, but the biker gangs, Cuban gangsters, and corrupt politicians stand in his way. Most of Vice City seems to want Tommy dead. His only answer is to fight back and take over the city himself. From the decade of big hair, excess and pastel suits comes a story of one man's rise to the top of the criminal pile as Grand Theft Auto returns to the PlayStation®2 computer entertainment system this October. Vice City is a huge urban sprawl ranging from the beach to the swamps and the glitz to the ghetto, and is the most varied, complete and alive digital city ever created. Combining non-linear gameplay with a character driven narrative, you arrive in a town brimming with delights and degradation and are given the opportunity to take it over as you choose…For the action man, or outdoors type, there's tons of fun things to do and adventures to be had… guaranteed. For the secretive or creepy type, Vice City is full of surprises, a place where you'll constantly be surprised by the vivacious, fun-loving types who live there and the things you can discover.

I acknowledge, the game may well be fun. But as an innocent bystander who came close to getting shot in a recent drive-by murder (the slug passed through my office where I normally sit; fortunately I took an early lunch that day) I find the game and the marketing campaign more than a bit cheap, cynical and irresponsible.

I was intrigued to hear in the last year or so that video game sales passed U.S. movie boxoffice. Somehow I was hoping that this financial statistic would translate into a cultural development as well. In short, I had vague fantasies that this new medium would make a more interesting contribution to American culture than the movie industry, which in the past twenty years or so has been obsessed with recycling mostly empty formulas and serving up well-digested cliches of sex and violence on the screens of our cineplexes.

Regrettably, “Grand Theft Auto: Vice City” isn't straining to burst the bonds of empty formula or well-digested cliche. In fact, it would seem to be pretty much wallowing in them. (Last time I looked, hookers and “ethnic” thugs are relatively well-established stereotypes in modern American entertainment.) The game itself seems to be built out of recycled images and notions from Miami Vice, the Al Pacino version of “Scarface” and such fare as "Gone in Sixty Seconds." Of course, none of those was exactly a fountain of cultural originality. And once these sources have been pulped and reformulated into a video game (along with what appears to be a good helping of violence and sleaze) what comes out is sort of a thrill ride that again seems like more of an extension of current Hollywood trends than an alternative to them.

It's a drag to see that something new has been so quickly, efficiently and cold-bloodedly converted into another version of the same old story--only more so.



posted by Friedrich at July 9, 2003


"Nobody ever went broke underestimating the desire of the American people for painfully predictable familiarity."

Not to mention to joy of blowing shit up.

For those of you who don't play games - it's very common for a frustrated player to save the game, and then violently kill all the people who are supposed to help you. Fuckers. They deserve to die! Why is this common aspect of the PS2 lifestyle so rarely a topic for those why try to put "meaning" into play.

Additionally, I'm waiting for the violent influence of video games to drive more teens to commit crimes with flame throwers.

Posted by: j.c. on July 10, 2003 12:20 AM

Yup, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is an orgy of violence and recycled 80's cliches.

It's also one of the most successful recent games, and a lot of game designers have cited it as pathbreaking in the way it defines gameplay which is open-ended, nonlinear, and driven by the exploration of a large and coherently imagined world (for instance, at

These innovations are the reason for its success much more than the violence. But naturally it's the the violence that has attracted media attention and concern (e.g., here:

However, it would be a mistake do draw large conclusions about games-as-culture from that violence. Its artistically interesting qualities aren't visible from the billboard. But they are likely to appear in future games which operate in a more wholesome universe.

On the other hand, it's true that a game like Vice City costs many years and many millions of dollars to create. For instance, part of the 80's feel of the game comes from the fact that they went out and licensed lots of old 80's music, which runs as "radio stations" whenever you're driving a car. They also hired good writers and movie actors for voice. As game development gets as expensive as moviemaking, it becomes subject to the same economic pressures.

So if you think the commercialism of movies is responsible for their faults then, yeah, one should expect ever more of the same from games.

Posted by: alexis on July 10, 2003 7:45 AM

Interesting, thanks. I'd be curious to play the game, not that (given my lack of talent for videogames) I'd ever get very far into it. But Alexis' point about how videogame designers are doing important and interesting things with the question of how-to-get-around-computer-space is certainly true, and it's fun to keep up with a bit of that.

But, like FvB, I worry a bit about pop cult too. A couple of decades ago, it was fun, it was subversive -- letting pop cult rip a bit was like getting over some cultural inhibitions. It seems to me like those inhibitions are now long gotten over, and that pop (as a general thing) represents something else entirely: a bunch of lowest-common-denominator formulas to be driven home as effectively as possible. Interesting the way that exploitation values have become the standard thing, isn't it? Well, to me, anyway. In the entertainment biz, you're often viewed as a pathetic loser if you don't go along with that, which is pretty sad. There's a big diff between cutting loose and having some irresponsible fun (early pop cult) and ever-more-effectively exploiting people's built-in vulnerabilities for maximum profit (today's mega-corporate pop cult). But how and where to draw a line? And can such a line be drawn?

A bullet went through your office? Sheesh and wow. Sorry to hear it, very glad you weren't there.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 10, 2003 11:03 AM


I grant all you say as true. However...I remain troubled by the fact that the only purpose all these artistically advanced features could be put to is to recreate Miami Vice. I'm a small businessman and I understand the financial pressures on such a project, and how they would tend to push in such a direction, but if such pressures call the shots--as they certainly do in Hollywood--those advanced structural features won't ever give us anything all that's all that culturally interesting.

Plus, the obvious glorification of violence, drug dealing, exploitation of women, etc., as well as apparent racial stereotypes gives me pause. That part doesn't bother you? I see some real life people who pretty much resemble the fun-filled characters of the game every day on the street, and there's very little that's entertaining or enlightening about the experience. It's nice that the game can do all this cool stuff, but there are other considerations that don't seem to have dawned on the boys and girls at Rockstar--or their ad agency.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 10, 2003 12:13 PM

On the one hand, I agree with you Friedrich. Pop culture such as this inures people to violence, low morals, and wasteful pursuits. GTA, by itself, probably is harmless. Combine it with rap music's glorification of "pimping" and many real-life models of such behavior and you've got a climate that eliminates the social stigma associated with prostitute management. The enshrinement of pimping and casual sex in popular culture is a bad omen for our society, overall.

However, how important are the people influenced by these things? I mean, they're humans and so it's sad to see them in degraded states, but does it matter if people pursue self-destructive ends? The people who would most be affected by popular culture probably had a pretty low moral threshold as it was. These video games et al might push them over the edge, but they were already looking over it to begin with. I can't imagine that educated and/or intelligent people are buying into this in any significant manner. The so-called silent majority probably look at these things with the same disdain you do though they may not express it.

In the end, I think any sort of political suppression of this would be repugnant and much worse than letting it fester and thrive.

Posted by: Bill Brown on July 10, 2003 1:10 PM

Les'see, here are some somewhat coherent points on the matter.

Video games aren't responsible for gang violence. Never have been, never will be. Friedrich, I'm terribly sorry to hear about your run in with violence (I live in Baltimore, where more people die from gang violence every year than most other places in the world--so I can sympathize a bit). But the teens and young adults who are committing these crimes did not pick up guns because they found their Playstation experiences just a bit "lacking."

(and I realize your comment was more about taste than causality, but let me continue...)

The real thing that leads to all of the violence is bad parenting (in the home, and to some extent in the community). But you can't make the courts pass a law making people be better parents. You can, however, convince them to ban the sales of violent media. (Regarding video games, the latest tactic has been to ban the sale of games that depict violence towards police officers; which is okay in theory, but the laws enacted define neither "violence" nor "police officer." So is a monkey throwing a banana at a purple people eating space cop illegal, or is it kosher? Who knows.)

You guys are also spot on with your comparisons between movies and video games. I've friends in the game biz, and they keep telling me how strong these comparisons are. Games cost more, and the stakes are huge (video games are a [roundabout] 10 billion dollar industry in North America). So yeah, making a game that is Miami Vice meets Scarface is a no-brainer. Movie industry business practices have sprung up in gaming and proven themselves successful already, and I seriously doubt that will change.

Yet, I'd like to stop being a cynic for a second and make a point (and call me out if I'm wrong on this): more good movies (many of them indy films) are making their way to more viewers now than ever before. If the masses want to see Arnold blow shit up, let 'em have it. I'll be awaiting John Turturo's next film eagerly--as will many others.

The same can be said of video games. There's a lot of crap out there, but there are also a lot of really great, fun, challenging games that aren't violent or even childish. The larger the general audience, the more niche games it can support.

Now is it sad that more mature, deeper games/movies are a niche? Yes it is. Is it surprising? No, not at all.

Lasty, I'll point out that sex and violence don't sell a video game. A lot of stink was made recently about a game called BMX XXX, which was a biking game that featured curse words and boobies. The game tanked, and for one simple reason: crappy gameplay.

Alexis' point about the gameplay of Vice City being its true secret to success is spot on. A lot of games are now being molded in this pattern, and many of them aren't obnoxious at all. As I understand it the new Spiderman game will feature open-ended, non-linear gameplay. Swinging around NYC, stopping random crimes, and chasing after whatever bad guy you choose: how cool is that? Pretty sweet if you ask me.

As to Friedrich's skepticism about video games as a medium: give it some time. When movies were first invented they were seen as a novelty, and the pictures made were largely trash. Today, however, we can regard cinema as an art form (not saying we always do, but...). The same will someday be true of video games.

I don't think we'll ever solve the "pandering to the lowest common denominator" quandry, but I am optimistic that video games will turn out better on the whole than movies. A video game at least is an active pastime that requires thought and even creativity on the part of the participant. You can only really say that of the best movies. When game developers finally hone their science into an art form, I think we'll see some truly spectacular results.

Posted by: J Wyatt on July 10, 2003 1:12 PM

Video games are likely to be an exact mirror of Hollywood because the same people are in charge of making them. I work for a media company (although in the publishing end) and can tell you that many of the movies you see in theatres are green-lighted specifically because of their ability to co-branded into video games. In the business, they call this synergy (the ability to reap as much money as possible out of one concept no matter how intellectually vacant it is). So the sad truth is, we are likely to see more and more video games that glorify sex and violence, with only the occasional thoughtul, beautifully rendered product. The even sadder truth is that this is true because that is what people vote for with their consumer dollars.

Posted by: L Clauser on July 10, 2003 3:45 PM

When was pop culture ever interesting?

When Luke and Laura's wedding made zillions of dollars for General Hospital, the American Studies crowd went ape shit trying to find meaning and explain it all for "the rest of us."

Analysis: People get tired. They have stress. They like to fool around.

Telling rude jokes in a ice-fishing shack, playing quarters, reading Judith Krantz, it's all the same.

Although I've never heard of anyone writing a 46 page guide to a romance novel, it probably happens. And they're probably pretty well written. At least as well written as your better strategy guide.

Posted by: j.c. on July 10, 2003 11:52 PM


Ah, come on, you're going to admit to remembering the marriage of Luke and Laura? That reminds me of an old duet in which the male singer describes some long-ago event (like the San Francisco earthquake) in detail and when the female singer admits that she remembers it, the male singer replies:

You remember? Well if you remember
Then dearie--you're much older than I

Of course, this song came out in the early 1950s, so, er, you probably don't remember it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 11, 2003 1:53 PM

I'll admit to anything!

Even to deciding that, although I have no problem looking like a moron for wearing junior-size clothes that I wouldn't have been caught dead in at 22 (another "unique" aspect of my personality identified as a trend by the WSJ), wearing a certain pair of cream-colored silk cargo pants in public would be crossing the line from moron to pathetic.

Posted by: j.c. on July 13, 2003 1:50 AM


To be honest, I too am troubled a bit by the vulgarity of GTA: Vice City.

My point was only that the vulgarity is due to the same pressures that affect other big money culture industries, and that it's not what's responsible for the game's success.

Now that I think about it, those statements sort of contradict each other. If the violence isn't what makes it a winner, then why is there a economic pressure to add violence?

This brings back all the familiar arguments people apply to movies -- are over-conservative investors are stifling good taste, or are the movies an accurate mirror of what people want?

All the same arguments apply, I think, and I feel the same personal ambivalence. I worry, but I play.


Posted by: Alexis on July 13, 2003 1:06 PM

The game play comments about the Grand Theft Auto games are right on target. You don't have to play violent missions in it: you can stick 100% to driving ambulences, or picking up cab fares, and the goals are totally un-structured.

GTA has also had massive crossover into female players (like my girlfriend) for a violent game, and from what I've seen that's 100% due to the non-competitive aspects, and the level at which the violence is almost entirely optional.

It's more of a fluid VR experience than strictly a game per se.

Posted by: David Mercer on July 14, 2003 4:36 PM

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