Games As Art: How I Used GTA IV In a Critical Thinking College Essay

When I’m not waiting tables in Park Slope, Brooklyn, fragging noobs in COD 4, or writing for the best gaming site on the planet (*cough* *cough*), I’m doubling as a full time college student. Majoring in accounting at that! Towards the end of this last semester I had to hand in a research paper for my English class. It was to be based on 3 different works of literature, and they had to be tied together with a compelling argument or thesis. I originally wrote a rough draft about how 3 particular literary works would have made better games than books. I brought in the rough draft for a one on one appointment with my Professor, and after reading through it and learning that I had been busy building my own gaming site, he had me read a critical review of Grand Theft Auto IV by Philip A. Lobo. He then challenged me to write a piece on GTA: IV. He told me not to summarize or review the game, but rather like Lobo’s article, to put it under a critical microscope.

I made the argument that GTA: IV is not for younger gamers, not because of the well publicized controversial reasons, but because younger gamers just don’t get the real messages found throughout the game. This is a copy of what I handed in, I hope you guys enjoy it. I won’t say what grade I received for it, what I want to know is what grade as readers you think I deserve!

When people hear the words: Grand Theft Auto during the 5 o’clock news, it usually isn’t tied to an actual crime or police report, but rather a series of video games. The games in the Grand Theft Auto (GTA) franchise have, well to put it lightly, seen their fair share of controversy. So much so that some of the games have been banned in some countries and territories around the world. Even retailers in the U.S. such as Walmart have in fact changed their policy for selling “Mature” rated games by making sure they only sell to costumers with proper I.D. due to game’s depiction of overly violent acts.

As video game technology has improved, the series has evolved with it. What was once played from a top-down perspective with almost cartoon-like graphics, has since transformed into a fully immersive 3 dimensional 3rd person experience. The creators at Rockstar Games Inc did not only change the industry on a technological standpoint by introducing what is now referred to as “sand-box” style game play, but also brought it to new heights by pushing the limits on it’s highly criticized subject matter. The first things that people notice in the GTA games is the violence, the language, and the sexual undertones. Pushing the envelope, time and time again, is what the team at Rockstar is known for; and the latest iteration in the series is no different. Enter: Grand Theft Auto IV, which marks the series return to Liberty City (the location from GTA III, which established the series’ evolutionary entry into 3D). This time around the city is more New York rather than L.A. or Chicago, with five different Boroughs along with the ghettos that subsequently infest them. The changes weren’t only cosmetic, as the producers of the game have made it more risqué than ever before by using GTA IV as a creative vehicle to provide social commentary about real world issues and problems that plague everyday life.

The argument with GTA IV should not ever be about the violence, the language, or the sexual undertones, but rather the messages that are delivered in such a clever way that they are often overlooked. GTA IV is a parody or satire of city life through the eyes of an emotionally embattled immigrant, and I agree with some of the negative controversy that surrounds it, not because of it’s questionable content or because the same parents and politicians who lash out against the game shouldn’t have bought it for their children to begin with. I agree that young gamers shouldn’t play it because they won’t be able to understand the real messages behind this work of digital art.

At its core, GTA IV is the story of an immigrant’s assimilation into American society. For the first time in the series the main protagonist or anti-hero, isn’t American born. Niko Belic, the main character with a troubled past, with his real life like thoughts and mannerisms was a breath of fresh air for the series. His cousin Roman lured him to Liberty City, where he would brag about having it all. Stories of money, power, and women are what Roman utilized so Niko would join him in the states. When Niko finally arrives, he realizes nothing is as it seems and Roman is nothing but a low-paid cab dispatcher living in a small apartment, all the while indebted to loan sharks. This is the launching pad for the story of GTA IV. With twists and turns all throughout, the player embarks on a journey of self-discovery through the eyes of Niko Belic, who is on his search for a new life while at the same time cutting loose ends from his old one, which has subsequently caught up with him in Liberty City.

The GTA games usually start out the same way. At the beginning of all the games in the franchise the main character starts out in a small area of the city, and through exploration and the completion of objectives more and more areas of the city are unlocked. In GTA IV, however, you start out in the Borough of Broker (the GTA equivalent to Brooklyn N.Y.), and stay there for the first couple of hours of the game. The explanation of why it starts out limited to the Borough of Broker, is provided by the in-game news radio stations saying the bridges in Liberty City are closed due to a high terror alert level. This is where the creators at Rockstar subtly took the game to new heights. This was one of the 1st times in video game history where a game would touch on a subject as sensitive as national security. As a player it helps one to remember how much the world has actually changed since the terror attacks of September 11th. It doesn’t make fun of anything related to terrorists or the victims of the attacks as much as it emphasizes on the way fear is spread through the media. It jokingly brings up the terror alert color chart by stating the current level in Liberty City as being  “volcanic” purple, making it a clear over dramatization of a color that does not exist on the Department of Homeland security chart.

In 2007, the GTA IV official website was host to many “teaser” trailers, in anticipation to the game’s release. A popular clip based on the Liberty City Police Department depicts an everyday LCPD officer describing his life as follows: ” My name is Brian O’Toole. I wanted to fight the War on Terror, but I don’t read so good. Most careers were closed to me. That’s why I joined the LCPD. Now I’m on the front lines, helping tourists and fighting terrorists. I rifle through people’s bags on the subway to protect freedom. I arrest protesters at political conventions for straying outside the free speech zone. Being a cop used to be about stopping crime. Now, thanks to politicians, it’s about fighting terrorists, one old lady at a time. I’m protecting freedom, whatever the cost. I’m a hero, and I know it.” Just by using the name Brian O’Toole, (‘tool’ being a slang insult, referring to someone who is used or manipulated by others without realizing it) the creators of the game sarcastically describe the every day life of the average LCPD officer, but being that Liberty City is an over the top recreation of New York City, this is obviously a clever critique of problems that have plagued the NYPD in recent times. Saying that they don’t “read so good” is obviously an attack on the intelligence of the average police officer in New York City. The searching through people’s bags on the subway is something that is still very relevant. To this day, when you enter the subway the station agent booths usually have a sign saying that anyone’s bags are subject to inspection, and main transfer stations throughout have a police presence with a bag searching station. It is described in the game and in real life as a means to “protect freedom” when it feels more like an invasion of privacy and an inconvenience. The arresting of political protesters for “straying outside the free speech zone”, is a noticeable strike against the NYPD referring to the way protesters were handled outside of the Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in 2004. The NYPD had designated “protesting areas” that were nowhere near the actual site of the convention and arrested those who strayed outside of it. The reference to “protecting freedom” at “whatever the cost” I think, is a cunning allusion to the Patriot Act. The act that makes the one time illegal task of wire tapping, an everyday crime fighting method for government agencies, all the while is stripping citizens and residents alike of their civil liberties. The team at Rockstar mentions it so subtly but it’s done to great effect.

That trailer is just a small piece of the work of art that is Grand Theft Auto IV. Throughout the game there are hours upon hours of social commentary spread everywhere you look and listen in Liberty City. The talk radio stations in the game (WKTT and PLR) discuss the same actions that help move the narrative along. There is one mission where you take part in a high stakes bank robbery with a police car chase all throughout Liberty City. When the mission is completed, if you listen to the News stations, you get the story from two extremely different angles; One being from the far left and the other the far right of the liberal/conservative spectrum. The conservative station (WKTT) describes it as a “vile and despicable act”, and how a “giant wall” should be built around the country to avoid having immigrants like Niko Belic enter because immigrants  “are all terrorists”.  At the same time the liberal station (PLR) describes it as the complete opposite. This is what makes this game so great and unique, it manages to even analyze itself as you go through the narrative.

This is my main argument, why I agree that Grand Theft Auto IV is not for younger gamers. It is not because of the excessive violence, language or sexual undertones. It is because the game touches on ideas and thoughts that most young gamers just won’t understand or appreciate. Even after all of its faults and immoralities, Grand Theft Auto IV is the ultimate representation of art imitating life while poking a little fun at it along the way, and it’s unfortunate that most cannot see it that way.

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Joel Taveras

Joel Taveras is one of the founding members of DualShockers. He hails from New York City where he lives with his wife and two sons. During his tenure with the site, he's held every position from news writer to community manager to editor in chief. Currently he manages the behind the scenes and day-to-day operations at the publication.

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