A2 Media Studies 2009/10
Unit G325 Section B
Critical Perspectives in Media
Contemporary Media Issues
Videogames and Postmodernism
Videogames and the Active Audience
Unlike 'older' media forms, where we can distinguish between postmodern texts and
others, video games might be considered postmodern in themselves. This is because
they subvert our traditional ideas about the distinction between reality and simulation
or image. An online experience like Second Life takes this even further, offering the
participant the opportunity to purchase virtual land with real money. Slavoj Zizek, a
theorist often associated with postmodernism, makes this observation about the
different levels of reality.
Virtual reality simply generalises the procedure of offering a
product deprived of its substance, of the hard resistant kernel of the
Real - just as decaffeinated coffee smells and tastes like real coffee
without being real coffee, Virtual Reality is experienced as reality
without being so. What happens at the end of this process of
virtualisation, however, is that we begin to experience 'real reality'
itself as a virtual entity.
Two concepts which help us to understand video games as postmodern are flow and
immersion. Immersion describes how the gamer invests imagination in the game and
is subsequently absorbed into the gameworld.
Immersion and flow
The first concept, flow, is described by Csikszentmihalyi (1997) as a state whereby an
activity demands incrementally harder, but increasingly pleasurable and achievable
challenges, while providing regular feedback (a loop') on degrees of success. It is easy
to recognise the conditions of flow. These include having a clear goal or problem to
solve, ability to discern how well one is doing, struggling forward in the face of
challenges until the creative process begins to hum and one is lost in the task, and
enjoying the activity for its own sake.
Within flow, immersion (a pleasurable loss of reality) becomes difficult and
challenging, while also feeling creative and pleasurable, so the feeling of being 'lost'
in the gameworld leads to an enhanced state of' happy hyperreality'.
Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto IV is probably the most discussed video game of all time. This is a
media product that made roughly $500 million in its first week, eclipsing even
Hollywood blockbuster releases with that scale of distribution and demand. This game
has polarised the public - there are not many people who are in between the two
conflicting opinions: the game is a masterpiece versus the game should be banned.
But what both sides of the argument do seem to agree on, whether they use the term
or not, is that GTA IV is postmodern - that it immerses the player in a convincing,
intricate and believable-world, but that the reality it represents is the stuff of
films and other media. Like Disneyland, The Matrix and the Gulf War, to take on
the character of Niko To live in Liberty City is a profoundly hyperreal experience.
The emotive debate is about the extent to which intense experiences of violence, sex,
crime and vice in the hyperreal situation translate into effects in our real society, and,
of course, a postmodern position on this has to be that there is no discussion to be had,
as the separation of the two 'states' is meaningless. But as the postmodern theorists
tend to see contemporary media experience in terms of play and picking and mixing
aspects of identity and meaning, the idea of effects is also off-limits.
Much of the discussion of Grand Theft Auto
IV as a media product with the potential for
harmful effects focuses on the content, which
is undoubtedly 'seedy’ in many ways, but
ignores crucial contextual factors, the most
important of which is what we call 'situated
literacy practices'. This means, simply, that
we need to explore how players of the game
'read' it, and whether playing this game is very
different to reading a book or watching a film.
Until we know this, we will not be able to
make very informed judgements about what is
going on in people's heads when they fight
innocent members of the public or visit
prostitutes in Liberty City. So what we are
saying here is that it is not so much a question
of whether the content of Grand Theft Auto is
postmodern - as far as the working definition we are using goes, it probably is - but
rather it is a matter of whether the playing experience is postmodern, whether the
player/reader of the text/game is immersed in a set of practices that cannot be
understood using the 'old' concepts - representation, narrative, audience.
Playing GTA IV – the ‘Sandbox’ Game
The player in GTA IV has so many options that we cannot list them all here - not just
options within the single-player game (which are, if not infinite, then at least
countless), but also the chance to play in multiplayer mode, within which there are
several 'mini-games', such as 'Cops and crooks'/Hangman's noose' and 'Mafiya
workout'. Equally, when first playing the new product in this long-running franchise,
many players will be comparing the game to its previous incarnations. Certainly, a
great deal of the 360-degree media coverage of the fourth game in the series has
obsessively made these intertextual observations.
Even if we are thinking of video games as 'always-already' postmodern as a media
form more broadly, considering the whole GTA series for a moment, we can identify
the experience provided by the product as being 'more' postmodern than other games
because of the 'sandbox' principle and the choices offered to the player, as this
extract from Play (2007: 9) magazine's Unofficial History agrees.
It was in the gameplay itself where Grand Theft Auto managed
to break the mould in many ways. Grand Theft Auto contained
free-form 'go anywhere you please' gameplay that saw you tied
to an over-arching plot that contained various missions to
complete but also left you free to explore the huge world in your
own time, finding hidden packages and rampage icons,
exploring the world and doing what you wanted
If a defining feature of postmodern media is the breaking down of traditional
boundaries between producer and audience, then the proliferation of fan-generated
material in response to video games is a great example of this. Video games - those
with more traditional narratives that relate to other media products in an intertextual
relationship and franchises that do not relate to any pre-existing media product (the
Harry Potter and Final Fantasy games) - have led to the creation of a broad range of
fan-produced . material, which includes the following forms:
1. Alternative scripting
2. Fan art
3. Game walkthroughs
4. Level editing
7. Player-developed cheat guides and patches.
Choose any game that you know has a large fan-base and, with Google as your
starting point, you’ll be able to research the above fan-produced materials. Once
again, web 2.0 is the facilitating development here, so you will be interested in how
these user-generated creative offerings are exchanged in the public sphere via the
internet. Pay particular attention to machinima, an animation format that allows fans
to upload their own moving-image material in response to games, usually via
YouTube. See these two websites for more on machinima: www.machinima.com and
www.mprem.com (last accessed August 2008)
As part of a research project called 'Just gaming: on being differently literate'
(McDougall and Kendall 2008), a range of GTA IV players posted 'playblogs',
summarising one-hour sessions in Liberty City, which were analysed, along with
follow-up interviews, in relation to the ways the bloggers/players chose to switch
between the metalanguage of the gamer (to do with controlling the action,
navigation, missions and rules) and the first-person narrative of the avatar/character.
Below are two of the postings, with the most obviously 'postmodern' references in
bold type, and a full analysis of second blog (b).
(a) A long night in Liberty City, it seems for Nico Bellic
and his cousin Roman. After the mass bloodbath, which we
created in last night's wild antics at the Splitsides
comedy club in central Liberty City, before the face-off
with police. As I bring Nico out of the police station, my
character is greeted with a phone call from Roman asking
me to collect him from the hospital. After collecting him,
I then took my eastern European cousin for a drink in
Blarneys Irish pub, before a game of darts, where I
participated in a sensation, which I have never discovered
before on a video game, my character being drunk. Whilst
walking around the beer garden of the pub I found another
feature which makes GTA a favourite of mine, not just due
to the revolutionary aspects of gameplay, but the humour,
as I chuckled to myself while reading an umbrella on one
of the tables with a sign for a mock German beer,
PiEwasser, GTA never ceases to amaze me, or to make me
laugh. Next up a quick trip out again with my beloved
cousin Roman, we hit the comedy club and low and behold,
something else I can connect with, a brat is performing,
short, stupid beard, starting to lose his hair. No it's not
Rafa Benitez, it's Ricky Gervais. Quickly watch his comedy
set about charities for diseases (particularly cancer and
AIDS). Offensive explicit and outrageously funny, I leave
the club after 10 minutes (the end of his set) feeling
happy and more importantly bloodthirsty. But before the
killing spree, I've seen the docks, the sea and it's
tempting me. This when combined with the game telling me to
take Roman home, I cannot resist taking him the long way,
through the water! At this point I realised I do not want
to swim around so whip out my in-game phone to tap in the
cheat code (oh cummon no one plays this game completely
legitimately do they?). No sooner have I tapped in the code
and the boat is spawned into the water. I jump in quickly
followed by my fellow comrade and the journey through the
(b) Starting the game from scratch isn't easy. Your first
task is to drive an associate round Liberty City - driving
is an absolute nightmare! First few plays is simply
consumed with trying to sort out how to drive the car -
kept writing the car off and thereby terminating the
mission. Not being terribly experienced with driving games,
found this tough at first. Anyway, in between trying to
sort this, this being a GTA game, I decide to take a walk
down the street and fight some random passers-by. Got
beaten up by a girl at one point - couldn't learn how to
fight, fast enough. Once I master the art of street
fighting, its back to driving the car round Liberty City. By
now, about 4 0 mins into playing I'm starting to pick up
the thread a bit - I can drive, I can fight and this starts
to impress the ladies! A girl tells me she 'likes' me but
my clothes are no good - I guess this is a cue for material
self-improvement . An hour into playing and I'm starting to
get into the swing of it - what to do, how to do and just
as importantly how it's similar and different to previous
GTAs. An hour and a bit into the game, feeling like I've
made a decent start but also knowing it'll take me some
time to master this version of Liberty City
We can get a lot of insight about GTA IV as a postmodern experience from these
postings, but we will focus on the last one here. The blogger's description of his first
encounters with the new game illustrate a number of complex interactions. Most
straightforwardly he describes getting to grips with the technical aspects of playing
the game, coping with the first task when he is not experienced with driving games,
and learning how to 'fight fast enough'. After 40 minutes his confidence increases and
he describes this competence in terms of his ability to fight 'random passers-by’. But
on another level we can see how his response to the game is profoundly intertextual.
His decision (moral or otherwise) to wander around enacting acts of violence on
pedestrians for no strategic purpose is made on the basis of prior experience - 'this
being a GTA game'. So the writer is trying to learn the skills he will need to progress,
but is also demonstrating a metalanguage about ways of being in the game. It is
difficult to imagine such a multilayered 'reader response' being so easily articulated in
relation to films, IV or print media. While we will all make intertextual and critically
reflective decisions as we watch films or read books, it is fair to say that this will be
less conscious and visible/tangible.
It is not possible to 'read' GTA IV in a linear fashion. The second blog is the most
immediately 'useful 'if we are looking for evidence of the postmodern condition. We
get a clear explicit identification of the intertextual nature of his reading of the game
-'previous GTAs'. And on another level, we witness him encountering and evaluating
the values and conditions of Liberty City -'this is a cue for material self-improvement'.
This is metadiscourse - when the savvy player can critically assess the ideological
premise of what is being experienced. Just as research (McDougall 2006) has shown
that students playing and studying Medal of Honor can be offended by the version of
history being represented (or at least be aware of how this might be offensive - a
different position to take) but still enjoy the game, so players of GTA IV can be
perfectly aware of how the verisimilitude of the gameworld relies entirely on an
unpleasant 'deficit model' of human behaviour in an advanced capitalist society where
people are incrementally worth less as the capitalist machine's relentless expansion
continues, at the same time as taking great pleasure from the game. This relates to the
comments made by the writer of The Wire and also Gauntlett's notion of the pick-and-
mix reader. In all these cases, the postmodern nature of the reading experience is
crucial and complex. Our game blogger knows that the need for him to improve his
appearance and learn how to fight better, in both cases to'impress the ladies', is
morally dubious, but this is not going to stop him enjoying the challenge in the
Notice also how he switches between player and character -detail about competences
is articulated simultaneously in terms of 'making a decent start' (playing, learning,
mastering technical tasks) and'a girl tells me she likes me' (story, characters,
narrative). This takes us smoothly into a discussion of ludology and narratology.
Story or game?
GTA – story or game?
There is a debate among games academics over the ideal starting point for serious
analysis of video games. Some games critics insist that games are games rather than
stories, arguing that adapting narrative theory to this new form of text does not work.
Aarseth (1997) suggests that the narrative elements of games are certainly there for us
to identify (particularly in games like Harry Potter, where the player takes on an
existing character from the fictional world of a film, novel or both), but that these are
not especially significant to the game, and actually the player may not take much
notice of them. Instead, writers like Aarseth adhere to an approach called ludology
which studies the act of play. In this approach, the practice of 'reading' games pays
particular attention to the structure of play, and the degree to which games share
structures. Whereas academics who want to adapt narrative theories traditionally used
to study literature and film believe that games share structural storytelling principles
with these older media forms, ludologists argue that this misses the point that the
game player is doing something fundamentally different to the film viewer or novel
reader, as s/he is actively influencing the flow of game time. Dovey and Kennedy
(2006) summarise some of these textual differences here.
Meaning generated by play is different to meaning generated by
reading. To read is to create meaning cognitively in the encounter with
the text To play is to generate meaning, to express it through play. Play
allows us to actively express meaning (to be part of your clan, to be a
stealth assassin or princess rescuing plumber). By playing out these
roles we are temporarily inhabiting an avatar that functions as part of
the gameplay and offers consumers a point of entry in to the game
world. Because we know we are going to be using our characters and
their world for purposes other than pure interpretive pleasure, we have
far less investment or interest in the meanings generated by the worlds
we inhabit. This is not to argue that representation and meaning are not
in play. Players clearly have interpretive responses to game worlds, and
computer games in their wider circulation are clearly meaningful.
However, the importance of players' interpretive pleasure is less than it
would be in a novel or film.
While Dovey and Kennedy do not use the term, we can assess their summary here as
a postmodern intervention, because they are arguing that the experience of temporary
identity-play is central to gaming. Playing with or shifting identity, contextualised
by a 'blurring’ of text and 'reader' are, as we know by now, central to the
The two approaches can be caricatured as textual (narratologists) and play(er)-
centred (ludologists). However, there is a rather limited conception of narrative
proposed by many in videogame studies and the willingness to see any non-
videogame media as 'passive' ignores the ways readers and viewers work to
understand the causation of narratives. While we may be able to argue that narratives
do 'just happen by themselves' and do not require input to move them along, it does
not follow that audiences and readers are 'passive'. There is considerable work to be
done making sense of narratives, guessing the endings in the beginnings and the
beginnings in the endings.
Videogames aren’t even games…?
For many commentators, the search for a working definition of 'videogames' leads back
to the study of games and play. It is worth noting also that the words 'play' and 'game'
are problematic in themselves. While in the English language, we usually think of the
two as related but different (again, with no clear definition in popular speech - perhaps
play is open-ended and free where games are rule-bound activities; though equally play
might be an integral part of a game), in many languages, there is no distinction between
'play' and 'game' at all. While this is an issue in itself, it also means that there is potential
confusion in translating play/game theories into English.
Rules are central to games and that these rules are usually defined by the game to
confine and limit the actions of the player. Rather than align ourselves with any one
theorist, for our purposes here, it is useful to draw out some of the issues scholars of
games highlight as a checklist of points for discussion.
Consider the importance of the following in defining a game:
2. Competition or contest
4. Involves decision-making
5. Not serious and absorbing
6. Never associated with material gain
7. Artificial/safe/outside ordinary life
8. Creates special social groups
Consider also how these may be mapped onto videogames. If we take just a couple of
points from the list, we begin to see that it is not such a simple task.
Rules are central to most theorists' conceptions of games and certainly most
videogames do seem bound by rules. Just as the rules of chess dictate that players take
turns and can only move the pieces in specific ways, so too the player of a turn-based
role-playing game such as Final Fantasy cannot have three turns in a row and has to
work within the limits of their capabilities and powers in the game.
However, it is not sufficient simply to note that videogames are constrained by rules,
we need also to consider how these rules are communicated to players and how they
are enforced. With most board games, for example, as well as football, cricket and
even noughts and crosses, rules are agreed in advance. For many videogames,
however, the player has to work out the rules of the game as they play by testing
what can and cannot be achieved, what is and is not allowed. In fact, the pleasure of
many games is uncovering the rules as you go along, perhaps even bending and
subverting them as you find tricks that even the creators of the game had not been
aware of or ways of exploiting the problems, bugs and glitches with the game. As
such, while rules may be important in videogames, they are not always explained
to players in a consistent manner and are often to be in part deduced by the
player, thereby forming part of the object of the game rather than the starting
Many of the pleasures of play are not directly related to progressing through the game
towards the stated outcomes. In short, players often create their own outcomes for
videogames. The ostensible outcome of a car-racing game may be to come first in an
endurance race or clock up the fastest lap yet players may derive just as much fun
from driving round the track the wrong way either trying to avoid or crash into the
oncoming traffic. Similarly, players frequently superimpose their own sets or subsets
of outcomes and associated rules upon videogames. For example, a car-racing
videogame such as Ridge Racer may be reinvented as a 'do the most doughnuts on the
back straight' game, while a shooting game such as Metal Gear Solid may be played
stealthily with the object being to shoot nobody and simply slink past guards without
It is notable also that many videogames do not offer the possibility of a winning at
all. Titles such as Pac-Man, Space Invaders and Tetris always end in defeat for the
player and it is not possible to 'complete' or defeat them, only to improve on one's
score, the number of levels survived or the amount of time before defeat.
Moreover, some videogames do not even suggest outcomes or goals to achieve. The
Sims is perhaps the best example. There is no objective in the game in the way that
we might identify with Super Mario Bros or even Pac-Man where the goal may be to
stay alive for as long as possible or score the most points. Rather, it is up to the player
to decide what they want to do with The Sims and different players set themselves
different tasks and objectives. Consequently, The Sims is often referred to as a
'sandpit game' as the player is given a set of tools to play with in this open-ended
world and sometimes even a 'toy' by those who think its lack of game-derived
objectives and goals makes it too unlike a game. However, The Sims is not alone in
offering freedom to videogame players and the Grand Theft Auto series combines
both goal-orientation and free-roaming. There are missions to complete but the player
can choose to ignore them and simply run or drive around the city.
Homage or Grand Theft? GTA as postmodern text
Postmodernism is defined and described in a range of different ways. One of the ways
sociologist and popular culture theorist Dominic Strinati defines postmodernism is in
'the breakdown of the distinction between art and popular culture' (Strinati, 1995:225).
On the website www.bbc.co.uk/dna/collective/A867099 (accessed on 23/5/07), this
kind of connection or blurring between the lines of art and popular culture is alluded
to with regard to Vice City because of its incorporation of many well-known actors
working as voice artists in the game - this is one sure sign that these games are
Before examining how it is possible to conceptualise the GTA series as a series of
increasingly sophisticated postmodern texts, it is worthwhile exploring two of the
terms that will be used in this section.
Bricolage - A combination of different elements brought together to make something
new. For example, the film The Blair Witch Project (1999) is one example of
bricolage in action. What the producers have done is to fuse elements of different film
genres together: the horror film with the haunted house; the documentary film with
the shaky handheld camerawork; the teen movie with the teenagers who go away on a
holiday or expedition. Fusing these generic elements together facilitated something
new and different which had a positive impact with film audiences as its runaway
commercial and critical success testifies.
Intertextuality - The process of consciously referencing to other texts within a text to
generate a response in the reader of the text. GTA is a rich postmodern text that offers
something for audiences of a variety of ages and interests, although the sheer size,
complexity and number of GTA games mean it is not possible to analyse all aspects
of the GTA series to sift for evidence of the texts of aspects of postmodernism.
Firstly, let's consider the locations of the games.To recap, Liberty City is based on
New York City,Vice City is based on Miami, Los Santos is based on Los Angeles,
San Fierro is based on San Francisco, Las Venturas is based on Las Vegas and last but
not least London is based on... London!
The choices made by the games' developers to base the games in these cities are
significant if we consider the roots of the gangster genre in film and the conventional
settings for gangster films.
The settings of the gangster genre have predominantly been the big cities to be found
on the east and west coasts of America.When it comes to British gangster films, the
usual setting is London.The first gangster films were set in New York so it was at
least apt that the first GTA was set in a facsimile New York. For the gangster film
genre the big cities have been the natural places to locate their texts, by virtue of their
big populations being fertile breeding ground for all sorts of crimes.The narrative
structure of a conventional gangster film is very straightforward. At the start of the
film the audience will be presented with a young male character who is first becoming
involved in low-level' crime - such as Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
As they become successful with
low-level crime, these trainee
gangsters rise through the
hierarchy of the gang, becoming
involved in bigger and more
daring crimes.These young men
rise to the point where they think
they have it all.They meet their
downfall usually by being killed
or being sent to prison, but
everything they have gained
through criminal enterprise is
taken away from them, providing a moral coda to these stories.
When the conventions of the gangster film genre were being established with the
early wave of gangster films in the 1920s and early 1930s, Little Caesar (1931), The
Public Enemy and the original Scarface (1932), these were times of economic
hardship exacerbated by a wave of immigration into the US. The gangster film
reflected these times and quickly built up some firm generic conventions — set in big
cities, featuring young men who become enveloped in a life of crime, all seeking their
own version of a grand narrative - the American Dream of being able to make it
'big' on the basis of your own talent and hard work.
These threads have been distinctly fused together again in the GTA series. All the
games focus on men who are at the bottom of the social scale, who literally have
nothing - no money, no possessions. In GTA games, you survive and thrive by using
your own strength, intelligence, cunning and skill to escalate through the ranks of a
criminal gang - exactly the same narrative process that is found in gangster films.
When you start to map the closeness in overall narrative structures between
gangster films and the GTA game series, one reaction might be that this is
shameless copying and displays a complete lack of inventiveness on the part of
the game designers!
However; it is not as simple or straightforward. Firstly, the essence of the gangster
story can be found in any number of different places through history; stories of
people who have too much and get too proud and conceited can be found in many
different cultures, such as the Christian Bible - this story didn't suddenly emerge in
the early decades of the twentieth century when gangster films started to become
Secondly, and more directly for us in a study of videogames, is the impact that this
might have on the player. In some parts of the media, game players are inaccurately
stereotyped as teenagers who have no knowledge or experience of life beyond what
they experience through their games consoles.The reality is that game players come in
all shapes and sizes - it is not uncommon to know adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s who
own and play consoles and videogames. Also, whatever the age of the player, we all
learn about the world from a wide variety of different sources. As we live in an age
where the media are readily accessible to us - arguably a 'media saturated society' -
there are many people who would play a GTA game and recognise that these staple
conventions of the gangster genre are being employed. This gives the player a firm
idea of how they are expected to play the game, setting aside their own moral stances
about criminality. As players recognise the artificiality of the game text, then it
becomes clearer to the player that the text is indeed a text - nothing more than
an artificial construct and, as such, something to be played with. Therefore,
players will recognise that a game is after all just a game. While the critics, who push
the 'effects model' at media students and the public at large, attempt to scare us with
the supposedly harmful effects of games, it is very obvious to those of us who actually
play games that there is a big difference between game and reality - and game
producers, by using intertextual devices which refer the text at hand to other media
texts, are pointing this out and rewarding the cultural capital of sophisticated game
The second point to address in how it can be argued that the GTA games are
sophisticated postmodern texts is derived from the cast of characters who inhabit
these cities and the range of actors that have been employed (particularly since Vice
City onwards). In the first GTA game, the player has a choice of four characters that
can be played. It was earlier mentioned that one of those characters is called 'Travis',
an intertextual reference to the central character in Taxi Driver, Martin Scorsese's
exploration of the rotten underbelly of New York City.
The film deals with prostitution,
pornography and alienation from
mainstream society and there are
distinct echoes, arguably conscious
and therefore postmodern ones, in
the GTA games of these themes.
Again, this could be condemned as
lazy copying, but also it can validly
be interpreted as deliberate
postmodernist referencing to allow
the viewer to tune out of
themselves and release their
subjectivity and step into the shoes
of the games' characters. Also, this
process of taking on the role of a
character allows the player a mental
space in which to do things they
would not do in the real world -
again this is a deliberate tactic to
clearly signal to the player that this is
a game they are playing and not reality.
This process has only been embellished as the series has continued. The choice of a
small range of characters with which to play has been abolished in favour of a
characterthat you are presented with, such as Vice City's Tommy Vercetti; and the
calibre of the actors who have voiced parts of the games has increased significantly.
Besides the increasing calibre of the actors what is most significant is their
background. In AS Media Studies, we learnt about how stars bring expectations to
every role they play - with the level of sophistication that the GTA games are working
at, this type of analysis of the role of'stars' is now directly transferable to Game
Let's consider some of the
established actors who have
voiced roles in Vice City,
such as Ray Liotta, Tom
Sizemore, Dennis Hopper
and Philip Michael
Thomas.The character; or
avatar who the player
inhabits in Vice City,
Tommy Vercetti, is voiced
by Ray Liotta.
The significance of this lies
in looking at Ray Liotta's
film career His
breakthrough role came as playing Henry Hill in Goodfellas - a film in which, in
conventional gangster movie style, a young boy goes from rags to riches, which is
exactly the narrative arc of Vice City. Therefore, Liotta isn't just hired and then
simply slotted into a role; he is cast, at least in part, for reasons of intertextual
resonance. He is hired for the 'baggage' and expectations he brings to the role.
Game players who know Goodfellas also know what Liotta brings with him from his
iconic role as Henry Hill - the person of the hungry, young man on the make. With
Liotta as Vercetti, this is another deliberate, conscious act of referring to another
media text which again signals to the audience very clearly that this is a text, that this
is a game. By doing so, Rockstar invite the game's players to set aside their own
views of the various illegal and immoral actions required to succeed at the game and
immerse oneself in this game world which the player is repeatedly reminded is not the
real world. Also, the culturally sophisticated player is invited to feel pleased with their
knowledge of these signs from different aspects of popular culture.
In addition to the 'kudos'that Liotta with his Goodfellas background brings to Vice
City, the inclusion of actors such as Dennis Hopper-whose film star persona revolves
around his irredeemable bad guy roles in such films as Blue Velvet (1986), Speed
(1994) and Waterworld (1995) - rewards the cultural capital that pop-culture
knowledgeable game players will bring to their experience in Vice City.
Given that Vice City is set in the 80s in Miami, this already tips a postmodern hat to
the TV series Miami Vice, and this indebtedness to the influence of the show on the
look and setting of Vice City is sealed with the involvement of Philip Michael Hall,
who played Tubbs in the original television series, voicing the character of Lance
Everywhere you turn with the characters you meet and interact with in Vice City you
are engaging with some big names in the fields of popular culture - including porn
actress Jenna Jameson playing Candy Suxx. For those really long in the tooth,
Deborah Harry, of new wave group Blondie, one of whose biggest hits was 'Hanging
on the Telephone', voices the role of the taxi controller - who obviously spends a lot
of time on the telephone.
This process escalated in San Andreas - employing performers such as Ice-T a rapper
and actor, and part of the first wave of'gangsta' rappers, who became a star in
the early 90s alongside acts such as NWA and
Public Enemy. He voices a character called Madd
Dogg, a sly poke at Snoop Doggy Dogg, another
gangsta rapper - the intertextual references keep
coming thick and fast. Another role is voiced by
Samuel L. Jackson, who played a minor role in
Goodfellas, but is possibly most well-known for
his role as Jules in Pulp Fiction (1994) - another
media text which is completely full of postmodern
intertextual references and inhabits a similar kind
of criminal underworld as the GTA games.To be
able to 'get' all these references you have to have a
very wide and deep knowledge of popular culture
- these most certainly aren't games for dummies.
For the release of GTA IV Rockstar elected to not
use any famouse voiceover actors – why?
Perhaps the hallmark of any good postmodern text is that if you don't 'get' any or few
of the intertextuai references, then this lack of knowledge, or cultural capital, is not
held against you - regardless of your knowledge of popular culture anyone can learn
to play the game. In the final analysis, your success at a game rests upon your skill of
hand/eye co-ordination, your cognition speed, your knowledge of the game and its
challenges, and usually a fair helping of luck (or a good set of cheat codes).
The death of the author – is GTA really postmodern?
During the 1990s, theorists were keen to understand interactivity as a means of
placing traditional authorship in the hands of the 'reader' or consumer (Landow
1992).The idea is that interactive media are a technological realisation of a theory,
first worked out mainly in relation to literature, known as 'post-structuralism'.
We had, it was suggested, witnessed the 'death of the author', the central, fixed and
god-like voice of the author behind the text – another metanarrative dies.
Interactivity meant that users of digital media would be able to navigate their way
across uncharted seas of potential knowledge, making their own sense of a body of
material, each user following new pathways through the matrix of data each time they
set out on their journeys of discovery.
A related idea is that the key property of interactivity is a major shift in the traditional
relationship between the producers and receivers of media texts. This resides in the
power that computers give the reader/user to 'write back' into a text. Information,
whether in the form of text, image, or sound, is received within software applications
that allow the receiver to change - delete, add, reconfigure - what they receive.
However, more recently, in the face of exaggerated claims for the almost magical
powers of interactivity and on the basis of practice-based critical reflection, more
critical estimations have been made.
The illusion that goes along with [interactivity] is of a kind of
democracy... that the artist is sharing the power of choice with
the viewer, when actually the artist has planned every option
that can happen ... it's a great deal more complex than if you
[the user] hadn't had a sort of choice, but it's all planned.