05. g325   contemporary media issues - videogames and postmodernism
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05. g325   contemporary media issues - videogames and postmodernism 05. g325 contemporary media issues - videogames and postmodernism Document Transcript

  • A2 Media Studies 2009/10 Study Notes Unit G325 Section B Critical Perspectives in Media Contemporary Media Issues Part 5 Videogames and Postmodernism 40
  • Videogames and the Active Audience Introduction 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'. 41
  • 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 42
  • 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 Fan production 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 5. Machinima 6. Modding 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, 43
  • 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 water begins. (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 44
  • 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 gameworld. 45
  • 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 postmodern condition. 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- 46
  • 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: 1. Rules 2. Competition or contest 3. Outcomes 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 9. Voluntary 10. Make-believe/representational 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 47
  • 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 point. 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 detection. 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. 48
  • 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 postmodern texts. 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. Postmodern setting? 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 49
  • 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 produced. 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 50
  • 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 players. Postmodern characters? 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 51
  • 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 Studies. 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, 52
  • who played Tubbs in the original television series, voicing the character of Lance Vance. 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. Postmodern players? 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 53
  • 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. 54