I have been gaming longer than most gamers have been alive. In the early 1970s, I was one of a handful of electronic technicians at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center who used what was allegedly the most powerful computer complex outside of the military and intelligence communities to play geeky Star Trek strategy games during lunch and after work. The computers were so comparatively weak in those days that our bosses eventually banned us from playing Star Trek at lunchtime. It seems the particle physicists couldn't conduct the calculations necessary to analyze the results from their prized subatomic collisions due to the system drain from our gaming. For the record, the banning of the Star Trek strategy game was not the grievance that led me to be a militant union activist during this period—that was due to the racism black workers faced on the job and the toxic fumes that were causing me and my co-workers to have intense and strange physical reactions (but that's a story for my "regular" political rants).
The computer power at the time was so limited that most of the games we played (such as Star Trek, Empire or Hack) were either world- or galaxy-conquering strategy games, or very simple dungeon crawls inspired by the tabletop game Dungeons and Dragons. Graphics? The only "images" possible were those that could be created using alphanumeric characters and punctuation marks. "Orcs" were represented, for example, by the letter "O"; trolls, "T"—you get the idea.
Being solidly grounded in the technology of the early Silicon Valley, I was unusual in my black activist circles, and while my fellow activists took advantage of my technical expertise, I knew better than to share with them my enthusiasm for geeky gaming.
While I have spent half my life researching the politics of racial dynamics within the U.S., I have never lost my passion for computer technology or analyzing the revolutionary impact that technology has had on our society. One of my most popular classes at the University of Chicago is on "Democracy and the Information Technology Revolution."
So I awaited, as eagerly as many of my students, the recent release of Grand Theft Auto IV. As a political scientist, it is difficult for me to take in a cultural bonanza like GTA without puzzling over the financial and societal forces behind it. In the first week of GTA IV's release, there were over $500 million dollars in sales and over 2.3 million online players (just on the Xbox 360)
Blacks are committed gaming consumers(one black friend who is on the board of a major game producer told me confidentially that blacks buy 25 percent of the company's products). Not surprisingly, however, reportedly only 2 percent of the game developers are black. There are also proportionately few women employed as game developers. While women and girls have nearly reached parity in game playing, particularly online, they make up only an estimated 12 percent of the industry's workforce.
The scarcity of diversity among developers must certainly affect the way Grand Theft Auto and other video games like it are imagined. From a technological and production standpoint, GTA IV is stunning. The New York City imagined in the game is nearly fully realized. Unexpected views await players around corners and on rooftops. Interactions can be had with many city's denizens. While there is a tightly scripted plot for players to work through, dozens of hours can be spent ignoring the plot and just bowling, clubbing, dating, shopping and otherwise enjoying the (mostly) seedy fruit of the bottom side of consumerist, postmodern urban society. It is fun listening to the various radio and television stations that are available. It is a game where a player can choose to be a couch potato within the game (at least for a while). It is also fun to hear the biting satire contained within "news" reports about the game's version of the "war on terror." The game is so seductive that many reviewers now claim that it enters the realm of great art.
Not quite. The game is also somewhat less objectionable than earlier versions of GTA for many reviewers since the focus has mainly shifted from black and Latino gangsters to those from Eastern Europe. But this shift is cosmetic and largely insignificant. It is still the case that nearly every male one meets, of any description, is either a gangster or a cop, and players don't really socially "interact" with cops. The stereotypes about black and other nonwhite gangsters are still an integral part of the game, even if they are no longer the central focus.
The continuing brutal misogyny of the game is much less discussed by most reviewers. The women "characters" are unimportant love interests, used mostly as resources. Keep your date happy (by wearing the right type of clothes, driving the right type of car, taking her to the right type of club and restaurant), and the woman lawyer can get the charges against you reduced, the nurse can heal you, another woman can get you a reduction in price for your clothing purchases. And relationships with women always carry a negative cost—the women are all needy; one will blog about you; another is jealous, etc. The objectification of women remains central, whether at a strip club or negotiating with sex workers. Violence against women, particularly the sex workers, is still possible anytime and virtually without consequence.
So the implicit message from the developers is that they felt pressure to clean up the racial stereotyping but none to clean up the misogyny.
While the race and gender flaws threaten the game's status as art, it is the game's treatment of violence that most limits its potential. In random encounters in the city, violence—whether against pedestrians, women or anyone other than better-armed gangsters and the police—never carries consequences. Because great storytelling generally involves moral choice and the consequences that follow from one course of action over another, GTA IV, no matter how magnificently realized, cannot be considered art. After all, we're still talking about a game in which players are encouraged to get around the city by stealing cars, ignoring traffic laws and running over people. And the violence carries none of the truth and raw complexity that is depicted in artistic successes like HBO's "The Wire,"in which a life of crime, even at the top of the food chain, is nasty, brutish and short.
As a gamer and someone interested in the social uses of technology, I am awed by the accomplishments and potential of the world-building contained in GTA IV. The economics of the industry are such, however, that this type of technology is not likely to be applied anytime soon to games that are fun, rich and compelling, but which offer players more choices about what type of world they would like to build, and what type of person they wish their character to be. While social science research has not definitively shown a link between these games (or other media, for that matter), and violent behavior, it is clear that even GTA IV presents a world with few positive options for social engagement and fun.
Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.