Understanding Video Games text-book
The World is Yours: Intertextual Irony and Second Level Reading Strategies in Grand Theft Auto

Date posted: August 16, 2006
Updated: Oct 24, 2006

by Joris Dormans

Now, as an academic I can get paid to write a book about pretty much anything as long as I give it a complicated title.
- ‘Michelle Carapadis’ on K-Chat radio in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

The game series of Grand Theft Auto (GTA) has many faces. On the one hand it is a very popular gaming franchise; GTA San Andreas was one of the most anticipated and successful games of 2004. Millions of gamers indulged themselves into the various San Andreas cityscapes, car-jacking and killing their way up the criminal ladder. On the other the games are controversial because of their violent and criminal nature; many parents, educators and legislatures worry about that these games might inspire likewise violent and criminal behaviour in children. At the same time, GTA games were well received in critical circles of both game journalist and game academics. Up to the point that no self-respecting game scholar can go without an opinion or - preferably - an article on the game. The open-ended nature of the game is one of its most mentioned and best appreciated characteristics.

Closer inspection of the games reveals that GTA is all these things. It is a cool game with dubious and subversive content but also possessed with a surprising flair, depth and intelligence. Its critical and popular success make it one of the key gaming franchises of this decade. The discussion about its subversive content puts into clear perspective some of the issues that surround games during this same period. In this article I will try to identify the attributes that contributed to this success in the last three major installations of the GTA series: GTA III, GTA Vice City and GTA San Andreas.

A GTA primer

GTA III, released in 2001, welcomes the player to the fictional city of Liberty City, a virtual place that resembles New York rather closely. The story starts when the unnamed protagonist (sometimes referred to as “the kid”) is betrayed by his girlfriend and sent to prison for armed robbery. He manages to escape when his convoy is attacked en route, and from that moment the player gets play him as he steals and murders his way to revenge. Starting out as a humble chauffeur for the Mafia he quickly makes a name for himself as a competent driver and gunman. The game which presents the action in a 3D environment alternates between a driving mode, in which the player races cars around the city, and a third-person shooter mode that handles the on-foot action (see figures 1 en 2). The kid works his way up but eventually is betrayed by the Mafia at which point he changes sides and joins the Yakuza, which he will eventually also betray. In the end he defeats the most powerful gang in town (the Columbian Cartel) which was run by his treacherous girlfriend. The main story-line is resolved by numerous missions that must be completed successfully by player. But that is not all, there are numerous side-missions for the player to complete. One-hundred secret packages are scattered throughout the city, as are several challenges and rampages. These latter two are best regarded as a sort of side-games which have little to do with the narrative environment but which test the player’s skills with driving and shooting.

figure 1 – Driving around in GTA III

figure 2 – Walking around in GTA III

figure 3 – Playing Vice City or Miami Vice?

figure 4 – Los Santos

figure 5 – San Fierro

figure 6 – Las Venturas

figure 7 – The San Andreas country side

GTA Vice City and San Andreas follow the same basic set-up but differ in location and scale. Vice City places the action in the eighties in a city that closely resembles Miami. Again the protagonist carves out a criminal existence, but this time he quickly establishes himself as a local crime-lord and many of the missions resolve around the expansion and protection of his criminal emporium. The fictional setting and period establish the visual look and feel of the game and are a clear reference to the Miami Vice television series (see figure 3). San Andreas frames its story in 1992 and a fictional environment that includes no less than three cities Los Santos (or Los Angeles), San Fierro (San Fransisco) and Las Venturas (Las Vegas), and sizeable rural and dessert areas (see figures 4-7). Just as the play area increased more than threefold the story’s dramatic arc is proportionally larger than in the earlier two games. From the protagonists humble beginnings as member of an insignificant local gang in Los Santos, leaned upon by corrupt police officers and betrayed by his ‘homies’, to his triumphant return as an established crime-lord after a career that takes him from Los Santos to San Fierro and Las Venturas and back to Los Santos.

The three games featured in this article are not the only games in the series. Obviously, GTA III was preceded by two earlier games: GTA (including its London 1969 mission pack) and GTA 2 published 1997 and 1999 respectively. Both games are two-dimensional with a top down perspective (see figures 8 & 9), and many of the basic game play and features are already in place. You steal cars and work your way up the criminal hierarchy and visit Liberty City, Vice City and San Andreas in the process. The games already have the typical driving and walking modes, and like in the later games a visit to a ‘Spray ‘n’ Pay’ shop rids you of unwanted police attention. In 2005, GTA Liberty City Stories was released for the PSP (Playstation Portable). In this game the action returns to Liberty City and a multiplayer mode is introduced, allowing players to hunt each other down or compete several other typical multiplayer matches.

figure 8 – Driving around in GTA 1

figure 9 – Walking around in GTA 1

Like many contemporary games, GTA is violent, sexist and racist. However, GTA is, as we shall see, a fairly reflective game: its violent, sexist and racist content is simultaneously questioned by the game itself. Still, there is no denying that, especially the earlier games, fail to represent women and minority groups fairly. One might argue that all characters in GTA are stereotypes and that no one, not even gamers, escape to be at the receiving end of the games’ humour. But that does not counter the fact that women and minorities find themselves in that position more often, than white males. This is a serious problem from which these games suffer, no matter how reflective the game is in other areas.


As mentioned in the introduction, GTA is praised for it open-ended nature. The game does a good job at balancing its story with a simulation game of a rather violent, modern, North-American city (Frasca 2003a). It effortlessly bridges a gap that has divided the field of game studies in two camps for some time. On the one hand the game follows a basic mission or quest-based plot. The player has to complete various missions to advance the story-line and to unlock new areas, new cars and new equipment to play with. This way the game provides a narrative framework that motivates the player and explains the background. This narrative framework might not be very innovative in terms of its structure, but as we shall see below it is very rich in its references and intertextuality, offering interesting material to the post-modern scholar of interactive narratives. On the other hand, GTA remains true to its nature of a game by offering an extensive playground that accommodates for many different types of play, which size and variance is sufficient to avoid nearly all narrative interruptions for those who are so inclined. Many players enjoy just cruising around the city listening to the radio, racing around as a cabdriver to deliver customers to their destination in time, or just looking for more of the hidden packages. The game offers many of these side ‘missions’; mini-games in which the players can test their skills in fighting, driving and navigation. In this respect, GTA is a ‘ludic simulation’ par excellence.

The idea of the ludic simulation has been (and still is) advanced by many scholars of games, such as Espen Aarseth (1997: 141), Harvey Smith (2001), Rune Klevjer (2002: 200), Gonzalo Frasca (2003b: 224) and Jesper Juul (2005: 172). The medium of the computer with its capacity implementing rules and for processing data is well suited for simulation. It is natural for computer games to make use of this disposition. But games are not ‘just’ simulation. As Chris Crawford, in one of the earliest studies of games as a cultural form, already stated (1983: 9):

A simulation bears the same relationship to a game that a technical drawing bears to a painting. A game is not merely a small simulation lacking the degree of detail that a simulation possesses; a game deliberately suppresses detail to accentuate the broader message that the designer wishes to present. Where a simulation is detailed a game is stylised.

This is an important observation. Games are never true simulations, they are inherently and deliberately ‘unrealistic’. This is not only because it would be very expensive and impossible to simulate a real city in all its aspects in a game, but also because it would be no longer any fun. As Steven Poole points out: “We don’t want absolutely real situations in videogames” (2000: 64). Part of the fun of playing a game is that games enable us “to somersault like Lara Croft, to climb sheer walls, to swim a hundred feet down in icy Artic rivers or to finish off a brutal martial arts combination of smacks and punches by floating six feet in the air and delivering a round-house kick to the head” (ibid: 77). Games are simulations that allow us to do all these things, even if that renders the simulation unrealistic. The game simulation is subject to rules that dictate that the game must be fun to play, first and foremost. These rules have more to do with an interesting balance, gameplay and coherence than anything else. Although that does not mean that the game should be easy or fair by necessity, nor it does prohibit any allusions to a reality outside the game.

GTA is a ludic simulation of a violent and criminal city (”Sim Sin City” as Gonzalo Frasca aptly puts it). The player is relatively free to roam around and to commit various criminal or unethical acts. Throughout the three games this includes robbery, joyriding, manslaughter, vandalism and burglary, among many, many others. And although it might be possible to play the game without committing these crimes that clearly defeats the purpose of playing GTA: it is already very hard just to drive through the city without driving through a red light or two, speeding, and cause fatal accidents. The object and added difficulty of some missions is to simply drive around without damaging your car. All these acts affect the city and its denizens react to it. Drive over the sidewalk and pedestrians will try to get out of your way. Cause trouble and the police will try to arrest you. Cause to much trouble and the police will come gunning for you. The missions are also ways of interacting with the simulation: after the successful execution of certain missions you may gain control over certain areas, you earn money to acquire property, or certain gangs will start shooting at you on sight. While it is fairly safe to move around during the initial stages of the game, during the later stages half the city will know exactly who you are and act accordingly. All these aspects are governed by a multitude of general and specific game or simulation rules, and from these rules a virtual playground emerges for the player to discover.

In GTA many aspects are stylised or abstracted in order to facilitate play. Like many games the player’s health is represented by a percentage: the player starts with a health of 100% and dies (is “wasted”) whenever it is reduced to 0%. This single scale representation is a considerable abstraction from the complex physiological state that make up a real person’s health, but works within the game. Interestingly, the condition of the cars is much more detailed. There is no singular scale that represents the condition of the car, instead the car is damaged in a much more ‘realistic’ way: drive into a tree and loose you front bumper, back up into a wall and dent your car’s rear. This localised damage affects the game as well. You are more easily arrested when you have lost your car-doors, as the police can more easily put a gun to your head under those circumstances. Damage the engine block enough and your car will explode. Blow out a tire and cars become more difficult to handle. The way your car is damaged is a little bit strange. Bump into an obstacle slowly and your car is damaged pretty heavily compared to the force of the collision, but you can drive through lamppost with little difficult at high speeds, and fall one-hundred meters without problem as long as you manage to land on your wheels. Clearly this balance was informed by game play considerations.

The way GTA presented audio-visually also indicates this balance between simulational realism and play. On the one hand, the cityscapes of GTA are fairly realistic. The designers went through great lengths to communicate the feel of the city of they represent (see figure 10). On the other hand, game play elements are clearly distinguished. Objects that you can pick up are represented by icons that are suspended in the air (see figure 11). Characters with any importance to the game are have arrows floating over their heads (see figure 12). The simulation of the interactions with the population of the city is also abstractly simulated: the denizens of GTA are worryingly short of memory, you can pick up as a first customer in a cabdriver mission the same chauffeur whose cab you stole to start the same mission (as happens in figure 12).

figure 10 – Liberty City

figure 11 – Guns ‘float’ around

figure 12 – Blue arrows mark a mission objective in GTA III

figure 13 – shopping for clothes in GTA: San Andreas

The criminal simulation that is the core of GTA provides the player with a sophisticated sandbox to play with a criminal identity. This is progressively stressed in the latter games, as these introduce more and more role-playing elements. In San Andreas the main character JC has many skills that he can develop. Work up you pistol skill enough and JC will be able to wield a handgun in both hands. Swimming builds up your lung capacity and running increases your stamina. The numerical representation of such skills and attributes have for long been the staple of the role-playing genre, and today, when a game is said to include to contain role-playing elements, we generally mean that the game provides some options to build-up your character’s strengths and statistics. Personally, and I think that many players of pen-and-paper role-playing games will agree, I find that such character-building systems have little to do with actual role-playing. Instead, the ability to go shopping for clothes (see figure 13), date girls, to invest in houses and customise your cars, are much better outlets for configurative role-playing, as these allow the players to sculpt JC into an image of their choice. The option to use JC as a virtual doll and choose different styles for him further encourages role-playing experiments. After all one, of the charms of Grand Theft Auto is the fact that you get to play the bad guy. Anything that helps you to let out your inner gangster facilitates this process. In this way GTA, builds up one of the strengths of the computer game genre: it enables you to experiment with different roles and identities. According to James Paul Gee (2003) this is one of the positive effects of playing games, as being able switch between identities facilitates learning and becomes an important asset for later life. What the player does (the game content) is of less importance than how she does it (the games form). Even though GTA puts the player in the shoes of a villain, it is more important that player given tools to construct an identity with than the details of the identity she builds with them. The success of GTA cannot be attributed solely to fact that you can role-play the villain, which in it self is a welcome change from the bland, generic game heroes, but also to the fact that you can do so in style. It is not enough to wield a gun and steal cars, you also need to buy the right clothes, pimp your ride and choose your favourite soundtrack to accompany it all.

figure 14 – A hidden package in GTA III

figure 15 – Spraying graffiti in San Andreas

figure 16 – A collectable horseshoe

figure 17 – Oysters boost your sex appeal

figure 18 – Spot photo opportunities by looking through your camera

In its openness GTA offers a lot of variety and playthings to a wide variety of players. There is the driving and shooting action, a story to follow and plenty of opportunity for role-playing. This still does not deplete the games’ depth of play: for those who want to explore there are various mini-games to play and tokens to collect. In GTA III and Vice City the latter are represented by one-hundred hidden packages that are scattered through out the game (see figure 14). Collecting ten gives you a money bonus, and a free pistol at every save point. Collecting ten more increases the value of the bonus and the freebies, etcetera. In San Andreas the fairly abstract hidden packages are replaced by more ‘realistic’ (or rather better integrated) graffiti tags, horse shoes, oysters and photo-opportunities, but the fulfil the same, or similar, role in the game (see figures 15-18). There are one-hundred gang tags scattered around Los Santos and by grabbing a spray-can and spraying your tag over them unlocks bonuses and free weapons, just like the hidden packages in the earlier games. The collectible horseshoes and photo-opportunities (of which there are only fifty) also unlock weapons in different parts of the game. The oysters give you a different bonus, and ultimately will give you a super sex-appeal with which none of the potential ‘girlfriends’ can resist.

The various challenges scattered throughout the game test the player’s ability. In all three games there are unique jumps or stunts for the player to perform. Successful execution of these stunts gives the player a monetary bonus. Gone from San Andreas are the rampages. Challenges that test the players ability to use particular weapons. In these rampages the player is given a particular weapon, unlimited ammunition and is asked to go and kill a set number of targets in a limited time (see figures 19-20). The targets are usually vehicles or rival gangsters. In effect the player has to go postal and kill her targets before she gets killed herself. The rampages seem to have little effect on the game itself. It is entirely possible to be offered a flame thrower and challenged to go and kill twenty members of the Yakuza in two minutes, without having this having any impact on your standings with that same criminal organisation. The rampages seem to be little asides, put in the game to amuse and challenge the player without interfering with the main course of the action. Perhaps it is for that reason that have been left out of San Andreas as that game aims for a greater sense of realism, as also becomes apparent from the integration of the ‘hidden packages’ into the virtual setting and the way items are no longer represented by a floating icon (compare figures 11 and 21).

figure 19 – A rampage icon

figure 20 – The rampage challenge

figure 21 – Items in San Andreas

figure 22 – Overwhelmed by the police

The virtual worlds that the GTA games offer, allow for many different types of play. In many ways ‘the world is yours’. Yours to explore and to conquer. That is, as long as the police do not get you; cause enough trouble and they will come after you. In large numbers. With helicopters and SWAT teams if need be (see figure 22). Even in GTA, crime does not always pay.

Knee-deep in intertextual references

One of the most striking features of GTA, and the feature that got me to play the game, is its intertextual richness. It easily is the game with the largest portion of intertext I ever saw. In fact, it is hard to find anything in the games that can not be interpreted intertextualy.

Intertextuality is core concept of post-modern thinking on literature and culture. The term was coined by Julia Kristeva in a discussion of the works of Russian scholar Mikhail Bakhtin. It was his insight that “any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another” that Kristeva labelled intertextuality (1980: 66). Today, intertextuality is popularly understood as the direct or indirect quotation of literary sources by a literary text. But for Kristeva intertextuality is “the transposition of a system of signs into another system of signs” (ibid. 15). Thus incorporating the typical form and style (which is the result of the use of a particular system of signs) from, say, a newspaper article into a novel is a good example of intertextuality. To sum up, there are many different forms of intertextuality: direct quotations of other fictional sources, references to the non-fictional texts and reality, and the copying of various cultural and non-cultural forms, genres and styles. In the case of GTA, it is guilty of all charges.

The most prominent direct intertextual quotations are the references to Oliver Stone’s film Scarface (1984). This film traces the rise of a Cuban refugee to crime-lord in Miami in the eighties, and his subsequent fall. Inspired by the promise of the American Dream, the film’s main character Tony Montana takes the Pan Am slogan “the world is yours” as his own (see figures 23 and 24). He does not shun any means necessary to claim his stake of success and kills, steals and betrays his way up. Eventually he looses it and dies in an orgy of violence that also sees his best friend, his sister and all his henchmen dead. Obviously, the references are most prevalent in Vice City as that game is set in the same period, in a similar setting and follows a similar narrative development. Vice City uses the same first name for the game’s protagonist (Tony Vercetti) and borrows more than a few settings of the film (see figures 25 and 26). But many subtler references already appeared in GTA III that, among other things, has a radio station that exclusively plays songs from the film’s soundtrack.

figure 23 - ‘The world is yours’ as Pan America slogan

figure 24 - ‘The world is yours’ as Tony’s motto in his mansion

figure 25 - Tony’s room in Scarface

figure 26 - And of Vice City

There are many more direct references in all the three games, some more obvious than others. One of my favourites is the reference to Peter Greenaway’s film The Cook, the Thief, his Wife and her Lover (1989) in GTA III. There are four optional mission to be undertaken fairly early in the game called “The Crook”, “The Thieves”, “The Wife” and “Her Lover” (which must be followed in this order). These missions obviously refer to Greenaway’s film title, but the resemblance does not stop at that. The objectives of the missions involve bringing various people to a dog food factory where they are processed into the food. This repeats the cannibalistic finale of the film. Another personal favourite is San Andreas’ character Zero who seems to speak in citations of famous war speeches most of the time (”never was so much owned by so many to so few”), something which seems to largely escape and confuse the game’s protagonist CJ.

As mentioned before, the different locations of the GTA games represent real-life American cities and locations. Some of the structures and architecture draw directly from real-life counterparts such as San Fierro’s Gant Bridge that spans the San Fierro Bay and which has more than a passing resemblance of San Fransisco’s Golden Gate Bridge (figure 27). Unfortunately, I am not familiar with any of the real-life locations, but I am sure that those who are can point out many more of such examples. Even I occasionally recognise the backdrops of rap videos from playing San Andreas.

figure 27 - Gant Bridge in San Fierro

figure 28 - Area 69

figure 29 - The air graveyard

figure 30 - The ‘world’s biggest cock’

Interestingly, there are also many references that have far more cultural or popular significance than simply being in on of the cites GTA is referring to. For example we have the “Area 69″ complete with alien-themed bars that allude to a whole body of popular myth that surrounds the real-life Area 51 and television series such as the X-Files (see figure 28). Then there is the “abandoned air strip” lined with wrecks of old plains (figure 29), that resembles a location that plays a prominent role in Don DeLillo’s novel Underworld, which is among other things an important reflection on the history of the United States after the Second World War. And what to think of “The World’s Biggest Cock” in Las Venturas (figure 30)? Does it have anything to do with the ‘decorated shed that looks like a duck’, that in the manifesto of post-modernity Learning From Las Vegas comes to stand for a whole tradition of modernist architecture (Venturi, Scott Brown & Izenour: 1977). Last, but not least, the city of Los Santos spirals down into a state of riots and chaos towards the end of San Andreas, an event that clearly refers to the Rodney King Riots in Los Angeles in 1992, which is the same year in which the game is set.

The last form of intertextuality (that copies the form instead of the content) is constantly encountered in GTA as most of its characters and scenes are rather stereotypical and seem to come from a host of different sources. Most prominent in this respect are the radio stations, commercials and billboards. While driving around you can tune into various radio stations that sound typical of the day and age of the game setting. These radio stations sound just like such radio stations should sound like, complete with typical DJs, catchy jingles and convincing adds. But despite the commercial and professional sounding form, the content of these messages cannot be taken seriously. For example GTA III features the following radio stations (among others):

  • Head Radio - a rock station that is “making sure radio in every town in America sounds exactly the same” and that boasts “a better variety of weird noises between songs”.

  • Double Cleff FM - a classical opera station that broadcasts a show called “The Fat Lady Sings” hosted by - Morgan “The Maistro” Merriweather - who constantly hints at his dubious sexual preferences: “this powerful tune can overpower the senses, much like a twelve year old nephew who lets you bounce him on your knee… one last time… multo adagio”.

  • Flashback FM - that plays “all the songs you were tired off twenty years ago” (which happen to be only songs from the Scarface film), and which DJ cannot help but hint at all the great sex she had during the eighties (”I used to play the trumpet a lot back then, if you know what I mean”).

The commercials aired by these stations range from hilarious to downright disturbing; from adds for the New Maibatsu Monstrosity SUV (equipped with an amphibious mode to cross artic tundra. “Why drive a small car? Are you a small person?”) to the add for “Liberty City Survivor”, the television event that “takes twenty recently paroled guys, equips them with grenade launchers and flame throwers and let them hunt each other down.” A reality show “where you just might be part of the action”: “natural selection has come home”.

These radio stations and commercials add to the games’ ‘mock-realistic texture’. The player is drawn in by a comfortable look and feel, but soon discovers that realistic appearance is perverted by the contradictory or humour content. This characteristic is repeated in the billboards that are scattered throughout the cities (although less so in Vice City). The player expects to see a lot of advertisements in a faithful representation of a modern city, and sometimes these billboards are just that, but more often than not their messages are as hilarious or disturbing as the radio commercials (see figures 31-33).

figure 31 - Commercials

figure 32 - More commercials

figure 33 - Still more commercials

It should be obvious that most of these contribute to a satirical form of humour, that beyond any doubt has been noticed by many players, journalists and academics. I would say it is one the reasons behind the games’ popular success. The designers must have thought so too, as they deliberately crafted characters and scenes just for this reason; throughout the game the tongue is firmly in cheek. A good example can be found in all the scenes that involve the fictional rock band ‘Love Fist’. These Scottish rockers are walking stereotypes whose dialogue would not be out of place in an episode of the Young Ones.

Intertextual irony and engagement

In his collection of essays On Literature Umberto Eco discusses the idea of double-coding. Double coding refers to the idea that a work of art can simultaneously address a elite minority that favours ‘high’ art and the general public that favours popular or ‘low’ art (Eco 2004: 214). It is an aspect of art that has been foregrounded by post-modern theories of culture, but according to Eco has been characteristic of artworks throughout history. In fact, many of the great canonical classics were popular hits during their time of creation (ibid: 217). GTA, as should have become clear, is likewise double coded: it is on the one hand a fun game, and on the other hand it is steeped in modern cultural and intellectual references. Even in its artwork the game is double coded. It features all icons of popular culture (fast cars, guns and sexy girls) but renders these in a visual style that, with its strongly modulated colours, that Gunter Kress and Theo van Leeuwen associate with ‘the abstract coding orientation’ favoured by the sociocultural elite. (1996: 170). Incidentally, the visual style of GTA can be traced to the film-posters of Scarface, that arguable address the same audience.

Eco does not stop at with his observation that popular and critically successful works are double coded. He links the idea of double coding to the idea of two levels of reading. The first level of reading is the most common, a reader is just following the story; she is immersed in the text. The second level of reading involves a far more critical relation to the text. The reader is also interested in the structure and workings of the text. Eco associates this second level reading with scholarship, something which students of literature need to be taught (Eco 2004: 220). It is easy to expand this idea of a primary, immersed level and secondary, critical level of reading with other types of texts. The appreciation of modern art, for example, depends for a large part on the ability to read on this second, critical level. It is my experience in teaching visual semiotics that once students learn how to ’see differently’ (seeing how images are constructed and structured) they can start to appreciate images of many types critically. I am confident that similar observations can be made in film, television and media studies. In fact, I think it is one of the biggest assets of an academic study that one learns how to appreciate a certain type of text critically, whether these are academic, political or artistic texts.

The particular form of double coding in GTA is similar to what Eco describes as ‘intertextual irony’. A player of the game can on the one hand enjoy a well-crafted game on the first level, and the player capable of second level ‘reading’ strategies can appreciate the game on a deeper, intertextual level that for a large part can be read as a comment of popular culture and games. An interesting quality of intertextual irony is that, according to Eco, it invites second level readings from a reader that commonly traverses the first level only. The humour frequently is so obvious that all readers are actually encouraged to reflect on the construction of the text (ibid: 234-235).

The first and second level reading strategies also recall the dynamic between immersion and engagement described by Diane Carr et al. Engagement is distinguished from immersion as “a more deliberate, critical mode of participation” (2006: 54). Games that allow a player to constantly move between immersion and engagement can be very compelling as this dynamic causes a state of flow with the player. A state of flow that cannot be attributed solely to the games ludic or representational qualities, but which has to be attributed to interaction of those qualities (2006: 55-58).

When looking at GTA it becomes clear that the player can immerse herself in the gameplay or the story, but is constantly encouraged to take a more reflective stance of engagement by the presence of the on screen characters. In GTA, and especially in the later instalments, the player is never allowed to play herself. The Kid, Tony and JC are always present, and increasingly act on their own. Especially JC, who gets the most screen time in lengthy cutscenes, has a distinct character that is independent from the player. We are invited to role-play JC, not ourselves. We are invited to experiment with his character and the social identity he represents. All the characters that appear in the games are stereotypes, as if we are never allowed to believe that these characters are anything but fictional. Their artifice, the games’ humour and intertextual references almost forces us to adopt an engaged, critical and reflective stance to the text it presents.

GTA as a social commentary

When we discover that Grand Theft Auto is a reflective game, the question arises what the game reflects upon. The answer is fairly easy. If anything, GTA can be read as a strong social commentary that addresses the current state of American society, violence, consumerism and excessive branding.

GTA is set in the United States, although the cities go by different names, it is clear that it represents contemporary American cities. The way the cities are represented is not always flattering. Los Santos is a urban sprawl, complete with chain-linked fences, poor quality housing and polluted skies. The streets are controlled by gangs and corrupt police officers. Drugs hold sway over the populace, and it is not very hard to find a prostitute working the streets. When riots erupt in the streets the town descents into violent chaos, which was very much part of real-life Los Angeles in 1992 (see figure 34). The other cities are not better off, run mostly by criminal organisations and ruthless real-estate developers, who do not shun from provoking a gang war in order to drive down the price of land.

The people that inhabit this urban fiction are preoccupied by the consumption of media and consumer goods. When asked to comment on the violent climax of the narrative of GTA III during radio-clip that accompanies the final credit roll, witnesses recall the visual spectacle ‘which was better than the fireworks of the Fourth of July’. In San Andreas your sex appeal is directly related to your fashion budget: spend more on clothes and accessories and you will become more attractive. The cities of GTA are littered with often hilarious advertisements, radio stations designate a significant amount of there airtime to commercial messages, and the poor employees of the fast-food restaurants speak in poorly written pitches.

figure 34 - Los Santos riots

figure 35 - Ammu-Nation in GTA III

figure 36 - Ammu-Nation in Vice City

figure 37 - Ammu-Nation in San Andreas

figure 38 - Ammu-Nation San Andreas interior

All these elements are superimposed with the ‘Ammu-Nation’ chain store which is a constant feature in all games (see figures 35-38). Ammu-Nation sells weapons and ammunition, and aggressively advertises its wares: it is “the store that helped defeat Communism”, where one can buy “a frequent sniper card” or attend the “Ammu-Nation endangered species barbecue” every Saturday. The irony is obvious, beyond doubt the designers had great fun developing this fictional brand. At the same time no one escapes the uncomfortable feeling that all this is not too far from actual reality. The powerful mix of branding, consumerism, patriotism and militarism, packaged into catchy slogans and aired by commercial media is all to familiar.

A quick comparison with Joel Schumacher’s 1993 film Falling Down should take away any doubt that GTA addresses real social issues of modern life. The similarities between this film and the games are striking. Falling Down is set in Los Angeles during the early nineties, and features the same degenerate urban landscapes that comprises Los Santos. The film’s main character, Foster, is driven insane by the burdens of modern life. Admittedly, he is was not a very stable person to start with, but a series of events that lead him trough gangland to burger restaurant and has him collide with bureaucracy and trigger-happy freaks leaves no doubt as who or what is to blame for his mental state. Throughout his ‘adventure’ Foster finds several weapons, initially knives and baseball bats, later submachine guns and disposable rocket launchers, that echoes the typical collection of power-ups in a video game. Although Foster is eventually brought down by a venerable police officer, the audience is clearly invited to sympathise, to some extent, with the violent and dangerous Foster.

figure 39 - Burger restaurant in Falling Down

figure 40 - A similar burger bar in Los Santos

The similarity between scenes in the Falling Down and locations in GTA cannot be coincidental (see figures 39 & 40), neither can the similarities in content be ignored. I doubt many people would refrain from calling Falling Down a social satire, and by extension not many people who actually take the time play GTA can conclude otherwise. If anything, GTA should be applauded for its critical portrayal of contemporary urban society without romanticising pastoral or rural life, as is all too common in mainstream cinema and games (cf. King 2000). Despite its violent theme, it is more intelligent and critical than the celebrated Sims series that on closer inspection is quickly revealed as “civilian simulator training for yuppies” (Kline, Dyer-Witheford & De Peuter 2003: 276)

We can take this analysis one level further still. So far we have seen that the content - or the representational dimension - of GTA is reflective. The same can be said for some aspects of it ludic dimension. A good example of this, is the infamous role played by prostitutes. In the game the player can restore her character’s health to 100% by resting or picking up health power-ups. By having sexual intercourse with a prostitute health is set to 125%. This clearly has a gaming advantage at a negligible price. This feature is not mentioned in the manuals, but word of it spread quickly through the internet. Much has been made of this feature, but I ‘read’ into the reduction of prostitutes to power-ups a revealing commentary on how the society represented by the game treats its women. It is not teaching us how to treat women, rather it is reflecting back to us how we are treating women. In my view it is close to a play of Brechtian estrangement, maybe not as obvious as Gonzalo Frasca’s September 12, but definitely making intelligent use of the game medium to make a profound statement about the state of our society.

There are many more of this type of commentary expressed through game devices. Most notably is the way San Andreas takes typical statistics of role-playing game and subverts these to express the important attributes of modern life. Your ‘fat’ score increases from eating to much fast food, expanding your waistline. Your sex appeal can be increased by spending enough money on fashion products. A rating for ‘respect’ is build up like a score for strength or charisma in a game of Dungeons & Dragons.

GTA consciously and intelligently uses the typical structure of games to incorporate and comment on modern life. The game might be ambivalent, one might even point out that many gamers will fail to notice these qualities at all, but one cannot deny that these qualities are present, and more importantly that GTA shares these qualities with some of the most important works of art in human history. After all, we need to teach our children to read Shakespeare in the right way: we need to teach them to enjoy his tales, but also to understand the underlying themes and comments, and to appreciate his wonderful constructions. Maybe if we point out some of the critical features of GTA they would enjoy and appreciate the games at a more significant and critical level.


If there is a to be a canon of games, then GTA deserves a prominent spot on that list. As I hope to have shown, the GTA games are successful as ludic simulations, play an important role in the discussion of the place of games in society, but at the same time can be read as intelligent, intertextual, social commentaries themselves. In GTA the world is truly yours. It is your ludic playground, build from the same commercial and cultural elements that create the promise of the American dream and society, and in that way it reflects on the real world that is yours outside the game. The designers show that they master the form of games, and have used that ability to create a message that is both pleasurable and profound. The particular use of double coded signs puts GTA in a long tradition of artistic reflection, and hopefully, elevates gamers to a more critical level of gaming and interpretation. The message that GTA constructs deviates from typical popular tales that tend to celebrate militarised masculinity or blind consumerism. If the game is subversive, it is so not because it teaches youngsters to be criminal, but because it teaches them to appreciate their society critically. But, crucially, GTA manages to integrate all this: it is a fine example of craftsmanship and intelligence within the medium of games.


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Grand Theft Auto (1997), Keith R. Hamilton (team leader). DMA Design Limited / BMG Interactive.

Grand Theft Auto 2 (1999), Nigel Conroy, Adrian Hirst & Emel Akiah (development team). DMA Design Limited / Rockstar Games, Inc.

Grand Theft Auto III (2001), Craig Filshie, William Mills, Chris Rothwell, James Worrall (design). DMA Design Limited / Rockstar Games, Inc.

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (2002), Leslie Benzies (producer) & Aaron Garbut (art director). DMA Design Limited / Rockstar Games, Inc.

Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004), Leslie Benzies (producer) & Aaron Garbut (art director). Rockstar North Ltd. / Rockstar Games, Inc.

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The Sims (2000), Michael Perry (design director). Maxis Software Inc. / Electronic Arts Inc.

Joris Dormans is independent game scholar, lecturer of game design at the College of Amsterdam and freelance designer.

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