Anatomy of a Game: Grand Theft Auto V

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Hello, everyone. Like the proverbial bad penny, I’m back with another “Anatomy of a Game.” Last time, I talked about indie breakout Minecraft. This time, I’m going to pivot 180 degrees and talk about multimillion dollar colossus Grand Theft Auto V, which released recently on Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. Unless you have been living in a cave (with wifi, hopefully), there’s a pretty good chance you’ve heard someone talking about this game, even if it’s just a politician wringing his hands because won’t someone think of the children? The game is big. It made over $1 billion the first weekend it was released, and will doubtless go on to earn zillions more. So what the heck is this game? Why does it get people so bent out of shape? What does it teach?

Grand Theft Auto V (abbreviated, henceforth as “GTAV”) is a member of (and its forbearers are, in many ways, the progenitors of) the genre often described as “free-roaming” or “open-world” games. Prior to Minecraft, games of this type were also sometimes called “sandbox games,” but the genre has more structure than “sandbox” implies and that term is more accurately applied to games like Minecraft and Terraria. As one might assume, open-world games take place in – wait for it – an open world! Thanks for reading. Come back again soon!

You’re still here? More? Ugh. You people and your demands! Fine. Where was I? Open world. Right.

The player navigates an avatar through a predominantly urban landscape using the game controller. The avatar is visible, so the game has a “third-person” perspective (as opposed to the “first-person” perspective of games like Call of Duty, Halo or the venerable Doom, where the avatar’s eyes are the camera and the player looks directly through them out at the world). The avatar can pull out a weapon, hop in a vehicle, punch or shoot things and otherwise engage in various interactions with the world. Getting into a vehicle allows it to be driven (or piloted). The player is given a general introduction to the core mechanics at the beginning of the game, and then largely set free in the world, learning new mechanics as needed to handle the game’s various designed missions.

The thing that was so revolutionary about the Grand Theft Auto games when they reached the tipping point into megahit status (with the arrival of GTAIII), was that they presented a 3D city to explore with no loading screens as you move through it and a seemingly endless array of options for the player – the spectrum of which has been added to with each new iteration. The player’s avatar is a guy (and has always been a guy up to this point in the history of the series, excepting GTA Online, which I’ll touch on later) who can steal and drive cars, fly planes, go into stores and buy things, and store “acquired” cars in his garage. In the newest iteration, he can also buy property, buy cars, buy clothes, stick up stores, change his hairstyle (and facial hair), play tennis, play golf, visit strip clubs, go out with friends, get drunk, drive drunk, pick up prostitutes, compete in street races, shoot random people, run away from police, shoot at police, stop random muggings he comes across on the street, browse the internet (not the REAL Internet – the IN-GAME Internet) on his phone, walk his dog, and many other things.

Many of these activities are illegal because, oh, by the way, the player is playing a criminal. Three criminals, actually, since GTAV has, for the first time in the series, three protagonists the player can freely switch between. The story is less of an ensemble piece in the style of crime films like “Heat” or “The Usual Suspects” (although it draws heavy influence from that oeuvre) and more like three intercut and interconnected stories. It is layered with absurdist satire of American culture which is another staple of the series.

The experience I’ve described thus far is the single player game: a crime narrative interwoven with an open world designed to be experienced by a player on his own. GTAV has an additional, entirely separate mode called GTA Online, which is what it sounds like. It uses the GTAV map (an ersatz Los Angeles called “Los Santos”) and turns it into a world populated by numerous players. Storytelling is reduced – missions have to be simpler and repeatable – and there is an emphasis on missions that encourage direct competition between players, either racing, shooting at each other or both. Still, there are plenty of opportunities to cooperate, including the unreleased-as-of-this-writing feature of planning and executing multiplayer bank heists. In some ways, the online world feels less rich, as some of the single-player activities are not available, but the dynamism that other (very) unpredictable players provide definitely helps to fill that gap. Also, GTA Online marks the first time in one of the major GTA releases that players can customize their character, including gender, rather than playing as a protagonist (or protagonists) predefined by the designers. That freedom to express more individuality within the confines of the world is something that has been missing from a series that in many other ways set the bar for player freedom.

When people talk about open-world games, what they are really talking about is a fully realized simulation (as opposed to the build-your-own-fun of a sandbox game). The activities described above, although often incorporated into the designed missions, exist all the time, and when the player isn’t actively opted-in to a mission, the city and the game keeps going, creating a playground for the player to explore as he or she chooses. Within the simulation, the player does things and the simulation reacts. The experience of being in such a complete feeling virtual place is incredibly compelling. There is the illusion the game creates that you can do ANYTHING – that there are no boundaries, literal or otherwise. Ironically this is both what gamers adore about the game AND what non-gamers freak out about.

So maybe this is a good place to talk about what this all looks like from a learning perspective. I guess I’ll start by stating a few (hopefully) obvious points, one being that GTA is not intended for children, and a second being that it isn’t going to turn not-already-deranged people into axe murders, school shooters, or anything else. All that being said, if I believe all games teach (and I do), then what does GTAV teach? I think it shares a lot in common with other games of its type, in terms of teaching fine motor manipulations and the sorts of pattern recognition that many combat-heavy videogames teach. But beyond that, I think GTA represents the sort of safe space that games so often are. It is game-as-laboratory, a place where players can do whatever they want and see the outcomes of those actions in an environment free of real world consequences. It’s also an example of transgressive play – using a game to create a safe space for engaging in behavior that would not be acceptable in the real world. It’s important to recognize GTAV as fantasy, despite the veneer of realism it creates – it’s a weird, messed-up world full of weird, messed-up characters, and fantasies sometimes portray dark things that are fun within the fantasy even though they would be horrible in real life.

So as someone interested in the learning applications of GTAV, what do you do? Well, first, raise about $200 million to make a GTA-quality, open world game…

Oh. Sorry. No. You absolutely DON’T have to do that. I DO think (politics aside) that teachers should look at GTA and try to understand it, since their students are playing it. It’s a worthwhile topic of class discussion, in the same way that talking about Hamlet or Othello or MacBeth murdering people is entirely appropriate to the classroom. Why do players do what they do in the game? What is their perception of their actions? Do players have personal lines they won’t cross when playing?

From the standpoint of professional training, I think it’s valuable to look at how a transgressive element can be added to training to make it more fun, funnier, and more thought provoking. Can the learner be a disruptive element? What happens if he or she deliberately says all the wrong things to an important client? What happens if he or she ignores all the safety regulations in a compliance training game? Letting learners experiment safely and without real world consequence can give them the chance to explore a topic in a deeper and more complete way, and can make the experience more fun and more memorable.

Have you played GTAV or GTA Online? What do you think about the game? Have you tried incorporating GTAV or other console games into classroom discussions? Feel free to provide your thoughts in the comments! You can also look me up on Xbox Live as MrSunshine. Feel free to send me a friend request, but be sure to mention that you read this blog so I know to add you!