"Grand Theft Theory: Vice City"

Controversy surrounded this 4th installment in the "Grand Theft Auto" series because the game was considered too violent, too gloomy, or otherwise immoral. Naturally, every game in the series before had been almost certainly worse on all these charges, but Vice City was a topselling game for all the consoles, and the PC too. Apologists explained that the game was only violent in a fantasy world, and it was no worse than a really violent movie. The debate and screaming worked out a set of continuities as distinctive as the overhyped differences of opinion. For both sides, the game was a fantasy, nobody was at all concerned that simulated civilians (whose AI was often praised) were going to die almost every time the game was played. For both sides, the game was violent because of resemblance: you identify with the main character and become him (Tommy Vercetti), so when you fire a gun at some human looking thing (or, as was not explicitly discussed, at property), it is a recreation of violence. While critics suggested the game encouraged abuse of women (the main example is picking up a streetwalker, then killing her when you were done with her to get your money back), defenders considered this optional behavior related to how coldblooded the player is. Everyone agrees, then, that there is a player with a character, and that character and psychology is at stake.

I propose to discuss Vice City in realistic terms as a game that runs (for me, on the PC). The obsession with transportation that is central to the game creates and organizes the urban space of the game into real estate. However, the only system of meaning available in this 80’s dystopia is the game’s engine. There are no responsive conversations the computer input can control. Aside from cut-scenes, there are only so many one liners thrown between characters. Bullets, then, and not opinions, have meaning. The game does not simulate or reflect a real world just outside the player’s room, as gloomy conservatives suggest, it is very much an accomplishment in computer gaming because it is a wholly constructed architecture: every model in the world has been created. This feat is, in many ways, more significant than in film, because the camera is not a mythology emerging from flat film and screen, but a reality programmed into a three-dimensional world. In this sense, perhaps the ‘violence’ of the game does not exist in smooth and irrelevant casualties, such as running down businessmen, but in the jarring moments the game tries hard to avoid. The nasty run in with the cops that gets out of hand, the excessive motorcycle collision, getting busted while in a car, or the car blowing up with you still inside. These are the forces exerted for injuring an other, these are what cause pain and fear (and always the pain and fear of the player). While the characters in the game are living (as parts of a program in a program, much like ourselves), their destruction does not constitute violence in the traditional sense. Insofar as such acts of destruction are classed as violence, there appear much more interesting assumptions in place and imaginations in motion than the seemingly tired conservative arguments repeatedly applied to any media resemblance of badness.

At the same time the ideological issues of violence and morality feature prominently in discussions of the game, the complete erosion inherent in the game’s experience of the cultural, economic, religious, and political basis of such criticism is duly ignored. There is no financial or capital-oriented economy except what is on the billboards, there are no (macro) politics except for what’s on talk radio, and there is no culture or class except for in the sound and looks of (artist’s work on) characters and settings. The world that has been built is about getting from place to place, but these places have voided the systems of meaning that authorized the overstated judgments of the game that made it significant.

Working Bibliography:

IGN previews and reviews at

dooyoo reviews:

Tech TV review:

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Bertozzi, Elena. At Stake: Play, Pleasure, Power in Cyberspace. Dissertation submitted to The European Graduate School. December 2003.

Garrelts, Nathan. The Official Strategy Guide for Video Game Studies. Dissertation submitted to Michigan State University. 2003.

Shachtman, Noah. "No Gas in ‘Grand Theft’ Sequel." Wired. Dec. 10, 2002.

Ó hAnluain, Daithí. "Making a Virtue of Vice City." Wired. Feb. 1, 2003.

Ricks, Selena. (2003, Mar. 17). "Vice Squad." Portland Press Herald. Mar. 17, 2003.

Hartlaub, Peter. "Vice City Rises Above the Controversy." San Francisco Chronicle. Nov. 7, 2002.

Au, Wagner James. "It’s fun to kill guys wearing acid wash and Members Only jackets!" Salon. Nov. 11, 2002.

Thomas, David. "Vice City: If it’s Bad then it has to be Good." Denver Post. Nov. 10, 2002.

MacDowall, Scott. "Grand Theft Auto 3." Christian Spotlight’s Guide 2 Games. http://www.christiananswers.net/spotlight/games/2001/grandtheftauto3.html (Feb 28, 2004)

Game Zone review

RobotFist review: