The Fantasies of Video Game Cities Can’t Escape Real Social Contradictions
Jon Bailes looks at why even video games – as fantasies – can’t seem to consciously address the antagonisms of our political, economic and social lives.
Walk the busy streets of Los Santos and it seems like everyone’s on edge. Fragments of overheard conversations expose their fears and anger. And don’t expect them to engage you, unless they see you as a threat. But then, you often are. You step into traffic, forcing the cars to stop. Drag a driver out from the window of his vehicle, take his place and speed away. That’s how the world works – winners and victims. They’d probably do it to you given the chance.
Santa Destroy is less tense, but then nothing much ever happens. The faceless walkers on the empty boulevards barely seem to register anything, including your presence. It’s a dead, colourless town with nothing to offer beyond a job centre hawking repetitive service work, a few shops and a gym. Roaming its car parks and back alleys won’t turn up any danger, or any sense of purpose.
For fun, Steelport is a better bet. Well, it’s not really Steelport, it’s a computer simulation created by aliens, but that just makes for more guilt-free entertainment. Unbound by the constraints of reality, your super-powered avatar can tear down roads and scale the towering skyline in seconds. You can fling cars around just to see them explode, and never have to worry about collateral damage because no one’s actually there.
This is urban America viewed through the lens of digital worlds.
These three virtual cities, belonging to the video games Grand Theft Auto V, No More Heroes and Saints Row IV respectively, create distinct experiences through their architecture and modes of player interaction. As I explore in my recent book, Ideology and the Virtual City, depending on which one you enter, the city can become a battleground, a wasteland or a playground. But they are also interpretations of the same modern reality, the contradictions of which they attempt to resolve with their anti-hero power fantasies.
It’s when we put these different takes on similar spaces together that we start to get a full picture. Anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss once noted how members of a tribal community would describe the layout of their settlement in two contrasting ways – with the descriptions they gave dependent on which of the tribe’s main groups they belonged to. For Lévi-Strauss, the crucial point was that both models reflected the experiences of each group and that their differences revealed underlying antagonisms in the social order.
It’s the same for any society, and any medium of expression, including these games and their reflections of the modern metropolis. As Lévi-Strauss saw, it’s when we attempt to describe or represent our surroundings that our repressed assumptions, perspectives and judgements become visible. Depending on who we ask, the built environment can be many radically different things, and comparing these may expose unspoken power relations within a shared culture.
So what is the common antagonism at the heart of these game cities? For all their differences, they all touch on the same core themes related to 21st Century consumer capitalist living. Their landscapes and characters represent a struggle to find happiness, meaning and freedom, or even figure out what those things are. They exist as fantasies to seek something more than the unfulfilling routines of work and leisure.
In this way, there’s a critical element to all of them. Grand Theft Auto makes clear that capitalism itself has turned citizens into ultra-individualistic, competitive atoms, each obsessing over narrow desires for money, fame and pleasure. And it clearly depicts how ‘legitimate’ big business is often more shady and destructive than the criminal enterprises its principal characters pursue.
In No More Heroes, the protagonist finds a way to escape the drudgery of modern life as he gets drawn into the game-like structure of an underground assassination ring – but it’s an escape that costs money and always brings him back to the city streets and the regular economy. As with our real-life escapist media fantasies, he remains part of the consumer loop and continues to help reproduce the system that he’s running from.
As for Saints Row, it’s the obscene comical embodiment of a consumerist demand to constantly maximise our enjoyment. As its hedonistic characters pursue the pleasures of fast cars, fashions, sex, popular culture and action movie destruction, they can’t possibly have time for work, society or even their own personal safety.
All three games can be seen as responses to a contemporary ideological background of pressures and expectations that stem from neoliberal economic ideals. These are pressures to not merely find a work-life balance, but to excel in all areas of life at once: career, family, social life, leisure, fitness, social awareness and saving for the future. Based in principles of individualism, competitiveness and personal responsibility, they ensure our inevitable failures are always our own fault.
The fantasies in these games are really then attempts to reconcile this impossible demand. Despite their critical power, they still also internalise its deepest assumptions and remain unable to represent anything beyond it. Grand Theft Auto mocks rampant individualism, but its criminal characters can only cynically exploit the system to gain power, not change it. For No More Heroes, escape into fantasy remains the only way to deal with the meaningless reality, even when we know it’s fake. In Saints Row, even with the real world and capitalism gone – and the chance to create a new utopian society – the exploitative consumer ideals still structure desires.
What’s missing in all these cases is any community or collective ambition, of a power structure that could truly be overturned, or a different set of values to direct the social order. Even as fantasies, they can’t imagine a way out or consciously address the deeper antagonisms of neoliberalised thinking. Yet, by exaggerating aspects of the present reality, these virtual spaces clarify the multiple facets of its absurd demands.
‘Ideology and the Virtual City’ by Jon Bailes is published by Zero Books.