GTA V and the American Experience

James Brightman asks how can British devs capture the American experience so well?

Rockstar has a way with people. For good or ill, they know how to push your buttons. As EEDAR's Jesse Divnich told me recently, "when they speak, everyone listens."

Indeed, everyone in the industry and gamers worldwide paused to glimpse the first footage of GTA V. As I watched and re-watched the trailer, something struck me: this is a decidedly American game.

In fact, the entire Grand Theft Auto franchise - and many of Rockstar's other games - focus on American culture and, to a degree, it could be argued that Rockstar is making a statement. How is it that a UK company can so accurately replicate the American experience in a piece of interactive entertainment?

When GTA IV questions the "pursuit of the American Dream," and when Rockstar talks about GTA V being about the pursuit of the "almighty dollar," are Sam and Dan Houser making a political statement?

When I watch the GTA V trailer and see the For Sale and Foreclosure signs on homes, vagrants lined up on the streets of Los Santos, and people holding up 'need money for beer' signs, thoughts about how far the dollar has plummeted, our housing crisis and our jobless and homeless rates instantly start racing through my head.

Sometimes when you come to a culture new there's an ability to see it more clearly, to see it in more detail than the people who were born there

Ken Levine, Irrational Games

Rockstar may or may not be trying to make a poignant statement on our failings as a nation, but it does a heck of a job crafting a virtual representation.

And it wouldn't be the first time. As Kotaku writer Kirk Hamilton noted in a recent feature about the impact of the recession on games, "GTA IV was an at-times scathingly topical game. Between the right-wing blabbermouths on 'Weasel News,' the constant looming threat of terrorism, and the internet-addled populace of Liberty City, I'd even go so far as to call it the most effective video game rendition of 'America ca. 2007' anyone will ever make."

He added, "It wouldn't surprise me at all to see Rockstar capture the new American zeitgeist, four years later. And while it's likely that the nation's economic woes will provide a backdrop for GTA V, it wouldn't surprise me to see it play a more integral role in the storytelling, as well. I can easily imagine the economy factoring into the protagonist's return to a life of crime, or a storyline revolving around helping out a homeless former banker, or a story about taking down a corrupt financial institution, or even a few missions poking fun at the Occupy movement."

James Fudge, managing editor for, agrees that politics - specifically American politics - are certainly a big component of the GTA games, and that GTA V will be no different based on what we've already seen.

"Nine percent of Americans are out of work. A larger percentage of our country is either facing foreclosure or knows someone who is. My guess is that Rockstar is attempting to tell a story that has some relevance to America's current dire financial situation," Fudge said.

"It's hard to tell where the story is going to take us in that short clip, but certainly survival is the ultimate political issue. It drove the Tea Party protests, it is the catalyst for the Occupy Wall Street movement, and it will reshape the political landscape in 2012. Ultimately I think the game is going to tell a story about either holding onto the American Dream by 'any means necessary' or about letting it go up in flames for the sake of survival."

From a development perspective, it only makes sense to draw on some of the major movements in the world today. Irrational Games' Ken Levine recently acknowledged that the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements were very helpful to him as he crafted the world and themes for next year's BioShock Infinite.

Levine said that he definitely sees the correlation between American politics and Rockstar's titles, and he remarked that sometimes having an outsider's viewpoint is actually beneficial.

"Sometimes when you come to a culture new to see it more clearly, to see it in more detail than the people who were born there," Levine said. "When I go to another country, I'm always fascinated by the details; I'm fascinated by what's different from our culture and I think maybe that was an advantage in terms of observing American culture."

"It's not just the GTA games - you know, Red Dead and LA Noire - there's certainly a culture there of making games that examine the American experience. And I think that they may have an advantage not being born in America because they will notice those granular details that an American may not because he's so used to it."

For Levine, Rockstar's titles are quintessential examples of the evolution of games as a medium for expression of all kinds.

Obviously the home-foreclosure scene is a little topical, but everything else in the GTA V trailer could be from 20-years-ago America

Dan Hsu, EGM

"I think it's very natural that when any kind of art comes along, everyone's just figuring out how to make it work at a very rough level and then it moves on to expressing the most fantastical, biggest, broadest things because we just don't have that capability early on in the technology. And when I say technology, I mean the technology of film, the technology of games, the technology of painting, whatever it is to really do any kind of subtlety."

Rockstar certainly seems to be expressing itself with the GTA V trailer, but then again, there's always the possibility that we're trying too hard to give a piece of interactive entertainment greater meaning.

Bitmob founder and former Electronic Gaming Monthly editor-in-chief Dan "Shoe" Hsu told me, "Is there that much political or social commentary to be seen here, or are people trying to read too much into this trailer? Obviously the home-foreclosure scene is a little topical. But everything else in this trailer could be from 20-years-ago America just as easily as it could be from current-day America. Some people are rich and living up life. Some people aren't. Hasn't it always been that way? What's new?"

There have always been the "haves" and "have nots" in American society, but to answer Shoe's question: what's new is that the one percent of the upper class now control the wealth in America to a degree never seen before. It's why the Occupy Wall Street movement was born; the 99 per cent are speaking up, and Rockstar is taking notes.

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Latest comments (7)

T. Stash Krane Student, Purdue University7 years ago
GTA IV's complex critique of the American dream always seemed to ring a bit hollow when the game is mostly about driving cars through crowds of pedestrians.
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Benn Achilleas CEO and Founder, Playabl7 years ago
I miss Gouranga!!!
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Lewis Brown Snr Sourcer/Recruiter, Electronic Arts7 years ago
Gouranga... classic....I loved that game!
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Show all comments (7)
Tim Carter Designer - Writer - Producer 7 years ago
You capture it by having AI that makes sure cop cars ram into your car really cool-like when you're having a car chase.
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Callum Taylor Studying BSc Computer Animation, University of Portsmouth7 years ago
More fun and replayability should be the main theme. If I can ram a tank through one of those foreclosing homes or riot control an occupation of a Vegas strip then I'll be happy. Nobody wants to think about politics while creating mayhem.
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Leo Harper Scrum Master/ Project Manager 7 years ago
If Rockstar can capture both the fun elements of gaming, i.e. mayhem, gouranga (where did that go - perhaps too non politically correct to kill a bunch of free loving hippy hare krishnas? From Rockstar - politically correct, don't think so!) while painting an artistic/stylistic picture of now, the past or even the future, then that's amazing. Personally (and I know I'm not alone in saying this) my two favourite elements of the series are exactly these things (more from gta3 onwards) and the latest trailer for five, actually brought back some memories of visiting las vegas a few years back, staying with a friend in the suburbs with the property and banking crisis kicking off.

I say the more realism and parallels to the lives of humans, the better whether that's politics, fashion or just our behaviors and this is very much what I see the gta series becoming more and more about. A looking glass into another world - not that far from our own. Sure it's only a game, an amazing one at that, that's able to give us great playability and 'experiences' while looking good doing it but are we/ am I over analysing the topic? Probably, but we are not all that far away from a world where games are so immersive and realistic that devs/publishers will have to look more closely at the morals, ethics and messages of the content they are producing is pushing out.
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Quaisha Thornton Founder & CEO, GameAvation, LLC7 years ago
I really don't see how Grand Theft Auto is making some sort of political statement. It's a game that lets you run down people in the street. Give me a break...
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