Among pasta-loving Mafiosos, drug-selling Columbians and noodle-eating Triads – Race, humour and interactive ethics in Grand Theft Auto III

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2005-05-28
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Abstract
This paper explores the intersection of race, humour and interactivity in GTA3. Interactivity has been extensively researched, race issues in games have been scarcely studied (Leonard 2003), but hitherto no research has focused on humour aspects of games despite the popularity of this subject in non-academic discussions on the Internet (BBC News 2001; Perry 2001). Previously, content analysis of games has been focused on narrative aspects (Aarseth 1997; Murray 1998) or psychological links between games and violence (Grossman 1995; Irwin and Gross 1995; Griffiths 1997; Kirsh 1998; Anderson and Dill 2000). It has been claimed that a substantial part of this research "tend to view video games as toys for kids, rather than sophisticated vehicles inhabiting and disseminating racial, gender, or national meaning" (Leonard 2003). This approach to video games as being ontologically frivolous might be traced to the moralizing dynamic of academic activity (Gustafsson 1994). This paper is based on assumptions challenging these perpectives, treating video games as a powerful medium for diffusing cultural and symbolic meanings. In this paper, we will expand and develop this stream of thought by arguing that video games provide in addition to diffusing cultural and symbolic meanings, new loci of reflection and critique of issues of social concern, such as ethics, ideologies, stereotypical depictions of race, class and gender. In this paper the dimension of race will be developed. This theoretical development will be elucidated by analysing Grand Theft Auto III, which is one of the most popular game titles during the last years, and generally in the history of games. The game has become highly controversial and much-talked-about not only for its explicit depiction of violence or global popularity, but also very much for the sarcastic and humoristic representation of society issues such as law enforcement, ethnicity, modern (American) urban life, crime, legal systems and class differences. The analysis is based on a fundamental assumption that video/computer games are texts and should be read as such. Just as Ien Ang (1985)sees the TV series Dallas as a text this analysis will be based on a similar belief. In the case of computer games this assumption is more controversial since the object of analysis is not linear as texts and films. This issue divides video game theorists – those who treat games as texts, so-called narrativists (Murray 1998), or those who oppose this notion and believe games require a totally new "ludological" approach (Aarseth 1997)based on the intrinsically unique characteristics of play in video games. Although we do not criticise the ludological approach GTA3 will be read as a text thus supporting the arguments of narrativists. We will juxtapose two drastically different analytical perspectives when studying racial issues of GTA3. The first perspective is Critical Race Theory (CRT). It posits that racism is a normal and not abnormal phenomenon in society (Delgado and Stefanic 2000a). Another assumption in CRT is called "interest convergence" meaning that the rights of ethnic groups are only promoted and accepted when they converge with the interests of dominating (white) groups, creating a status quo which is hard to challenge (Delgado and Stefanic 2000b). CRT believes this status quo can be opposed in the form of storytelling where the myths, presuppositions and other discourses of race oppression are questioned. CRT writers pay particular attention to legal storytelling and narrative analysis as a way of opposing discriminating discourses of race within the legal system. Basically CRT writers assume that race is a social construction and are consequently opposing any anti-essentialist arguments. Various social constructions of race created for different races expose the different racialization of ethnic groups. Somewhat contradictory to the anti-essentialist notion, CRT believes in the unique voice of colour which means that each race has specific and unique knowledge that can only be communicated by that race. Furthermore CRT calls for revisionist history that re-examines majoritarian interpretations of history trying to replace these with explanation more in agreement with the knowledge of minorities. CRT also criticises liberalism due to its belief in colour blindness and neutral law principles. The humour perspective derives from three competing paradigms for comprehending humour (Morreall 1986). One views humour as an expression of feelings of superiority over another person (e.g. Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes). Another aspect of humour, noted by Aristotle and Cicero and neglected until Kant and Schopenhauer developed it into the incongruity theory, perceives of humour as reaction to the perception of some incongruity. According to the third and latest theory, the relief theory of e.g. Herbert Spencer and Freud, laughter is the venting of superfluous nervous energy. Our analysis will be grounded on the first two perspectives. We will argue that the CRT perspective is consistent with the first theory of humour, the superiority theory, but that the other, the incongruity theory, enables us to move beyond CRT and presents a novel way of looking at games. By presenting stereotypical images of race in GTA3 as humorous, the player is provided with cues for reflecting and evaluating his/her own perspectives on issues of race. Through the unique properties of game interactivity players are allowed to explore different levels of incongruity in a way not possible with other linear forms of media. These perceptions of incongruity stem from the juxtaposition of images of race in GTA3 and the expectations of players, further exposing the characteristics of these expectations and providing impetus for personal reflection. Aarseth, E. J. (1997). Cybertext - Perspectives on Ergodic Literature, Johns Hopkins University Press. Anderson, C. A. and K. E. Dill (2000). "Video Games and Aggressive Thoughts, Feelings, and Behavior in the Laboratory and in Life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology78. Ang, I. (1985). Watching Dallas : soap opera and the melodramatic imagination, Routledge. BBC News (2001). Crime plays in GTA3http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/reviews/1642890.stm. Accessed 2003-08-13 Delgado, R. and J. Stefanic (2000a). Critical Race Theory – The Cutting Edge, Temple University Press. Delgado, R. and J. Stefanic (2000b). Critical Race Theory – An Introduction, New York University Press. Griffiths, M. (1997). "Video Games and Aggression." Psychologist10. Grossman, D. (1995). On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society. Boston, Little, Brown. Gustafsson, C. (1994). Produktion av allvar: om det ekonomiska förnuftets metafysik. Stockholm, Nerenius & Santérus. Irwin, A. and A. Gross (1995). "Cognitive Tempo, Violent Video Games, and Aggressive Behavior in Young Boys." Journal of Family Violence10. Kirsh, S. J. (1998). "Seeing the World through Mortal Combat-colored Glasses: Violent Video Games and the Development of Short-term Hostile Attribution Bias." Childhood, a Global Journal of Child Research5. Leonard, D. (2003). ""Live in your world, play in ours": Race, video games, and consuming the other." Studies in Media & Information Literacy Education3(4). Morreall, J. (1986). The philosophy of laughter and humor. Albany, N.Y., State Univ. of New York Press. Murray, J. (1998). Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, MIT Press. Perry, D. C. (2001). Grand Theft Auto III Review. IGN. http://ps2.ign.com/articles/165/165548p1.html. Accessed 2003-08-23
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Contact: Mikolaj Dymek, Royal Institute of Technology - Department of Industrial Eco, mikolaj.dymek@indek.kth.se
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