Grand Theft Theory: Vice City

Grand Theft Theory: Vice City

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Grand Theft Theory: Vice City

Both Cote and Khan said it's up to parents to decide whether their teens should be allowed to play Vice City. "Parents should be informed of what this game is about," said Khan. "I would definitely warn kids of the violence." Cote said when his mother first discovered that he and his brother played Grand Theft Auto III, she was "mortified."[1]

Patriarchal formations of familial angst and romance included, Vice City has been received again and again in the several orifices of the public body. Each time new techniques, purposes, and functions may be discovered in the rubble evidencing the occurrence, but the repeated encounter itself symptomatically mythologizes a special strain of the back, bearing out a stigmata proving again and again the omnipresence of Vice City in the spaces of media outlets, and thus collection and reflection. Back pain in the very dens and living rooms of America! The back is just the end of the issue, where it starts is in the hands, a twitching organism tied by lines of fluid, flesh, force, and faith to the human configuration. If what is violent in the game is the mode of interaction by which the protagonist’s narrative transgressions can be rendered progeny of a sick mind (akin to the Japanese Otaku), the hand is a thing of the psychological measurement of the central nervous system and the behavior of the favorite allopathic object. Gameplay is feedback, hand to computer to display to eye, and, like any such idealized circuitry, crossover is categorically denied. Honestly, hands are not their own and not even ‘yours’ in any romantic sense, but yours-insofar-as-you-are-humanized, and thus schematized into matrices of humanist pluralism of the population. A population of its instances. Aside these detachments in analysis, Vice City offers an anarchic confusion with implications for media theory by a methodological engagement of gameplay.


Democratic debate in mass public forums (newspapers and major websites mostly) permit and breed a stirring violence of dialogue always with its own purposes clearly ahead of itself, like the cartoon donkey’s dangling carrot – always just out of reach but enough to keep things going for the time being.

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This is to say nothing of their function. Much as, in evolution, humans think they are in love, but really are self-executing genetic mischief, this debate brings together in some very specific ways the mechanism of participation in a video game and exactly who will be put at stake. Left out to burn are the innocent children, who are entitled to the luxury of the simplest of minds, and the masses – their homologous statistical reincarnation. They are white test-monkeys plugged into the computer, slaves plugged in by their eyes and hands, who will, in their interface, give and get, put in and take out. The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski 1999) is what every intelligent American knew computer games to have always been: plug in, leave your body behind, commit grossly immoral acts, come back to the real world, which is a hovering shithole, and get fucked by the system you were escaping in the simulated world. Just as you triumph, the fantasy is dispelled. Because that is just what it always was, a fantasy. As if there were nothing fun that was not punished for it by falling to the divine status of fantasy. The human population has long been little more than an array of batteries.

One of the great innovations in the techniques of power in the eighteenth century was the emergence of “population” as an economic and political problem: population as wealth, population as manpower or labor capacity, population balanced between its own growth and the resources it commanded. Governments perceived that they were not dealing simply with subjects, or even with a “people”, but with a “population,” with its specific phenomena and its peculiar variables.[2]

And it is this population that fantasy will no doubt corrupt. No game gives quite the grandiose narrative telling of actuality, illusion, or physical reality that, by symptomatic response, becomes its discussion and accompaniment. Fun? Fantasy! Perhaps it’s a complicated spelling problem. Yet, while watching a movie is ok, and killing gooks at war is understandable to glorious, thou, hand, shall not press the kill button. Who does the violence is as important as when, why and how. Once these magic grade school questions have all been deployed in a general form (the tradeoff, here, for not asking a ‘complex question’ is the complication called for in the framing and qualification in its rejoinder), violence (whose ‘what’ need not be too ruthlessly interrogated) can be measured and deployed. The more surgical the better, so of course the daily violence of running down some bloke just to round the corner faster than a cop is taboo. (Virtual) violence? Not In My Back Yard! Here in motion is the compassionate redistribution of wealth by angst over one of its mechanism’s absence.

But all of this is a sheer face of generic and shunning literary certainty, a painful prose of melancholy and flight dedicated to a burning field of yearning between simulation and actuality: video game versus reality. Violence is just an open window in, the germane issue is as unspeakably present as the 80’s no longer are. The proper positioning of fantasies vis a vis realities comes, naturally, under disputed reflections in the broken mirror of a consensus reality smashed on the truncated wilderness of urbanized humanity. A kidney dialysis center sits next door to the Woodlawn Tap. There tragically is not a procedure to spatially reconcile such dissonance, and goodbye to tragedy for it. In precisely the same way, rather than locate Vice City in the symbolic realm or cause the compound fracture of the reverse (symbolism in Vice City, as it is significant in symbolism generally), I want to lay theory beside Vice City, locked in symbiotic and simultaneous gameplay.

Does nothing matter on the crime-ridden streets of Vice City? Pedestrians pass by muttering or screaming comments that receive no response, cars drive nowhere on loops too uninteresting to follow, billboards do not change, and the radio stations are all on a loop. Whereas the Christian God had the privilege of a nothing upon which to enact the word, the activation of the outside man model for the game is the unprecedented interruption which enacts a Babylonian initial violence of creation. Meaning begins with the disruptions of the banal life processes of a perfectly harmonized ecosystem such as that of Vice City. Its balance isn’t worth worrying about, because as anyone who lives amidst aspens knows, it doesn’t really matter if its one organism. FOX makes this very clear, wild animals are more interesting when they attack. On the mean (a joke) streets of Vice City, animals can and will attack. And as in the natural war of all against all, this is the basis of the system of meaning.

I interpret a statement by reacting to it, which is to say by generating a symptom. Voices continually call and respond, invoke and provoke other voices. Speaking is thus in Foucault's sense an exercise of power: "it incites, it induces, it seduces, it makes easier or more difficult; in the extreme it constrains or forbids absolutely; it is nevertheless always a way of acting upon an acting subject or acting subjects by virtue of their acting or being capable of acting. A set of actions upon other actions." Usually we obey orders that have been given us, viscerally and unreflectively; but even if we self-consciously refuse them, we are still operating under their constraint, or according to their dictation. Yet since an order is itself an action, and the only response to an action is another action, what Wittgenstein ironically calls the "gulf between an order and its execution" always remains. I can reply to a performance only with another performance; it is impossible to step outside of the series of actions, to break the chain and isolate once and for all the `true' meaning of an utterance. The material force of the utterance compels me to respond, but no hermeneutics can guarantee or legislate the precise nature of my response. The only workable way to define "meaning" is therefore to say, with Peckham, that it is radically arbitrary, since "any response to an utterance is a meaning of that utterance." Any response whatsoever. This accounts both for the fascistic, imperative nature of language, and for its infinite susceptibility to perversion and deviation.[3]

In Vice City, violence is a basic truth. Bitter Haitian gang members, bad drivers, or insane criminals with no history and no future may attack during a job or otherwise, and there is no option to deny them anymore than the shock of tragedy can be cultivated in the game’s profound, 80s, shiny surfaces. As in speech, voices call and respond, but as for wild insects, there is no escape from the functionalist order of call and response. The game engine brooks no metaphysics. Architecture is real. The camera does exist in a three-dimensional world. Macro politics don’t exist. Faster cars are better. Cheating works faster. Transportation is essential and property is meaningful. By initializing the game, these truths presence themselves in a manner that cannot be denied, only responded to in symptoms. It is here that the looming shadow of an objective worldview of meaning can be seen to disappear on the neon lights that run the city through night without a care for the sun’s hour. The predictable and learnable responses and reactions of the game to the hands and arms (and feet if you play with a foot pedal device) subsist in crystalline forms of conditioned responses borne out by repetition and association.

Stay on the go. The faster the better. Even if it’s a weak bodied sports car, you can steal a new one when it gets too banged up. Speed affords opportunity for replacement. And through speed, all things become more replaceable. However, substitution is far from the lone impetus or effect of movement. The hotel you begin the game in is interesting, but you have to go to your own one if you want to save the game. That hotel is ok too, but again the road is the way to the next best thing. It is never a necessity to move at all, rather, staying in place is only a meaningless possibility that has evolution against it. At the same time it is, in some stupid technical sense, possible to stay in one place in the game (don’t touch that keypad!), and not a matter of statistical (or other) ‘probability’ whether a player will stay in place or move. Both of these criteria for possibility are irrelevant to the occurrences of the game unfolding in motion with the player. The static opportunities afforded theory by impossibility and improbability immediately appear as the stale offerings of another order made pure babble in a position beside, but not having come to grips with, the game. Contrary to Newton, objects that can move tend to move.


It’s the 80s. Fashion, color, texture, lighting, the aesthetic representations of nature and paradise are no more of the 80s for their particularity than the narrative, radio, or writing in the game could be reduced to. What is most important is both obvious and unreasonable.

Recognizable American stereotypes are unleashed to interact with unpredictable results in the same virtual space. (There's something truly brilliant about a game where a New York mobster in an aloha shirt can be cursed out in Yiddish by four Florida retirees, before they bludgeon him to death with nine irons on the 18th hole fairway.) This is the America that Europeans must secretly fear, and believe to be real, playing out in a video game.[4]

Reduction to defining characteristics offers the same potential for thorough consideration of a thing as the nutritional facts of a Pop-Tart. Specificity is just another a trick of memory with its advantages and disadvantages, like a shard it may return more easily, but it is a souvenir, only a lonely metonymy. If 80s were a flavor, its simulation could pass even as its sensations could not be described. It smells like a banana, but I can’t say what a banana smells like. The thing which is so 80’s about the game is not a particular thing, it is everywhere and everything without being a thing at all. There is a realm between that which cannot be forgotten and that which cannot be remembered.

Crime pays. No less than the cheat codes that enabled new approaches to the rules and mechanics of a game engine, the criminality of Vice City has been organized already by the systematization of legality. In the game its simple: you get wanted stars for doing bad things, you can only get so many at once, and you can do things to get rid of some or all of them. Wanted stars mean different numbers of different police units come after you. And they always know where you are. 3 and a helicopter is in pursuit. 4 stars, SWAT . 5 stars, the FBI. 6, the national guard. Like staying on the go, staying legal has its advantages, but is a terminal and ultimately boring nonstarter. At the other extreme, maximum stars justifies nothing less than maximum crime. Such border effects exist for each wanted state. If a helicopter is following you but not yet shooting, you can get out of the car, but once it’s shooting you ought not be on foot in the presence of a helicopter. Illicit activity is pursuant to legality, and not just semantically. Repression is a condition of liberation and not an alien enemy hailing from a distant galaxy.

The city, the computer. As in SimCity and Ghost in the Shell (Mamoru Oshii 1995), the jolts and tranquil clearings of city life can be found on the ground with a camera, but the fundamental architecture of an entire metropolis is only knowable by a computer. The oracle, of course, is only known by its priestly caste, and so too the city by the computer. Just as video games accomplish what film could never justify, the actuality of the fly-on-the-wall camera’s position within an already made 3d world provides all the realism movies ever aspired for. Look, the image shows what really is a Cartesian dimensioned material world! The urban conditions by which place can be zoned, segmented, sealed in or walled off, ensnared by urban planning, and bound by knots of roadway are conventions shared by (and in a discursive history, in some ways parented by) computer design powered by simultaneous, rather than sequential, charges. Cars not electrons, but for both, architecture situates and enhances the movement, the machinic capacity to go and keep going. Transportation was always best visualized by the railroads, built by foreigners to power immediate needs, the tracks are right there on the ground for all to see and drive over, and what is most static (the magically stable architecture of Vice City cannot be damaged) enables, motivates, channels, threatens, and pressures motion rather than merely limiting it.

There is no death, only recycling. Death only happens when the game is not played. Deleted from the hard disk, saved games are erased, or the operating system crashes. The game cannot ‘kill you’. Shot in the head? Come back at the hospital a few hundred dollars poorer. “Win” the game? Watch the credits and get some money, keep going. Rather than Monopoly’s ‘do not pass go, do not collect 200 dollars’, or perhaps just like the usual dynamic this phrase opposes, you cannot help but pass go again and again. The eternal return is no longer a circle, but a twisted system of roads with no end in sight and only a vague idea of a beginning. Contrary to the usual fear that the golden age has passed or new opportunity will be squandered, all parts are ultimately interchangeable and naturally recurring. Not only some moving things, but almost all of them, aren’t going anywhere.

The word is on billboards and the radio. Its theoretical apprehension is not absent from the game but a precondition to its possibility. The arrogance of invention need not stand in lonely opposition to the dogmatism of discovery: there is already a surfeit. In addressing Vice City, ‘we’ (with a presumed privileged priority to our associations with the game) are not explorers of the unknown inner space of the body, here to catalog and evaluate masculine motion and capabilities, there is no hovering seat from which to survey the game world but that of the computer, and this productive position for theoretical truth is very much already occupied by the game’s engine. Cheats as much as participation define, test, and implement this throne position, but it is neither a void of power nor an aging leader willing or ready to give up authority.


How, then, might media be understood? McLuhan’s approach makes a point of first denying meaning to contents (it’s the medium that’s the message!), in what amounts to a classic philosophical dichotomization of mind and flesh, security and risk: “The ‘content’ of a medium is like the juicy piece of meat carried by the burglar to distract the watchdog of the mind”[5]. This decaying binary has been infested with complications, and like Mrs. Terrain in Brazil (Terry Gilliam 1985), the complications have had complications. McLuhan’s argument is the content of a book, his book is also the content of his argument, and no municipal power deeds right-of-way to either side. ‘Body’ is only in the mind but the brain and spine are only in the ‘body’. Homosocially, the confusion has none of the mainstream construction tools prepared for it, the mind is only in the mind and the body is only in the body. But neither is a self-identical singularity, they still mingle and get crazy. ‘Naturally’[6], this is about sexuality and gender, because media are extensions of man (singular, masculine, generic, universal). Media, such as the technologies of slavery and processes of patriarchy. In this sense, McLuhan’s angst over castration enacts a disabling agenda: a car is too wide for an alley that is too small, but that will be the car’s fault and the motorcycle’s accomplishment. A disability drives the streets of a disabling context. It’s very hard to get around Vice City’s long roads without a universally omnipresent car, but this one right here will do. Even when the medium is a message, the content is what must be hijacked – and that is a question phrased as perspective[7]. Is the car driving you, or are you driving the car? Again, through McLuhan’s ‘nesting’ of media, the claim that “the content of any medium is always another medium”[8] threatens interest. It is as fascinating as ‘the content of every weapon is a weapon’, because there certainly won’t be anything else to talk about. Vice City becomes as flat and uninteresting as the CDs it installs and plays from. As for theory, the processing of this viral strategy of classification and control through (contrary to “a culture … long accustomed to splitting and dividing things as a means of control”[9]) organic wholism certifies the inescapability of the media theory / media studies relationship of ex-lovers. Understanding Media, in this script, abandons poor Blake and Shakespeare to an irrelevance contradictory to their esteemed use. Theory based by literature, theory by games. ‘Mediums’ or actual events, such as checking email, may host (‘nest’) others of their kind, but, is this Jonah in the whale, a Turducken, or a mother properly disturbed by her child playing violent video games? To be sure, it is an ethnic slur on technology: they all look like media to me. A medium is a condition to its contents as its contents are to it, but the configuration of those conditions is not uniform. What is programmed static shapes motion, but does not substitute for it. When motion is relative (and it certainly isn’t in Vice City if the human player is always the center of the universe), ‘static’ is a programming impossibility.

Vice City cannot be forgotten or remembered, mostly for lack of convention. Like robbing a convenience store (gets you money and police attention, but is necessary to help complete the game’s ‘progress’ statistic), however, there is convenience, and then there is heist. When my hands play the game, they can drive most cars, taking account for weight, speed, and cornering. There isn’t much of a strong reminder of the supposed telos of the game’s plot, and it’s hard to cry about it. Instead, each corner and side alley holds another embarrassing detail to stumble across. Including the embarrassment of a huge underdeveloped space in the city map. Including the embarrassment of a forgotten irrelevancy with which one is loathe to again cross paths. Grand theft occurs not to the car, which has no considerable opinion on the matter, but to the previous driver, pugnacious, on the run, or calling for police enforcement.

The regularization of media found in its instances of theorization organizes the possibilities and configurations of its transgression such that its compression is its exit (law organizes crime as roads traffic), and its certainties are its own foundations of realignment. Rather than learn media as if from nowhere, the mimetic contagion of particular ‘media’ processes can ravage the scripted summaries of The Situation made possible by its own occurrence, and set out alternative collections and influences than those offered as the possible terms at the outset of an engagement. What happens, then, is an encounter with media, the sporadic resorting to functional possibilities as dictated by the master-slave dynamic of interfaces and interactions. Not only the hands take part in Vice City, Vice City takes part in them and everything else, capable of hijacking, collision, and extra-fantastic power. And theory’s doors have no locks.


[1] Ricks, Selena. (2003, Mar. 17). “Vice Squad.” Portland Press Herald. Mar. 17, 2003.

[2] Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality: Volume One (New York: Vintage Books,
1978), p. 25

[3] Shaviro, Steven. Doom Patrols. [Jan 30,
2004] Ch. 10

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

[5] McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media. Cambridge: MIT, 1964. pp. 18

[6] McLuhan’s use of the ‘nature’ of media clarifies what about his method that is so
perfectly suited to its conclusions. Reminiscent of Plato, only the essential
qualities of an arrangement matter, and everything else about an instance of the
form (TV as a medium, watching Seinfeld as TV itself) follows into an already
bounded space, as in the intellectual-administrative artifact of a ‘category’.

[7] However, perhaps not for the best. The ‘perspective’ phrasing often selfishly
assumes responsibility and privilege for its own side: the car sees itself hijacking
you, you see yourself hijacking it.

[8] Ibid, pp. 8

[9] Ibid, pp. 7
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