“This is some really petty bullshit.”
[Sounds of gunfire].
“Why? Why would you do this?”
[Sounds of gunfire]. I open my phone and deposit my cash in my bank account because that’s something you do in the middle of a raging gun fight on the streets of Los Santos.
“Oh come on! More? Who did this?”
[Sounds of gunfire].
“Oh my god. Is this infinite waves?”
[Sounds of gunfire].
“Really? How many mercenaries did you freaking call?”
[Sounds of gunfire].
“Does this end? This is really boring. All I’m trying to do is go to my apartment.”
“Fuck it. I’m tired of shooting your crappy NPC mercenaries.”
“There,” I say, as the word “Wasted” crosses the screen, “Are you fucking happy now? Who did that? Welp, I hope it was you TypicalXboxName.” I call to tell the Merryweather operator that I’d like to hire mercenaries to kill TypicalXboxName. “If it wasn’t you, I’m sorry, but troll shit rolls downhill.”
My significant other, who had come into the room at some point during this exchange, says, “Oh, I’m sorry, I thought you might have been talking to Erik. Nevermind.”
“—No, I was talking to this”—I take a deep breath and start again without using my righteous anger voice—“ahm, sorry, just a troll.”
“Yep, it’s ok,” she leaves to wait for when I’m in a mood other than trolled.
Although GTA Online is supposedly set a few months prior to the events of GTA V, there is a remarkable gap between the two versions of Rockstar’s newest Grand Theft Auto game. Although previous games with “tacked-on” multiplayers, like Mass Effect 3, make singleplayer and multiplayer out to be two sides of the same game, Grand Theft Auto Online is set up as though they are two separate games that happen to be set in the same world, albeit temporally removed from each other. You can see in the image below just what I mean: You leave one game for the other and vice versa.
I am not surprised. It comes very easily to me, as a gamer, to follow someone’s anecdote of gameplay immediately with the question, “Wait, were you on singleplayer or multiplayer?” as though choosing between singleplayer or multiplayer was not only the highest hierarchical level of classification in gameplay but also the first operation performed by a videogame after “turn on.” Moreover, we’ve all seen the ESRB notice that “Game experience may differ during online play.”
Still, I am still surprised by the difference between GTA V and GTA Online. Every time that I am gunned down in the street in broad daylight by one of the fifteen other white dots on the map, I remember this is a different game. By what really strikes me about it is exactly what makes it different.
In the anecdote above, which is unfortunately nearly verbatim, I had joined a server and been killed immediately by another player as I was on the way to steal and sell the first vehicle of the game-day. Stealing vehicles and selling them, rather than doing missions is, after the most recent update, one of the primary sources of cash in GTA Online. Moments after respawning—sigh—I head over to my personal vehicle, drive past another player, and cue the obligatory you-drove-past-me-now-I-kill-you chase through the street. I am killed again, several times, and quit to do a job/mission.
I return from this job/mission to a different server—doing missions in Online is the way out of the dystopian hell-hole of Online play. And since I have some skin on the line, I’m obliged to say: It is very hard to see GTA Online as a satire. Anyway, I return and try again to sell a stolen car. I steal the car, never the hard part, and drive it to the buyer. Except, this time, another player is blocking the entrance to the buyer. I drive away hurriedly. I come back, the player is still blocking the entrance. I flee again. I don’t usually run away from people in a multiplayer, but I also don’t usually shoot dots that are the same color as I am.
Finally, I decide to take the vehicle to a different, farther away, buyer. I sell the vehicle, exit the shop, and am immediately confronted with the notification that someone has called Merryweather mercenary NPCs to hunt me down.
I mean “different” more strongly than the ESRB’s “Game experience may differ during online play.” I mean different as in not-the-same game.
If I put this another way, “Troll shit rolls downhill” is a statement about the metaphysics of gameplay while “experience may differ during online play” is only a legal qualification that certain parts of a singular videogame are not rated when you play it online. I mean the former as a metaphysical statement; the ESRB means the latter as an exception to the rule.
What I’m getting at here is Kenneth Burke’s idea of substance. For Burke (1969), substance is that we commonly use to denote the essence or intrinsic nature of a thing, but, as Burke points out, the etymology of substance suggests not what a thing is but what it depends on. Substance, for Burke, ambiguously defines a thing by context not by nature.
I think what we’ve been doing in video games studies (though seldom in this generation of video games criticism) is defining the video game by its substance. And, defining it by its substance is defining the video game by what it is not.
In video game studies, we often get these definitions of a game or a video game. Jesper Juul has an excellent list of them. Right now, Salen and Zimmerman’s definition, the last on Juul’s list, is the fashionable definition for talking about video games. This definition starts to break down, even in Zimmerman’s class where “design fundamentalism” is a pedagogical move that he recommends avoiding, when video games become objects that we, players, critics, and designers, approach practically—instead of our academic interest in generalizable theory.
However, there is a competing set of attempts at definition, and they all approach video games as process not as static object. The most iconic of these are Galloway’s (2006) “video games are actions.” Bogost’s (2006) unit operations, “modes of meaning-making that privilege discrete, disconnected actions,” deserves a mention too even though he develops unit operations into a procedural rhetoric that is more about a neo-Aristotelian idea of rhetoric as the positive analysis of a well-defined text than about a “new rhetoric” idea of rhetoric as process. But that’s the rhetorician-Gaines talking, so…
Back on topic: When video games are construed as processes rather than things, we acknowledge the ambiguity of the definition and identify a theoretical space where video games negotiate between various assemblages of humans, disciplinary knowledge(s), and technologies. Miguel Sicart has a more traditional way of placing video games in the context of rhetoric as process: “When a player engages with a game, we enter the realm of play, where the rules are a dialogue and the message, a conversation.” Rules, in this formulation, are not a defining characteristic of the video game: They are a part of the context which the video game negotiates.
This brings me back to Grand Theft Auto Online. Every time I am murdered by my fellow white dots in Los Santos Online, it reminds me that a number of subtle changes in the design of GTA Online make shooting avatars a more important game mechanic than stealing cars.
GTA Online includes a kill-to-death ratio, based on your success or failure at killing other players. The mission system loads as an instance, so cooperation is not encouraged in the open world—only in the mission instance. You can possess a limited number of vehicles which are only worth in-game money to you every 40 minutes—leaving 39ish other minutes of gameplay that does not revolve around grand theft auto. Your dot is white, the equivalent of “undefined” in the GTA mini-map color coding where red is enemy and blue is to-be-protected. The Online Los Santos has few activities outside of instances, so there are only a few activities rewarded in freemode (the mode of play where you exist in a sandbox Los Santos with 15 other players). There is very limited interaction with other players other than shooting them. Your home is a safe-zone, and a player who destroys your car is punished, a little. But, killing another player is allowed, not punished, and even nets the killer stats, rewards, and in-game money. Communication is world-wide in freemode—not localized (like in Planetside 2)—which means you can’t inform people that you don’t want to kill them, i.e., proximity to other players is a threat of violence.
These changes make a culture, a context of the video game, where shooting is a more important mechanic than stealing. It’s this shift in mechanics that makes it so interesting to me how GTA Online is a different video game than GTA V.
Well, “interesting” is the emotion I experience after I’m done rolling the shit on down the hill.