GTA & Representation of the city.

American cities in video games: new forms of analysis?

Recherches dans le cadre du cours "Représentation of the city" à l'Ecole Spéciale d'Architecture

You couldn’t miss the advertisements for the Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA), unless you stayed at home the entire month of September, without any access to the media. Based on the city of Los Angeles this new opus of the video game company Rockstar Games is even more realistic than the previous ones.  The video game is a “recent” medium (the first video game marketed was in the 70s), interesting because it is interactive: the gamer has to be involved; (s)he has to project himself to accomplish something (walk into a building, grab a paper, even car-jack), or go forward through the game. The design of the city on the screen is essential: the imaginary world is now “practicable”. GTA is unique, it created a new genre of game: “GTA like”, it’s a genre of open world action-adventure video games with two important notions: free circulation and free action.
Through an analysis of Grand Theft Auto, how do video games allow the gamer to apprehend the city in a different way? How does the “real” city become a playground through this new interpretation of the city? We will use Grand Theft Auto Liberty City, based on New York City and Grand Theft Auto Los Santos based on Los Angeles. We will respond to this question in three parts, in the first one we will develop the interaction of the gamer and the city, in the second part we will stay focused on the game as a simulacrum and simulation of the city and in the last part we will explain why our urban approach changes with GTA-like games.

Grand Theft Auto is one of the most popular video game, about 125 millions units sold around the world[1]. It is the result of a long work, developers had to invent and design a universe, and as in “real life”, planted cities, maps, buildings etc.: they created what they call a Game World. Liberty City and Los Santos are relevant because with these cities the designers didn’t want either to create a cartoon-design game[2] or to copy-paste the “reality” but they wished to take the personalities of New York City and Los Angeles[3], and pass it to the gamer. To understand how the sensation of the city is different from the “real” life, it is possible to make comparison between elements from the “real” world and GTA world in both cities.
Map of New York City
Map of Los Santos

First, both cities are represented as islands, with a coast, because it is easier to confine the game location, and the coast is to remind you that you’re not lost in the ocean, but the city is part of a world. With this system the game has more credibility about its limits. Then the city is not as clean as in other games, they didn’t try to create the perfect city, neither is it a dystopia. Liberty City and Los Santos are megalopolises, dirties, older architecture sometimes falling into ruins and the weather is changing. You can feel that the city has a past. Population in both cities is a melting pot, but diversity depends on the neighborhood. In GTA IV guide book they summed up this idea of heterogeneity “Where [Liberty City] else can you get sworn at by a senior citizen, accosted by a crack head, propositioned by a prostitute, and strip-searched by a police officer, all before breakfast?”[4]. This version of Liberty City is the third one of NYC, is about 100 km2 (New York city is about 1213m2), and has four of the five boroughs: Algonquin (Manhattan), Bohan (Bronx), Broker (Brooklyn), Dukes (Queens) plus the coast, Alderney (New Jersey). Algonquin –name comes from the Native American tribe that used to live in Manhattan before the colonialism, to remind us that our countries have sometimes a terrible past- is a district full of towering skyscrapers, heart of the city where you can find a lot of nightlife and clubs. Downtown is rich and uptown known for expensive houses, but the Northwood is one of the poorest areas, as in New York with the Upper East Side and Harlem. When you are going through this district, you take one of the seven avenues, and each one is named after an US state capitals (in the previous games the streets didn’t have names): names allow places to exist, increase the realism and settle the city in the United States. The gamer learns without knowing it, there are so many details that (s)he can’t notice everything. Bohan is the opposite: sparsely populated, avenues’ names of prisons (Alcatraz Avenue, Rykers Avenue etc.), broken-down buildings as in South Bouhan or Fortside, a lot of gangs such as Spanish Lords, prostitution part of the district, the only exception is Northern Gardens and Little Bay. The majority of the population is Hispanic; you can also meet Afro-Americans and Albanese: a caricature of the Bronx. Broker and Dukes districts share an island; the gamer begins the game in Broker. The island has the shape of the African continent turned upside down: the majority of the African population in Liberty City appears to reside here. About the transportation, you can use a car that allows you to go almost everywhere and have a speed experience of Liberty City (cars are imitation of real brands’ model, as Ferrari (Ferocius) or Jaguar (Jugular), but real brands didn’t wanted to have their name involved in the game) the subway that give you a different perception of the city, because as is in NYC between the moment you enter the subway and leave the subway you can’t see the city, you have a “visual break”, (two main routes, one serves inner Algonquin and Bohan and the other serves Algonquin and Broker/Dukes), even boat and helicopters, that gave you a new sensation of the city. With all these different kind of transportation, designers had to conceive the city from different points of view. In GTA you can have different perceptions from real life trough these means of transports that normally you can’t use.
In Los Santos you can use these means of transportation and you can also dive and swim in the ocean. Los Santos is the Spanish expression for "The Saints", a play on "The Angels". By avoiding using the real name of the city they are represented to the designers of the game have more freedom about the jurisdiction.  The city is also represented with the all neighborhoods, Central Los Santos, South Los Santos, East Los Santos, West Los Santos and North Los Santos. Each district has his own characteristics as in Liberty City. In Central Los Santos you can find for example the downtown that is the central business district, with the main buildings represented. But what is the most relevant in this game is the landscape. You don’t only have the city but also mountains and countryside (cf the map). They represented emblems of the City as San Gabriel Mountains (Tatavia) or Hollywood Hills (Vinewood Hills). You can go to these points of view and have a panoramic view of Los Santos. The experience is more realistic: the game area is extended to the countryside and allows the gamer to take a rest outside of the city. It also changes his perception of the city because when (s)he gets back to the city centre (s)he feels the speed, the traffic and the concentration of people. There is a contrast between the two parts of the Los Santos. (S)he feels the city. During the night the sky turns into black in the countryside, but when the gamer enters in the town it turns into a dark yellow color, references to the pollution of Los Angeles and the smog. He can take the subway, and of course the highway. The gamer can control the traffic accomplishing a mission in the Los Santos Transport Traffic Control. GTA’s achievement is the variety of experience.
The interaction between the gamer and the territory in both cities is limited to moving with different transports; visiting buildings, interact with inhabitants and the traffic control. You can’t destroy the city because the city is a character and it would be too “heavy” for the RAM (Random Access Memory), but you can destroy cars and attack people. You can’t construct either, the city is created as a block, and some monuments contain "missions” or guns. The creators design first the city before putting details for the mission inside. It is easiest for the conception but show that the city design is more important than the plot.

Los Santos and its smog

Baudrillard wrote about United States in “America”. We can find a lot of question he approaches, as disparity, real-estate transaction, ethnic segregationism, the link between the financial magnates and the political power, the fragmentation of the city, drugs deals, gangs … He describes New York City and Los Angeles in different ways, and we can see differences. The first one is the absence of verticality in Los Angeles while New York City is based on it. This difference is less obvious in GTA, but Los Santos is huge and you are obligated to take a car (or an helicopter) while in NYC you can easily move in subway or by walking. A unique island, making us feel the huge territory, represents the horizontality of Los Angeles. In Liberty City the skyline of Algonquin (Manhattan) is impressive, you can see it well from a helicopter. In Los Santos, except downtown, the buildings are lower, and less dense. About NYC Baudrillard wrote, “A magical sensation of contiguity and attraction for an artificial centrality. This is what makes it a self-attracting universe, which there is no reason to leave. »[5]. When you play the game you have the same sensation. Liberty City is artificial, and you don’t want to leave it. Liberty City is a simulacrum of NYC, it is as crowded, as kinetic (the movement is strongly present in the game, you have the option of playing from a “cinematic” camera view) and there is always traffic and a lot of advertisement. For him NYC and Los Angeles are the center of the world, and we can feel it in the game. The city is self-sufficient, but have interaction with the world through the media. Maybe this is one the flaws. You don’t need to travel or go out of the city; you have everything to accomplish your mission inside it. The airport doesn’t lead anywhere. You are locked into the simulacrum, which seems to be the incarnation of Freedom.
Following Baudrillard’s ideas we can go further, exploring his notions of simulacra, simulation and hyperreality. According to the philosopher, the simulation is the experience of the real through our practice, for example through media or learning. The simulacrum is the representation of the reality without being a copy, it is a substitution of the real, and the copy only has a sense with the original. The original and the aura disappeared to give way to the simulacra. In video games the difference between simulation and simulacra is when the simulation tries to imitate the social relationships, and forces you to think about your acts and consequences. When the game resembles life, when you are disturbed by your behaviour, when you’re asking yourself, you’re entering in the world of the simulacra. In GTA you have a relationship to other citizens, and in your missions you have to rob, kill and hurt people. You can make your own rules, and every gamer transgress the law and morality. In this game you can project your phantasms and live as a gangster. Everything stays in the cities of Los Santos or Liberty City. For Tadh Kelly (the creator of the game design blog « What Games Are »), when the game becomes a simulacra it is dangerous for the gamer. “In the Grand Theft Auto series, the presence of other people on the streets, and their various snippets of dialogue, does a great deal to enchant the player. It adds a layer of richness to an experience that would otherwise be pretty sterile, and the game is consequently more thaumatic. »[6]. In GTA’s cities if you play bowling or have a drink with a partner reinforced your link with them: a notion of socialisation is introduced, bringing out the notion of simulacrum. Baudrillard wrote about simulacrum “Disneyland is a perfect model of all the entangled orders of simulacra. It is first of all a play of illusions and phantasms »[7]. Actually you can apply this definition of this imaginary world to GTA, it is one aspect that made the game a simulacrum: the purpose of the game is to allow the gamer to realize his phantasms. The city is represented as the place of all possibilities, even if you have some physical limits. The last notion of Baudrillard in this essay is the hiperreality is when the conscience loses it capacity to distinguish the reality and imaginary. For him our world became a hipperreality, the real is being erased to be replacing by sign of his existence. In GTA you can get lost. It is another aspect of simulacrum. The game is conceived to be played during hours and hours: you have a mission you want to accomplish it, a day last 48 minutes and this rhythm changes your time conception, the weather is always changing and dissipate you in the virtual: everything in this game is made to attract you and lost you in a new universe, where you can do whatever you want if you run faster than the cops. You can restart again and again, until the CD gets used. Each gamer have his path, because according to the choices you make your mission change, you met new people, you find new weapons. Your decision is important as in real life. Sometimes in Liberty City or Los Santos it’s hard to get which part of the city is inspired by New York City and Los Angeles and which part is a complete creation: it is a “dissolution of the reality”. The daily life is mixed with a specific representation.  The last aspect of the simulation in video game is the functioning of the software. The gamer thinks that he’s walking in a city, walking around streets and buildings, but in fact the game is using a specific area around the player and add or remove people and cars. Sometimes (s)he notices bugs, for example when he met five times the same girl. Simulacrum is also made by the technic of the media. GTA is a simulacrum of American cities, and why the city is more than a setting.
Grand Theft Auto is more than a simulation. It is a critique of our society. With clichés and caricatures the conception studio made a deep reflexion of the XXIth century. The virtual is the potential that is not realised. The virtual doesn’t exist but have a power, and Rockstar Games use it to awake the gamer. The screen is a kind of mirror. The caricature is in different level: the city, the character and scenario, the media and the details. First the conception of the city made up the satire. Each neighbourhood has his own characteristic as we saw in the first part. We assist to an extreme ghettoization of city in both games, more obvious than in NYC or LA, and it help the gamer, each gang have his land.
Liberty Statue
Buildings are always caricaturing the city, not only via names (Liberty City’s stock exchange name Bawsaq instead Nasdaq came from the Scottish slang version of “ballsack”) but also emplacement and design, for example famous landmarks as the Statue of Happiness (Liberty Statue’s parody). The monument has Hillary Clinton’s face and instead of holding a flame it hold a cup of coffee, because she declared to be opposite to GTA after the “Hot Coffee Mod” case, an add-on for GTA San Andreas that allowed the gamer to have sex relation with girls. She wanted the game to be prohibited. When you read the note above the statue you learn that the statue evokes both “patriotism and xenophobia”. Rockstar Games made fun of her by representing her. Inside the statue you can access to a heart, one of the Easter Egg of the game (an Easter Egg is an hidden function in a game accessible with code or specific actions). The heart is beating and represents that the Statue of Happiness is the heart of Liberty City, the soul of the megalopolis, and it is inside the famous statue because it is the mascot as it is in New York City, as Paris has the Eiffel Tower. It is literal. In the tablet the statue hold in her other hand you can read:

It is the clearest critic of the society in the game. You can only see what is written by helicopter or plane, a metaphoric means of access to the culture: going to the top is not the easiest way. As always in the game the words are vulgar, but the content reveals that for Rockstar Games Studio the American Dream is a lure, and that the politics knew it and use America’s power of attraction. The whole representation of Liberty City and Los Santos are according to this idea of the end of a utopia. Lazlow Jones (one of the cowriter of the game) said about GTA IV ‘It’s a satire of not only New York, but of American consumerism and culture”. Then characters and scenario are part of the critique: in Liberty City you are Niko Bellic, an immigrant veteran from East-Europe to live the American Dream. He came to Liberty City because he thought his cousin was rich, but he is not, he own a taxi company and have trouble with the mafia. In Los Santos creators developed the importance of the character, you can be three different ones: Michael de Santa a retired bank robber, Trevor Phillips a sociopath and criminal suffering from drug addiction or Franklin Clinton who works for an Armenian luxury car dealer. The gamer’s mission is different according to each character, because of their past and personality. As in “real life” the perception of the city is different from each people. The media also criticized our contemporary society, on the television you can see documentary on the history of Liberty City or Los Santos and learn about the history, for Liberty City they explain how the Native American were slaughtered, the slavery or riot. Or you can watch cartoons for kids pro-republicans, a caricature of cartoons with hidden-political contains. The designers tried to show how our media are corrupted, and that they are never neutral. They want the gamer to think about the society after playing GTA. On the radio Rockstar Games reproduced a typical FM track, with famous commentator as Nathan Willams and Stephen Pope, and famous songs or songs composed for the game. Advertisement are ironic, you can heard one about adopting a child in 24 hours on the Internet (even get refund), showing that life in society doesn’t have sense anymore, you can buy everything, it is a part of the economy: a society run by money, always more capitalist and consumerist. Through little details we are dive into the critic, on the imitation of a Starbuck coffee in Liberty City you can see “All beans lovingly picked by children in Central America”, or read advertisement for a “Heart stopper burger”. The highest political sphere are disturb with this game, they tried to forbid it as Hillary Clinton, because for them it is a bad publicity. You can commercialize a city, showing beautiful pictures of it, keeping a clean image of it, producing sweet postcard, attractive advertisement. But you can also do the contrary, and when the gamers are in Liberty City or Los Santos, they are in a world where the urban guerrilla warfare rages, the bad aspects of the city are amplified. Politicians don’t want this kind of publicity. Some brands were also opposite to see their products represented in the game. GTA make a bad marketing of the city.
But the Rockstar team doesn’t want to impose their idea of America to the gamers, and they let them a free interpretation. A lot of details are not explained, and they let the gamer choose between which part is serious and which part is a satire.
While the gamer is playing GTA (s)he learns new systems of moving, of experimentation, and when (s)he “returns to the real, his previous mental representations are confronted by what he could have perceive, live, feel while he was playing”[8]. In fact with every representation of the city with different media you have a new experience of the town, but the difference between cinema, photography, television and video game is the interaction. You are active in GTA-like games; you are a part of the representation. Being the character of the story, deciding the path and the derive make you an actor of the story, awake your conscience, let you dream in a virtual world. In NYC or LA you can’t jump from a building or fly over Manhattan. You walk, you take the car, the subway, the majority of the time you don’t even look at your environment, and you just go from a point A to a point B. In GTA you want to discover this new city, and it is not as exhausting as typical visit, you explore the city, trying to find new weapons or infraction to commit. And when you go to the city you experienced before in a virtual world, you make comparisons. You notice that the building is in the wrong place, or is different. Some gamers are frustrated because they can’t see the whole building as in GTA, because they can’t use the same transports. The reflexion you made through a PS3 becomes a true reflexion for some gamers. You can notice it in some forum as GTA Community Portal (
GTA-like games influenced our society. The city as an interaction between the gamer and the city as a track race or a scavenger hunt became more than a representation. Jean-Louis Missika (French sociologist and deputy mayor) said “The city of tomorrow, immersed in the environment of digital, will be as a game massively multi-gamer”[9]. In the near future the urbanism should integrate new technologies into the city, more than today. And the experimentation of the virtual should help you to understand geography for example, through new programs.

Images intégrées 1

Bibliography :

Sepp, Arvi. Dystopie raciale et ville imaginée : l’imaginaire de l’espace urbain nord-américain dans le jeu vidéo « Grand Theft Auto » in Inter-Lignes, (2011) n°7

Collective’s authors. “Guide Stratégique GTA 5 Guide de solution”, (Take 2, 2013)

Kushner, David. Jacked, l’histoire officieuse de Grand Theft Auto (Pix’n Love Editions, 2010)

Hill, Matt. “Grand Theft Auto V: meet Dan Houser architect of a gaming phenomenon”. The Guardian (September 2013)

Fortin, Tony. Les cahiers du jeu vidéo (Pix’n Love Editions, 2010)

Lynch, Kevin. The image of the city (MIT Press, 1960)

Sweeny, Robert. Code of the Street: Videogames and the City (2006),

Olleviers, Marie. La Ville et le jeux video: quells liants entre réalité et virtualité (2007), thesis.

Ariella Masboungi, Jean Audouin, Dessine-moi une ville (Moniteur, 2010)

Kiri Miller, « Playing Along with Grand Theft Auto », Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (2012), 30

Kelly, Tadh « Simulacra of Simultation (What Games Are Not) », What Games Are (2011) : accessed october 22, 2013.

[2] Aaron Garbut, « Liberty City une caricature vivnte de New York » in Les cahiers du jeu video (Pix’n Love Editions, 2010), 125
[3] Matt Hill, “Grand Theft Auto V: meet Dan Houser architect of a gaming phenomenon”, The Guardian (September 2013)

[4] Kiri Miller, « Playing Along with Grand Theft Auto », Playing Along: Digital Games, YouTube, and Virtual Performance (2012), 30
[5] Jean Baudrillard, “New York” in “America”, (Verso, 1988) translated by Chris Turner

[6] Tadh Kelly, « Simulacra of Simultation (What Games Are Not) », What Games Are (2011) : accessed october 22, 2013
[7] Baudrillars
[8] My traduction, Marie Olleviers La Ville et le jeux video: quells liants entre réalité et virtualité (2007),  40
[9] Jean-Louis Missika, « Futurs Possibles: grands projets, urbanisme et villes numériques » (paper presented at the Festival du Numerique, Paris, France 14/06, 2013)

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