Video games aren’t cool: one of the inviolate rules of our culture, since it became relevant in the ’80s. The stigma ranges, based on the type of game in question; you could use a sliding scale with sports titles like Madden and FIFA on one end, the types of games visibly and loudly touted by the conventional heroes of popular culture, and then on the other are the esoteric role-playing games and fully absorbent massively multiplayer online situations that are generally regarded in the same way that one of them was named: as a second life that, if not initially, will eventually infringe on your first.
Like any other rule, there are exceptions to this: The great icons of the ’90s console era, Sonic and Mario, were more like movie characters than game figures, and a few games, like Goldeneye or Halo, became so omnipresent that any of the weirdness usually associated with people who play shooters dissipated. That weirdness dissipated even further when Call of Duty became a phenomenon, boosting these types of games out of the stereotypical morass they’d been stuck in—fat guy with a goatee, awash in the glow of his computer, Funyuns everywhere—and into an environment where athletes were going home after real-life sports games and playing these shooters with headsets on. When Kevin Spacey’s congressman antihero in David Fincher’s House of Cards was depicted as being a dedicate of a Call of Duty-esque game, the transition was pretty much complete.
It had what video games have so long seemed to aspire to as an art form: the ear of the culture as a whole.
But that doesn’t make these games cool. Call of Duty remains a curiosity culturally, a juggernaut product that might as well be a toaster for all the impact it has on aesthetics and sensibility. (The only exception might be those commercials for it that had famous people pretending to play the game in real life, but one of those famous people was Dwight Howard, so it doesn’t really count.) And sports games are the perfect microcosm of video games as a whole: unabashedly male, hetero-normative, and skewing young. The more conventional realms of popular culture already subjugate female and LGBT interests, no shocking claim there, but video games, for the most part, seem to exist in a world where the only inhabitants are 19-year-old dudes. Totally aside from the progeny of the games themselves, the profiles of their creators and all that, there’s an easily understood reason for this: these games make stupid money. If it’s making you billions of dollars, don’t fix it.
In contrast to the monochrome blockbuster gaming industry, an indie scene has sprung up that is a refuge for eccentric and transgressive efforts. But games are technologically brutal and laborious to produce, limiting the ability of upstarts to compete much in the same way that film has always been dogged. (Also like film, the Internet is the great leveler, but we’re not quite there yet, wherever there might be.) Games now stand at a threshold: they’re culturally situated in an unthreatening way, but they don’t ever force themselves to the center of the culture and take hold of it; they don’t influence from the inside out. Or not usually.
LAST WEEK SAW THE release of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest installment in what’s long been one of the more culturally poignant video game franchises, mostly for the way that it, in a throwback to the days of Marilyn Manson and Eminem, made parents think it would ruin their children. Now that the fifth installment is a massive hit—depending on how you think of these things, you could argue that it’s the fastest-selling entertainment product ever made—it’s obvious that the forces protesting against it have lost, as completely as any element has ever lost a fight against a cultural product. And playing the game, it’s both difficult and easy to understand what they were protesting in the first place—difficult because, more than anything, GTA V resembles some of the best-regarded films in Hollywood history, whether it’s Scorsese and Coppola’s epics of the ’70s or Reservoir Dogs or Boyz n the Hood; easy because the whole shooting-a-civilian-in-the-head-with-an-assault-rifle thing still feels like an eerie and bizarre choice to be able to make. (I’ve noticed that, as I’ve grown older between releases, I’ve started playing the game in a much more moral way, or as moral as the game can be played.) There’s a reason the game isn’t, and shouldn’t be, sold to minors.
There’s also a reason it is, and has been, recognized as a hugely successful piece of art. As a piece of narrative storytelling, GTA V is complex and mature, interweaving three very different lives and finding the commonalities between them in impressive and nuanced ways. It’s also one of the better satires of contemporary America that exists, although it loses points for rendering basically every aspect of the world in a cynical and sarcastic way. (If you satirize everything, then you’re more likely to hit; GTA V is very much a volume shooter.) Also, the litany of protests against how the game renders female characters aren’t only credible, they might be underplayed. If you’re going to make a game that claims to represent an entire society, you’re more than liable for the fact that you resent and diminish half of that society. And playing the game, I can’t stop thinking about an issue that John Herrman wrote about specifically, and that Joe Bernstein has interrogated frequently and intelligently, over at BuzzFeed: the violence is overwhelming, and not just in an emotional sense; technically, it becomes repetitive and exhausting after you’ve shot the 75th guy on whatever mission you’re on. (Full disclosure: John and Joe are former colleagues and friends.)
All of this is necessary to making the ultimate point about why GTAV is interesting: it’s cool. It’s the first video game I can remember whose release felt like a real cultural event in the way that a new Kanye West album might feel, where the event seemed to transcend lanes and interests and everyone was talking about it. I am not a quote-unquote gamer, and most of the people I follow on Twitter and read regularly aren’t either, except in the casual sense that, in 2013, most people interact with video games. But when GTA V came out on September 17, it felt as though everyone in the world was talking about buying it, or playing it, or why they wouldn’t be buying it, or playing it. It had what video games have so long seemed to aspire to as an art form: the ear of the culture as a whole.
Of course, my Twitter feed doesn’t represent the entire culture. But it represents enough of a cross-section of the people who write about said culture that I’m willing to bet most people had a similar experience. Around the time the game was being released, I felt like I didn’t have a choice but to get a copy and play it through; otherwise, I wouldn’t have a full grasp on what was on the minds of people at the moment. When a piece of art makes you feel like you can’t not engage with it, that’s a pretty aggressive realization of what being cool entails. And when that piece of art seems to have overstepped all dividing lines in having this effect, that’s the capper.
Except, of course, for one of the more historically significant dividing lines in human life: that between male and female. (Not to mention the less linear and binary ones that exist in the spectrum of sexuality and gender identity.) And here is where GTA V, and games in general, trail in a massive way the other culturally significant modes of artistic expression. Until games can make women (and every other identity that isn’t straight male) feel this same sense of compulsion and engagement, they’ll remain a self-sabotaged method of art and entertainment, and the rare breakout example like GTA V will exist with an albatross around its neck.