Top 10 Grand Theft Autos 

What the GTA V map size obsession tells us about our culture

Size matters, doesn’t it? Not just size, but length, am I right? How big and long is the map compared to other maps? How many minutes does it take to drive around the map? Can you fit other, smaller maps inside this map? Does the map have secrets? Is this map really as big as they say it is? Is this map girthy enough to really satisfy a gamer’s needs?

Have I squeezed all I can out of this analogy?

The media’s map fetishism for GTA V has done a good job hyping the game as bigger and better and more realistic and whathaveyou. Cameron Kunzelman observed how the game’s own obsession with providing the “largest possible world” shines through not just geographically but ideologically as well. GTA V, Kunzelman argues, tries to be above any particular political leaning and therefore provide a universally appealing experience. But this is also, Kunzelman continues, where the game shows its blind spots:

“I said a few words ago that the game ‘very clearly intends to allow as many people as possible to be part of the experience,’ and I want to follow it up with ‘the game clearly fails at doing so.’ The very attempt to speak from the position of the God’s eye view, somewhere away from ideology, is a guarantee that you are enmired in it. The game is so deep in casual and explicit sexism and racism that it can’t see it, let alone be critical or above it; oppressive politics is the air that Grand Theft Auto V breathes.”

I would argue that GTA V’s unwilling politics are not only in the air: they’re in the trees, the hills, the roads and skyscrapers. GTA V’s map, its bigness, its scope and the excitement surrounding that, are also obliviously political. And it’s not just GTA — games media has done this many times before, gushing over the expansive lands of Twilight Princess, Shadow of the Colossus or Skyrim. Sometimes maps aren’t massive, necessarily, but they come in DLC value packs — new configurations of stuff for me to hide behind and chokepoints for me to exploit.

Those marketing a game on the basis of size know to do this because its audience is absolutely convinced that bigger is better. More map space equals more content equals more playtime logged, which ultimately translates to a sense that the consumer has gotten the most out of his or her dollar. This is partially understandable — for developers, considering the expense that goes into making games of this scope, and for consumers, considering the price tag attached to the discs that contain them. I get it. But what ends up happening is an overvaluation of filler content and a devaluation of smaller, more focused games.

Small games that are brilliantly designed can’t justify a cost, so they go up for free, for the pure joy of being played. This is all well and good — who doesn’t love the idea of free games there for the sole purpose of being played? — but this infrastructure means we have a mainstream culture addicted to gratuitous consumption, regardless of message or even quality of design. And the ugly reflection of this is in what? Bloatware, exploitative microtransactions, MMOs that dripfeed content to keep you playing. Because, in the words of Kat Chastain,

“Gamers are junkies, games are their junk, and there’s a kind of game criticism that’s primary function is enabling them to deny that. When we don’t ask more from games, it’s because we don’t want them to get better. We’re afraid of the world and we’d rather explore the boundaries of these fake, facile ones. We hate ourselves and we hate our bodies and we’d rather inhabit fake selves, fake bodies. We’re used to this being a lifelong habit. We take it for granted that we’re going to spend a thousand hours slumped in front of a screen, doing the same little actions again and again. People have made interesting things happen within that context, but so what? Try to communicate them to anyone who isn’t already hooked. ‘Slump here for a thousand hours and something cool will happen.’ ‘Stare at this rock until the face of God appears.’”

I don’t believe that bigger maps are inherently poor and small maps are inherently good. Large, open-world, exploratory maps like the ones in Minecraft or Red Dead Redemption, or Skyrim if that’s your thing, can be compelling and fun to inhabit. And, I’ll bite, it’s fair to believe, if you’re a fan of the franchise, that the GTA V map will contain a lot more than long stretches of empty field. I’m not even arguing that discussing GTA V’s map size suggests a value judgment of the game. But it’s quite frankly alarming that the infatuation with the game’s expanse is associated with value regardless of what might be in it. The infatuation with the GTA V map — and Rockstar knew this well enough to include a physical copy of the map in the game’s case — is indicative of an anxious capitalist infatuation with growth, ownership of territory and power. It feeds into the romantic fantasy that GTA V is constructed to deliver. You own the game, you own the map, you own the terrain. Everything you see before you belongs to you.

It has become obvious that many gamers adhere to a worldview that is entangled with both social conservatism and capitalist realism, and media frenzies like the one for GTA V demonstrate some of the intersections between those ideologies.

Later in his piece, Kunzelman writes,

“The Grand Theft Auto series has always been about selling our own shitty culture back to us and then explaining that we’re transgressive because we buy it.”

How invested are we as a culture in protecting what’s familiar? So much so that Carolyn Petit’s mostly glowing review earned her tremendous, vile, bigoted flack from gamers for daring to point out uncomfortable, pervasive misogyny that the game does little to satirize the way it does consumerism or political hypocrisy. It is considered “unprofessional” to even mildly question the stability of GTA V’s delicate fantasy.

It’s possible to love something problematic and still acknowledge its problems. I do it all the time. However, it bears mentioning that many of Petit’s detractors see her and everything she has to say as “other” while their beliefs are natural or normal or, in other words, apolitical. It should be telling that for a group of people defending the game as social and political satire or transgressive — “shock” fiction — the expectation of the game is so naturalized that it’s not political, and playing it is not political, but criticizing it is considered a “political agenda” requiring a petition that the reviewer be fired. So who’s really the transgressive one, here?

This is a culture of anxious masculinity that expects more map, more story, more guns, more secrets, more missions, more, more, more, and made to entertain us, and we want it when we say we want it. This is a culture that knows what it likes, by gum, and wants that supersized and double-fried and packaged to go, please. This is a culture that needs it big, and rough, and manly.

This is a culture that needs to feel itself validated, that can’t take even a little bit of criticism from people who otherwise like the game, because if it can’t own this ideal, then what does it have? Strip it all away, and what do you have but a tragedy?