Quest Updated: Grand Theft Bean
When I was a kid, I used to love building cities out of blocks. Same with sandcastles. Even more than this though, I loved trashing them. Being Godzilla, smiting them with earthquakes. My little cousins are pretty similar. It’s something quite primal, I think; we have a deep-seated need to play out imagined states of complete wanton abandon.
It is this desire, this near-need, that connects three very different things: GTA V, Mr Bean and a French play that caused riots after its opening night. What on Earth, you may well ask, do these have in common? With GTA V on the way, I think all gamers, and especially those of us who have to think and write about gaming with some semblance of a critical approach, are thinking about the controversial franchise.
I mean, the Wikipedia article about the franchise literally has a section for controversy, as in each game was controversial enough to warrant its own section. From sex, to drunk driving, to racism, to general concerns over violence, the franchise has always been the face on the mainstream’s wanted posters. When people talk about violent video games and how they’ll tear the fabric of society apart, this is the franchise they have in mind.
“Merde.” Shit. And no, that’s not how I feel about the franchise, or the criticisms of it. It is the opening word of Alfred Jarry’s infamous Ubu Roi, a play that caused riots in 1896 after its opening night. It is a play about a vulgar, selfish man with relentless cruelty and political aspirations. Jane Taylor, who adapted the character of Ubu for a South African play about the TRC says: “The central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification.” Scatological humour and violent outbursts abound. Ubu is the childlike self-interest of Mr Bean mixed with the violence of Macbeth, but the similarity is undeniable and perhaps even archetypal.
Bean acts out something we all long for. It is the same sort of something as me trashing cities of blocks as a child. He can be selfish, childish, petty and sometimes even spiteful, and he gets away with it! The world seems simultaneously to revolve around him and carry on without even noticing him. Nobody cares that he causes chaos, and he almost never has to face the consequences of his actions. It’s something pretty appealing; we cannot do the same. Ubu is, for Taylor, something similar. “There is a particular kind of pleasure for an audience watching these infantile attacks. Part of the satisfaction arises from the fact that in the burlesque mode which Jarry invents, there is no place for consequence. While Ubu may be relentless in his political aspirations, and brutal in his personal relations, he apparently has no measurable effect upon those who inhabit the farcical world which he creates around himself. He thus acts out our most childish rages and desires, in which we seek to gratify ourselves at all cost.”
And this, I believe, is why many people love the GTA franchise. It isn’t that they are latent violent criminals, despite what people may believe. And not everyone will feel this way about the franchise. Nonetheless, this is at least part of the appeal in GTA. It is a space free of consequences, morals, ethics, justice, life. That’s just it. Just like in Bean and Ubu, the characters have almost no effect on the world around them. The world of the play, show and game is merely a space for the freedom of the protagonist. Because of this, you, like Bean and Ubu, can play out the fantasy of complete childish wanton abandon without any repercussions. We know, as I’ve said before, that these aren’t real hookers we’re interacting with. They’re a collection of polygons rendered by pixels, just like my cities were merely piles of blocks.
Most importantly, we know that there is a frame, a boundary that encircles this experience. It is not real and is not even generalizable to reality. Even as a kid I knew that this wasn’t a city full of people with lives and families and houses. It was a pile of blocks I could imagine as simply buildings. Same applies to our understanding of Bean and Ubu, and most importantly it tells us at least one of the ways gamers can approach GTA. That’s what makes the phobia of the franchise just that, because it is irrational. Of all the people playing the game, I’d hazard a guess that the overwhelming majority would never even contemplate repeating their actions in reality.
This doesn’t have to mean the games are OK, or not worth the worry some groups spend on them. They still do naturalise a violent culture, and a glamorous view of drugs, hookers and the seedy underbelly of society. But they do not make killers.