Hypermediating the Game Interface: Grand Theft Auto and the Alienation Effect

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

One of the most controversial computer games in recent years has been "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" (Rockstar Games 2004). Much of the controversy surrounding the game (including the disparaging critiques of the likes of Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton) centered around the relationship between the game's simulation of violence, sex, and racial stereotypes and the potential for this game interface to affect the real-world actions of its players. Though "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" is often considered to simply be a gang-violence simulator, this paper will argue that the relationship between the digital interface and the potentially-affected material space can be altered in such a way as to create a sense of distanciation. Drawing from Bertolt Brecht's theory of the Alienation Effect (which is echoed in Bolter and Grusin's theory of the hypermediated interface), I will demonstrate how the customization possible in "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" provides a framework for distanciation and socio-political critique essential to Brecht's theory. The potential break from gang-violence simulation ("Grand Theft Auto's" default mode) is found in the ability to alter the avatar of the protagonist, CJ. By creating an avatar that glaringly juxtaposes the gang life surrounding him, the avatar alienates players from a sense of immersion in the simulation. The success of this juxtaposition is highly dependent on the relationship of the avatar of CJ and the game narrative he engages. As the customized CJ (who can more closely resemble the Shakespearean clown than a violent gang member) continues to engage the narrative, the story begins to emerge as a social satire and absurd exaggeration of the generic stereotypes the game supposedly advocates.

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Jill Walker Rettberg