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I love teaching my students Jonathan Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” because there’s always one or two in the classroom that fall victim to Swift’s rhetorical traps. Most understand that Swift’s policy, that the impoverished people of Ireland should start selling their children as food to the rich, drips with vicious irony, but an inevitable handful sit shocked and horrified. It makes sense, of course. Eighteenth century Enlightenment prose can appear alien to modern eyes, even if it is ironically proposing cannibalistic infanticide. Nevertheless, Swift’s straight-faced language makes for an interesting class discussion about the merits of satire, both historical and contemporary.
Currently, video games find themselves in a bizarre relationship with satire that has reached a boiling point with Grand Theft Auto V. The game’s proponents often laud its supposed satirical slant; Adam Sessler went as far as to invoke Swift’s Gulliver’s Travelers in his review. Its harsher critics, even those who enjoy the game, denounce its approach to humor as puerile and imbalanced. This tension, in most cases, is a healthy one because it sparks a useful dialogue about how we critique humor in video games. But one aspect of the discussion remains clear: games and game critics have a bit of problem when it comes to classifying satire.
This issue stems from a larger misunderstanding of what satire is, or perhaps more importantly what it does. Satire is a fluid genre, taking form in poetry, painting/cartooning, prose, film, drama, etc., and it can be either light-hearted and joking or harsh and biting. Satire doesn’t require humor (though it is a common feature), but it does need irony. Most importantly, the satirist uses both form and content in order to lampoon a particular set of social, political, or philosophical vices, using sometimes wit and parody to an unmistakable didactic end.
Jonathan Swift, for example, is still considered to be one of the greatest satirists ever to put venomous pen to paper because he works through his style as well as through his subject. “A Modest Proposal” does not simply ridicule the inane policies from Irish and English writers about how to control the rise in population among poor communities through hyperbole; it does so through a pamphlet that mimics the form of such policies that were in circulation at that time. In other words, he mocks terrible policies by writing a terrible policy, making a stylistic jab to point out why similar writing and reasoning was just as preposterous. If Swift has any counterpart today, it would be Stephen Colbert who derides sensationalist news pundits by becoming a faux sensationalist news pundit. His work isn’t just a parody of news, like The Daily Show; it’s a character pantomime to reveal why those types of talking heads are all too hollow.
To be sure, Grand Theft Auto V has no shortage of parodic content. The game sets up a world in which vapidity and selfishness reign freely. It’s a miserable environment smeared with a veneer of shallow, plastic glitz. People cheat each other, politicians and pundits spew vitriolic propaganda, and criminals embody those worst parts of ourselves and display them with frank vulgarity. It’s a fascinating portrait of a place, its people, and an impending moral apocalypse. Oh, and it’s a damn good time.
It is not, however, satire. The aforementioned elements all deride much about twenty-first century zeitgeist of self-obsession (in really great ways), but such content is only part of the satire equation. GTA V’s gameplay lacks both an ironic punch and a didactic end. As often as the game seems to make judgments about a player’s operating in a morally bankrupt world, the gameplay only reinforces the virtues of morally bankrupt activity. We steal cars and shoot people because that’s what people in San Andreas do. If the game were satire, there would be some type of mechanical, formal acknowledgment that the roles the player perform are repugnant and awful, but there’s no mechanical comeuppance for the sins of the player. In San Andreas, the player with the fewest ethical hang-ups rises to the top because they are best suited for the world Rockstar created, not because there’s an ultimate lesson to be learned here. It’s a subversive game and an impressive use of parody in narrative/environmental content. But it isn’t satire.
GTA V is hardly the first game to be discussed in terms of satire. Last year, Jeffrey Yohalem attempted to explain Far Cry 3’s problematic racial issues by calling the game a work of satire when really it is a much more interesting reconstitution of colonial fiction (with all of its political baggage) in a new digital medium ripe for its exploitation. Like GTA V, it has moments of narrative self-awareness, but it’s really hard to defend the game as a work of irony when playing it makes you feel like a badass. Even a divisive game like Bayonetta, often gets labeled as satirical depiction of what gamers really think sexuality is. Again, the problem with this label is that no matter how ironically Bayonetta struts and strips on the screen, the gameplay never informs a satirical point—even if it frames female sexuality in subversive and complex ways. If GTA V is parody and Far Cry 3 is exploitation, then Bayonetta finds its generic footing as a burlesque, a show of empowerment through capturing the male gaze.
Though these games and many others fall short of actual satire, others make much stronger cases. Saints Row the Third is a total piss-take on open world gameplay, making fun of itself, the player, and open-world games at large, even though it is still bound by the rules of third-person perspective and gameplay. It derives much of its humor from actively pointing out its own ridiculousness, from driving around with a tiger in your car to a chariot gimp race. Saints Row IV even goes one step further by taking place largely within a digital game world where standard means of traversal by cars are rendered obsolete by new super-powers. Here, both form (ridiculous gameplay) and content (a ridiculous world) inform satirical insight on what we really mean by “open-world gameplay.”
A more serious version of satire comes from Spec Ops: The Line, a military shooter about how “playing soldier” stems from immature concepts of heroism and careless acts of digital cruelty. Captain Walker’s journey into an existential military hell crystalizes alongside what may be the most generic, bland third-person cover-based gameplay imaginable. This juxtaposition serves as the game’s didactic center: when virtual killing becomes mundane, it is at its most horrifying.
Hotline Miami makes a similar point as you murder your way through rooms as quickly and chaotically as possible. Abrasive, pixelated visuals and repetitive music accompany hyperactive violence. Braining an unsuspecting guard with a crowbar or shooting up a room sends red and purple pixels across the floor and walls, but the walk back through the building after everyone has been killed slows the gameplay just long enough for you to take stock in your handiwork. Both these games’ stories involve intense psychological trauma, each proposing that the twisted protagonists are reflections of the person holding the controller. Spec Ops and Hotline are satirically venomous and cruel because they use both form and content to deepen our understanding of digital violence (Spec Ops' being the arguably more successful of the two).
Such games are understandably rare and grossly inelegant. To return to Grand Theft Auto V, it's perfectly possible to think that if it had attempted satire through gameplay, the game may have suffered or seemed tonally inconsistent; Saints Row-style ridiculousness or Spec Ops' surreal meta-narrative would seem out of place in a game as cohesive and ambitious as GTA V. Calling a game like Grand Theft Auto V satire doesn’t just miss the point of what satire does, it shortchanges how we think about the game by pigeonholing it to a genre that it really doesn’t fit. In some ways, Grand Theft Auto V uses parody to create something much different (and potentially more interesting) than satire, but until we have a stronger understanding of the terms we toss around, we won’t figure out what that something is.
It may seem like I’m splitting hairs here about how we classify games as satire or not, and perhaps I am. But if we’re going to talk critically about video games, we need greater clarity in our terminology. The truth is, complex genres like satire are extremely difficult and risky to pull off in a game, and the only way to see these genres emerge in our maturing medium is to know how to recognize them. That starts at the bottom with the ways we cultivate our diagnostic language. So let's sharpen up our critical tools because, well, we've got a hell of a lot of work to do.
So, what's your take on all this satire business? When does it work? When does it not? Let me know.
David is working on his PhD and currently writes for awesomeoutof10.com, where this article was originally published. Follow his hilarious acts of academic vigilantism on twitter and please feel free to ask questions and offer criticism!