For the next three weeks I am participating in the Critical Code Studies Working Group. An online forum conference, CCSWG brings together 70 panelists in a variety of fields to develop methodologies for reading — as Mark Marino put it in the opening charge — “the extrafunctional significance of computer source code.” Each participant was asked to contribute a “code critique,” or selection of code to deconstruct as a group. Below is the context and provocation I posted for my submitted source code, which seeks a model of “ideological code critique” through reading Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.
In “Making Sense of Software“, Ted Friedman explains that “computer games, like all other texts, will always be ideological constructions.” Using SimCity as an example, he goes on to point out that “simulations which seek to explain ‘how the world works,’ in fact, would seem to have the honesty of announcing their ideological status.” From this perspective, playing a video game is a process of “demystification,” where by trial and error players discover “how the software is put together.” It seems to me that Critical Code Studies takes can engage in this demystification more directly, accessing and analyzing the software itself. So, for my Code Critique, I would like to set up an opportunity for us to develop modes of ideological critique based on ‘reading’ code.
Those who have followed videogame studies likely know the vexed position of ideological critique within the discipline. To put it very succinctly, traditional ideological critique has been figured as dependent on representational structures and, thus, is unable to address videogaming’s core rule-based, algorithm-based, code-based nature. Alexander Galloway spells out this argument in Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture, when he argues that representational critique of a game like Civilization III ignores the game’s informatic treatment of identity. As we pursue this informatic core, I’m wondering if and how critical code studies might reformulate approaches to social and political critique.
The example code I’d like to work with is Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (GTA:SA). A playable version of Boyz n the Hood, GTA:SA has been roundly criticized for its portrayal of inner city minority communities, codifying, for example, the stereotype of the violent black male (see several essays by David Leonard). I have often found such critiques lacking because they typically stay on the level of narrative and visual representation, rarely addressing gameplay and never considering code or platform. So, I thought it would be productive to look underneath the cut-scene portrayal of San Andreas to see what Friedman would call the “ideological construction” of the game at the code level.
GTA:SA is a sandbox-style game, which means it sets up a pretty extensive open virtual world in which to play. The game takes place in three full cities, caricatures of Los Angeles (San Andreas), San Francisco (San Fiero), and Las Vegas (Las Venturas), which are connected by a series of freeways through countryside and desert. It is well populated, with demographics changing depending on area and time of day. In its way, the game constitutes a representation of social life in the US, a simulation, though farcical, of “how the world works.”
Questions for the forum:
- To what degree can we read world-generating code as constituting ideological assumptions? What is gained or lost in doing so?
- To what degree does code and coding itself rely on logics of representation? Can we see that expressed in the code of GTA:SA?
- What assumptions does the code generating San Andreas make about social life in America? In a game as satirical as GTA, how are we to take those assumptions?
- What can a critical code study of GTA tell us about constructions of race, class, gender, and sexuality in what Galloway calls our algorithmic culture? Is it solely informatic identity or does a code critique reveal other formations?