Kiri Miller

Kiri Miller is Assistant Professor of Music at Brown University. She holds the Ph.D. in Music (ethnomusicology) from Harvard University. Her research interests include musical technocultures, media reception, performance studies, and the ethnography of dispersed communities. Her current project focuses on Guitar Hero, Rock Band, and virtual virtuosity.

The Accidental Carjack: Ethnography, Gameworld Tourism, and Grand Theft Auto

by Kiri Miller


This article explores the interpretive potential of adopting an ethnographic approach to single-player gameworlds. Using the Grand Theft Auto series as a case study, I investigate the inherent affinities of gameplay, tourism, and ethnographic fieldwork. Analysis of game design decisions and players' accounts of their own experience shows how the GTA games encourage players to cycle between immersive participant-observation and experimental or ironic detachment. By addressing the themes of touristic subjectivity, colonialist exploration, and collaborative complicity that run through the GTA series, I work through what it might mean to undertake ethnographic fieldwork in a single-player gameworld—not only in gamer culture, but in the gameworld itself. I show how GTA players think and behave like both tourists and ethnographers as they explore and interpret these gameworlds, collaborating with game designers in the performance of narratives that comment on urban American life and commercial media.

Keywords: Ethnography, tourism, fieldwork, complicity, performance, irony, GTA, Grand Theft Auto

A Tale from the Field

I accidentally stole a car today. It was a bizarre experience—I was just trying to ride this BMX bike I found on the street, which had a lot of play in the steering and kept landing me in bustling city traffic. I fell off the bike and was trying to get back on when I found myself pulling a driver out of his SUV and driving away, with the radio blaring "I Know You Got Soul" (the Bobby Byrd song, not Eric B. & Rakim). Maybe I have more road rage than I thought—it seemed like the easiest thing in the world to toss this guy onto the pavement and get behind the wheel.

From these few sentences, many readers will be able to summon up a familiar gameworld and countless memories of similar experiences, in this world and in others: that shock of surprise and pleasure when an avatar does something the player at the controls did not quite have in mind. From the bike, the song on the radio and of course the carjack itself, millions of players would immediately recognize Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (Rockstar Games, 2004a). They might remember their own very first experiences in the city of Los Santos/ Los Angeles, wobbling towards the Ganton/ Compton neighbourhood on a bike with tricky steering after a run-in with some nasty police officers.

Some readers will also recognize this opening as an example of a well-worn gambit in certain kinds of scholarly writing: the "ethnographic moment," a trope whose elements are as familiar to a certain audience as Bobby Byrd samples are to hip-hop heads. You will know that I chose to begin with this tale from the field in order to illustrate some core argument, to claim for myself the authority of direct experience, to place this article in the supportive company of others of its genre, and perhaps to persuasively convey a turning point in my own thinking. But you might also be wondering why anyone would use the framework of ethnographic fieldnotes to account for her experience with a game like this one: it is not a MMOG, it does not support online co-op play, and it barely has a local multiplayer mode. Why talk about ethnography when no one else is there?

Scholars practicing ethnography-oriented disciplines like cultural anthropology, folklore, and my own home discipline of ethnomusicology have long been concerned with the relationship between textual interpretation and performance. We also often dwell on the blurred line between tourism and ethnographic fieldwork, as travel modalities and as interpretive practices. By exploring these themes in connection with the Grand Theft Auto series, I hope to shed some light on how these affinities and distinctions are being played out and played through in "the practice of everyday life," to which digital games plainly belong for millions of people. In his 1974 book bearing that title, Michel de Certeau described popular-culture performance practices in a manner that seems eerily appropriate to contemporary digital gameplay: he wrote about

the subtle, stubborn, resistant activity of groups which... have to get along in a network of already established forces and representations... In these combatants' stratagems, there is a certain art of placing one's blows, a pleasure in getting around the rules of a constraining space. We see the tactical and joyful dexterity of the mastery of a technique (de Certeau, 1984 [1974], p.18).

Decades after de Certeau laid out his theory, the GTA games are demonstrating how the moment-to-moment art of placing one's blows and mastering someone else's space can accumulate into a pop-culture compendium of travel narratives, a collection of loosely connected, widely circulated stories about place, representation, agency, urban realpolitik and ethical subjectivity.

Elsewhere I discuss the GTA series as something akin to the Brothers Grimm tales, with respect to narrative structure, the deployment of archetypal characters, and links to oral traditions and popular media (Miller, 2008). Here I take a different approach, framing players' GTA gameworld explorations and the "tactical and joyful dexterity" of their gameplay performances as a form of ethnographic fieldwork. Describing virtual spaces as fieldsites is no longer unusual; while some ethnographers still maintain that only a prolonged, immersive, on-the-ground encounter with an unfamiliar culture constitutes genuine fieldwork, there are now so many people interacting in virtual contexts that an ethnographic approach to their doings has gained broad acceptance [1]. The plethora of GTA fansites and discussion forums therefore present plausible field materials, and I have treated them as such in previous research (Miller, 2007; Miller, 2008). But what would it mean for a scholar to say she is undertaking ethnographic fieldwork in the city of Los Santos in the state of San Andreas—not in gamer culture, but in Los Santos itself? And in what ways might players already think and behave like ethnographers as they explore these gameworlds?

But before I turn to ethnography in earnest, it is worth discussing the exploratory model explicitly set forward by the GTA game designers themselves: that of tourism.

A Tourist's Guide to Grand Theft Auto

The Grand Theft Auto series probably needs little introduction for readers of this journal. As a Gamezilla reviewer wrote,

Grand Theft Auto. I know what it is, you know what it is, and more likely than not, even your mom knows what it is. In our community of gamers, it's known for the immersive and innovative gameplay that gives the player freedom unlike any other game out there. In the mainstream media and everywhere else, it's known as that one game that teaches kids how to hijack cars and pick up hookers (Lucas, 2004).

While lawyers have reaped substantial paychecks from the games' scandalous content (Glater, 2008), GTA's sandbox-style structural "freedom" has been acclaimed by players, industry critics, and game theorists as the most appealing and innovative feature of the series. Each game invites the player to navigate a complicated criminal underworld, undertaking a series of missions in a vast, detailed gamespace based on a major American urban centre: Liberty City/ New York in Grand Theft Auto III (Rockstar Games, 2001) and Grand Theft Auto IV (Rockstar Games, 2008a), Vice City/ Miami in the eponymous game (Rockstar Games, 2002), and Los Santos/ Los Angeles, San Fierro/ San Francisco and Las Venturas/ Las Vegas in GTA: San Andreas (Rockstar Games, 2004a). Players have no choice of avatar; in each game they take on the persona of a well-defined underdog, most recently a poor black gang member under pressure from corrupt police (CJ, in San Andreas) and a fresh-off-the-boat Serbian immigrant with an ugly war history behind him (Niko Bellic, in GTA IV). Completing missions gradually raises the lead character's status and expands his territory, but players are also free to suspend goal-oriented, plot-advancing activities and simply explore the gameworlds. Each comes equipped with a wide range of vehicles and weapons, stores and restaurants, minigames and local entertainment media (including in-game radio, TV, internet, and live club shows in GTA IV).

In Gonzalo Frasca's assessment (building on Caillois's terms), the GTA series combines elements of ludus and paideia—the defining qualities of goal-oriented games and flexible "play" environments, respectively (Frasca, 1999; Frasca, 2003). Jesper Juul further suggests that the GTA games straddle the line between "emergence" and "progression" games, where "emergence" refers to games with a small set of well-defined rules that combine in complex ways (e.g., chess) and "progression" to games with a fixed series of tasks that tend to generate a narrative structure. The GTA games combine the satisfactions of these genres: "the player experiences a predefined story by completing the missions, while having freedom to solve the tasks in different ways" (Juul, 2005, pp.82-83). Moreover, these tasks themselves present a wide variety of "game challenges" (Sutton-Smith, 1959, p.14): chases, car racing, rescue missions, games of chance (horse racing and slot machines), seductions, stealth missions, strategy puzzles and tests of physical agility (including rhythm games, where the player presses controller buttons in time to music). There are even a few '80s arcade games in GTA: San Andreas; one may escape from sophisticated three-dimensional graphics and elaborate narrative back to the comforts of shooting little spaceships out of the sky. The games have achieved commercial success in part because these varied challenges appeal to committed fans of at least three different established game genres: the driving/ racing game, the character-driven roleplaying game, and the first-person shooter [2].

The GTA series relies heavily on irony, and it appeals to players attuned to political parody and popular culture (as well as educating those not already so attuned). In an interview for the British Council's Design Museum website, Rockstar Games co-founder Dan Houser explained the choice of a 1980s Miami setting for Vice City: "The early to mid-1980s glorified values we felt the game could satirise very effectively—greed, the love of money, bad clothes, and the music was something we were all interested in, as it was a time when we were growing up and first getting interested in such things" (Design Museum, 2002). Political satire is a guiding principle in the design of all the games, manifested most clearly in the gameworlds' over-the-top parodies of American commercial radio, news media, and both print and broadcast advertisements. Rockstar's designers also routinely cite previous films, TV shows, and music videos in creating their gameworlds, sometimes ironically and sometimes in an evident spirit of homage. Archetypal characters, plot devices, and elements of cinematography are all borrowed from prior media, with a special debt to The Godfather, Scarface, "Miami Vice," commercial rap videos, and hip-hop culture more broadly. For San Andreas, Rockstar hired numerous voice-actors, artists, and musicians associated with hip-hop and with urban-ghetto-themed films. Public Enemy's Chuck D served as an in-game radio DJ, and the screenwriter DJ Pooh—who worked on Boyz N the Hood and the Friday comedies—was one of just three credited San Andreas writers. (See Miller, 2007 and Miller, 2008.)

Game scholars have noted that irony has become a "no-lose gambit" for the game industry, "a 'have your cake and eat it too' strategy whose simultaneous affirmation/ negation structure can give the appearance of social critique and retract it in the same moment... allowing practitioners to feel safely above it all even as they sink more deeply in" (Kline, Dyer-Witheford, & de Peuter, 2003, p.277). This kind of gameplay experience is a hallmark of the GTA series, in which players routinely engage in violent rampages while, say, listening to an in-game radio ad that skewers American military recruitment tactics ("Only in the military would a teenager be given responsibilities like driving a nuclear submarine, maneuvering a tank, or dropping high-ordinance explosives!" [3]). A similar form of "distanced immersion" is a key aspect of many tourist experiences, both in-person and virtual/ cinematic. As Ellen Strain has observed, tourists experience conflicting desires to be fully immersed but also in "a comfortable viewing position" (Strain, 2003, p.27).

The GTA series explicitly encourages the adoption of a tourist's perspective—"a gaze trained for consumerism" and "an instrument of mastery," in Strain's terms (pp.15-16)—melding ironic distance and touristic distance. All of the GTA game instruction booklets take the form of tourist guides. The San Andreas booklet begins,

San Andreas is one of the country's most diverse visitor destinations, known for its huge size and incredible variety. Although justly celebrated for its 3 wildly different main cities each with its own style and attractions to offer—Los Santos with its celebrity and sprawling ghettos, San Fierro with its eclectic artist community, and Las Venturas with the glitz and glamour [British spelling sic] of casinos—it has so much more beyond that; such as mountains, ghost towns, dense forests, and hot, dry deserts. Take time to visit the whole state and support local businesses. (Rockstar Games, 2004b, p.5)

GTA IV's guidebook steadily alternates between earnest-sounding boosterism and nod-and-wink cues:

With more sights, shows, restaurants, bars, museums, shopping and borderline psychopaths than you can shake a shotgun at, there is no place quite like Liberty City. Where else can you get sworn at by a senior citizen, accosted by a crackhead, propositioned by a prostitute and strip-searched by a police officer all before breakfast? Discover the history, culture and diversity that make this booming metropolis the capital of the world, at least according to the over-caffeinated locals. (Rockstar Games, 2008b, p.4)

Game reviewers frequently follow Rockstar's lead, employing the tourist model in assessing the quality of the GTA gameworlds and describing their own early gameplay experiences. A UK Mirror reviewer describes Liberty City as "a living, breathing, sprawling metropolis based on New York that you'll explore like a gawping tourist on your first few goes" (Lynch, 2008). A SFFWorld writer uses strikingly similar language: "From the tiniest of details to the broadest touches, there is a vibrancy and almost tangible reality to the play area that takes the breath away. For the first twenty minutes of play all I found myself doing was wondering the streets gawping like a tourist" (Jones, 2008). But many reviewers also point to the tension between adopting an ironic/ distanced tourist perspective and identifying with one's avatar. Across the series the game protagonists have had increasingly complex personal histories and constraining identities: San Andreas's CJ is a member of an inner-city African American underclass, for instance, a social position quite different from that of most tourists (and most videogame players). Being a native of Los Santos/ Los Angeles, CJ would never need a tourist guide to get around town. Niko Bellic, GTA IV's lead character, is indeed new to Liberty City, but he does not occupy a tourist's privileged position; as an illegal immigrant with few connections, he must "discover that the reality is very different from the dream in a city that worships money and status, and is heaven for those who have them and a living nightmare for those who don't" (Rockstar Games, 2008a, back cover text).

CJ's San Andreas and Niko's Liberty City could each be characterized as what sociologist Dean MacCannell calls "a front region that is totally organized to look like a back region" (2004 [1973], p.204), like a historical theme park's living diorama of the servant's quarters. With the help of the avatar, player-tourists can pass as natives in gritty urban underworlds; in San Andreas, for example, white middle-class players can costume themselves in gang colors and drive around blasting rap music without risking mockery.

Many players and reviewers have drawn attention to the pleasures of this particular activity; numerous respondents to an online qualitative survey about music and the GTA gameplay experience wrote things like, "it's nice to do drive bys while listening to Dr Dre sing 'Nuttin but a G thing'" (anonymous male, age 31-35) or "I feel that [the rap music in San Andreas] is the most appropriate music to play while performing anti-social behaviour" (Scott, Canada, age 22-26) [4]. In general, players' accounts resonate with Craik's observation that "the cultural experiences offered by tourism are consumed in terms of prior knowledge, expectations, fantasies and mythologies generated in the tourist's origin culture rather than by the cultural offerings of the destination" (Craik, 1997, p.118, emphasis original).

Touristic desires to collect authentic experiences through travel and consumption are well-documented (e.g., Britton, 2004 [1991]; Strain, 2003; Evans-Pritchard, 1987). Because of this preoccupation with authenticity, many tourists—as well as many fieldworkers—continually suffer from what Martin Stokes has described as "semiotic anxiety," the perpetual nagging question of "is this real, or is this just a show?" (Stokes, 1999, p.143) But the double-voiced, ironic quality of the GTA series constantly assures visitors that it's all just a show, freeing players to admire the painstaking verisimilitude of some aspects of the gameworld without holding it to an "authentic" standard in every domain. Rockstar's Dan Houser touched on these issues of authenticity, realism, and tourist subjectivity in an interview with New York magazine about GTA IV:

We had guys looking at Census data; this part of Queens should be more Chinese. The [pedestrians] can go up and speak to each other now, so we got them speaking Russian, Spanish, Chinese... We try to get the essence of the place, not a photo-realistic, digital tourist guide. We wanted a kind of spiritual tourist guide that feels like New York, but a blown-out, larger-than-life version... We're not at all aspiring to virtual reality-what we are aspiring to is what feels like you're living in your own world (Hill & Houser, 2008).

That goal of intimate, individual ownership of the gameworld is furthered by GTA's predominantly single-player design [5]. GTA players can explore incredibly detailed terrain with touristic anonymity, never subjecting themselves to other players' judgments about their behaviour, skills, or appearance (except by voluntarily sharing stories with other tourists later; see Miller, 2008). In the curiously private space of GTA's virtual public spheres, one can experiment with behaviours that would be considered antisocial or hostile in many massively-multiplayer environments: going on an off-mission shooting spree in San Andreas will not inconvenience other players' avatars.

A shooting spree also isn't typical tourist behaviour, of course, and it begins to suggest the relevance of alternative exploratory/ experimental metaphors for GTA gameplay. Frasca speaks for many players when he describes the pleasures of "using the [GTA] environment as a giant laboratory for experimentation, where I could test the system's boundaries and set my own creative goals" (Frasca, 2003). To me, Frasca's descriptive terms for this game system recall a particular social scientific model of culture, a kind of separate-but-equal relativistic model in which cultures are "fenced off as culture gardens or… as boundary-maintaining systems based on shared values," in Fabian's critical assessment (Fabian, 1983, p.47). This model has been roundly critiqued in the anthropological literature for over two decades, in part because of the boundaries it erects between the ethnographer's culture and the culture under study; today it is ethically untenable to regard someone else's culture as a laboratory. But in some respects the "culture gardens" model seems quite appropriate to a consideration of the GTA gameworlds. The assumption that Fabian critiques in Lévi-Straussian fieldwork—"that one person's immersion in the concrete world of another culture accomplishes the scientific feat of reducing that concrete world to its most general and universal principles" (p.61)—might make more sense in the GTA context, in which immersive, experimental gameplay gradually reveals the driving design principles, game challenges, and limitations of a bounded virtual environment. So, after considering these virtual cities as tourist destinations, what might one learn from conducting fieldwork there?

A Field Expedition to GTA's Gameworlds

We might begin this thought-experiment by thinking comparatively about gameworlds, tourist sites, and fieldwork sites. Gameworlds and tourist sites are deliberately designed for the delectation of visitors; traditional fieldwork sites are not. And yet in the theoretical frameworks and mission-style challenges that ethnographers establish for themselves, it isn't hard to see the architecture of something like a gameworld solidifying out of the cultural mist. Of necessity, ethnographers set themselves boundaries (of duration, locale, topic, theoretical model and ethical practice) that delineate the terrain of "the field." Unsympathetic locals, observers from other disciplines, and post-"reflexive turn" ethnographers have been known to suggest that many fieldworkers are, in effect, constructing their own tourist sites or intellectual playgrounds; this is an aspect of Fabian's "culture gardens" critique, in that the garden is arguably both cultivated and enjoyed by the anthropologist (cf. di Leonardo, 1998; Agawu, 2003). It is now widely acknowledged that the ethnographer's subjectivity is the central organizing principle of "the field," a conceptual space as constructed as any digital gameworld—and certainly just as shaped by collegial collaboration, a history of design precedents, and attentiveness to current trends.

It isn't hard to identify many aspects of a traditional field experience in GTA gameplay, in part because of the basic affinities of fieldwork and tourism (long a source of ethical consternation in ethnographic disciplines). Consider Nelson Graburn's comments on the resemblances between tourism and play: "While human play may lack the travel element of tourism, it shares the aspects of removal from the normal rules, of limited duration and unique social relationships, and of the feelings of immersion and intensity that Turner characterized as flow. Like tourism, games are rituals which both differ from and reinforce certain aspects of the structure and the values of everyday life" (Graburn, 1983, p.95). This description implicitly aligns play and tourism with fieldwork, which also shares all these qualities. By supplying players with opportunities for travel, culture shock, new societal norms to absorb, and ethical quandaries to negotiate, the GTA games mimic "the 'being there' of classic ethnographic authority" (Marcus, 1999, p.97), as well as fieldwork's rite-of-passage quality. There are even special field technologies to master: one must learn how to control the avatar, interpret city maps, and document one's experience (e.g., in San Andreas, by using the in-game camera, saving one's progress at many different points in the narrative, and consulting the statistics the game provides to track CJ's changing skills, physical capabilities, and accomplishments).

The trickier issue is the question of where the ethnographer-player can locate ethnographic subjects, research associates, or "informants." After all, this is not a game in which players interact with other real people in the guise of avatars. While I argue elsewhere that GTA should still be considered as fundamentally social as a MMOG (Miller, 2008; cf. T. L. Taylor, 2006), much of that sociality is either imagined or deferred until the game is turned off. I will suggest three possible answers to the missing-people problem of GTA fieldwork, each of which requires adjustments to the classic fieldwork ideal of direct communication with other people in their native cultural setting.

First, we could focus on the fact that the lone-explorer experience of the gameworld is a fiction. No one is ever truly alone in Liberty City, just as no one ever reads the newspaper, watches television, or surfs the 'net alone; all these media serve to constitute imagined communities of other readers, consumers, players, or citizens (Anderson, 1991; cf. Jenkins, 2006). The other players (the other tourists, as figured by the game designers) are invisible but unforgettably present. This axiom—no one is alone in Liberty City—points the researcher back to all those fansites, player-built mods, and discussion forums, but also highlights the importance of participant-observation in the gameworld. To be an effective interpreter of player discourse and player-created materials, and to converse with players on mutually respectful terms, I must have really been to Liberty City. In this sense the established relationship between credible ethnography and direct experience—the requirement to present evidence that I was really there—remains unchanged.

As a second approach, we could recognize the game's diverse team of designers, writers, actors, and culture consultants as the true native citizens of San Andreas. The in-game characters are vehicles for their real voices and physical gestures. Their political, aesthetic, and ethical sensibilities permeate the terrain. These research associates speak to the ethnographer with varying degrees of indirection and mediating irony; they comment on everything from the quality of commercial radio to the relative availability of firearms and nutritious food in contemporary American life. A perky announcer on a San Andreas talk radio station reports, "Culturally, this country is flatlining! Now you know why. Opinions are free, which is why we're here. It's news and talk that our sponsors agree on—WCTR!" [6] Disrupting gameworld immersion with irony, Rockstar's writers invite the player-ethnographer to join in criticizing the object of their satire: mainstream American commercial media. Since products like the GTA games themselves are frequently invoked in that media as emblems of a "flatlining," culturally bankrupt America, the player who laughs at the WCTR announcer is forging an alliance with GTA's makers.

The hallmark of this second kind of ethnographic encounter is complicity, that sense of affinity between scholar and subject evocatively described by George Marcus as rapport's "evil twin" (Marcus, 1999, p.88). In general, the Rockstar team are perfect exemplars of the ethnographic subjects invoked by Marcus, James Clifford, and their disciplinary cohort. To use Clifford's terms, these individuals "turn out to have their own 'ethnographic' proclivities and interesting histories of travel. Insider-outsiders, good translators and explicators, they've been around" (Clifford, 1997, p.19). GTA's designers are fieldworkers and cultural producers in their own right, media-savvy and intensely self-aware. In fact, by most standards their representational agency greatly exceeds that of any academic ethnographer. Thus this approach should probably be regarded as a form of "studying up" (Nader, 1972). It requires the ethnographer to cycle between in-game fieldwork and in-real-life efforts to communicate with the game designers. Since most of them are famous, very busy, and legally constrained to watch what they say about Grand Theft Auto, the ethnographer occupies a supplicant position, obliged to cultivate her subjects' interest and good will—or to draw inferences based on interactions with intermediaries, such as in-game characters.

The third way to locate ethnographic subjects in these gameworlds is the simplest: suspend one's disbelief and treat them like actual places with human inhabitants. If we look at Grand Theft Auto through this lens, we might conclude that Rockstar has produced a thought-provoking training simulator for imperialist ethnography. This idea first occurred to me as I was playing San Andreas: set in 1992 and featuring GTA's only African American avatar, this game presents a deliberately dated, bounded, and ethically controversial model of a particular culture. As such, it calls to mind an ethnographic approach that many scholars now disown as similarly dated, confining, and ethically discomfiting. How many early fieldwork narratives described a primitive society frozen in an era distant from our own, accessible only to this lone intrepid ethnographer? There, too, the informants were often people of color who spoke peculiar dialects and appeared incapable of truly understanding the ethnographic enterprise; they could be threatening or cooperative, but they were never complicit. Their concerns were strictly local, and with the aid of imported technology and a helpful native assistant the ethnographer could achieve a god's-eye view of their cultural system. (In GTA, the player generally observes the avatar from slightly above and behind but can change the camera angle at will.) There was no chance that these primitives would ever read the ethnographer's work or comprehend their own supporting role in the drama of human civilization; in terms of agency, they might be likened to non-playable characters.

GTA's space-structuring mechanisms also have imperialist-ethnography overtones. Players start out restricted to a particular home area, and only gradually gain access to more regions of the gameworld (establishing "safehouses" along the way). Colonizers, tourists, and fieldworkers have long shared this same preoccupation with exploring and mastering new territory. With the conceptual advent of virtual reality came a similar terrain-based paradigm for understanding digital "new frontiers"; this is why we have web browsers named Explorer, Navigator, and Safari. As Fuller and Jenkins point out, there are striking parallels between the developing rhetoric of virtual exploration and that of Renaissance travel writing on the New World. They suggest that not-yet-possessed digital game territories "exist only in the abstract, as potential sites for narrative action, as locations that have not yet been colonized... Places are there but do not yet matter, much as the New World existed, was geographically present, and culturally functioning well before it became the centre of European ambitions or the site of New World narratives. Places become meaningful only as they come into contact with narrative agents" (Fuller & Jenkins, 1994, p.66).

This analysis was based on early Nintendo games with strictly hierarchical game levels, but it is just as characteristic of the GTA games. Here the territorial paradigm is an explicit narrative theme; for upwardly mobile gang members and mafia bosses, expanding and controlling territory is a central part of the job description. Early in San Andreas gameplay, most of the in-game map is greyed-out to indicate that it is inaccessible and irrelevant. CJ gains access to new areas only when certain missions have been completed. As Shira Chess observes in a Foucauldian analysis of the game, "as the player becomes more disciplined and adept at the game, [he is] given more space. Space, therefore, becomes a means of both disciplining and controlling a player, as well as a system of rewarding his acumen" (Chess, 2005, p.82). Given the particular cultural milieu represented in San Andreas, this design feature has potentially unpalatable implications: is the white middle-class player positioned as a colonizer of CJ's terrain, of a ghetto that was always already there but didn't matter until it could be mastered by a videogame player [7]? Following this line of reasoning, one might conclude that the biggest ethical concern with GTA is not that it teaches kids to shoot cops and beat up hookers but that it teaches them to approach the world like imperialist ethnographers. (However, in my view the games' pervasive irony undercuts this conclusion; see Miller, 2008.)

The theme of ethnographic complicity resurfaces in the context of GTA's territorial-expansion requirements, this time in the form of complicity with one's avatar. A fieldworker cannot explore much of San Andreas without actively supporting CJ's agenda. One cannot leave the city of Los Santos to investigate San Fierro until CJ has established his own gang territory by killing dozens of rival gang members. Similarly, one can only learn about gender relations in San Andreas by sending CJ on dates with various girlfriends, observing his protective impulses with respect to his sister's love life, or having him steal a lowrider and work as a pimp. This would seem to be an inverted, paradoxically one-sided form of ethnographic complicity: the ethnographer must collaborate with CJ to be successful, but CJ doesn't know the ethnographer is there.

Like most interactive games, GTA offers "an invitation to comply or collude in the construction of a particular universe rather than in the deconstruction of its boundaries" (Kline, et al., 2003, p.54). In effect, each ethnographer-player becomes the avatar's apprentice, building technical skills through increasingly difficult exercises until becoming accomplished enough to improvise. Mastering these skills facilitates entry into a flow state—"the holistic sensation when we act with total involvement" (Turner & Turner, 1978, p.137), a key attraction of digital gaming and an index of player competence in immersive gameworlds. Success depends upon one's ability to internalize complex sequences of hand movements that require considerable dexterity and well-honed reflexes. For an ethnomusicologist like myself, trained to value "bi-musical" fluency in an unfamiliar tradition as a mark of professional ability, learning to use a game controller seems very much like learning a new musical instrument. But musical contexts aside, acquiring new technical skills and embodied knowledge is a ubiquitous element of fieldwork. The process of learning local practices presents challenges and (eventually) satisfactions which inevitably shape one's ethnographic perspective on "the field."

Again, we might surmise that GTA gameplay highlights the importance of participant-observation and of respecting local knowledge: the new player must learn how to enact what the avatar already knows how to do, be it driving through his neighbourhood's streets, stealing new cars, playing darts, firing a weapon, or dancing at a club. As James Gee suggests (writing about digital games in general), "The player and the character each have knowledge that must be integrated together to play the game successfully," an instance of "distributed knowledge" in action (Gee, 2006, p.177). The avatar has a programmed, unconscious repertoire of skills and behaviours, and the player must gradually acquire a parallel embodied knowledge of the commands required to animate him (cf. Burrill, 2006). My accidental-carjack experience brought this idea home to me very early in my GTA gameplay. However, in San Andreas there are also skills that the player and the avatar acquire together. With practice, CJ becomes a better driver and a better sniper. He gradually builds up increased strength and lung capacity through exercise, and must take lessons to learn to fly a plane. These collaborative learning experiences can create a deep sense of identification with and loyalty to one's avatar—another form of ethnographic complicity, and one with particular ethical complexity when the avatar is a poor black man engaged in violent criminal behaviour. (Elsewhere I discuss how this progressive-skills design choice helped GTA's designers and players deflect accusations that the game depicts a "natural" black criminality; see Miller, 2008.)

James Gee also notes that "when learners adopt and practice [a new identity] and engage in the forms of talk and action connected to it, facts come free—they are learned as part and parcel of being a certain sort of person needing to do certain sorts of things" (Gee, 2006, p.176). Translating this observation for our fieldwork thought-experiment, we might say that the participant-observer who adopts the social role of a gameworld native—the avatar—has an enriched understanding of the gameworld's culture. I found this to be the case among respondents to my qualitative survey about the GTA radio system. When I asked how their in-game music choices compared to their usual musical tastes, many respondents said things like "i wouldn't usually listen to Rap, and only do in-game because CJ would" (anonymous male, teenager). Another respondent observed that the available in-game music affected how he related to his avatar "because you are a gang member in San Andreas that is influenced by Hip-Hop" (anonymous male, teenager). This player not only chose radio stations according to CJ's likely tastes, but also inferred that CJ's personality and behaviour might have been shaped by his exposure to particular media—an astute observation derived from his fieldwork in the state of San Andreas.

Imagined Ethnography and Senses of Place

Gameworlds like those presented in the GTA series might be viewed as models of what Arjun Appadurai has called "imagined worlds," cultural landscapes "constituted by the historically situated imaginations of persons and groups spread around the globe" (Appadurai, 1996, p.33). In an influential formulation, Appadurai suggested that those imagined worlds take shape as people navigate the global flows that he termed ethnoscapes, mediascapes, technoscapes, financescapes, and ideoscapes. The fact that the GTA gameworlds include all of these elements—human communities in motion, commercial media, culturally specific technologies, a financial system, and invocations of both gameworld and real-world moral and political issues—may play a significant role in their perceived realism, depth, and complexity. In their reimaginings of well-known and well-documented real places, Rockstar's cities illustrate what Appadurai calls "the imagination as a social practice... a form of negotiation between sites of agency (individuals) and globally defined fields of possibility" (Appadurai, 1996, p.31). For instance, consider Dan Houser's account of the design process for the radio stations in GTA IV's Liberty City. He described how Rockstar had created some stations to match particular New York stations—even hiring a New York radio newscaster as a voice actor—but continued, "Problem is, in New York now, you can't find seventeen radio stations you want to listen to. We tried to get stuff that would feel like what you would want to hear if you came to New York. Not necessarily what you do find here, but what you ought to hear if it was like the way you'd imagined it" (Hill & Houser, 2008). The result is a New York imagined by one group of individuals and explored imaginatively by millions of others, most of whom already have some sense of what New York is like.

This imaginative exploration of GTA's various "-scapes" leads many players to adopt ethnographic habits of mind, whether or not they would ever describe them that way. Game discussion forums, survey responses, and gameplay-observation sessions showed that players think analytically about social relationships in the gameworlds and experiment with their norms. Do police respond to crime in a ghetto neighbourhood? Can Niko score on the first date? Will passers-by admire a better car? Players also develop a strong sense of place in each gameworld—not just navigable space, but place, which Paul Watt and Kevin Stenson usefully define as "a space which people in a given locality understand as having a particular history and as arousing emotional identifications, and which is associated with particular groups and activities" (Watt & Stenson, 1998, pp.252-253). For CJ in San Andreas, home is the poor black neighbourhood of Ganton (clearly standing in for Compton); outlying rural areas or the neighbouring city of San Fierro/ San Francisco are exotic locales and take both travel time and missions-accomplished to reach. In GTA IV, Niko Bellic's home territory is the borough of Dukes/ Queens, though this is already positioned as a strange and exotic land for an immigrant from Eastern Europe. When Niko visits a place that would be homelike for CJ—an urban housing project with a mostly black population—several residents taunt him by saying "I think someone stepped off the tourist trail!" and "You don't belong 'round here." Algonquin/ Manhattan is inaccessible at the start of the game, a design move that both positions Niko as a marginal figure (lacking the social capital to travel freely or to experience the glitzier parts of the city) and effectively parodies the borough-centric experience of many New Yorkers.

In this discussion of sense of place in reimagined American cities, it's important to remember that GTA's players live all over the world, and that many high-level Rockstar Games employees are European (including the company's British founders). Rockstar recreates these American spaces by engaging players in the reenactment of quintessentially American stories: players around the world collaborate with the game designers in a performance that comments on American popular culture and politics. Their version of America is particularly resonant with non-American players, as several of my survey respondents made clear in follow-up correspondence:

I do like the different areas with a different ethnic feel, eg. Chinatown. Although most large cities have this, I think it is something everyone associates with the US... The characters voices seem to rely on movie stereotypes such as mafioso types. I think that this is quite a good thing when it comes to drawing you in and making you feel at home. (Bob, Scotland, age 31-35)
The [radio] stations add to the "Americanness" of the game, as some of the content, especially on the talk radio stations, fits in with the stereotypical American radio: loud, opinionated, and ignorant. (Lincoln, Canada, age 26-30)
I've never been to the US, which I expect changes my reaction to the game [compared] to that of Americans, particularly those that actually live in the cities—pretty much my entire knowledge of Miami or California comes from fictional films or TV shows, so I think subconsciously I consider them almost as fictional as "Vice City" or "San Andreas." I think the one element of the game that really struck me as "American" and that I doubt would work for me if the game was set in another first-world country is the sense one gets of seeing the police as 'the enemy' after a while. Maybe it's just because so many crime and gang-related movies are set in the US, but I don't think if my character was meant to be, say, a Canadian or a Frenchman in Canada or France, the concept of the police being an enemy I had to keep an eye out [for] wouldn't work so well. (David, Australia, age 21-25)
I have never been to Miami, which was clearly the city that Vice City was trying to capture, so I can't comment on the accuracy of the portrayal. However, it was also trying to capture the Miami in Miami Vice and perhaps in Scarface... In fact, I would say that Vice City was not supposed to be Miami in reality, but Miami in the media, and I feel that Vice City has accurately recalled this mediated Miami. (Jesse, Canada, age 21-25)

These players evaluate the realism and the ironic elements of GTA's cities by drawing on their existing knowledge of real American cities and of other media depictions of these places. Their accounts show how porous the boundaries of these gameworlds really are; each player-ethnographer brings in his or her own expectations, biases, and a wealth of related media experiences, all of which have an impact on gameplay.

Like ethnographers, many GTA players also document their exploration of the gameworlds. In online forums, players trade tales from the field and share vast quantities of screenshots. Through these documentary practices players create evidence of their unique gameworld experiences and decision-making processes—many of which have nothing to do with game narratives or missions. In one screenshot-sharing thread, a 17-year-old British player posted a picture of a white car coming over the crest of a hill with the following caption:

My Buffallo which I found right at the start of the game. You'd be surprised at how much effort I had to make to get to that position. When I got to that place in the screenshot It started to rain, so I'm like I'll wait. Five minutes later it's still raining, so I think fuck it and I go driving. The rain eases off and I try and navigate my way back. The driveway is on a hairpin turn, so here I am about to go up the driveway, and this Taxi comes speeding down and damages my Buffalo. So I have to go get it repaired, and the 3rd time I managed to get there, By night time....... [ellipsis sic] [8]

The image shows an evening sky in the background, an emblem of the all-day process the player describes. (Days, nights, and even phases of the moon go through their paces in the games, at a rate of one gameworld hour to one real-world minute.) The caption suggests how the gameworld functions as a meaningful place, something with the power to gather "lives and things, each with its own space and time, into one arena of common engagement" (Casey, 1996, p.26)—even though each player seems to visit that place alone [9].

Final Thoughts: Why Think Ethnographically?

What are the broader implications of thinking ethnographically about single-player gameworlds? First, when the scholar deliberately adopts an ethnographic perspective in her own gameplay, she has a new tool to use in her interpretation of game design decisions. My accidental carjack got me thinking about the gap between my own physical abilities, learned behaviours, and life history and those of my avatar, an experience which both enhanced my capacity to identify with his motives and enriched my critical assessment of Rockstar's depiction of a young black American: were they positioning CJ as a natural criminal (with a whiff of racism), or as someone brought up in a world that required violence? Or were they simply borrowing an archetypal "badman" character from hip-hop, blaxploitation films, and earlier African American oral traditions (Quinn, 2005)? Considering questions like these significantly altered both my own gameplay experience and my research approach.

Second, thinking through the resemblances that link gameplay, tourism, and fieldwork might lead us to a different understanding of the interpretive work players do in the course of their gameplay. As I hope I have shown in this article, some of the analytical habits of mind and the satisfactions of playing these games closely resemble those associated with ethnographic fieldwork-not only old—paradigm imperialist ethnography but newer models, in which the ethnographer aims to develop collaborative relationships with research associates (the avatar, NPCs and the game designers). We might see a parallel to this paradigm shift in some recent GTA IV reviews that describe a move from tourist subjectivity to a sense of gameworld citizenship and responsibility to one's avatar:

[U]nlike most video games, getting to know "GTA IV" requires living in the islands of Liberty City, not merely checking into a hotel a few days as a digital tourist... It's taken me this many weeks to complete only a little over 30 percent of the game, according to the detailed statistics "GTA IV" puts at your fingertips. But I feel like I'm learning to love the crazy, harsh city and still discovering its secrets along with the cagey, engaging Nico Bellic. Liberty City is a nice destination to visit, but an incredible place to live. (Gallaga, 2008)
All alone in the angry city, it's Niko against the world. The odds are already stacked against him, so he doesn't need some clueless tourist controlling his every action. (J. Taylor, 2008)
At certain key events in the game, Niko will be presented with a number of positions where he can be principled and merciful or ruthless and cruel. It's up to players to decide not only how the narrative continues, but how Niko's character develops. It's particularly fascinating to realise that if Niko has unleashed his rage and anger, it is a reflection on the player. (O'Connor, 2008)

Accounts like these demonstrate how players move beyond tourism to collaborative complicity with the avatar, a process that doubtless occurs in numerous games. But one of GTA's special features, highlighted by an ethnographic perspective, is that these games encourage players to cycle between participant-observation and analytical or ironic detachment. Above all, doing GTA fieldwork reinforces the lesson that fieldsites and gameworlds are not closed-off "culture gardens," though thinking about them that way can yield interpretive insights. Just like ethnographers, videogame players bring conscious theories and strategies as well as subconscious cultural knowledge to their gameplay; no one does fieldwork or gamework in a closed system. Because Rockstar's game design always blends immersion-enhancing realism with immersion-disrupting parody and citation, these games keep each player in the liminal state that partially defines the classic fieldwork experience: not a tourist, but not a local; trying to act naturally while consciously storing away new knowledge; in the world but not of the world.


[1] See Lysloff (2003) for a reflexive, ethically astute account of web-based ethnography. Bell (2001) provides a useful overview of the first major writings on this topic.

[2] I reached this conclusion by reading numerous reviews and by conducting qualitative research on the GTA gameplay experience; see Miller (2007) and Miller (2008).

[3] Transcribed from recorded gameplay.

[4] The qualitative survey was active from 2006 through 2007. It focused on players' use of the GTA in-game radio system, which permits players to choose from many different gameworld radio stations when they are driving cars or are in another gameworld space with a controllable stereo. The survey questions are available at (this URL is case-sensitive). I discuss the results in detail in Miller (2007). In Miller (2008) I address the perspectives of some GTA players who are not white or middle-class.

[5] GTA IV's online multiplayer possibilities may be taking the series in another direction, but in my estimation they remain peripheral to the overall Liberty City gameplay experience.

[6] Transcribed from recorded gameplay.

[7] David Leonard has made this argument with respect to the Tony Hawk games, which "offer players the opportunity to play or dominate (black) city spaces in the absence of people of color" by creating virtual skate parks "where rules and laws do not pose threats or consequences to white men" (Leonard, 2005, p.112, 126).

[8] For the entire thread, see

[9] The extent of that common engagement can be surmised from the fact that this player had posted to the forums over 6,700 times across a period of three-and-a-half years. This is a high number but not an exceptional one; as of this writing, over 130 members of that forum have logged more than a thousand posts (


The author would like to express her gratitude to all the players who participated in her research, and to the anonymous _Game Studies_ reviewers who offered supportive and illuminating feedback.


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