Grand Theft Auto and the Difficulty in Describing a Constantly Changing Digital Environment

In our class on Monday, we discussed Janet Murray’s four elements of digital environments. While her definitions of these elements serve as the digital equivalents to the affordances of books, we mentioned how they are unsatisfying (as in Murray’s assertion that these environments are spatial), or even outdated. Murray’s article was written just twenty years ago, and already her reference to CD-ROMs and other technologies dates the essay. I do not think that these references render her essay obsolete. Rather, I think they testify to the continuous evolution of technology and the necessity of reading these essays critically.

This image, found from a user’s Pinterest page, demonstrates the possibility for exploratory usage of the game (top image).

I applied this point of view to the reading for today, Ryan’s “Narrative as Virtual Reality 2.” She elaborates on Murray’s claim that digital environments are interactive. Ryan divides the levels of interactivity of digital environments into four basic sublevels: external-exploratory, external-ontological, internal-ontological, and internal-exploratory. While reading, I was reminded of a game that my little brother used to play called Grand Theft Auto. I think there are about five versions of this game, but the concept remains the same. A group of criminals rob a bank. The player plays as one of these characters and can level up by committing criminal acts (such as stealing cars) and getting more money.

This game in particular stands out to me because I would sometimes watch my brother simply driving the car, pretending as if he were living an ordinary life in the game. I asked him to explain it a bit more to me, and then I understood that this game fits into a number of Ryan’s categories. It is external-ontological because the player has the power to control three of the game’s characters. It is internal-ontological in that the player controls one character at a time, creating the sensation of a first-person narrative, and in that the player can play with other human players in real time. Finally, I think it can be exploratory, although not exploratory in Ryan’s definition of the “pure form,” because the player has the option to simply wander around the world, interacting with the spatial environment without causing any change. My question for my classmates is, are there any other games or digital environments that seem to fit in more than one of Ryan’s categories? Are there any that do not seem to fit one of the four at all?

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