The meaning of a massacre: GTA V and protest art

How many ways can a person get shot in Grand Theft Auto V? Rockstar’s best-selling game certainly packs variety on this front, blending wince-inducing motion capture with real-time physics, but its open-world action framework teaches you to skim the details. Whether you’re capping gang members on Strawberry Avenue or gunning down cops on the freeway, one death is much like another.

Joseph DeLappe’s Elegy mod, by contrast, forces you to linger. Here, a man rolls on the sidewalk, curled around a stomach wound. There, a woman is punted sideways by a shotgun blast. The camera retreats slowly, hitching a little when somebody runs behind it, curses and screams permeating the opening bars of Irving Berlin’s God Bless America.

Freed from the frenzy of actually playing GTA, I become hypnotised by the moments when the illusion fails, the sense of mortal injury strangely amplified by the game’s inability to do it justice. Joggers collapse in agony only to pop back to their feet, as though rewinding the scene.

Animation suites are shared between characters, so that sunbathers in bikinis gallop about like SWAT officers, rifles tipped across their bodies. Survivors stroll through puddles of blood without leaving footprints, kicking corpses aside. And still the camera pulls back, unable to look away.

The unreality of video game gunfights is sharpened to a point in Elegy. Streamed on Twitch from 4 July 2018 to 4 July 2019, DeLappe’s mod was an automated massacre simulator fuelled by real-world statistics. Every day, the mod would re-enact the year’s running total of US lives lost to gun homicides, as recorded by the Gun Violence Archive.

If Elegy’s carnage seems artificial and absurd, this only reflects the absurdity of the subject matter. According to a 2010 study, the USA’s gun murder rates are over 25 times higher than the average for other high-income nations such as the UK and Canada. As of June 2018, US citizens owned 393 million guns – around ten times as many as the US military.

Elegy was designed to ridicule the scapegoating of video games for gun deaths, while making America’s gun problem feel immediate and overwhelming, DeLappe tells me. It is a despairing response to a culture of obfuscation and denial. “I think it’s probably the darkest thing I’ve ever made,” he says.

“But perhaps in that darkness there’s a hint of critical reflection. It does seem rather hopeless, but [I thought] if you could take those nearly 15,000 Americans a year who are killed in gun homicides, and literally put it in front of people, maybe it can [help to] change some of the thinking around it.”

Holding up a mirror

Exactly how informed are regular Americans about gun violence? “Not at all,” says D. Brian Burghart, founder and operator of Fatal Encounters, a small but determined activist group that gathers data on police killings. “I think we’re almost completely ignorant. The government and politicians have worked very hard to stop Americans being very well-informed on this topic.”

Much of this ignorance can be attributed to the Dickey Amendment, a rider in a 1996 congressional spending bill that forbade federal agencies from using government-appropriated funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” In practice, this has amounted to a tacit ban on any federal research into gun violence – an opportunity seized upon by pro-gun organisations like the National Rifle Association, which spends millions of dollars each year lobbying against regulation.

Elegy being exhibited at Abertay University in Dundee. “It definitely didn’t get the kind of hostile, threatening reactions I got for dead-in-iraq,” DeLappe notes.

One tool US journalists have to compel the disclosure of data on gun violence is the Freedom of Information Act, but in Burghart’s experience, the FOIA is “pretty toothless.” The act is subject to a number of exceptions, many extremely broad; the government is allowed, for example, to withhold information that “could reasonably be expected to interfere with law enforcement proceedings.”

FOIA requests, Burghart argues on the FE website, are just “a game that our ‘transparent’ government plays with legitimate news reporters on a daily basis. The strategy is to put things off because most editors – not reporters – will lose patience long before a request is satisfied and move the reporter onto something else.”

If journalists still struggle to obtain the details, the growth of the internet over the past two decades has made an enormous difference. “If you wanted the information, say, in 1999, you couldn’t get it,” Burghart tells me over the phone. “It just didn’t exist in a way where you could analyse it as a regular person.”

Data is only useful, however, if people are prepared to make use of it, and Burghart feels that Americans are too polarised on the subject to act upon the figures in circulation. “I don’t see journalists or the government reaching out to actually use that data and inform the public. People are either pro- or anti-Second Amendment, and there’s just not a lot of room for discussion and learning once your mind is made up.”

Perhaps the challenge activists face, then, isn’t just crunching the numbers but presenting them in a way that overcomes preconceptions. Besides tracking police shootings, Burghart has experimented with ‘data storytelling’ apps such as Tableau, and collaborated with a data visualisation startup, Silk, to produce inventive renderings of the Fatal Encounters database.

As with visual metaphors for the relative wealth of billionaires like Michael Bloomberg, artworks like Elegy are a means of making research accessible to those who lack the insight or inclination to untangle the implications of the data itself. “If you see it, you can kind of understand.”

Joseph DeLappe’s video game “interventions” are many and varied. His more light-hearted works include re-enacting an episode of Friends inside Quake III Arena.

Remembering the fallen

Elegy isn’t DeLappe’s first piece about violence in America. A San Francisco–born artist and academic, now professor of game research at Abertay University in Dundee, he has built a career around turning video games into protest sites.

DeLappe’s other projects include dead-in-iraq, a digital memorial which saw him typing the names of Iraq War casualties into the military-funded shooter America’s Army. While performing this vigil, he became interested in a common feature of more combat-driven games – the disappearing of corpses to free up memory.

“Sometimes they sort of sink into the ground,” he says, “or eventually those bodies all vanish. I thought that was kind of curious.” Moving to Dundee got DeLappe thinking about Grand Theft Auto in particular – it is, after all, where the series was invented by DMA Design back in 1997.

Following a 2018 mass shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, the university was contacted by a reporter looking for comment on Donald Trump’s suggestion that video games were to blame. DeLappe was incredulous – as he sums up, “they want to control video games, but they won’t control the guns: it’s backwards, it’s ridiculous” – but he was also inspired. “Part of my thinking was: ‘OK, if you really think these games are responsible, let’s see what that looks like. Let’s actually visualise that in some way through the game’.”

Not a coder himself, DeLappe sought out collaborators at the Biome Collective, a gaming, arts, and technology co-working community with whom he’d previously worked on Killbox, a split screen commentary on the psychological effects of drone warfare. They began to play around with representations of gun statistics in GTA using existing modding tools. “In some ways, finding out what we could do decided what we did,” says DeLappe.

Investigating gun death takes resilience. “I guess it was lucky that I fell into this job,” Burghart says, “because it doesn’t seem to affect me too negatively.”

Creating Elegy meant engaging with the disparities of information and understanding described by Burghart, not always successfully. DeLappe and Biome Collective were able to represent the broad types of firearms used in each homicide, for example. “I can’t remember the exact percentage but it’s somewhere between 10 and 20 percent are rifles and long guns, assault weapons,” says DeLappe.

But they were unable to recreate the races and genders of perpetrators and victims, partly due to the game’s own technical limitations, and partly due to difficulty obtaining the data. “In the end, we went with what the game would provide.”

Elegy’s limitations

This seems an enormous shortcoming, given that – lack of government-funded research notwithstanding – there is considerable evidence that US civilian gun violence is linked to racism and misogyny.

One October 2013 study published in the journal PLOS ONE uncovered a “significant” correlation among white US citizens between having a gun in the house, opposing gun control, and expressing “symbolic racism” – an indirect and often unconscious form of anti-black prejudice. According to another June 2019 Mother Jones study of 22 mass shootings, 50% of the perpetrators specifically targeted women, and 32% had a history of stalking and harassment. In general, white men are the US demographic most likely to own guns.

In its failure to acknowledge race and gender, Elegy reveals the limitations of awareness on the issue, limitations possibly preserved in the social make-up of GTA’s Los Santos, which is based on Los Angeles. Burghart notes that while the influence of race, specifically, on America’s gun culture is undeniable, it is hard to articulate, thanks partly to attempts to quash prejudicial reporting that have morphed into a kind of blindness.

“In the United States, it has long been an ethical axiom that you don’t report race in stories,” he says. “That came out of the civil rights movement in the 1960s and 1970s, when reporters were only recording race if it tended to support the police – if it played on people’s prejudices, let’s put it that way.”

“I was relieved when it was over but I missed it too,” DeLappe says of Elegy. “There’s really something fascinating about such intense content going on 24/7.”

The issue has been further clouded by how gun violence is depicted in entertainment media. The PLOS ONE study notes that buying a gun for self-protection risks being a kind of anti-blackness by default, because black people are “over-represented” in portrayals of violent crime. If artworks like GTAV aren’t a cause of bloodshed, Burghart comments, they may play a part in perpetuating the assumptions and stereotypes that make certain people easier to harm.

“It’s almost like in the United States, reality came to follow art.” GTAV’s handling of race, specifically, relies on damaging movie clichés such as the figure of the African-American youth unable to escape a life of crime and brutality. It often satirises these ideas, of course, but it never bothers to seriously deconstruct them.

Elegy’s violence takes a few additional cues from the movies. The mod used a forward-tracking shot to begin with, but DeLappe found that an endless zoom-out cultivated a more appropriate feeling of suspense. “It’s kind of this constant ending shot in a film, that kind of departure,” he says.

“I’ve always been fascinated by the closing shots of films. I remember growing up in an age before cable television and flicking channels and catching the last 30 seconds of a film. There’s just something about it. You always know when a film’s over – there’s something in the motion, the pulling away.”

Learning from the ball game

The sardonic choice of musical accompaniment, meanwhile, owes something to other games, if not video games. In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, God Bless America became a staple of Major League Baseball matches during the legendary seventh-inning stretch, replacing or following the traditional Take Me Out to the Ball Game.

“After 9/11, they started asking people to remain standing for a rendition of God Bless America,” DeLappe says. “You have this double-whammy of patriotic songs.” The additional irony here is that the composer, Irving Berlin, wasn’t born in America – he migrated to the US from Russia with his family at the age of five. “He probably wouldn’t be allowed into the country today,” says DeLappe.

D. Brian Burghart is a former journalism instructor and editor of the Reno News & Review. He’s a part-time researcher at the University of South California.

If Elegy took inspiration primarily from older media, it was shaped on the fly by the culture and platform dynamics of Twitch. Operating it transformed DeLappe into a livestream junkie, high on his own supply. “It would crash three or four times a day, so I’d be resetting it on my phone, from my PC. It inhabited my life, my consciousness – I couldn’t really work on other things.”

He was often drawn into arguments with viewers about Elegy’s message. “Mostly, there were gamers being defensive about gaming, [claiming] that I was basically magnifying the problem of people equating games with real-world violence. I had some back and forth with some of them. Like, really, come on, think about this. It’s absurd – I’m trying to point out the fallacy of that argument, by putting something real into this pretend world that you feel is somehow threatened. But also making the point that, dude, real people are dying – that’s the bigger issue.”

DeLappe feels these muddled responses are, in a way, evidence of Elegy’s success. The artwork is intensely unresolved, its preference for ironic framing leaving the viewer grasping for interpretations. It conjures up several kinds of disquiet: on the one hand, unease at the conflation of rickety NPCs with real bodies (photorealistic games such as GTAV are often faulted for straying into the uncanny valley – in Elegy, doing so is the point). On the other, the paralysis induced by an ending shot that never quite ends.

But that ambiguity is of course provocative, obliging you to wrestle with the subject rather than bouncing off it, as you might if the underlying data was presented more straightforwardly. “I think [Elegy]’s probably a bit of a confusing piece if you just came across it, which is fine,” DeLappe says. “That means you’ve got to figure it out.”

In denying you the interaction games are expected to provide, Elegy challenges you to decide exactly how helpless or how apathetic you feel before a disaster that seems self-sustaining. This might extend to going beyond the mod’s own omissions, such as its inability to show the correlation between gun violence, race, and gender.

Students being escorted to safety during the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, 2018. “It brought gun issues into focus,” says DeLappe.

Citizen journalism

This invitation to act upon – rather than consuming – the data echoes what Burghart regards as the key to changing the debate around guns: putting accessible data presentation tools into the hands of ordinary people, so that they can continue the work of analysis and dissemination. “Sometime in the near future, the ability to make visualisations out of complex data will be something that average people can do, without a steep learning curve,” he says.

It’s worth remembering here the myriad artistic and quasi-educational uses to which GTAV has been put by other modders and more adventurous players. These include pacifist mods such as R3QQ’s Family Friendly Free Roaming, and communities that role-play policing by consent.

If projects like Elegy offer the hope of breaking the deadlock on gun violence, Burghart is sceptical that any individual protest artwork can spark meaningful change. After nine years of research for Fatal Encounters – during which he has investigated around 26,700 deaths – he’s not sure much more can be said about gun violence that isn’t already painfully apparent.

“If these events in Las Vegas or Newtown, these massive shootings, the Pulse nightclub – if those aren’t enough of a trigger to get people to go out and do a little research, I don’t know what would be. I seriously don’t know what could happen that would make them go do that.”

Grand Theft Auto V itself isn’t being singled out or specifically criticised; it’s used as a vehicle to get the message across concerning wider societal issues in the real world. Also likely because it’s popular.

There’s some light on the horizon, however. In the wake of the Parkland shooting, Congress passed a provision clarifying that the Dickey Amendment did not outright forbid research into the causes of gun violence. In December last year, representatives voted to approve funding for the first time in decades. The sum, a token $25 million, was half what House Democrats had asked for, but it sets a precedent for more ambitious measures.

DeLappe is similarly undecided about Elegy’s legacy. Certainly, his discussions with GTA players haven’t given him much hope. “I’m sure there are certain artworks that have changed people – books, films, poetry, whatever – but it’s not like Donald Trump’s going to watch my piece and say, ‘Oh, we should ban all these weapons.’ It just doesn’t work that way.” He notes, however, that cultural adjustments of that magnitude are hard to see coming.

“You just don’t know when you’ll reach that tipping point.” The key, as Elegy suggests, is not to look away.

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