Last December, the demonstrations between the Hong Kong protesters and riot police spread to the streets of Los Santos. Los Santos, a fictionalized version of Los Angeles, and the surrounding county of San Andreas make up the setting of 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V. This is where hundreds of players — representing two sides of a protracted geopolitical conflict — clashed in an unprecedented display of mass political theater in the gaming world. It was a staged action playing out in real time, a geopolitical reality mirrored in virtual space.

GTA V is an open-world sandbox game. In these games, players have the freedom to go outside the boundaries of missions designed by the game’s creators, and explore and interact with the world at their own leisure, pursuing their own designs. This flexibility has empowered some users to bend the world and its rules to create serious artistic works, some of which have made their way to museums around the globe.

The world built by Rockstar, the developers behind the Grand Theft Auto Series, lends itself to misuse. Increasingly, their games have featured near-fully realized worlds, albeit worlds always a moment away from descending into chaos. One can pick a fight with the police to spark a chase, carjack a bystander and perform reckless stunts in nearly any vehicle or perpetrate random violence against the AI-driven non-player characters who inhabit the world. The player can also just see the sights, obey traffic rules or watch a sunset. Rockstar’s exquisite attention to detail — from the glint of sunlight reflecting off a skyscraper to the wind blowing the grass in the countryside — heightens the game’s uncanny realism.

But if you build a picture-perfect sandbox, don’t be surprised when the real world comes crashing in. When a December release of new DLC offered clothing options that closely resembled garb warn by protesters in Hong Kong, gamers based there took notice. Dressed in black and donning the newly-available yellow-hard hats and gas masks, players dressed as Hong Kong protesters took to the streets of Los Santos. Armed with molotov cocktails, the players coordinated planned attacks that focused on trashing subway stations and firebombing police vehicles, using the proxies to vent their frustrations with strategically-imposed restrictions on Hong Kong’s Mass Transit Railway.

Attracting millions of protesters, Hong Kong’s largest recorded political demonstration has been mostly peaceful. This was not the case in Los Santos. When supporters of the Chinese government took notice, they joined the melee on the streets of Los Santos dressed in police uniforms.

Realism, it turns out, can invite the expression of tensions that may not fully manifest in the real world.

“What happened with Hong Kong and China in GTA V is yet another flare going off,” said digital media artist Alan Butler, referring to the blurring of the real and digital worlds. “The tragedy is that the only reason that this stuff is in the game is because our world is f----- up.”

Art imitating life

On Exactitude in Science, an art installation by Butler, is a frame-by-frame recreation of “Koyaanisqatsi,” experimental director Godfrey Reggio’s 1983 documentary film, filmed in Grand Theft Auto V. In the Hopi language, the word Koyaanisqatsi means “unbalanced life,” and Reggio’s film depicts modern mechanized society, from pedestrians roaming Times Square to busy assembly lines and congested highways, counterposed with scenes of nature. And in Butler’s virtual copy, AI-driven non-player characters (NPCs) amble in place of real humans across San Andreas, a parallel, virtual space. The installation mirrors art which mirrors the world.

When the Hong Kong protesters took what was happening outside their homes to the virtual streets of Los Santos, they joined a lineage of game-artists who had been repurposing video games in service of political and artistic expression for decades. Digital media artist and activist Joseph Delappe, for example, was drawn to GTA V as a setting for a project addressing gun-related homicides in America.

His latest work in the medium, Elegy, plays out like a cinematographic drama. Broadcast live on Twitch, the project — a crawling reverse-pan camera shot moving through a modified version of the game in which armed NPCs reenacted a year’s worth of gun violence each day — documented the 14,730 gun-related murders committed that year in the U.S. from July 4, 2018 to July 4, 2019.

Delappe described the project as an exercise in data visualization. The hyper-realistic violence and gritty urban setting of GTA V allows the work to resonate in a way that statistics or daily news reports cannot.

To artist Brent Watanabe, playing the game that Rockstar Games spent a quarter of a billion dollars to produce was like having “a whole movie studio in his home.”

With Deer Cam, Watanabe used this billion dollar studio in service of the absurd. He modified a deer, programming it to roam San Andreas autonomously. The work resonated, garnering over a million views in the month he streamed Deer Cam on Twitch. (Twitch is owned by Amazon, whose CEO, Jeff Bezos, owns The Washington Post.)

“I saw the deer like Buster Keaton, flailing and struggling through this environment,” said Watanabe, referring to the silent film actor from the 1920s. “But unlike a movie or TV show, when you’re not watching on Twitch, he is still wandering and bumbling and stumbling. Really funny and sad and tragic.”

Butler, Delappe and Watanabe’s works utilized GTA V’s offline modification capabilities, and now live in perpetuity on Twitch or other online streaming services — or displayed in a museum exhibit. The Hong-Kong virtual protests, on the other hand, occurred in a live setting, and were mostly only witnessed by the players themselves. In fact, it’s hard to find any screen captures or Butler-esque in-game photography documenting the riot.

One of the reasons for this may be that the virtual riot occurred organically: the release of familiar clothing options was all the motivation players needed to assume the role of protester.

This was hardly the first example of online gameplay channeled to some end distinct from the creators’ intentions. There is a lineage of activist-artist “interventionists” whose work revolves around disrupting a game’s typical flow to make a statement.

Delappe is a pioneer of the form. In his work Dead-in-Iraq, he would enter the first-person shooter America’s Army — which was launched as a recruiting tool by the U.S. Army — and play as a pacifist martyr. When he was inevitably shot down, Delappe would enter the name of one of the 4,484 service members who had been killed in the conflict into the game’s text based chat.

“The work is essentially a fleeting, online memorial to those military personnel who have been killed in this ongoing conflict,” Delappe wrote of the piece, which he ended when the U.S. declared the conflict officially over in 2011.

Give me liberty

Both Dead-in-Iraq and the virtual Hong-Kong protests have something in common with flashmobs or live performance art. Crucially, unless they are recorded or broadcast, they rarely see exposure to mainstream audiences.

“With what I did in Dead-in-Iraq, what was happening within the game spaces were maybe experienced by a dozen other players,” said Delappe. “Twitch allows you to have thousands of people watching your game play, and your hack, live at any given moment.”

With GTA V being the most popular entertainment product of all time, and given the prevalence of platforms such as Twitch, efforts to break the game’s rules and color outside of the lines may stand to find a broader, more grass-roots audience.

“I like that a lot of people get involved in this, because [most people] don’t really give a s--- about the art world, and you can reach an audience through new Internet based territories online,” Delappe said. “That’s one of the reasons I embrace video games, because it puts you in front of a lot of people it usually wouldn’t, people who don’t look at much art or activism.”

Hart Fowler is a full-time independent journalist who has previously worked with arsTechnica, EGMnow, CultureEater, and 100 Days in Appalachia. You can find him on Twitter at @JHartFowler.

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