Code of the Streets: Videogames and the City

Games and the City

How to Cite

Sweeny, R. (2006). Code of the Streets: Videogames and the City: Games and the City. M/C Journal, 9(3).
Vol. 9 No. 3 (2006): 'street'
Published 2006-07-01

Cities are shared spaces. As the massive worldwide Iraq war protests that began in 2002 indicate, the structure of the city allows for the presentation of social statements, where large groups can gather, share ideas or argue beliefs, and where media outlets can broadcast these activities. While cities enable these forms of interaction, digital technologies also allow for worldwide connections, both through communication and entertainment. What is the relationship between the shared, often contested spaces of the city and how they are represented in interactive media such as videogames? What statements are formed in the streets of Grand Theft Auto?

In this paper I will discuss three popular games that reproduce urban spaces: the Grand Theft Auto series (1998-2006), Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (2004), and Getting Up: Contents under Pressure (2006). These games are of interest due to their popularity, as well as the forms of interaction reinforced by the urban game environment.

Cities have always been spaces for interaction and competition, becoming the site for festivals, protests and games. Ancient forms of graffiti in Rome and Pompeii have been re-envisioned in a worldwide graffiti movement, transforming blighted areas into image-laden environments. Games of stickball, hockey and football transform streets into fields, as do modern marathons and bicycle races. The city street becomes a zone of interpretation, for adaptation and personalization. More recently, skateboarders have transformed cities into skateparks, forcing designers to develop such curiosities as handrail and planter augmentation meant to deter skating. Even more peculiar, a possible response to the anti-skating backlash is the sport known as ‘free-running’ or le parkeur, where participants use the existing infrastructure to express themselves, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, climbing concrete peaks and adding stylistic flourish with each step.

These forms of urban gameplay may also be accompanied by dangerous activities as well. Jenkins suggests that discussions on the negative effects of increased gameplay might be addressed by looking at socioeconomic factors, such as the increasing numbers of young people living in urban or semi-urban areas who have fewer opportunities for activity that takes place out of doors, creating the prospect for increased interaction with videogames (“Complete Freedom”).

The adaptability combined with the dangerous allure of the city street makes for problematic, intriguing representations in contemporary videogames that deal with urban spaces. I will first discuss a brief history of games that deal with urban spaces, before discussing three popular games and the manner in which they attempt to represent, and recreate the experiences in the city.

Games and the City

One of the earliest examples of the city represented in a videogame can be seen in Rampage, released by Bally/Midway in 1986. The game includes the city only as backdrop for demolition by hyperagressive mutant animals. SimCity, created by Will Wright and released in 1989, is considered a landmark in the history of videogames, as it is based in forms of cooperation rather than competition. It has spawned at least 21 varieties, including the highly anticipated Spore, a game that allows the player to control life on a microbiological level. Game developers also have explored the recreation of cities from the past. Games such as Civilization and Children of the Nile: Immortal Cities (2004) allow players to control events on a broad social scale, in the style of SimCity, with the addition of historical information that comes into play. As videogames have developed, an increase in processing power has allowed programmers to create spaces rendered in real-time, in three dimensions, allowing for immersive ‘first-person’ perspectives not possible in earlier game systems. This perspective has changed the way in which the city is engaged, from the simplistic destruction of Rampage to more nuanced ways of moving through game space.

When discussing the perspective of the player in the urban game space, we should also discuss the perspective of the city inhabitant. As de Certeau describes it, the act of walking in the city represents a form of ownership, reading and creating ‘texts’ through movement. This perspective can shift, through travel in automobile or train, or by ascending in skyscrapers, changing the understanding of the text in the process. This process is inevitably collaborative, as the urban terrain that is monitored both by individuals and by groups: businesses, governments, police. As Flynn suggests, this notion of walking closely resembles the procedural nature of generating meaning in many videogames.

Recent games such as the Grand Theft Auto series (1998-2006), Tony Hawk’s American Wasteland (2004), and Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure (2006) raise issues regarding the representation of the city, and the possibilities afforded the player. Of interest are the following questions: How is the urban environment represented? What options are provided to players for interaction within this environment? Are their implications for everyday practices that borrow from these game-based environments?

Grand Theft Auto

Grand Theft Auto (GTA) was first released in 1998, and has since expanded into a series of increasingly controversial games. Originally designed for top-down gameplay, a third person point of view was introduced in GTA II (2001). Along with this new point of view came the ability for players to interact with a highly detailed cityspace, deviating from the urban gangster storyline, and interacting with city inhabitants in any number of illicit ways. This interactivity was taken to an extreme in GTA: San Andreas (2004).

GTA: San Andreas is set in a state that is a fictional blend of California and Nevada. It continued the gangster storyline of the previous games, becoming notorious for including an encoded, hidden level that allowed players to take part in explicit sex scenes. It featured a style of nonlinear gameplay that allowed players to entertain themselves, exploring the urban landscape free from rigid game requirements. It also limited interactions with city dwellers, limiting narrative elements to ‘cut scenes’ that allow for uninhibited gameplay. As Frasca suggests, the later Grand Theft Auto games are really about moving through space, typically seen as a mundane activity, in an interesting way. However, that which makes the movement interesting typically involves killing and maiming and destroying that which stands in the way of the main character. Without getting into a discussion of morals and videogames, the GTA series certainly has pushed the boundaries of video game acceptability, as well as engaging gameplay, allowing players to drift through the urban environment.

The Situationist International (SI) sought to engage with the city, opening up possibilities for new forms of engagement and interaction through drifts, or derivé. Through various forms of derivé they engaged with the psychogeographic space of the city, walking through varied areas, and reorganizing these experiences as though in a dream state, or, perhaps, game (Sadler). Surely any video game can be experienced in a similar manner. I suggest that the GTA series, through interactive openness, allows players to reread the text of this virtual city, while at the same time contributing to the ‘society of the spectacle’ that situationist Guy Debord so maligned (Debord).

As a successful yet problematic blend of simulation and quest, the rules in GTA: San Andreas are not made explicit; we are familiar with the urban spaces depicted in GTA, at least through the stereotypes portrayed in the media. Players therefore know the rules implicit to these spaces, and what happens when we break them; thus, the allure of the simulated urban environment. The text created is one that combines lived experience, mediated images, and interaction with the fictional urban space. What happens when this environment is made specific, when the game depicts a real city?

Tony Hawk Pro Skater

The Tony Hawk Pro Skater (THPS) series became very popular after its release in 1999, capitalizing on the marketing of ‘extreme sports’ as seen in events such as ESPN X Games, which debuted in 1995. While not the first skateboarding game on the market, THPS captured the imagination of the game buying audience, allowing players to skate as Tony Hawk, or any number of pro skaters. The latest installment of the series is Tony Hawk American Wasteland (THAW), which promotes the seamless connections between levels that are detailed reproductions of Los Angeles.

While the GTA series allows for, and in many cases encourages, activities that would be deemed illegal, THAW extends the possibility that the player could actually perform these acts in the place depicted in the game. Does this allow for greater immersion, which then inspires players to ‘take it to the street?’ Or, does the gameplay reinforce the argument against such activities in the actual urban space, affirming their ‘destructive’ nature?

Although skaters can be a nuisance, particularly in crowded downtown areas, the appropriation of utilitarian infrastructure can also be seen as improvisational art, adapting existing urban features in the process of skating. The SI notion of detournement can be seen in the actions of many skaters, as the process of skating brings new meanings to the urban landscape. Whether the Pro Skater series adds to the possibilities for detournement, or further limits the actual skating that happens in the city, is only relevant to those who skate and those who attempt to prevent this sport from taking place.

As you skate through the city, writing the text of your experience through railslides and grinds, you are also given the ability to ‘tag’ the walls of Los Angeles, literally inscribing your place in the environment. The control of urban spaces, and the possibilities for rewriting these spaces—for detournement—brings me to my third example.

Getting Up

Marc Ecko, clothing designer and hip-hop aficionado, released Getting Up: Contents under Pressure in 2006. Players assume the identity of ‘Trane,’ a young graffiti artists desparate to learn the ropes in the city of ‘New Radius.’ New Radius is currently under the draconian control of ‘Mayor Sung,’ who has promised to rid the city of the scourge of graffiti. As Trane, you make your way through New Radius, battling foes and meeting graffiti legends, who teach you new skills along the way.

Getting Up is unique from the games previously mentioned, as you have the ability to interact with the urban environment in a manner that is not incessantly violent or overtly destructive. In fact, the game is marketed as a way to get the thrill of ‘tagging’ without actually taking part in illegal activity. It is also a unique experience, as Trane walks through the entire environment. This slows down the gameplay, and allows the character to take in the highly detailed environments. It a very literal way, the player in Getting Up is writing the city, as de Certeau describes it, though this writing is typically underappreciated as creative activity, much less art.


The games that I have described present the city in very different ways, and offer players diverse options for interacting and thinking about the city. While, the impact of these games remains to be seen, and may never register beyond the world of the gamer, these games present urban environments as active spaces for engagement, even if it is the thuggishness reinforced in Grand Theft Auto. I would hope that the creativity shown in Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater would lead to the creation of not only more skateparks in suburban spaces, but the acknowledgement of the need for detournement in public urban spaces such as Philadelphia’s Love Park, a favorite East Coast US skate spot that has been the center of much controversy as a result of its popularity. If Pro Skater brings the issue of street skating to a national audience, it is doing good, both as entertainment and social force. Similarly, Marc Ecko’s Getting Up has the potential to not only memorialize the birth of graffiti and hip hop in 1970’s New York; it can also instruct on the flourishing worldwide graffiti scene, allowing those who deserve (and desire) attention to have it.

Recent projects such as pacmanhattan have inverted the relationships between gaming and the urban environment that I have described. Taking the game to the city, players engage in interpretations of the video game classic Pac Man in the streets of Manhattan, utilizing a variety of locative media devices. While these games do not change the physicality of the city, they surely change our psycheographical interpretation of that space, in a way that folds together the freedom of gameplay with the control of the street.

Jenkins suggests that designers should pay more attention to the work of architects and urban planners as they create interactive worlds (“Game Design”). I would also suggest that the opposite take place. Urban designers might learn from the urban spaces created in games such as American Wasteland and Getting Up, as they present options for the detournement of fixed spaces evident in the graffiti and skate cultures. Increased control will result in diverse responses that subvert this control. Cities should remain spaces for walking, for drifting, for protesting: for games.

Author Biography

Robert Sweeny