Back in January, a YouTube user by the name of "goldvision" quietly unveiled Grand Theft Auto Pacifist, an ongoing project in which he attempts to navigate the latest installment of the famously nihilistic sandbox franchise "in a manner independent of pain and suffering." The result was an enthralling blend of introspective self-analysis and kinetic gameplay footage, not to mention one of the most unique approaches to cultural criticism since Adam Curtis first picked up his pass at the front desk of the BBC archive.
Four episodes in and the experiment has not been without its setbacks, our hero having already been forced to rob a liquor store, engage in a drag race, and spend $1,090 while attempting to leave a shoe store without buying anything. Nonetheless, he's remained more or less true to his guiding principles.
I met up with goldvision, real name Jeremy Mattheis, in an overpriced hotel bar overlooking the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
VICE: What inspired you to make Grand Theft Auto Pacifist?
Jeremy Mattheis: I think non-gamers have a bad view of the gaming community. Grand Theft Auto depicts violence, and therefore people make the assumption that it promotes and causes violence. I don't think this is true and wanted to show that, even in Grand Theft Auto, it's possible to inflict and receive no negativity, to survive and engage peacefully with all other sentient beings. Also, irony.
How is it coming along?
It’s very liberating not to feel obligated to climb the ranks of the imposed system of violence and theft, but at the same time it constantly begs the question of what to do next. The freedom in not being required to complete missions or hunt other players for points means I can appreciate the world more, but finding creative outlets other than simply walking around is more difficult than I thought it would be.
Are you ever tempted to betray your ethics?
Sometimes the game forces me to carry a weapon. Even if I throw my gun away before I log out, I have two new guns when I log back in. Obviously it benefits average players to be helped out like this, but for me it means I’m only an accidental menu switch away from being perceived as an opponent. Also, I've played seven different iterations of Grand Theft Auto and the habit of automatically stealing a car when you want to go somewhere comes naturally. I have to fight my kneejerk reaction to survive by conquering, and that's surprisingly difficult.
Are you hoping to encourage other players to join the cause?
I'm not sure if I'll be able to succinctly and successfully explain to another player what I'm trying to accomplish as they fire grenades at me, but I am certainly going to try.
Why do you use an alias?
When I first started making videos, I released them under my own name. But to be honest, it’s more fun to have a character that you can explore and develop. To have that little bit of separation makes the whole project more flexible. Plus, I’m going to confess right now that I read the comments on my videos, and when you read a scathing YouTube comment, you have to separate yourself from it.
Are you concerned about the retaliation against video game critics who do use their real names, like Anita Sarkeesian?
Video games are still evolving. In a lot of ways we’re still in the black-and-white TV era. And so anybody willing to contribute to making this art form better needs to be accepted, regardless of whether they’re criticizing something or not. It’s a problem within the video game community. A lot of people are really aggressive and anger-driven.
Is that something you’ve experienced yourself?
People complain that I’m not playing the game correctly—that there’s a right way and a wrong way to play video games. I’ve experienced a lot of anger in the game, actually. I’ll just be walking around and someone will see my name and go, "Oh, it’s him." I think, Oh, cool, a friend just arrived, and then I’ll get shot in the back of the head.
You seem to die a lot in your videos.
I love exploring a world where you can be killed. Death comes up in video games all the time. It’s a recurring theme and a lot of people get used to it, but I think a lot of non-gamers find it a real turn-off to see somebody die—or to kill somebody. These are really heavy things that don’t occur in most people’s everyday lives, which is part of the appeal to me.
You don't find it alienating?
It's just different. Right now I see video games as a kind of de-evolution. You get restricted in what you can do. It’s kind of like when you get in a car: you can go fast and slow, and left and right, but you can’t really communicate with other cars. All you’ve got is a honk. So we’re all just this fleet of silent, quiet beings, driving around. It’s the same thing in video games. You can still talk to other people, but you can’t create a painting and hand that over to somebody. You have a limited number of ways to interact with your world.
And that’s the attraction?
I like the idea of a video game as an opportunity to explore and experience something from a different perspective. If you define art as self-expression through a medium, then video games are my medium, and the path I take through that virtual world is my art.
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