My Chat with Grand Theft Auto’s Dan Houser: “I Hate Myself Enough Already”

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A few weeks ago I sat down for an hour and a half with Dan Houser, the creative force behind the Grand Theft Auto games, in particular The Lost and Damned, which came out this week. That conversation turned into this piece.

I was nervous about writing this piece. I’m a serious gamer and have been for more than 30 years. In fact among writers who cover gaming for the mainstream press I’m probably the longest-serving gamer, on account of how I’m old and had Pong at home. It’s pretty hard to have played video games longer than me unless you had a PDP-1.

But writing about games for Time has been harder than I expected. On the one hand, it took a while to convince editors that we should review games alongside books and movies and music, etc. (Obsessive observers of Time‘s typography will note that we didn’t even use to italicize the names of video games, because the copy editors considered them to be software, not creative works. I made them change!) On the other hand, Time is a general-interest magazine, so when you write about games for Time you have to explain stuff for the non-gamers — you’re basically doing outreach to the non-gaming community. This is all fine and dandy, but it means you have to write for two audiences simultaneously, the mainstream and the hardcore, and the hardcore don’t like feeling like they’re being patronised. It’s a balancing act. This is why, ever since I wrote about Halo 3 in 2007, when you Google my name you get a lot of results that say “ret__ded f____t.”

Anyway. The talk with Houser was most illuminating. He’s a ridiculously smart guy. As a games journalist you spend a lot of time arguing about whether video games are art or not. You tend to forget that real live game developers don’t actually care about that stuff:

As soon as we get told, ‘Yes, games are high art. They’re almost as high as painting and slightly less than dance,’ it’s over. Freedom is dead at that point. Then the argument just becomes about people’s egos. And my ego doesn’t need to be told I’m an artist. I hate myself already!

I hope he doesn’t really hate himself.

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