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Play the Game: Grand Theft Desire

Excerpt from Stephen Duncombe, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in the Age of Fantasy (New Press, 2007). Excerpt by permission of New Press.

Slouched down in a vintage low-rider, you cruise the city. You’ve got a job to do, but that can wait. This is your world, you know it inside out, and everything and every place can be open to you. Stopping at a store, you buy new clothes; in a casino you lay down a bet; you go dancing at a club; and then you’re back on the street, cruising. You look down at your muscular brown forearm, tattoos peeking out from under your shirt. You remember your date last night, starting with an innocent invitation to hot coffee and ending in bed with an impossibly proportioned woman who tells you, “You’re the man.” You are the man. You’ve got sex appeal and street respect and the points to prove it. Then you spot someone you recognize. You shoot him. As he falls you run over his body. Twice. An ambulance arrives, followed by a couple of police cruisers. You hop out of your car, machine gun in hand, shooting the medics and wasting the cops as your vehicle explodes behind you. Jumping in front of a passing sedan, you punch the driver in the head and pull her out, leaving her bleeding on the ground as you jack her ride. And then you reach for a can of Red Bull as you flex your thumbs, creaky and sore from hours of tapping console buttons while playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

As unlikely as it seems, progressives can learn a lot from a video game like this. But two things need to be recognized at the start of any discussion about its political possibilities. The first is that all the hand-wringing, wet-blanket, moralistic critics of video games are right: Grand Theft Auto is apocalyptically violent. In order to “win” the game a player has to shoot, beat, and run over literally thousands of individuals. Some of these people probably deserve it: gang bangers and killer cops, but firemen and medics and prostitutes are also fair targets, as is anyone who happens to be out on the street. Interaction with other characters in the game is, for the most part, limited to killing or setting up a killing and, to a lesser extent, having sex. It is Sigmund Freud’s nightmare of unsublimated eros and thanatos, with a heavy emphasis on the latter: the return of the repressed expressed onscreen.

As Tim Winter, executive director of the Parents’ Television Council, puts it, Grand Theft Auto is “lacking any redeeming social values.” The carnage in the game is justified by the thinnest of story lines: the main character returns to his home city after a long absence to find his mother murdered and his gang in disarray, and thus must avenge her death and get his gang back together. Yet most of the “missions” which make up the narrative play have little to do with this dubious revenge morality. The bulk of your playing time is spent making money and earning respect through crime, learning to make your way in the world with helpful hints like these:

P(indent1). — You can perform burglaries at night when not on a mission.
— Many homes can be broken into, and goods

stolen from the owners.

The antisociality not programmed into the game is quickly provided by the adept player. An earlier version of GTA called Vice City included a “cheat”—a programming quirk ostensibly not anticipated by the creators of the game—which allowed the player to have sex with a prostitute and thus increase his life credits before killing her to get his money back, thus retaining his virtual bankroll. A win-win situation.

If video games were just unredeemably violent it would be easy for progressives to condemn or ignore them. But there is something else about these games, especially morally suspect ones like Grand Theft Auto, that demands our attention. They are wildly popular. According to the market research firm NPD, $9.9 billion worth of video games were sold in the United States in 2004, outstripping the revenues from Hollywood box office sales. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas led the pack that year, with over five million games sold; by July 2005 twelve million copies of GTA/SA had been sold. The game also out-rented all other video games its first week of rental release, earning an unprecedented $1.6 million in rental revenue in just seven days. Grand Theft Auto, in all its versions (San Andreas is the fifth), has sold more than 21 million copies since 2001, garnering $924 million in revenue for its creator, Rockstar Games.

Adding to these impressive numbers are countless pirated versions. A bootleg version of GTA/SA was available on the Web before it was even released, and among my gamer friends I’m alone in having bought a copy. It’s true that most of those playing video games are boys and men between the ages of fourteen and thirty-four, but even within these parameters you have a lot of people vicariously acting out a spectacular fantasy. More important, you have a lot of desires and dreams begging to be addressed. But in order to tap into that popularity, progressives first have to understand it.

So, what explains the appeal of a game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas? Perhaps Freud was right: we are libidinal animals after all and GTA/SA is a virtual arena in which to express eternal desires for sex and death we might otherwise play out dangerously on terra firma. It is not the healthy and constructive sublimation that Freud hoped for—sex into civilization and destruction into high culture—but it could be considered a sort of desublimation, a return to our basest desires which are then given release by roleplaying in a virtual domain, similar to what Aristotle identified as the cathartic function of tragic drama. Concerned parents’ groups and crusading politicians likewise argue that video games tap into the dark landscape of our libidinal desires, but their fear is that these desires, once expressed in fantasy, will make the jump into the real world, resulting in violent and misogynistic behavior: two, three, many Columbines. This primal explanation, in either its cathartic or consequential form, may be part of the story, but only part.

Grand Theft Auto, like most popular video games sold today, is a role-playing game. Unlike the video arcade games of yesteryear, such as Pong or Pac Man, where the player manipulates paddles or pieces moving around a two-dimensional playing field, games like GTA drop the player into the position of a character roving about a three-dimensional world. Drawing their inspiration from the game Dungeons and Dragons, the earliest role-playing video games weren’t much more than text and line drawings on a screen, asking players to type in their desired action—“turn left” or “grab sword”—and then responding with a new batch of text; they counted on the imagination of the players to bring the world to life. As computer processor speed increased and graphics technology advanced, player imagination gave way to vivid virtual landscapes and the player entered the picture as a fully manipulatable avatar.

The first thing you notice when you play Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, especially if you are white, middle class, and approaching middle age like myself, is that you are now young, poor, and black. You are CJ, a gangbanger living out a life of crime in the flats of a city that bears more than a passing resemblance to Los Angeles. You can change almost anything you want about your character: you can have him visit a barbershop and get a haircut, go shopping for new clothes, or get inked at a tattoo shop. If you feed CJ a lot of fast food his butt bloats up, making him a slow, soft target for rival gangbangers, or you can take him to the gym where he works out to get buff and tough. The one thing you can’t change is his skin color.

What does it mean that the best-selling video game in the world positions its player as a poor black man? It may mean very little: CJ isn’t a real black man; he is an action-packing stereotype. He’s the mythic gangbanger of a thousand and one rap songs which glorify thug life: “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money,” the group Niggaz With Attitude rapped in their hit song “Gangsta Gangsta,” and this is CJ’s creed. The fact that the game starts off in a simulated Los Angeles in the early 1990s, the site of gangsta rap in its heyday, is no coincidence. The radio stations you tune in to as you drive in your car—which, this being simLA, you do most of the time—heavily favor late-eighties and early-nineties rap (along with amusing oddities like country singer Patsy Cline; a surreal soundtrack for a drive-by shooting). What the designers of Grand Theft Auto have delivered is the means to do what previous generations could only dream about: the ability to step into your favorite song. The popularity of playing CJ rides on the back of the immense popularity of gangsta rap music.

But it goes deeper than this. The attraction of the gangster stretches back to the glorification of Robin Hood and his bandit gang in Sherwood Forest, through the outlaws Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, to today’s TV mobster: Tony Soprano. It’s the allure of the rebel, standing up to the powers-that-be—or, more accurately, the laws and mores those powers insist the rest of us live by. But the protagonist of Grand Theft Auto isn’t just any old gangster, he’s a black gangster. And in his rapacious appetite for sex and violence, CJ (and, by extension, the player) acts out the old stereotype of black men as libidinally unrestrained. Part of the attraction of imagining yourself as a gangbanger in a gangsta rap song, or CJ in Grand Theft Auto, is identification with a Rousseauean noble savage, unbridled by the strictures of normal society, becoming the “white negro” hepcat immortalized by Norman Mailer in 1957. That young, poor, urban black men enjoy playing GTA/SA as much as white, middle-class suburbanites shouldn’t be too surprising. Stereotypes are believed (and desired) as fervently by those whom they are about as by those who use them to make sense of others. Black, white, brown, red, and yellow, it really doesn’t matter; a part of all of us wants to be a nigga with attitude.

Amid this complicated morass of race and rebellion are openings for progressive politics. The first opportunity should be obvious: the popular desire to rebel. The form of rebellion articulated in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas—sticking it to the man through crime and violence—is far from progressive. It is predictable that rebellion has taken this form since it is legitimated and valorized by much of popular culture, from gangsta rap to cop shows on TV. But this isn’t the only way that rebellion can be articulated. What would it mean to reframe rebellion and freedom in political terms? Or rather, to frame progressive politics in the terms of dreams of rebellion?

This is not—necessarily—a call to revolution. Think of the most dignified and somber of protests, such as those staged by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and led by Martin Luther King Jr. Black men and women, dressed in their Sunday best, peacefully picketing, marching on the side of a highway, confronting the bullhorns and dogs of Southern lawmen. These images represented the pacific dignity of otherwise law-abiding individuals, and that’s how these protests have largely been remembered in our sanitized made-for-TV memory of the civil rights struggle. But the bigots on the White Citizens Councils who labeled these protesters radicals, agitators, and communists back in the late 1950s and early 1960s understood then what is glossed over now: those stately demonstrators were rebels. They were standing up to the (white) Man in front of a world media, and part of the power and attraction of those images was the inspiring example of rebellion.

What image is cultivated by liberals and progressives today? Consider a press conference called by Senator Hillary Clinton in 2005: surrounded by heads of various liberal citizens’ groups, she denounced Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and asked for government investigation and regulation. Forget for the moment that such gesticulations have about as much chance of success in slowing the popularity of video games as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign had in preventing drug use in the 1980s. This solution is the old reformer’s taboo denounced as ineffective by Walter Lippmann almost a century ago, and every public condemnation of GTA likely sends an extra thousand customers to the stores to buy the forbidden fruit. But the damage done by these well- meaning reformers is far more significant than this. Here is a group of well-mannered, well-dressed, liberal elites telling the rest of us, definitively, what is good and what is bad…and then calling on the government for regulation. It’s almost a caricature of what the right believes about the left: we are busybodies who never saw a field of human experience that couldn’t use help from the government—the condescending experts who tell people how to live their lives and then use our privilege and access to power to enforce our beliefs. The Establishment. Karl Rove himself could not have scripted a better press conference.

While liberals seem clueless, both the far left and right seem to understand better how to cultivate the image of rebellion. From the suave, pipe-smoking, masked Subcomandante Marcos issuing magical missives from the jungles of southern Mexico, to the revelry of the street protestors against the buttoned-down bureaucratic World Trade Organization, to the singing, praying “warriors for life” camped out in front of Terri Schiavo’s hospital—like Grand Theft Auto, these forms of political expression articulate a popular dream of sticking it to the Man, with a certain style.

Character identification in video games reveals deeper possibilities than merely identifying with the rebel. It signals a desire within us to identify with what we are not. In GTA this means acting out a racist stereotype like CJ, but it needn’t be so limited. Identification with “the Other,” whether that other be someone of a different race or station, or someone who embodies political options previously not considered, opens up new possibilities. The opportunity to walk, albeit virtually, in another’s shoes expands the potential for understandings and alliances markedly different than those now manifested in typical progressive “coalitions” (many of which are nothing more than a list of organization names on a Web site or a piece of stationery). This identificaion with the Other is not the banal “respecting difference” of the multiculturalists: it entails embracing difference. It means transforming a distant object into an intimate subject.

Grand Theft Auto also teaches us that this identification with the Other can be experienced as a pleasure, not as a guilty chore. As I discuss in the next chapter, too much of progressive politics is done in the name, or for the benefit, of an abstract Other. This sort of progressive politics is experienced by the actor as a sacrifice of oneself for the betterment of someone else. (The recipient of these politics sees it the other way around: something done to them by someone else.) The Other is, by definition, foreign and incomprehensible, an object to be treated with charity or contempt, but always at a distance. Role-playing games suggest a popular desire to jump the gap and make the Other, literally, identifiable and thus not an “other” at all.

Again, this is emphatically not what Grand Theft Auto does. The Other the player becomes in the fantasy of GTA is itself a fantasy. CJ is a stereotype culled from centuries of racism and bandit worship, a gangsta rap antihero made virtual flesh. One might even argue that this allows the player to “other” his own rebellious tendencies, displacing them on to someone he is decidedly not. Still, the immense popularity of a game in which the player identifies with someone demonized as a menace to society says something about an untapped capacity for a politics which crosses boundaries of race, class, and ideology not through the liberal passivity of respecting and accepting—the “recognition of the other”—but through the more radical action of empathy with and activity as an Other.

Video game theorists are split into two camps. “Narratologists” argue that what is important about video games is the story they tell. In the case of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas this is the back story of CJ’s return to the hood and the tale that unfolds through the missions he must carry out in order to complete the game. In the end, a narratologist might argue, a good video game fosters identification with the protagonist and reads like a good novel (albeit one published in installments and sometimes read out of order). “Ludologists,” on the other hand, argue that the game is the thing. What a character can do and how he or she can do it is what matters most, not the narrative path they follow. Academics like nothing more than to create rivalries, and to a certain extent this division is silly. Even Gonzalo Frasca, a game designer and academic who helped define the distinction with his site, believes that the division is “actually the product of confusion, stereotypes and disinformation.” Yet this division does call attention to the fact that two things drive video games: one, the character and the story he or she acts out; two, the quality of the action itself. In other words, how the game is played.

My own interest in video games began more than a decade ago when I was supposed to be writing my doctoral dissertation. Into the early morning I played a game called Wolfenstein 3D on my personal computer. Identifying with an Allied soldier trapped in a Nazi castle during World War II, I had to find and fight my way to freedom. Gunning down seemingly indestructible super-Nazis night after night, I shot a path through the castle and progressed from level to level, eventually winning my way to the end of the game and an unhappy return to my dissertation. I played Wolfenstein so much that it started to make its way into my dreams. But I never dreamed that I was the Allied soldier (a character even flatter than CJ), and I didn’t feel the need to gun down threatening Nazis or complete any missions in my sleep. I did, however, have vivid dreams about walking through the virtual maze of Wolfenstein castle; red brick hallways and slamming steel doors became part of my nightly dreamscape. At the time, I thought this was a singular experience; talking to other gamers and reading about games since, I’ve realized that it wasn’t. What sticks with the player is not so much the story told, or even the protagonist one identifies with, but the virtual world where the player gets to play around in.

The world of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is immense. San Andreas is a state, home to three cities. Los Alamos is Los Angeles. Its streets are gritty, bright, and busy and lead to replicas of famous L.A. landmarks like the Santa Monica pier, the observatory on top of Griffith Hill, or—in the most accurate of details—a confusing snarl of freeways. To the north is San Fierro, a hilly simulation of San Francisco, complete with unpredictable weather and heavy fog. To the west is Las Venturas, San Andreas’s Las Vegas, glowing with neon. Each city, in turn, is made up of neighborhoods connected by miles and miles of streets. Around each city lies countryside. Green rolling hills, forests, and farms accompany you on the trip from Los Alamos to San Fierro, while the way to Las Venturas is through miles of barren desert. Yet even in this wilderness there are things to explore: small towns, truck stops, fields of marijuana, and even a secret military base hiding UFOs.

In their popular industry textbook_ Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals,_ Katie Salen and Eric Zimmerman call the virtual world of video games the “magic circle.” Johan Huizinga, the renowned theorist of play who originated this term, used it to describe the space of games where outside rules are suspended and rules of play are enforced. Huizinga was thinking of the circle drawn on the ground for a game of dice when he came up with the expression, but as you walk, swim, bike, drive, fly, boat, and hovercraft your way around San Andreas you can see why Grand Theft Auto is so popular. The magic circle has been expanded into a magic world.

But it is not just the expanse of the virtual world of San Andreas that is so striking: it is its openness.The freedom you have is astounding. One hundred eighty-seven “official” missions are required to complete the game, but there are countless sub-missions too. Some are necessary to move through the game faster and gain more autonomy. In order to fl y a plane, for example, it’s a good idea to go to flight school. But many options are not as instrumental. If you want, you can carjack a taxicab and pick up a fare, and then race to get the fare to his or her destination to receive a tip. You can put out fires with a stolen fire truck, or distribute vigilante justice from a hot police car. Stepping into a club, you can learn to dance (and be subjected to praise or derision depending on how adept you are). And in a feature sure to please postmodernists, your video game character can play an eighties-era video game on his home TV.

You can also just while away your time customizing your character and his rides. Choice of haircut, clothes, and tattoos let you style CJ, and you can pimp your ride with new rims, upholstery, and sound system. But customization just begins here. Recognizing the popular appeal of modification, video game designers regularly leave their program architecture open. In my day, gamers adept at programming built whole new levels of Castle Wolfenstein, posting their unofficial additions on the Internet for free downloading. This tradition has only expanded since that time. On a series of Web sites devoted to Grand Theft Auto you can download gamer-made “mods” for everything from an Adidas shirt for CJ to neon packs to under-light his rides. You can increase the texture of explosions or drop a game-era 1992 Honda Accord or 1986 Hummer into the play.

By far the most popular mod is, or rather was, “Hot Coffee.” Hot Coffee was a program patch which unlocked a minigame buried in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, ostensibly forgotten by the designers and discovered by a Dutch gamer in early summer 2005. With the software patch in place, CJ could follow a woman inside her house when invited for coffee. Once there, a minigame opened up which allowed CJ to have—and the player control—full-featured sexual intercourse, replete with porn movie dialogue. As might be expected, the discovery of Hot Coffee led to a new round of outrage, bringing Senator Hillary Clinton into the fray and leading Wal-Mart and Best Buy to temporarily pull the game from their shelves (proving that mass carnage is commercially acceptable but graphic sex crosses the line). After this bout of publicity, conveniently coinciding with the release of a new version of GTA/SA for the Xbox platform, Rockstar re-released the game with the “error” fixed.

Modifications and minigames aside, the real fun of playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas comes from just tooling around. When you play the game a little map pops up on the screen with a symbol directing you toward your objective. If you are trying to get to your buddy’s house before he’s wasted by a rival gang, you’ll be led in the general direction until a hail of bullets lets you know you’ve arrived. But you don’t need to do this. As you are headed to rescue your friend, you can simply take a left turn instead of the right you should have. Find an on-ramp to the freeway, and in a minute or so you’ll be out in the country. You can stop your car, grab a dirt bike, and go for a ride through a forest, then ditch the bike and swim in a river. When you return, your homey will be pushing up daisies, but it doesn’t really matter. If you want to, you can run the mission again. Or not.

All video games allow for a certain latitude of player agency—that is, the player is always free to go left when it would have been better to go right. This agency is, of course, limited. As Janet Murray explains in her book on gaming, Hamlet on the Holodeck, players “can only act within the possibilities that have been established by the writing and programming.” In Wolfenstein 3D these possibilities were few and a wrong turn usually led quickly to a brick wall, but player autonomy has expanded dramatically in games like GTA/SA.” It’s about giving people freedom of choice,” explains Dan Houser, Rockstar Games co-founder and an author of Grand Theft Auto. “It’s still very much an action game, but there’s also a whole world out there to explore.”

In a recent entry in his popular blog, game designer Greg Costikyan vented his frustration that innovative video game designers can’t seem to get their games published while a routinely hyperviolent game starring the rap star 50 Cent is getting a heavy roll-out by the media giant Vivendi Universal: “They’re morons and don’t realize that the success of GTA is due to its noninstantial, open-ended, well-realized world and the game play it fosters.” Costikyan goes on to argue that it is this freedom of movement in the world, not the ability to play a violent thug like CJ, that explains GTA/SA’s success. I don’t think it is either/or. It is both the identification with the fantasized Other and the freedom to play with him that makes it such a hot game. But Costikyan is correct in arguing for the importance of open-ended gameplay. Without this freedom to explore, this openness, Grand Theft Auto would be just a badly rendered and interminably long music video.

This concept of “gameplay” warrants political attention. If designers like Costikyan and the ludologists are right, then one of the key things that explains the popularity of a game like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is the experience a player has within the magic circle of the game. The scope of the world, the texture of the experience, and the autonomy of the action matter as much as if not more than whether the game is won or lost. (Winning is actually bittersweet, for once you win the game is over.) Means matter more than ends.

What does this mean for progressives? Fashioning a politics that learns from and draws upon the popular attraction of video games means considering more than just end goals. Universal health care, free education, or a more equitable economy are worthy objectives. But we also have to give serious consideration to how we reach these targets—that is: how we do politics. We need to rethink progressive politics in terms of the quality of our game play. Perhaps one of the reasons progressive are not winning much these days is that lately our game isn’t much fun to play.

In the interests of efficacy, a great deal of politics in recent years has been professionalized. Experts devise policies, lobbyists make the case to politicians, politicians fight for legislation, and lawyers file lawsuits in the courts to either enforce or overturn regulations. On the level of pure results it is a strategy that has worked well for progressives: much of the tangible progress in working conditions, protecting the environment, and attaining civil rights for women, minorities, and, to a lesser extent, gays has come from this professional model of political change. Think, for example, of the lawyer-driven landmark ruling of Brown v. Board of Education in 1954 that desegregated schools, or the environmental litigation and policies of the early 1970s that paved the way for the Environmental Protection Agency. But this strategy has a cost: it has made the game of politics a bore. It has separated the ends—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all citizens—from the means: an insider’s game of reports, briefs, and bills. It has taken the game away from the very people for whom it is ostensibly being played.

In New York City (or Toronto, London, Dublin, or Vienna) it is hard to walk down a street these days without being asked by an earnest young woman or man with a clipboard if you are interested in saving the children, defending the environment, stopping the Bush agenda, or doing something equally worthy from a progressive standpoint. Witnessing such commitment is inspiring…until you stop and talk to the young “activist.” You soon discover that they don’t want your participation; they want your money to pay for someone else to participate for you. Explaining the good works that their organization will do, they ask you to agree to an automatic contribution each month. This is efficient. With regular donations, organizations like Greenpeace and Environmental Action, both of which engage in this sort of fundraising, can plan a budget and hire the policy analysts, lobbyists, and even street activists they need to effect social change.

But this method also severely circumscribes the playing field of politics, disconnecting potential activists from political activity. Young people recruited to save the environment find themselves working for third-party professional fund-raising companies.Their participation is then limited to soliciting contributions for professional activists who do the real action. What is asked from the passerby is equally alienating: a contribution tagged to your credit card or bank account so that each month a few of your dollars disappear, silently, to do good in the world. This sort of politics discourages the creation of the very thing needed for democratic change: everyday citizen-activists. It also poisons the well for any citizen-activists legitimately registering voters, gathering signatures for petitions, or handing out information on the street: I now cross the street at the sight of a young person with a clipboard, as I’m sure others do when they see me with petition in hand. In Britain, where this sort of solicitation is widespread, they even have a word for these people: “chuggers,” short for charity muggers. A survey in the United Kingdom showed that 84 percent of young people don’t approve of the practice, with 70 percent saying that it just made them feel guilty.This is not exactly a tactic aimed at winning over the masses for the cause. In pursuit of the most effective way to bring about worthy political ends, progressive organizations give too little thought to the politics of their means. They ignore the game. …

There’s one more little lesson progressives can learn from Grand Theft Auto: not all fun has to be politically correct. I think of myself as a reasonably nonviolent guy, not any more or less misogynistic than the average man brought up in this society. Yet playing games like GTA, I find I enjoy engaging in virtual acts that I’ve spent most of my life condemning in the real world. Does this make me a hypocrite? Or merely complicatedly human? The refusal to accept that people are complex beings, with contradictory ideals of reality and fantasy (a refusal that often results in the ignorance, avoidance, or repression of the latter), is a hangover from the old Enlightenment ideal of authenticity, the dream of a seamless self.

Whether a manifestation of primal instinct or the result of growing up in a violent, sexist, and racist society, we have desires that are, well, less than desirable. It does no good to condemn these feelings, insisting that people must not think bad thoughts. This way leads to hypocrisy and self-deception and a politics obsessed with purity and authenticity. More to the point, it results in a politics with very few adherents. We have to make peace with our desires—violent, racist, and sexist as they may be—and find safe expression for them. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas is one such expression. It is not the job of progressives to condemn popular fantasy and desire. It is our job to pay careful attention to them, learn from them, and perhaps—God forbid!—even enjoy them ourselves. Then carjack these desires and fantasies and drive them someplace else.


Stephen Duncombe


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2007

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