The dominant perception of video games is that they’re created for, and played by, teenage no-hopers lacking in any moral consciousness. It’s a timeless narrative, spun by the crusty political elite, which attempts to shift blame for social problems away from themselves and onto an easy scapegoat. In times gone by, certain aspects of the yarn may have been true, with adolescents missing the inherent message behind confusing games. However, the video game industry has grown exponentially since those dark days, with serious money pumped into the improvement of graphics, storylines and strategic direction. Now, games have a purpose, a message, an intelligent ability to make people think. Whereas games were once for the darkened bedroom of a sullen teen, huge leaps forward in creative innovation have made them equally comfortable in the hands of open-minded academics. Even if the anachronistic mainstream loathe to admit it, video games are fast becoming one of the modern world’s greatest educational tools.
At the fore of this new gaming generation is one title, which receives more negative attention than any in history. Grand Theft Auto, the flagship series of Rockstar Games, has been lambasted from every quarter for the best part of twenty years. Its latest iteration, GTA V, has drawn criticism from feminists, conservatives, animal rights campaigners and human rights activists despite being the fastest-selling video game of all-time. It would be flippant to dismiss these concerns, because they’re not without substance. Obviously, on a most basic level, this is a game of nihilism, violence and vice, with sex, drugs and a cache of guns larger than you’ll ever know what to do with. If you’ve never played GTA, it’s easy to believe the regurgitated indignation of others. Yes, elements within the game are undesirable and, yes, players are exposed to a world of misogyny, torture and corruption, but it’s important to ask why these elements are included? Increasingly, it is to force gamers into understanding their own emotions about real-world problems, to make players think about the morality of actions, and to bring fresh perspective on a modern world riddled with deception. You see, that’s why politicians and high-horse moralists dislike Grand Theft Auto: because it holds up a mirror to their own imperfections.
The infamous “torture” mission in GTA V is an explicit example. Michael, one of the games central characters, is indebted to the corrupt FIB after they granted him impunity following a botched bank heist. Accordingly, he is forced to do much of the Bureau’s dirty work. In this particularly notorious mission, which has garnered thousands of views on YouTube and nearly as many negative column inches, the player is forced to partake in the torture of Mr K, the only source of information on an Azerbaijani terrorist. As Trevor Phillips, the games most crazed character, players must torture Mr K using brutal techniques such as water-boarding, removal of teeth and electric shocks. It is admittedly horrific, and I doubt anybody felt comfortable when playing this section of the game. However, it’s again important to ask why this was included? All is revealed in the diatribe of Trevor as he rides in a car with Mr K following the episode:
“The media and government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing, [that] we need it to get information, to assert ourselves… Torture is for the torturer…or the guy giving orders to the torturer. You torture for the good times, we should all admit that. It’s useless as a means of getting information.”
In a game of subtle political commentary, this is a vociferous departure. It’s an explicit reference to the real-life War on Terror, and files as a thorough condemnation. By including this torture scene in the main story line, and in portraying it as ultimately unsuccessful, Rockstar have shown the practice as nefarious and futile. Furthermore, by making players complicit in the first-person torture of an innocent civilian, GTA V again puts players in-touch with their emotions about a difficult subject in ways which books, news articles or mere discussion cannot. The feeling of discomfort millions have felt whilst completing this mission will possibly make people more passionate for change and more forceful in protest. Instead of arguing about the inclusion of torture in a fictional video game, we should concentrate our energies on trying to stop it within the real world; this the subliminal aim of GTA.
Los Santos, the open world entered by gamers when they switch on this game, is modeled loosely on LA. It’s a study in political symbolism. For instance, Blaine County, a desert ghost town rotting to the north of the main metropolitan area, displays a billboard imploring its residents to Say No to Los Santos Landfill in Blaine County, thus giving a clear indication of its inferiority. The government has abandoned Blaine County, forcing its population of bigoted rednecks and ruthless bikers to set-up meth labs and run drugs for a living. Just a short trip down through the mountains, however, reveals snazzy Vinewood Hills, where sports cars are ubiquitous, luxurious homes inform of wealth, and the smog of self-obsession is axiomatic. The manicured lawns of Rockford Hills eventually give way to the main commercial nerve-centre, where executives brag about how many child workers they employ and skyscrapers hide grand collusion in the great race for notoriety. In the shadows of said buildings, poverty has ravaged areas such as Davis and Strawberry, with housing projects and gang violence the only way of life. If you venture even further south, prostitutes lurk near the rail tracks at dusk, expansive industrial plants and docklands sprawl obnoxiously, and a sense of indignation towards the big city is palpable. It’s just fascinating; this living, breathing model of culture. The sharp juxtapositions of Los Santos are so informative and entertaining that addiction to the game has a certain inevitability. I believe this can be a positive thing.
You see, GTA V is the greatest social satire our generation has ever known, and it’s instilling in young people a healthy inquisition. Whether eavesdropping on a corrupt FIB official or admiring the spray-painted iconography of Grove Street, this new breed of intelligent gamers is able to detect the stunning satire of Los Santos with thrilling ease. It’s clearer than ever that this fictional metropolis is a parody bearing important messages. The writers of this game subliminally ridicule a Western world obsessed with brute capitalism, with the decoding of these intricate motifs a humorous and educational undertone to an absorbing game.
When snaking through the evocative Sandy Shores desert, a commercial on one of Los Santos’ inimitable talk radio stations may refer to the on-going gubernatorial race between Sue Murry and Jock Cranley, a bloated caricature of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The commercial informs that Cranley “hates immigrants, the crippled, unions, cops, and old ladies,” but offers the caveat that “you at least know he’s a dick.” If this resonates or sounds at all familiar, then you’re beginning to see the appeal of GTA. When disenfranchised by the brazen dishonesty of real-life government, youths turn to Los Santos, where they can be part of the joke and laugh at the morons in charge. The classic GTA hyperbole allows an over-sized view of what is really transpiring in our world, and unveils the hypocrisy of political correctness. Who is Jock Cranley if not the archetypal Conservative? By arguing vociferously that he is not, that he is just an inaccurate and spiteful caricature, critics defeat their own argument and validating that of thirty million people; GTA will have got them thinking, questioning, debating the realities of life. In a world of political disinterest, this can be a powerful weapon.
The gangs of South LS take this political disinterest and raise it to an art form, with graffiti-covered streets bearing numerous anti-establishment slogans. A prime example is an imitation of the Vote for Nobody street art infamously scrawled on a wall in Ontario, Canada. In GTA V, this slogan urges denizens to avoid voting because “nobody really cares about Los Santos!” It’s intriguing to appreciate the intricate back-story of LS, and strategically-placed slogans such as this provide ample food for thought. We see the disenfranchised core of LS through such public displays and, in keeping with the reflective potential of GTA, are forced to comprehend the increasing irrelevance of real-world government. It’s a striking message, broadcast in an innovative manner.
The writers of GTA V even include a story-line reflecting upon British monarchism, engaging gamers and making them grapple with personal emotions about the subject. Princess Georgina, a “snooty English royal,” is hounded by paparazzi whilst concluding a drugs deal in the backstreets of LS. The dialogue of this character is highly-evocative, shedding light on an issue which is often overlooked. “In England,” the stereotyped Princess begins, “my helper would like totally do this for me. The UK taxpayer gives them money to protect me and be my servants, so they should just do what I say, even if it’s like ‘lick my shoe’ or ‘perform a sex act on my dog,’ you know. The tax payer should like totally get their money’s worth.” It’s one of the most enlightening storylines in the entire game; particularly to a British audience keen for an outside, even if somewhat radical, view of its own culture. Again, it’s important to note that Rockstar Games doesn’t have a raging anti-monarchist agenda, as some will try to argue. Rather, they have included this issue to raise healthy suspicion amongst gamers towards an important issue within our society. In some cases, those playing the game may agree with this portrayal of British Royalty and decide to act for change. On the other hand, many will see it as wildly inaccurate and seek to re-affirm the advantages of monarchism. Again, we see the power of modern games to stimulate debate. It’s also highly entertaining.
Even Facebook is mimicked in this satirical, thought-provoking style. The populace of Los Santos is fixated with LifeInvader, a social network unmistakable in it’s similarity to Marc Zuckerburg’s brainchild. The very name, LifeInvader, is itself a damning indictment, speaking to a human race overloaded in every way by technological consumption. The company slogan: LifeInvader, the reason the world never gets anything done any more. It’s impossible not to chuckle at such quips. Here, we see the greatest irony of this formidable debate: GTA, the focus of political ire, draws attention to the self same issues as the politicians! Drug abuse, poverty, the encroaching of technology into our everyday lives; all are illuminated by this epochal game just like they’re brought to attention in Westminster and Washington. The politicians are too blinded by elitism to see it.
GTA V is a metaphor for life. It’s ultra-cynical exaggeration is required to make players sit up and take note. It uses hyperbole to draw attention to the nuanced deceptions which have become accepted parts of modern life. A favourite radio commercial sees Police asking “citizens to be on alert and mistrustful of anyone who doesn’t look like them.” A further advert calls on all Americans to “join the rest of the world..and embrace the global passion of soccer,” which allows “sophisticated Europeans” to “let off flares, riot and commit race crimes.” If cynics cannot see these clever, tongue-in-cheek barbs, then it’s likely they have no sense of humour. If detractors can’t step back from a self-important outlook and appreciate this, then that’s their problem. In actuality, it is hilarious. I’m laughing hysterically even as I type. I laugh even harder when experts lampoon GTA for it’s perceived spreading of intolerance; GTA provides more of an insight into global attitude differences and cultural perception than most sources. You just have to understand it.
Ultimately, I feel that everybody with a keen interest in politics and society should play GTA V. After spending a day in the fascinating world of Los Santos, I challenge anybody not to be taken aback by it’s startling comedic depth. GTA V provokes thought, opens up important perspectives for a new breed of academic gamers, and provides hours of ruthless entertainment. It’s more than just a game; it’s a triumph of modern day satire.