“He’s a good kid? Why? Does he help the fuckin’ poor? No! He sits on his ass all day smokin’ dope and jerkin’ off while he plays that fuckin’ game! If that’s our standard for goodness, no wonder our country’s screwed!”
– Michael Townley, Grand Theft Auto V
Moral panic is built into the Grand Theft Auto franchise’s marketing strategy at this point.
On the one hand, there are parents who believe that their young and impressionable children will be stripped of their socializing if they play the game too much. They’ll go out and actually beat up an old lady! Then steal her car! Then accidentally drive it into a shop window because *ow* hand cramp! But little-to-no consequences ha-ha!
And then, on the other hand, there are people worried about representational problems. This is a founded worry. Harmful stereotypes are abound in Grand Theft Auto, especially for those characters that fit within some of society’s most marginalized categories. Grand Theft Auto V, the franchise’s latest installment, doesn’t do so good on the Big Three. Black and latino characters are stereotyped; women are stereotyped and overly sexualized and LGBTQ characters are mostly just the butt of jokes, I think (the game is so large that, even though I completed the entire main storyline, I’m less than 60% through the game as a whole and haven’t seen the trans characters that the author in that link discusses); moreover, characters of all races and genders are stereotyped for how these characteristics intersect with their class.
(Not that I’m telling any tales out of school, here:) This problem isn’t just endemic to Grand Theft Auto’s playable semantic field. This is a problem with, like, almost all video games. And then also the video game world. And then also like movies and TV shows and some books and stuff too, and then naturally the social world in which these cultural objects operate too…
But the problem thrives uniquely in the video game world, where women are often just hegemonically sexualized love interests and people of color are voiceless unless you’re playing a sports video game, in which case they’re still pretty voiceless.
Grand Theft Auto V is a little more wriggly than its earlier counterparts and Video Games In General though, particularly because it maintains all of the harmful stereotypes to such a high degree.
This is the story’s basic spine. You start the game as this guy, Michael Townley a bank robber from a rural part of the country, who retires by becoming an informant and entering witness protection. He looks a lot like Ray Liotta circa Goodfellas and lives in the wealthy part of Los Santos, a major city in the state of San Andreas that’s like a fictionalized version of Los Angeles, with less sprawl and none of the traffic issues, but a host of other problems.
First, you complete the conventional learn-as-you-go prologue level, where you rob a bank in snowy “North Yankton” as Michael Townley before finishing the level as Trevor Phillips. Trevor, who comes back into the story later, escapes after Michael is shot by police and urges Trevor to go on without him. The opening cutscene after the prologue has Trevor at the funeral, feeling guilty that he had to leave his friend and partner behind, while Michael, still alive, watches his own burial from a safe distance, dragging on a cigarette for dramatic effect (even though he doesn’t really smoke throughout the rest of the game).
Fast forward several years as the opening credits start to roll: Michael is talking to a psychiatrist with an office by the beach about his entitled kid (go back and read the epigraph now please!) and you start to think: how aware of itself is this game?
Michael leaves the office after his psychiatrist tells him that “an overriding sense of futility is a vital part of the [psychiatric] process” and sits feeling purposeless on a bench outside of the psychiatrist’s luxe building. The credits roll more, there are fly-by shots of the beachside Los Santos area, and then we’re introduced to Franklin Clinton.
Franklin Clinton is A Black Man. Since he’s a A Black Man, he’s the [most relevant least relevant / least relevant most relevant] character in the game. Franklin lives in South-Central Los Santos, across from a liquor store whose shopfront is constantly populated by other black people. He also says the n-word a lot and all his friends are “criminals,” to varied degrees.
But Franklin is different, as the story goes! He has non-criminal ambitions, like all of the people from “the hood” on whom cameras tend to focus! And this is clear from the intro scene in which he and his friend walk by Michael sitting on the bench, looking longingly out into the ocean (Franklin chides his friend Lamar for thinking that repo work is that much different from criminally boosting cars, for thinking that there’d be “401ks and shit,” &c).
You learn the game a bit more as Franklin, who is an unseasoned criminal compared to Michael and Trevor, before the plot really starts to unravel. Eventually, Franklin is roped into becoming Michael’s protege after he tries to repo Michael’s shitbag’s son’s car, excited to learn new ways to commit crimes that are, though not white-collar, more professional (read: “white”) than what he did before (N.B. those easy class-coded-as-race signifiers, e.g. Michael and his crew wear suits to their heists, hire contracted professionals, and have lots of lucrative options available to clean and invest their money).
Things really start to get going when Michael, wading through mid-life malaise, catches his wife in bed with her tennis coach. As Michael, you chase the coach to a house and destroy the house because MASCULINITY before you’re violently confronted with the reality that the house belonged to a very powerful and MAYBE MORE MASCULINE drug lord.
To pay off the drug lord, Michael raises money the only way he knows how: GoFundMe.
JK, he robs a jewelry store with his new buddy Franklin and a crew of hired guns. This robbery causes more problems than it solves, to the benefit of the story. For one, Michael’s contact at the “Federal Investigation Bureau” or the “FIB” finds out, therein coercing Michael into doing dirty work for the bureau in exchange for keeping his reappearance in the crime scene a secret; this mutates into one of the two major developments that drive the plot. Also, Michael’s former partner, the predictably unpredictable Trevor Phillips, enters the picture and is subsequently also coerced into doing the government’s clandestine dirty work.
We first play as Trevor upon finding him mid-to-nearly-post coitus with a woman from his trailer-park, whose male counterpart “Johnny” Trevor then kills because MASCULINITY. And because, while leaning over the woman’s back side, he “saw a ghost” that got him all riled up, i.e. he was looking at the television screen when an eyewitness from the jewelry heist repeated one of Michael’s catch-phrases to the TV anchor. After stomping Johnny’s last breath from his face, Trevor then proceeds to drive to the guy’s biker-gang meth-tweaker refuge and kill all of the guy’s friends because METHAMPHETAMINE-LACED MASCULINITY.
When you start out with Trevor, he does stuff like this, operating mostly in the rural deserts surrounding Los Santos, because apparently the suburban middle class has totally disappeared and you have to live in either Los Santos proper, the wilderness, the junkie-laden weirdly rural desert, or a crime-ridden woodsy industrial town on the Northwest of the map. The early tasks you complete with Trevor involve things like “negotiating” some methamphetamine production operations and running arms to and from the Mexican border, ya know, typical rural white working-class survival strategies.
After you let Trevor be Trevor for a bit, he eventually learns where Michael lives, tracks him down, and they begin to work together again, slowly resolving some of their differences along the way. The first thing they do is save Michael’s daughter (Tracy) from competing in Fame or Shame, a televised talent show run by a horny celebrity host who would’ve, you assume, taken advantage of Tracy’s vulnerable and willing situation if Michael and Trevor didn’t step in, because she’s a young woman living in the world of Grand Theft Auto and this is, you get the sense, a risk characteristic of the game’s horribly unequal social landscape.
These are your three protagonists and the worlds in which they exist.
In our world, they all play to various archetypes. Take the music in their cars: by default, Franklin’s radio is set to a hip-hop station, Trevor’s radio is set to an anarchist talk radio/punk station, and Michael’s is set to a Bob Seger loving classic rock station. But in Grand Theft Auto, this is the world. Though Grand Theft Auto V’s semantic field is incredibly rich and the map overwhelmingly vast for a video game, there are pretty much only stereotypes; there are only so many radio stations.
The two main plot lines in the game include (1) the crew’s involvement in the FIB’s ongoing struggles with other government agencies, namely the “Central Agency of Intelligence” (or the “CAI”) and (2) the crew’s mounting preparation for the ultimate heist: robbing the union depository, a huge bank in the middle of San Andreas that’s something like the federal reserve. These plots reinforce one another; as the gamer learns just how fucked up the world of Grand Theft Auto is, s/he is motivated to complete the ultimate heist even more by observing first-handedly the characteristics of society’s fucked-upedness.
Now I need to file a disclaimer: I don’t really play video games that frequently and, out of all the GTAs, I’ve only played the fifth. I’m 23 years old and for the last decade plus, I’ve probably only involved myself with a handful of games, including the occasional week-long Pokémon revisitation, the original Sim City, and bouts with the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic I & II (loved the first game and I played the second game, which—looking back—probably wasn’t that great but I was still so high off that first game that it didn’t matter).
Choice is a thing that draws me to games, I think. I get the most involved—the game “gets me,” draws me along towards the end of the game—when I have some agency over the way the narrative unfurls, when one way to do a thing has different consequences than a different way to do a thing. In both KOTOR and GTA, there’s a skeleton of a story but different behavioral pathways to get to an end result and the stories are engaging enough for me to want to get to the end result; I finish the game because it’s fun, because I want to get to the end of the story, and because I want to get to the end in a specific way.
When I play GTA, I don’t like wasting time on the parts of the game that are frivolous within the context of the main narrative. I don’t really run over random pedestrians if I can help it and I don’t kill people unless it’s more-or-less necessary for the mission. Start doubting, sure; I’m not judging people who do these things in GTA, but I don’t blame you for sensing judgement in my tone because it’s natural to assume such a thing is there with these kinds of statements. It’s not that I’m specifically trying to be a good person though, I swear.
It’s just that, the random violence that players can enact when they’re bored in GTA aren’t really incentivized. The story is better without these directionless detours because they take time away from pursuing the missions you need to play to “beat” the game. Also, random acts of violence frequently attract police resistance in the game. If the police successfully bring you down, you can either lose your accumulated weapons in jail or you end up in the hospital and lose money towards the hospital bill. Still, for some people, the aimless whims you can pursue in GTA are attractive and it’s part of what makes the game so robust. For example, in a very funny clip that gives you a sense of how the game plays, late-night comedian Conan O’Brien has Michael go to one of the game’s strip clubs, but he gets too handsy with a stripper and is kicked out. When he comes back with a military-grade helicopter to enact revenge on the bouncers for asserting their violent patriarchy on top of his violent patriarchy, he bursts out laughing because his helicopter gets blown to bits by the bouncer and he excitedly yells: “WHAT BOUNCER HAS A GRENADE?!?!”
I mean, what bouncer in Los Santos wouldn’t have a grenade if people they apprehend are always coming back with military-grade weaponry?
When you avoid these random outbursts, when you stick to Grand Theft Auto V’s script and proceed mission to mission without causing that much additional, unnecessary damage—i.e. when you play the game like a relatively OK human being by our standards in our world—a different GTA emerges. Rather than a demon game that can’t help how fun it is because “we’re humans and humans need an outlet to let loose blah blah blah,” GTA V can read almost like a satire of this world according to video games, instead of just a wholesale reproduction of the world according to video games.
And such is especially true when you approach the game—and its own set of unique and socially precedented morals—with our contemporary context’s moral outlook.
will newman is a writer & editor & likes words but deeply mistrusts them, especially on twitter (he's (t)here: @wmnewmanjr)