This is part two of Will Newman’s examination of morality and feeling okay about playing Grand Theft Auto V. To read part one, click here.
GTA V’s constituent fictional society almost begs your heart to bleed with a little perspective; all of these people are shitbags because look at how much of a shitbag society is! It’s like you, and all the shitbag characters you meet in the game, have adopted some type of varied performances of shitbag as a survival strategy in a world that demands shitbagness from its inhabitants. In the GTA world, being a criminal isn’t immoral if government agencies conduct themselves with reckless abandon, with no regard for human life, in an effort to beat one another out for more power in a society that seems to be drowning in its own power-seeking behavior. With this in mind, it seems that the protagonists and supporting cast of characters have filled stereotypes out of necessity, almost; the women are over-sexualized because—in GTA’s “backwards” society that has unfortunate and very real roots in reality—it’s an available avenue towards success; the black and hispanic characters you encounter fit the criminal stereotypes because they exist in a society that’s perfected the New Jim Crow’s machinations.
An interesting example too: the most prevalent (only?) intersectional feminist character in the game is Denise Clinton, Franklin’s Aunt, who is hyperbolically “militant” in a borderline nonsensical way that makes her feminism seem silly. If you read GTA at face value, this representation denounces feminism. But, if you approach it within a different context, this representation can be read as a lampoon of what certain people, namely those whose culture is the culture of commercially popular video games, think of feminism. When Denise power-walks down the street with her friends chanting, “We are women and we are free, we’re bringing an end to the patriarchy!” is it because this is the game’s “honest” representation of feminism or is it because the only feminism allowed in a culture according to video games is this kind of hyperbolically “militant” feminism? Because such a feminism is the definition that individuals who reproduce video game culture’s misogynist and white-bred status quo maintain for “feminism”?
Once characters within the semantic field of GTA start tracing the smoke from their own smoldering oppression, how could they be anything but hyperbolically militant?
In that sense, Trevor Phillips—who is, for all intents and purposes a drug-addicted, cannibalistic sociopath, albeit a sometimes reluctant sociopath—is closer to a revolutionary; in a society that is itself sociopathic and cannibalistic, the behavior of sociopaths renders them closer to luminaries doesn’t it? If the people who are supposed to be heroes—the famous people and government celebrities with whom the protagonists interact in the game, the ones that are such tremendously power-conserving shitbags—doesn’t the hero then have to be an anti-hero in order to overthrow the hegemonic relations of power?
Within the narrative frames provided by the game’s necessary missions, it’s difficult to be that good of a person by our standards though. Sometimes there are a lot of more-or-less innocent people you need to kill in order to get through a mission. But, as the game progresses, you begin to get the sense that your involvement with the government’s seedy and manipulatively dark and violent practices rewire the characters’ approaches to the world around them. Franklin (a good example because he’s the youngest and has the most to learn out of the three character) had “clean” and white-washed ambitions at the game’s onset, but then he undergoes a type of education that allows him to see the GTA world for what it truly is: monstrously unequal and oppressive. By involving himself with Michael and Trevor as they, under duress, help the government do their dirty work, he becomes privy to the otherwise hidden reasons behind why it’s so hard for the people he grew up with to “reform,” because the society is designed to militantly maintain the power imbalances that construct profound lacks of privilege, vis a vis literal military intervention; one of the entangled plot lines is the government’s increasing involvement with Merryweather Security Consulting who are, according to Trevor:
…the private army of the New World Order…the folks waging outsourced shadow wars in twenty countries around the globe, and recently cleared to operate on US soil…They’d be on trial for human rights offenses if the US government didn’t protect all its contractors from any kind of suit—military or civilian. They’re immune from prosecution, and they behave like they are. Murdering, stealing, high on power, guns, and anabolic steroids. Lucky bastards. [They’re] employed by the richest, greediest scum on the planet to shit on the poorest and the neediest. So we’re going to enjoy shitting on them.
The self-aware GTA really starts to emerge through the ways in which this mounting, violently exciting rebellion—the knowledge of the government’s wrongdoings increasing with the crew’s preparation to rob the union depository—is juxtaposed against the mundane. In some levels, you have to fight off hordes of Merryweather soldiers and persist through amounts of noncompliant bodies that, irl, would be impossible to overcome. Meanwhile, at other times, Michael has to do yoga with his wife and spend time with his son. These otherwise “mundane” activities, when placed against a backdrop of the constant threat of violence and oppression, are energized by the same rebellion as the game’s other, more conventionally video gamey, events. In these moments, the world emerges as its ridiculously satirical self, as Michael’s son drugs him during their outing and Michael’s wife ends up running off with the overly-sexual French yogi in the middle of the session. They are attempts at little, tiny acts of humanity that access a heightened, mundane profundity wholly unexpected in the context of video games and, thus, they meet resistance, just as all other acts in the game do—because it’s a video game and there must be conflict at every level or else the game isn’t a game at all; without the expectation of conflict there is no “playing,” just “being.”
But what am I doing here really? Am I truly seeing an alternative reading of Grand Theft Auto V that all its naysayers missed? Or, did I just have fun playing the game and, as someone who likes to think of himself as a conscientious individual, am I just trying to rationalize why I enjoyed the game in ways that go beyond enjoying it for the purposes of irony? Did I have so much fun that, in order to reconcile my participation in the oppressive representations that the game puts forth, I have to level something like a post-ironic explanation for the enjoyment I found in the game? I’m acting like: “Yeah, oh I mean the game represents women and people of color in some pretty horrible ways, but it’s just a satire of the culture of video games. I’ve been brought up in my white and privileged class position so it’s me that has the ‘level head’ and can recognize that all you race-baiters and man-haters and queer-folk need to chill out because the game is on your side and you just don’t know it!”
No! That’s not what I’m trying to say or mean or do or associate with! Fuck that!
That’s why this game is so wriggly; even when I notice how wriggly it is and try and rescue it from the representational problems that are constantly being noticed in the game, the argument comes back to bite me in the ass, because now I’m operating on the top end of the power relation hierarchy, trying to define a speculative reality for a fictional representation that, at the end of the day, is played by more people who take the game at face-value than people who are trying to exorcise the game’s demons. Manymanymany people probably enjoyed playing the level where Trevor has to torture a (probably falsely) suspected terrorist even though that part of the game made me so physically uncomfortable that I was like beyond overjoyed when, instead of killing the “terrorist” like he’s asked, Trevor takes him to the airport. I read that level as a critique of one-sided video game culture that obfuscates what it means to actually be at war, the actual lived brutality of things like torture. But many people probably enjoyed that level way too much for anyone’s good! And the added problem—characteristic of the complications involved in trying to place a reconciliatory reading that elides representational problems that are so clearly there—is that when Trevor takes the non-terrorist to the airport, it isn’t even the “right” thing to do, because the guy’s family is all in the US and he explicitly says that he really doesn’t want to go to the airport.
Basically, it’s super difficult to have a moral code in this game and that’s what makes it so wriggly, the ways in which at one point it can seem like a satire and at another point it forces you to think about how other people who think differently—dangerously per the whims of male, heteronormative, white privilege—think and feel when they play the game. The game becomes interesting as it oscillates between the alternative reading and the conventional reading because there’s something to make everyone feel at some times uncomfortable and at other times like they’re having a really great time; like any challenging and textual piece of popular culture, the game shows you things about yourself and your world and about itself and its world that you didn’t expect to see and, in that two-way current, flourishes.
So how do you, the gamer, flourish in Grand Theft Auto V?
You learn a lot you didn’t think you’d learn, but there’s no right or moral or conscientious way to emerge from the game after having played it because it really is so wriggly, like a flame that attracts moths so as to teach them about their own precarious processes of phototaxis or something.
What I do know: I’m going to try and finish this up here and I’m going to play the game some more and I’m going to continue to do gymnastic critical rationalizations to allow myself to feel OK playing the game and I’m definitely never ever going to feel completely OK playing the game.
Another thing I know: by simply writing this essay there’s a clear absence being indicated, an absence of games whose violence and modes of representational oppression are easier to write off for their capacity to produce conscientization, because the representation is actually put forth for this purpose. These games are being produced by indie developers but, by the very nature of their purpose, to highlight oppression and adversity, the games aren’t all that fun. They’re not supposed to be fun. Overcoming oppression and adversity isn’t fun. It’s toil, it’s everyday and mundane and repetitive, seemingly hopeless, hard work. Though driving a truck isn’t necessary socially adverse or oppression, it is hard work, and Penn & Teller’s Desert Bus video game is an example of the type of brutal realism characteristic of the video games that I’m talking about. They’re meant to elicit the same feelings of discomfort from gamers as those involved in the irl situations; in Desert Bus, gamers have to make the real-time 8 hour drive from Tuscon to Las Vegas in a truck that tops out at 45 MPH.
This War of Mine is another interesting example of a game that has, apparently, (I haven’t played myself) found a happy medium. I don’t want to speak too much about things I don’t necessarily know (and I’m afraid I’ve already done that by writing about videogames in the first place), but the game is supposed to be a truer depiction of war, as an alternative to games like Call of Duty that valorize individual achievement through the violent heroism of the gamer’s available character(s). Instead of the conventional first-person shooter format, This War of Mine is a strategy game that focuses on the non-combatants who must survive in a homeland thrashed by the machine of war. Apparently, in addition to representing war more accurately, it’s also manages to be pretty fun, albeit stressful fun, I imagine.
This happy medium however, is difficult to locate; commercial viability and the responsible, conscientious handling of socio-historicity have never been easy things to balance, especially in a chauvinistic video game culture that’s relatively intolerant of rightful challenges to a wrongful norm.
Video games are bigger business than all other forms of entertainment we have in our society. It sometimes surprises many people when they learn that way more money gets put into making our country’s favorite video games than our country’s favorite movies. For this reason, among many reasons, it’ll probably be a long time before socially conscious games go mainstream, because those in power are trying to conserve the methods they’ve used to attain and maintain power and they probably see no reason to sacrifice their power for the betterment of society (or whatever).
In the meanwhile though…
I still don’t really know where I fall with Grand Theft Auto. I still don’t know what to think about what I think I thought about GTA, which means I don’t know how to end this essay.
Just, consume compassionately and consciously, I guess…keep thinking, &c…be wary and understandings of contexts, &c…
Mind the &c.
will newman is a writer & editor & likes words but deeply mistrusts them, especially on twitter (he's (t)here: @wmnewmanjr)