by Haseeb Azad
When Dan Houser, head writer of the GTA series, commented on the prospect of a future 3D London-based GTA game he remarked ‘GTA is America’1.
Grand Theft Auto has been around for over two decades and since its inception, it has put the player in the driving seat of an anti-hero character. Though at times the protagonist can be sympathised with the game has always encouraged the player to have an appetite for destruction. But whilst others games are certainly violent and even gory, most of them shy away from the real, in favour of the fantastical. It is GTA that has not shied away from societal hot-buttons such as sex, racism and now more explicitly than ever; torture.
The title ‘Grand Theft Auto’ refers to the theft of automobiles or vehicles, perhaps because the most common crime players will commit in GTA, apart from killing and suicide attempts, is the theft of vehicles to get around and about the in-game environment or map. The game series launched in 1997 on the original Playstation, PC and later on the Game Boy Colour with Grand Theft Auto. I remember playing GTA first on the PC where I used to type in cheat codes at the title screen to have all the weapons so that I could cause as much mass-havoc as possible. It didn’t occur to my underage-self at the time how deep a parody, spoof and reflection GTA was of the USA.
The series would go on to become one of the most successful game franchises of all time with the recent GTA V beating launch sales records previously held by the behemoth Call of Duty series The game itself is set in fictional cities based on real ones with Liberty City (New York City), Vice City (Miami) and most recently but not for the first time, San Andreas (California and Nevada).
I will be referring to GTA V mostly as it is the most recent game and the freshest in my mind, and will reference previous games.
So what evidence do we have that GTA is simultaneously an ugly and funny echo plus comical refraction of realities based in America? Well firstly Rockstar Games (Publisher and developer of the GTA series) is no stranger to controversy, and has had its arms up over accusations of inspiring murders in the past. American TV-host Glenn Beck branded the game a ‘cop killing simulator’, blaming the game for Devin Moore’s 2003 shooting of two police officers. Former lawyer Jack Thompson also demanded that compensation be given to families of murder victims.
The series has had many parodies of American pop and sub-culture, such as CEO Jay Norris of LifeInvader in GTA V being parodies of Mark Zuckerburg and Facebook claiming in-game “We have put a billion peoples’ private data in the public domain and we have milked every penny we could in the process.”, the player gets to blow off his head with a miniature cell phone bomb. Also less-overt cameos of celebrities similar in likeness to Kanye West have also been spotted.
The series has poked fun at conspiracy theorists with there being mentions of secret societies, lizard people, the illuminati and even appearances of UFOs and aliens.
But perhaps my favourite is the GTA radio stations. The series has many staples that have run throughout the course of the series. One of these is the inclusion of radio that you can listen to whilst driving in a vehicle which is a large part of the game. The dialogue, if you’re listening, in all of the GTA games is very explicit and none of the political themes or messages are vague. The game is designed to poke fun of reality and it makes it known to the player very clearly through the fantastic voice acting in the game.
Nothing is more indicative of this than in the radio, which is mostly a spoof of American corrupt conservative attitudes, as well as consumerist lifestyles, gang culture, and others. Some of my favourite dialogues include in GTA IV the threat of ‘socialism’ in America, as well as redneck misogyny and domestic violence portrayed in a stereotypical and comical way in previous iterations of GTA. Dialogue in cut scenes is just as thoughtful, such as when Franklin (supporting black protagonist) goes on a mission and his friend Lamar comments on ‘gang-banging’ and calls it ‘our culture’.
What caught my attention most in the new game is one particular mission in which you play as two of the game’s protagonists in tandem. Michael (lead) is working with the FIB (Federal Investigative Bureau, spoof of you-know-what) to locate an Azerbaijani terrorist whilst Trevor (supporting and most unlikeable character) is torturing another brown-skinned male (perhaps he was Mexican, can’t really tell all these terrorists look the same) for the location and physical description of the target. The torture victim insists on his innocence as his line of work is in the home entertainment business in which he claims his acquaintance was only due to setting up the targets home-theatre system. Nonetheless you have no choice in the matter as you must torture to advance the plot. Whilst torturing you have numerous methods such as electrocution and water boarding at your disposal.
I did not know at the time what was in the jerry can and thought it was gasoline that you would smear over the target as a threat and nothing more. However this is GTA; and no one gets off that lightly in San Andreas. The victim is thrown to the ground whilst tied in his chair and asphyxiated with the efforts of the in-game gravity physics and the flick of an analog stick. You get to check the victim’s heart rate whilst doing this. You do this more than once unfortunately and whilst searching for the target through the scope of Michael’s sniper rifle sneer remarks are made about the possible description such as by the leading officer overseeing the torture saying…
he’s dark okay? he’s Azerbaijani for God’s sake, look around that enough for ya?”.
There are more examples of this but ultimately it’s down to the player and what they see in the game. Everyone’s interpretation is going to be different, some think this is simply a game to do things you couldn’t in real life whilst others may believe Franklin gets police attention in-game much more than the other white protagonists.
The cleverness and wackiness of GTA has always made me think about society today in general and not just in America. But I think I’ll end it with what an American journalist had to say in regards to the game;
The game’s critique of our consumerist, politically corrupt society is actually important — if anyone’s listening.
Haseeb Azad is a 22-year old writer of South-Asian descent based in London. As both a Person of Colour and Muslim; he aims to tackle problems facing both communities. Mainly writing and campaigning around issues pertaining to racism and bigotry be it street-level and/or institutional. Twitter: @HSnake1
- The Dark Hero – Gaming and the blackface (mediadiversityuk.com)
- Fully Human – What the gaming community can do to reduce bigotry against LGBT gamers (mediadiversityuk.com)
- GTA Online Players To Receive $500k GTA$ To Make Up For Its Troubled Launch (ubergizmo.com)
- GTA Online ‘Stimulus Package’ gives free money to early adopters (metro.co.uk)