Grand Theft Auto V contains a free and open world, where you can behave properly if you like and just enjoy driving through a beautifully rendered city called Los Santos, a version of modern Los Angeles. The cliffs of Santa Monica and its boardwalk are rendered with incredible realism. You can visit Muscle Beach or the beachfront in Venice.
But you do not have the freedom to play a female character. You have no choice but to torture a man in order to complete a mission. Your choice is to break his kneecap with a wrench, pull out his tooth with pliers, or electro-shock his breasts. If there is an ethical line to cross in the design of a video game, then Grand Theft Auto V creator Rockstar Games has defiantly taken a giant leap over that line. The game has the illusion of choice.
In my play sessions, I happily crossed the ethical lines, partly out of curiosity about the boundaries. The least of my crimes? I rarely stopped at red lights. In fact, I got so used to speeding in between cars waiting for red lights that I was tempted to do that in real life. I felt that I could do that because there were no consequences. I could run red lights, and the cops wouldn’t care. I could run into other cars and even run over pedestrians, but the cops wouldn’t be fast enough to catch me. Only when I took out my guns and began shooting strangers on the street did the police close in. I sometimes did this just to see whether I could survive the police onslaught. And sometimes I did.
The opponents of video games will take that all of this to mean that Grand Theft Auto V encourages criminal behavior. The gun violence in this game is as extreme as it gets. I’m a peace-loving person in the real world, but I slid into an ethical morass as I retaliated against thugs who tried to hurt my family and steal my stolen stuff. The game gave me the opportunity to express my inner badness. Even the sex scenes that were once taboo — if you recall the controversy around the censored “hot coffee” scene in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas — have now been included in the game. But the proponents of gaming can just as easily argue that Grand Theft Auto V is a giant release valve, enabling the public to let off the steam from their daily lives.
Often, parents will let their kids play Grand Theft Auto and other mature-rated games because they’re so popular. But they don’t realize that the game deliberately pushes the limits to show the underside of society. Some keen observers have noticed that Trevor, one of the three main characters who is a psychotic murderer, allows the player to explore the dark side of an open world much more than the other characters do. When we first meet him, he humps the meth addict and then murders her angry boyfriend by stomping his face into a bloody pulp. So when we play Trevor, we actually have the freedom to engage in acts that Trevor, being the psycho that he is, would do. We make choices that are akin to the choices that Trevor would make, and that gives us more freedom to be bad.
Is killing fun?
So why is this game so popular? The story about the friendship of Michael, Trevor, and Franklin is pretty compelling. I kept playing because I wanted to find out what happened between them.
Some of the redeeming qualities are the game’s humor and satire. The police are there to spy on you. The federal agents are from the Federal Investigation Bureau, or FIB. Michael’s son, Jimmy, plays a horrifically violent Call of Duty-like game where he gets points for turning other players into blood splotches and curses at them nonstop through his console headset. I laughed out loud when I was trying to burn a getaway van in the wilderness and mountain lion killed me.
You can log on to the Internet inside the game and join “Life Invader,” a parody of Facebook. On one of the early missions, your job is to infiltrate Life Invader’s headquarters and booby trap a prototype of the brand new “Life Invader phone.” That’s clearly a reference to the rumored Facebook phone. A character modeled after Mark Zuckerberg is giving a keynote speech to introduce the phone. When he gets up on stage and you trigger the phone to blow up in his ear. It’s a funny moment, but then it makes you feel pretty creepy. Is that what Rockstar’s game designers really want you to do to Mark Zuckerberg?
When you get in your car, you can listen to faux talk radio. I turned on the radio once and heard a commercial advertising a game called DigiFarm. It advertised a “revolution in social” the same way that Zynga did with its FarmVille title, and it closes with a joke that it has no game play and is “truly worth 99 cents” on the iPhone. Franklin wins “employee of the month” because he does so a great job repossessing cars as part of a loan fraud scam, and his buddy Lamar is jealous. In this world, yoga teachers are lecherous. Smoking weed makes you see aliens or clowns that you have to shoot.
That retrograde satire never really ends. You never really hit the “event horizon” of this game. And that makes Grand Theft Auto V seem like a smarter and more creative game than you would expect. Trevor is a psycho, but he’s almost a loveable psycho, with a funny “cut here” tattoo that is a dotted line across his neck. When you switch to Trevor, you never know where he will be in the world. He wakes up next to a fat woman on the beach, or you switch to him as he is fleeing two cop cars in a chase.
You can steal a James Bond spy car from a movie set. And it’s funny when you press a button and you jettison the annoying actress in the passenger seat. You can also survive a long chase scene and see a villainous corporate woman get shredded into a bloody pulp as she is sucked into the turbines of a jet engine. But, once again, these scenes say a lot about the game’s attitude toward women.