Grand Theft Capitalism – Class war in the city of pixels

Grand Theft Auto V is the latest edition of the Grand Theft Auto or GTA series of video games in which players run around large-scale simulations of famous American cities completing various missions to take their character from rags to riches. GTA, developed by Rockstar is one of the most influential video game series ever with the ten games selling over 135 million units, topping Guinness World Records for sales and impact and being amongst the most popular Playstation games. Throughout all the games are three key constants; the need to steal cars (and buses, trucks, helicopters etc) and drive them quickly, the need to kill people using a variety of weapons, and the need to accumulate money.

For a consumer capitalist market obsessed with commodities like new cars, addicted to gratuitous violence on TV and enthralled by stories about poor people finding freedom, opportunity and wealth in America the GTA series is the crack-pipe of cultural products. Since its mid-September release GTA V has already become the fastest selling entertainment product with over 10 million units sold as of 3 October 2013. It has been met with rave reviews by gamers impressed with its massive open world gamescape, stunning graphics depicting neighbourhood diversity of architecture and social character, and the sheer breadth of game activities available from mountain biking and skydiving to golf and yoga. It has also been subjected to sharp criticism from pundits and politicians for its violence, misogyny and graphic depiction of US government approved torture including water boarding, tooth pulling and electrocution. Perhaps the most stunning impact GTA V has had was for Zachary Burgess a 20 year old American college student in Louisiana who in late September 2013 was arrested for stealing a truck, kidnapping a woman and crashing into nine cars. Burgess told a police officer, he 'wanted to see what it was really like to play the video game Grand Theft Auto' . At least for these reasons GTA V is worthy of the critical attention of Marxists.

GTA V is set in Los Santos, a virtual simulation of present day Los Angeles and its surrounding counties where the three main characters reside; a middle aged and now retired bank robber living it up in luxury with his family, a tweaking meth dealer living in a trailer park in the desert, and a young Black man working repo for a credit defrauding car dealer. In terms of overall plot GTA V draws heavily on the 1995 Al Pacino heist film Heat, and the characters, missions and dialogue show the strong influences of TV series The Wire, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and films like Ocean’s Eleven and Zero Dark Thirty. The missions and plot revolve around three central themes. Firstly, the need to accrue money through various robberies (a device driven by producers to give the game an authentic austerity feel); secondly, being caught up between the Feds and the Agency in an inter-department war, and a string of socially conscious missions that see you assassinate the Mark Zuckerberg-sketch CEO of Lifeinvader with a smartphone bomb, blaze a pharmaceutical industry executive peddling heart attack linked Viagra, snipe the bribed jurors on a big tobacco class action, merc a corrupt construction boss and humiliate the presenter of an exploitative reality TV show called Fame or Shame.

Imbued within the game’s mirror image of America is a comedic cynicism about the world. For example in GTA V Facebook is Lifeinvader, Twitter is Bleater, Fox News is Weasel News and America’s largest mercenary army Blackwater becomes Merryweather. On the street homeless men complain about veteran’s payments and on talkback radio shock jocks peddle Tea Party inspired propaganda. Right near the start our jaded ex-stick up artist tells our aspiring gangster from the hood, “Go to college. Then you can rip people off and get paid for it. It’s called capitalism.”

Marxist interpretations of GTA are not novel. Nick Dyer-Witherford and Greig de Peuter in their book Games of Empire: Global Capitalism and Video Games extensively discuss the series in the chapter Imperial City. This chapter analyse the GTA as a ‘game of empire’ drawing on the work of anti-globalisation leading lights Antonio Hardt and Michael Negri to examine how wealth, power, corruption, brutality and social conflict are concentrated in imperial cities which creates the multi-ethnic precaraiat, a working-class without social security, a plutocracy, a state without democracy and a geographic segregation of rich and poor turning the world into a planet of slums and gated communities. The authors also draw on the work of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek to point out the reactionary power of GTA’s cynicism, “it is as if in late capitalism ‘words don’t count,’ no longer oblige: they increasingly seem to lose their performative power; whatever one says is drowned in the general indifference; the emperor is naked and the media trumpet forth fact, yet nobody seems to mind-that is, people continue to act as if the emperor is not naked.” Dyer-Witherford and de Peuter thus draw the conclusion,
GTA is a cynical game that simultaneously satirizes, indulges, and normalizes individual hyperpossesiveness, racialized stereotypes, and neoliberal violence in a self-cancellation that allows these elements to remain intact, a structure that is, in a very precise way, conservative. ...The world city that most fully actualizes Rockstar’s vision of ferociously violent, ethnically segregated war is American occupied Baghdad. It is no wonder a marine records his urban experience in Iraq in the following terms: “I was thinking just one thing when we drove into that ambush... Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. I felt like I was living it when I seen the flames coming out of the windows, the blown-up car in the street, guys crawling around shooting at us. It was fucking cool.”
Karl Marx in the Grundrisse wrote, “The object of art – like every other product – creates a public which is sensitive to art and enjoys beauty. Production thus not only creates an object for the subject, but also a subject for the object.”

Video games like GTA are no exception to this. Numerous studies show that video games increase aggression and like for our American marine, desensitise youth to killing and chaos. Without sounding like a member of the Christian right it seems right to point out that these games can have very negative impacts. Young adults or the mentally unwell can fall into a spell after prolonged playing. In 2008 a Thai taxi driver was killed by an 18 year old who wanted to ‘find out if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game’ and in New York six teenagers claiming GTA inspiration ‘mugged a man, knocking his teeth out, attempted to car-jack a woman driving a BMW and smashed a passing van with a bat’.

In revolutionary times however, when a multitude of GTA-trained youth are ridding themselves of the muck of all ages, perhaps the countless hours of GTA gameplay may come to play a deciding factor. In Turkey during the June uprising against the destruction of Gezi Park and against neo-liberalism, demonstrators hijacked a bulldozer and broke through police lines and knocked out a water cannon. Over the next few days graffiti appeared around Gezi Park’s autonomous commune. One read, “You’re messing with the generation that beats cops in GTA”, another, "We now have six stars. Tanks will be coming soon."

-Omar, SA

Graffiti in Istanbul, June 2013. "We now have six stars. Tanks will be coming soon."


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