Grand Theft Auto V: a giant, targeted missile of satire

This game has such market power that it can defy all media attacks and laugh at itself, knowing that millions of us get the joke, says Tom Watson.

The latest edition of Grand Theft Auto shows that the maturing video-game industry is making huge leaps in creativity and technological innovation. Yet there is no games franchise more misunderstood than Grand Theft Auto. “If the Devil had his own bible, it would probably take the form of a computer game,” wrote Peter Hitchens on 22 September, in a quintessentially Daily Mail critique of GTA V.
 
That an MP can write a column admitting playing the game shows how far video-game culture has permeated the mainstream since GTA was launched in 1996, in the heady days of New Labour. Back then, playing GTA felt like a wholly rebellious act, to be confined to the privacy of your own home. The cars were almost impossible to drive but they had great radio stations, which seemed really cool then. In the latest version, I couldn’t find how to flip between stations, so I kept breaking into cars in order to change the music.
 
When GTA emerged, the Mail described it as “criminal computer game that glorifies hit-and-run thugs”. It set off a moral panic so great that virtually no commentator said anything positive about the game that is now an integral part of innovative gaming history and culture around the globe. But Hitchens and the outraged political classes have been duped, like one of the weak-willed minor characters designed to add colour to the lives of Michael, Franklin and Trevor in GTA5.
 
GTA came to the notice of the public as a result of a public relations campaign masterminded by the streetwise Max Clifford and the game’s maker Sam Houser, a former classmate of George Osborne. They deliberately promoted its violence to grab headlines. The media elite have been inadvertently collaborating with the GTA PR people for the decade and a half since. To quote the paparazzo character who features in the game, “It’s a beautifully abusive relationship.”
 
GTA wrote the golden rule of games PR: always include a scene that pushes the boundaries of taste and decency, such that Keith Vaz MP will condemn it in the pages of the Daily Mail. GTA V is no different. This time there is a completely unnecessary torture scene where a victim is electrocuted and waterboarded and has a tooth extracted to force him to talk. Last time I checked, the scene had been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube. Many gamers don’t feel comfortable with gratuitous violence of this kind and there has been legitimate criticism that there wasn’t even an opportunity for players to opt out of this particular section.
 
Sam Houser’s games franchise has already netted $1bn for GTA V: surely he can afford to make a departure from the shock-and-awe PR formula to talk in a more mature way about the developments in the new game, which are vast – from the hundreds of options a character can take and the extraordinary animated detail in missions to the muchimproved user experience as you drive vehicles around the city.
 
His response would probably be that, with the tabloid media so willing to write about it, why should he change tack? Just this past week, the Daily Mirror, historically more supportive of our video-game industry than most tabloids, splashed on its front page a story that the Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis had heard “voices in his head” after playing violent video games.
 
None of these sensational stories helps consumers choose good material to buy; at up to £40 a go, many agonise over their purchases. Make the wrong choice and you can end up with a game you discard after a few hours. With GTA V, the investment is worth it. You can, if you want, spend hundreds of hours at it. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that, when the online world gets switched on, some will spend thousands of hours.
 
Thankfully – despite what Peter Hitchens might think – gamers understand satire. And Grand Theft Auto Five is one giant targeted missile of satire locked on to the superficiality of media, commerce, celebrity and politics. Early on in the game Michael, an unhappily married ex-con, bemoans his good-for-nothing son who “sits on his arse all day, smoking dope and jerking off while he plays that f***ing video game”. This game has such market power that it can defy all media attacks and laugh at itself, knowing that millions of us get the joke.
 
That’s not to say GTA hasn’t missed a few tricks. Helen Lewis has written about the lack of strong female characters, surely a mistake in a growing global market? Yet the producer, Rockstar Games, is defiant, mocking the political classes from inside GTA. “Democracy can suck my fatty,” says one of the many eccentric characters, sending Michael into an ethereal world where he is attacked by aliens as they attempt to abduct him.
 
As I write this, I realise how hard it is to describe the game to you. You just have to play it in order to understand the comedic depth of the world you enter when you switch on your console – a world so layered in detail that even the most dedicated players will not get to see most of Los Santos and Blaine County, the world created by Rockstar North for you to adventure in. Every feature, from the flickering streetlights and unique advertising hoardings to ambient noise and radio station playlists, has been painstakingly woven into the experience. How could poor Hitchens have a clue?
 
There is room for legitimate criticism of GTA V, but politicians and commentators will have to work much harder to understand this creative medium before they can be taken seriously by gamers.
 
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East (Labour)
A screenshot from Grand Theft Auto.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

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In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser