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

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: Trump and an age of disorder

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions.

The US presidency has not always been held by men of distinction and honour, but Donald Trump is by some distance its least qualified occupant. The leader of the world’s sole superpower has no record of political or military service and is ignorant of foreign affairs. Throughout his campaign, he repeatedly showed himself to be a racist, a misogynist, a braggart and a narcissist.

The naive hope that Mr Trump’s victory would herald a great moderation was dispelled by his conduct during the transition. He compared his country’s intelligence services to those of Nazi Germany and repeatedly denied Russian interference in the election. He derided Nato as “obsolete” and predicted the demise of the European Union. He reaffirmed his commitment to dismantling Obamacare and to overturning Roe v Wade. He doled out jobs to white nationalists, protectionists and family members. He denounced US citizens for demonstrating against him. Asked whether he regretted any part of his vulgar campaign, he replied: “No, I won.”

Of all his predilections, Mr Trump’s affection for Vladimir Putin is perhaps the most troubling. When the 2012 Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, warned that Russia was the “number one geopolitical foe” of the US, he was mocked by Barack Obama. Yet his remark proved prescient. Rather than regarding Mr Putin as a foe, however, Mr Trump fetes him as a friend. The Russian president aims to use the US president’s goodwill to secure the removal of American sanctions, recognition of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and respect for the murderous reign of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad. He has a worryingly high chance of success.

Whether or not Mr Trump has personal motives for his fealty (as a lurid security dossier alleges), he and Mr Putin share a political outlook. Both men desire a world in which “strongmen” are free to abuse their citizens’ human rights without fear of external rebuke. Mr Trump’s refusal to commit to Nato’s principle of collective defence provides Mr Putin with every incentive to pursue his expansionist desires. The historic achievement of peace and stability in eastern Europe is in danger.

As he seeks reconciliation with Russia, Mr Trump is simultaneously pursuing conflict with China. He broke with precedent by speaking on the telephone with the Taiwanese president, Tsai Ing-wen, and used Twitter to berate the Chinese government. Rex Tillerson, Mr Trump’s secretary of state nominee, has threatened an American blockade of the South China Sea islands.

Mr Trump’s disregard for domestic and international norms represents an unprecedented challenge to established institutions. The US constitution, with its separation of powers, was designed to restrain autocrats such as the new president. Yet, in addition to the White House, the Republicans also control Congress and two-thirds of governorships and state houses. Mr Trump’s first Supreme Court appointment will ensure a conservative judicial majority. The decline of established print titles and the growth of “fake news” weaken another source of accountability.

In these circumstances, there is a heightened responsibility on the US’s allies to challenge, rather than to indulge, Mr Trump. Angela Merkel’s warning that co-operation was conditional on his respect for liberal and democratic values was a model of the former. Michael Gove’s obsequious interview with Mr Trump was a dismal example of the latter.

Theresa May has rightly rebuked the president for his treatment of women and has toughened Britain’s stance against Russian revanchism. Yet, although the UK must maintain working relations with the US, she should not allow the prospect of a future trade deal to skew her attitude towards Mr Trump. Any agreement is years away and the president’s protectionist proclivities could yet thwart British hopes of a beneficial outcome.

The diplomatic and political conventions embodied by the “special relationship” have endured for more than seven decades. However, Mr Trump’s election may necessitate their demise. It was the belief that the UK must stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US that led Tony Blair into the ruinous Iraq War. In this new age of disorder, Western leaders must avoid being willing accomplices to Mr Trump’s agenda. Intense scepticism, rather than sycophancy, should define their response.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era