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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There is nothing compassionate about Britain’s Dickensian tolerance of begging

I was called “heartless” for urging police to refer beggars to support services. But funding drug habits to salve a liberal conscience is the truly cruel approach.

In Rochdale, like many other towns across the country, we’re working hard to support small businesses and make our high streets inviting places for people to visit. So it doesn’t help when growing numbers of aggressive street beggars are becoming a regular fixture on the streets, accosting shoppers.

I’ve raised this with the police on several occasions now and when I tweeted that they needed to enforce laws preventing begging and refer them to appropriate services, all hell broke loose on social media. I was condemned as heartless, evil and, of course, the favourite insult of all left-wing trolls, “a Tory”.

An article in the Guardian supported this knee-jerk consensus that I was a typically out-of-touch politician who didn’t understand the underlying reasons for begging and accused me of being “misguided” and showing “open disdain” for the poor. 

The problem is, this isn’t true, as I know plenty about begging.

Before I became an MP, I worked as a researcher for The Big Issue and went on to set up a social research company that carried out significant research on street begging, including a major report that was published by the homeless charity, Crisis.

When I worked at The Big Issue, the strapline on the magazine used to say: “Working not Begging”. This encapsulated its philosophy of dignity in work and empowering people to help themselves. I’ve seen many people’s lives transformed through the work of The Big Issue, but I’ve never seen one person’s life transformed by thrusting small change at them as they beg in the street.

The Big Issue’s founder, John Bird, has argued this position very eloquently over the years. Giving to beggars helps no one, he says. “On the contrary, it locks the beggar in a downward spiral of abject dependency and victimhood, where all self-respect, honesty and hope are lost.”

Even though he’s now doing great work in the House of Lords, much of Bird’s transformative zeal is lost on politicians. Too many on the right have no interest in helping the poor, while too many on the left are more interested in easing their conscience than grappling with the hard solutions required to turn chaotic lives around.

But a good starting point is always to examine the facts.

The Labour leader of Manchester City Council, Richard Leese, has cited evidence that suggests that 80 per cent of street beggars in Manchester are not homeless. And national police figures have shown that fewer than one in five people arrested for begging are homeless.

Further research overwhelmingly shows the most powerful motivating force behind begging is to fund drug addiction. The homeless charity, Thames Reach, estimates that 80 per cent of beggars in London do so to support a drug habit, particularly crack cocaine and heroin, while drug-testing figures by the Metropolitan Police on beggars indicated that between 70 and 80 per cent tested positive for Class A drugs.

It’s important to distinguish that homelessness and begging can be very different sets of circumstances. As Thames Reach puts it, “most rough sleepers don’t beg and most beggars aren’t rough sleepers”.

And this is why they often require different solutions.

In the case of begging, breaking a chaotic drug dependency is hard and the important first step is arrest referral – ie. the police referring beggars on to specialised support services.  The police approach to begging is inconsistent – with action often only coming after local pressure. For example, when West Midlands Police received over 1,000 complaints about street begging, a crackdown was launched. This is not the case everywhere, but only the police have the power to pick beggars up and start a process that can turn their lives around.

With drug-related deaths hitting record levels in England and Wales in recent years, combined with cuts to drug addiction services and a nine per cent cut to local authority health budgets over the next three years, all the conditions are in place for things to get a lot worse.

This week there will be an important homelessness debate in Parliament, as Bob Blackman MP's Homelessness Reduction Bill is due to come back before the House of Commons for report stage. This is welcome legislation, but until we start to properly distinguish the unique set of problems and needs that beggars have, I fear begging on the streets will increase.

Eighteen years ago, I was involved in a report called Drugs at the Sharp End, which called on the government to urgently review its drug strategy. Its findings were presented to the government’s drugs czar Keith Hellawell on Newsnight and there was a sense that the penny was finally dropping.

I feel we’ve gone backwards since then. Not just in the progress that has been undone through services being cut, but also in terms of general attitudes towards begging.

A Dickensian tolerance of begging demonstrates an appalling Victorian attitude that has no place in 21st century Britain. Do we really think it’s acceptable for our fellow citizens to live as beggars with no real way out? And well-meaning displays of “compassion” are losing touch with pragmatic policy. This well-intentioned approach is starting to become symptomatic of the shallow, placard-waving gesture politics of the left, which helps no one and has no connection to meaningful action.

If we’re going make sure begging has no place in modern Britain, then we can’t let misguided sentiment get in the way of a genuine drive to transform lives through evidenced-based effective policy.

Simon Danczuk is MP for Rochdale.