A playground of the wrong: why searching for morality and meaning in GTAV misses the point

GTA V Trevor

There’s one thing everyone knows about the Grand Theft Auto games, and it’s not the painstakingly sculpted cities and countryside. It’s not the fact that you can sit in a car watching the sun come up listening to classic soul. It’s not the fact that Iggy Pop was in one of them.

Predictably, the fact that’s become lodged in our cultural gullet like a fishbone that really doesn’t like women very much, is that the game lets you pay for sex with a prostitute, beat her to death, and then take your money back. We’ve been given an open world and it seems that when given the freedom to do anything, most people end up choosing to be a serial killer.

From one perspective, this a fascinating example of emergent behaviour producing unpredictable outcomes; from another, more correct perspective, it sounds like the most radical feminist theorists of the eighties were not only broadly right about men, but were right about literally all men in every instance, and that as of this moment all men should be detained in special game camps and forced to play Gone Home while being hosed down with weak fennel tea.

This is problematic for fans of the game, especially when playing in front of other people – in much the same way that forgetting to put a web browser into discreet mode is problematic when, later on, someone else types something into the search bar. How on earth do you justify a game that not only allows you to do that, but seems to lure players towards the act like some kind of homicide magnet?

Then there’s the accusations of sexism. Within the first few minutes of Grand Theft Auto V, you’re introduced to Michael and Franklin, two alpha-male antiheroes, gunslingers and professional-level drivers both; they’re built like olympic athletes, and are both so good at their jobs they can actually slow down time. Meanwhile, the female characters at this stage include more nags and shrews than a country field in midsummer; others you encounter aren’t so much crack shots as crack heads.

It’s difficult to defend in any rational way. It’s wrong. But then again, that’s the point. Grand Theft Auto is a playground of the wrong; a virtual holiday to a world of reprisal-free sin, where the rep meets you at the airport with a gun and a can of petrol, and innocently points you towards the nearest traffic jam. Admittedly, a glance at the average comments page and you’d be forgiven for thinking some people doesn’t so much need a holiday to this place as to be permanently deported from it, but for the rest of us, it’s cathartic and deliciously wrong.

The wrongness is the appeal. GTAV is an amoral wonderland that recreates the modern world in unprecedented detail and lets you do terrible things to it and in it – its architecture crafted for flying planes into and driving cars off the top of, its roads and pavements built for pushing over old men and causing dozen-car pile-ups. It’s a sandbox built for throwing sand in people’s eyes and hitting them with buckets and spades.

And again, the thrill here is the fact that what you’re doing is wrong, and you know it’s wrong; replacing the citizens with German censor-mandated robots or zombies would eliminate the thrill entirely, because it’s all about breaking taboos in a safe environment. The game simulates society’s rules, and then tacitly encourages you to not only break them but run them over and then drive off laughing, firing a gun out of the window, while illegally downloading something onto a laptop.

Grand Theft Auto V is one big, red, glass-shielded button with ‘DO NOT PRESS’ written on it, and perhaps that’s why Trevor is the game personified. An ugly psychopath with bad hair and freak teeth, Trevor is as far from the traditional game hero as it gets.  Perhaps Rockstar could have gone further in some respects – maybe a female character could have let you break convention at the same time as you’re breaking car windows and pedestrians’ teeth – but this mulleted nutter embodies the transgressive charge of the game: our world with no consequences, with the mayhem set to the maximum value, and with wrongness as the accounting unit of fun.