A Marxist Analysis of Grand Theft Auto V

AH, Baile Átha Cliath.

Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is named after the criminal offense “Grand Theft Auto” which entails driving a motor vehicle recklessly or using the vehicle to commit an additional crime. This distinguishes it for the robbery of a car for joyriding and carries with it a different penalty. There’s more to the game itself; stealing cars, driving around, doing various questionable tasks for questionable figures.  It has been some time since I first played the franchise, I think the last time was in fact GTA III and that was about 15 years ago.

15 years ago, I was a little less read and a little less political, so the obvious political facets in this game that strike me now are largely different.  While playing the game, a number of immediate features popped up.

Firstly, the character Michael Townley is on the hook to the intelligence agency subtly named ‘FIB’ (take a guess what that’s referring to!). In conjunction with them, he makes a deal to change his name, move and live on as an informant. The missions the FIB task Michael Townley with are dirty jobs that they cannot do legitimately. This is a reference to the very numerous and growing list of FBI criminal activities and is based on the real life conduct of one of the largest domestic political police agencies in the world. Apparently, it’s the FSB and Chinese State Security that Americans should be worried about though!

As part of the intrigue for the FIB, the characters are all enlisted to wage a war against the rival agency, which is a reference to the CIA, but subtly called the International Affairs Agency.  Once more, this is a reference to the growing list of illegal work that the CIA conducts on a day to day basis. Whether or not the game is intended to criticise either intelligence agency, it did include them integrally to its plot. It also accurately portrayed how deeply crooked the law enforcement agencies are in the United States. Law enforcement and army corruption features heavily in Hollywood filmography where a redeeming character always shows us that the true nature of these agencies/organisations is merely being corrupted by a handful of individuals, but in GTA, these agencies are played straight as requiring illegal and unethical methods to serve their class mission.

Secondly, Franklin Clinton is a character that’s a throwback to CJ in the earlier GTA: San Andreas. He is based out of a ghettoised community and due to a lack of opportunities, he chooses petty criminal and antisocial activities to make money. It isn’t rocket science to explain that deprived communities have more antisocial behaviour because they’re deprived. They are deprived deliberately through austerity and the funnelling of collective money and economic power upward into the pockets of the wealthy capitalists who live in gated communities. The ghettoisation of many communities occurred as industry and job opportunities were moved out, because unionised workplaces created a dangerous and expensive organised powerbase against capital. I thought that it was rather interesting that it was Franklin’s character that had the missions which included assassinating various venture capitalists. The reasons behind each mission were oddly judicial in nature and were usually lined up by the fact that the venture capitalist was exploiting some form of medical need for elderly people or something else. One must wonder whether this is a means of demonstrating to the working class how they can achieve justice? Turning their anger away from competition between each other, towards united action against their oppressors.  

When Franklin meets Michael after attempting to rob his car and they have a drink, Michael gives a comment about ‘capitalism’ being the way of the world and for Franklin to get into it.  The question is about survival through accumulation of money and retirement. Neither of the two characters enjoy it – and in fact they express their hatred and distaste for what they are doing throughout the game. To them, theft and murder are necessary evils that they must do in order to get out of their socio-economic dead-end. “Social mobility” is at the heart of capitalism’s attempts to ethically justify itself, but both illegal and legal forms of social mobility are hinged around the same exploitation, the same division of the working class into the “deserving and undeserving poor”, and the same breakdown of collective and social connection.

Thirdly, we have the character of Trevor Phillips who is a mentally unstable drug addict. He is portrayed as the comic relief character of the series, but I think on reflection, the portrayal is satirical. The epidemic of methamphetamine, cocaine, heroin, etc. is consuming working class communities. It is a means to an end that cannot be satisfied in people’s regular social conditions and a means to an early death.  Trevor is Michael’s former partner and quickly returns to the scene after Michael and Franklin do a bank heist and leave a signatory quote. Trevor’s interests lie in the theft of money and murder, so he quickly falls onto the radar of the FIB and is roped into the black operations that the FIB is carrying out.

 

Michael Townley

 

What is rather interesting about Trevor, is that the FIB are aware of his criminal activity, but do nothing about it and instead leverage it against him so that they can have him perform various jobs. This once more, is not an entirely unusual tactic. The FBI and CIA routinely enlisted criminals and routinely do so to carry out dirty jobs with promise of dropping charges for freedom and once more, it is something that is covered in almost all cinema about these law enforcement agencies. Two very prominent cultural elements of the game stand out to me as well. The first one is the stock market. If you log onto your game and have a read of the descriptions for each business, you’ll see examples like:

 

Example:  AirEmu

Major international airline that has taken all the fun out of flying by monetizing every last detail of the travel experience, from the peanuts to the restrooms.

Remind you of Ryanair?

 

Example: Lifeinvader

Social networking and data mining service. The reason the world never gets anything done any more.

You could use that definition for almost any social media service we have available to us today.

 

Merryweather: MER

Merryweather is a private military and security company with over $10 billion of taxpayer’s money in US government contracts to its name.

This is a direct reference to companies such as ‘Academi’ which provide security contract services to the government, conduct torture, dirty operations and so on. They perform the exact same function in the game. They eliminate obstacles to capitalism and everyone pays for it.

 

On the front of the many radio stations, there is one in particular that has a segment called “Idiot Liberal News” and hosts various humorous mockeries of liberal minded people. For instance, one show talks about “opposition to war” and the person being interviewed states that they are “holding a sign, isn’t that enough?”.  This is a clear attack on peaceful protest as a useless action that is entirely performative. Think about all the protests in Ireland that have dissipated because that is all they have been: circular walking around the city center.

All of the above are food for thought, if you examine the other companies listed in the stock market, you will find equally humorous and satirical explanations for what each company does, from fast food to banking. Making a mockery of finance capitalism in America is core to the game’s humour.

Another large component of these games that has always been controversial and rightfully so, is the misogyny. I would imagine one of the reasons that the developers include prostitution and strip clubs is to give the game “authenticity”, but this is a bogus claim.  Authenticity to the game is not demonstrated by having women in poor communities engage in sex work, what it is doing is feeding an industry to the predominant target audience: men.  If the game wanted realism, then why did it not include the process of boiling eggs, paving floors, cleaning toilets and many other mundane everyday “realistic” tasks that people get up to? Because it wanted to use the objectification of women for profit. You will find on the cover of many GTA games pictures of hypersexualised women. This is no different to many other multinationals constantly using half naked or even naked women in sexualised poses to sell their products. Given the hugely damaging impact that pornography has on men, it is irresponsible and malicious on the part of the producers to include this in the game without focusing on the negative consequences it has on people’s lives. It is equally damaging to young men and boys who play the game that as part of their everyday life they are conditioned to normalise the objectification of women and normalisation of the purchase of somebody else’s consent.

Video games are filled with propaganda for us to consume, be it advertising or graphic imagery, or a certain style of life. GTA V is no different.  The game cost a record breaking 250 million dollars and grossed over $1 billion.  It worked its employees to the bone and had to defend itself against numerous claims of 100 hour working weeks. One might wonder whether the production of a video game really requires anybody to work 100 hours a week, but like all commodities, it was made to create profit and make certain people rich, and like all art, the social condition in which it as manufactured permeates and colours in every contour and aspect of its being. Ultimately, the content of the game and particularly its anti-capitalist slant creates a double ceiling portrayal of the modern world. It’s a fun escape to drive around, shoot things, steal cars in a virtual world and laugh at things we normally would not but we should never cease commenting, reading or scrutinizing the cultural context and the exploitative conditions which the commodities we enjoy  are produced and used in.

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