In Praise Of GTA V: Videogame As Masterpiece Of Cultural Criticism

A French writer goes deep into the imagined reality of the latest installment of Grand Theft Auto, and finds a full-throttle, 360-degree takedown of American society.

In Praise Of GTA V: Videogame As Masterpiece Of Cultural Criticism
Olivier Séguret

PARIS — What may be the world’s most popular cultural product is a video game called Grand Theft Auto V. It broke gaming industry records in September by grossing $1 billion in the first three days after its release.

Since then, it has remained a top seller and has registered a recent increase in sales for the Christmas shopping season. Moreover, the previous episodes in the series (Vice City, San Andreas, GTA IV) have also reappeared on the bestseller lists, boosted by the success of the latest opus.

This fifth episode refines and multiplies the formula that gave the series its non-stop glory ever since it began, in 1997. Once again, the player follows the rise of lowly criminals to the heights of delinquency. As the name indicates, you start by stealing cars, and end up pulling the robbery of the century, worth several million dollars.

The originality of the game comes from the heroic dimension given to the criminals, although it's a play on the typical convention of gangster movies from the likes of Brian De Palma, Martin Scorsese and others, from which GTA is clearly inspired.

With its increasingly Hollywood-like approach, the series itself became a fundamental source of inspiration for the whole industry, and other developers adopted many of the innovations imagined by GTA’s creators. As a matter of fact, the game itself has started a genre of its own and any game, even remotely, similar to it is described as “GTA-like.”

The GTA V release will probably be seen one day as a crucial symbolic step in the long journey towards the acknowledgement of video gaming as a media and a subculture despite deep apprehensions by so-called proper society.

Ignore at your peril

After overtaking the music industry at the turn of the millennium, the gaming industry has since also largely supplanted Hollywood in terms of revenue. No longer can anybody ignore it and GTA will, without a doubt, count as one of the main agents in the history of this legitimization.

“People who play video games are the same as those who would listen to rock music 30 years ago,” Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser told Le Nouvel Observateur upon the release of GTA IV in 2008. “Video games have kept part of this underground and slightly reprehensible vibe. What worries me is that one day it might all become acceptable and bland, like all the rest.”

Houser, who founded the company with his brother Sam, said movies and music have become dull. “American television is in a golden age, but apart from that, only video games show such creativity. As long as there’s a chance to express ourselves, if we need to remain in an underground setting and if people identify us as evil, so be it.”

Because they develop both the design and the scripts of the series in fierce independence from the American editor, Take Two, the Houser brothers were able to remain 100% loyal to their fans while at the same time managing to reach an ever wider public.

Originally from Scotland, the 40-something brothers grew up with The Clash and Maggie Thatcher, which means they are the archetype of modern British soft power, able to play the game of capitalism in a way that shamelessly mixes liberal traditions and political satire with story-telling virtuosity, technological prowess and diabolical marketing.

But is there actual meaning in “the greatest video game ever?” What accounts for the extraordinary success of Grand Theft Auto V is its magnitude, its depth, its substance and the accuracy with which it strikes. It is an immersion without a safety net in what is called an open world — a huge space where you can act freely — centered on a virtual Los Angeles, named Los Santos. One might wonder why they bothered renaming it at all given the close resemblance to the City of Angels, but that’s the very principle of the GTA series, the intentions of which are hidden under such an obvious fake nose that nobody can miss it.

Yes, GTA is a vast, titanic satirical commentary on the modern world in general, and more particularly on the contemporary United States. It’s the distorted part of our world, the other side of our lying looking glass, the dishevelled, cynical, trivial face of our society.

Nothing escapes this implacable slapping machine. The three characters around which the story of this fifth episode is built are themselves huge blocks of ambiguity, victims and at the same time accomplices of a system they abuse and yet are utterly fascinated by. Trevor the lunatic hobo, Franklin the ambitious kid from the ghetto and Michael the depressive Mafioso all kill, terrorize and betray, yet they suffer and pursue also some strange sort of ideal.

They maintain a first-degree relationship with market capitalism: I want therefore I take. Amid the countless subplots, the constant swarm of dialogues caught on the fly in the streets of Los Santos, the little subtleties of the game’s artificial intelligence and the quality of the smallest contextual scenes, GTA V never stops intertwining realism and irony, credible elements and mockery, reality and its antidote.

Racists and traitors

In the dens that the materialistic gangsters acquire as the game unfolds, players can watch television programs that are carefully and methodologically created to destroy with an axe the standards of American television such as The Voice, American Idol or even Fox News. Cartoons also make for some killingly funny, and sometimes shameless, parodies.

The same happens on the 17 radio stations available from the innumerable cars the game encourages you to steal. Meanwhile, behind this fake company that encourages you to “stalk” brands, the obvious target is Facebook, though it’s not the only one: Twitter also has its fake version in the game, Bleeter, that boasts of “demolishing 100,000 years of complex linguistic development 140 characters at a time.”

Hollywood also gets raked over the coals with several parodies. There’s this fake disaster film in which aliens are invited to have sex with humans, or a bad thriller that takes on Wall Street capitalism. European auteur cinema also gets mocked with a pastiche inspired by Buñuel, Godard and others. All over the city, the players can see billboards and posters that advertize the latest gadgets from iFruit, Ego Chaser cereal bars or that sing the praises of a real estate development program in the middle of the desert.

The game is also organized according to a complex sociological topography, where the gentrified hipster neighborhoods gain on poorer areas, each class with its own specific types of cars, shops and populations. The political faceoff between the Tea Party and liberal-Democrat fringes is largely illustrated (for example, with fundamentalist high-school students fighting against gay marriage and others campaigning for the legalization of marijuana).

The tragedy of undocumented immigrants is the subject of a cynical transposition: The players will first cling to a white militia that hunts down “wetbacks” (a slur against illegal Mexican workers) like rabbits. But later in the game, they will have the chance to eliminate the group. Even the issue of Guantanamo is addressed: The players are ordered to test the notion of “limited torture” defended by the American government.

Immorality, addiction, humor

For a long time, GTA was the target of violent critics. Now, however, it’s beginning to be accepted in the media landscape and even to be studied at university. In his book GTA IV: The Other Side Of The American Dream, Olivier Mauco analyzed the previous episode of the series after the social, political, semiological sciences had too long ignored this monument of digital pop culture that will shape the 21st century.

Of course, some of GTA’s enemies are still standing. But their criticisms are the same as those of the people who love the game so much: It’s violent, riotous, immoral and terribly addictive. Let’s add that it’s also very funny, as the particular nature of the extravagant, excessive and outrageous British humor is evident throughout. But you'd miss the whole point if you didn't scratch under this surface.

GTA is a crush of virtual technique and political discourse that has no equal. It expresses more truth and more reality about the world we live in than any other cultural product. It comes right on time, illustrating the world’s most urgent nightmares and strikes down what’s eating away at us, impeccably synchronized with our deepest exasperations.

“Video games are the first stage in a plan for machines to help the human race, the only plan that offers a future for intelligence,” director Chris Marker once predicted. By helping video games become more mature, GTA V brings real substance to this glorious prophecy.

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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