A sad, sad scene that's bound to be repeated time and time again once GTAV comes out.
Grand Theft Auto IV came out in the same week as my first and only (thus far) root canal. I had been prescribed Tylenol 3s, which I rationally mixed into my diet of purple kush and takeout. At the time I had a roommate, whose freeloader brother was sleeping on a couch in our basement while I was up all night playing GTAIV, one level above him. At one point, probably around five in the morning, he yelled up at me to keep it down and go to bed. So after hearing this complaint from a virtual stranger—who was couchsurfing at my house in the middle of one of my precious GTAIV sessions—I told him to fuck off. And that’s when I understood GTA’s grip on me.
If you’ve never played a Grand Theft Auto game, they are infinitely more addictive than basically any other video game that purports to have unlimited boundaries. While The Sims is a fun, family-friendly time where you can build yourself an inground pool, install a bar beside the diving board, get your Sims drunk, then send them for a drunken swim right before you remove the ladder and watch them drown in their own alcoholic misery—Grand Theft Auto provides an exponentially more insane set of circumstances for someone to cause digital mayhem.
Even in its most primitive iterations—like say the top-down style, “mission pack” add-on for Grand Theft Auto II that placed you in 1960s London—the GTA series has always allowed its players to cause the most obscene urban mayhem imaginable, wherever they want, whenever they want.
And it’s because the franchise allows for such insane, creative, violent destruction to be played out on its video game streets, every time the series appears on a new, more advanced hardware platform, it’s cause for mass excitement.
The jump from GTAII to GTAIII—which was, most importantly, the first jump from a 2D GTA to a 3D one—was absolutely monumental. I can literally remember the first time I saw screenshots of GTAIII (on lunch break in eighth grade)—but if you ask me when the first time I met most of my friends was, I might not be able to tell you.
So, the fact that Grand Theft Auto V is—for the first time—allowing the player to explore its streets as three different protagonists, who have access to a complete underwater world (early iterations of GTA did not even let you swim), in modern Los Angeles (known in the GTA world as Los Santos), with the option to buy real estate, shoot a minigun in public, and take part in a massively interactive online world with friends, is deeply fucking troubling for the health of my social life.
I have a lot of shit to do on a day-to-day basis. My job is quite hectic most of the time, and I’m really not the type of person to stay indoors on a weekday night, pruning my orchid collection and reading a detective novel. I love to be around people. But all that is going to change in about six days, when Grand Theft Auto V is unleashed.
What essentially is going to happen, once I have my own copy of GTAV, is that I will be trading my real life for a virtual one. Instead of heading over to my friend’s house for a BBQ and a few beers on a Tuesday night (it’ll be too fucking cold for that anyway), I’ll be spending my time living in Los Santos, stealing cars, robbing banks, buying property, and jumping stolen cars off of sweet ramps, before hopping online and murdering the virtual avatars of my real life friends in merciless, urban combat.
The official game-play video for Grand Theft Auto: online does a great job of portraying the severity of how this game will destroy lives.
This kind of intense digital immersion can’t possibly be healthy for the cleanliness of one’s mind, and yet the experience is incredibly fucking enjoyable. Despite GTAV not actually being available for purchase yet, the game has already begun to consume people’s lives—who have been obsessing over the game’s trailers for well over a year.
I have friends who have already booked time off work to play GTAV. Other friends of mine have been tweeting and talking for months about how late September and October of this year will be spent entirely indoors. And, all you need to do is check out the internet’s most popular GTA message board, GTAForums, to read about people who plan on using GTAV to kick their booze habit, others who are spending time playing Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas’s version of Los Santos to get ready for GTAV, and those who are concerned about people taking the online mode of GTAV “too serious[ly].”
Personally, I’ve been preparing for GTAV by playing GTAIV again—specifically as Luis Lopez, the hero of the Ballad of Gay Tony expansion. Just the other day, I was texting a friend who asked me what I was up to, while I was in the middle of driving a stolen garbage truck around Liberty City in the middle of a police chase. I unloaded my submachine gun out of the driver’s side window at the cops who were chasing me. Then I hid, with an assault rifle, in a hospital and waited for the police to find me. It took them a while.
Anyway, I described this Liberty City rampage to my friend as if it were happening in real life. She told me I sounded crazy—and that’s fine, I guess. But it’s that kind of adverse social reaction which makes me somewhat worried about the release of what sounds like history’s most immersive and exciting video game of all time—because I do really love the real world.
We live in a sad, weird time where people would rather put their brains to work navigating a massively criminal and violent urban wasteland, like GTAV, instead of living within—and trying to repair—our existing violent global wasteland; and that’s a strange thing to think about.
As Jane McGonigal points out in her excellent book about video games and how they could potentially improve society, Reality Is Broken, the amount of manpower spent playing video games is staggering. She discusses the sheer manpower that went into creating WoWWiki, the World of Warcraft Wiki, as an example:
“There are still more than 65,000 WoW players who are registered contributors to WoWWiki, currently the world’s second largest wiki after Wikipedia. Even if you managed to successfully engage only that group, it would still take them only two months of channeling their usual WoW playing time to a crowdsourcing project to collectively create a resource on the scale of Wikipedia. By comparison, Wikipedia took eight years to collect 100 million hours of cognitive effort.”
So basically if it were possible to unite them, contributors to the WoWWiki could create a Wiki the same size as Wikipedia, every two months, if they really wanted to. McGonigal refers to this massive amount of attention and effort that 65,000 orc-loving nerds have put into cataloging the history of World of Warcraft as “participation bandwidth.” Can you imagine a world where people had the same talent and interest for conquering issues, like the cure for cancer or the way to eradicate world hunger, instead of slaying fake dragons and collecting fake gold to upgrade their fake swords? It would be dizzyingly remarkable. I wonder which massive global issues could be solved using the hours humans are about to spend playing GTAV…
But, who cares about that “what if” utopian mumbo-jumbo, right? GTAV is going to have a bigger map than GTAIV, Red Dead Redemption, and San Andreas combined, you can yell, in real life, into your headset to scare virtual liquor store attendants you may end robbing, or if you feel like having a lazy Sunday, you could just race around Hollywood in a stolen sports car, before retiring to the woods for a deer hunting session just to collect your thoughts.
All of that is much more rewarding, fun, and important than hanging out with the friends and family members who love you—let alone trying to actually repair or even slightly improve the real world we live in. GTAV is a safe, but highly chaotic, environment where you don’t have to worry about Barack Obama setting off World War III by stumbling into Syria with a reign of hellfire missiles and misguidedly relentless military striking. All you need to do is prevent the army from murdering you once you hit the 5-star wanted level for massacring dozens and dozens of civilians on your way to eat at Los Santos’ best taco franchise.
Follow Patrick on Twitter: @patrickmcguire