Why Won’t the Cops Fight Each Other in ‘Grand Theft Auto 5’?

GTA’s Hidden thin blue lines of code.
Image: Grayson Earle

Last year, the video of Derek Chauvin murdering George Floyd sparked another wave of of protest against police violence and its role in upholding systemic racism. Like many people, artist Grayson Earle was deeply affected by the protests playing out in the streets as part of a broader, ongoing struggle for black lives and police accountability. Seeking an emotional outlet, he turned to his favored medium of video games, with a simple goal: to hack Grand Theft Auto V and make the cops beat the crap out of each other, for once.


“I was trying to create this kind of cathartic video art piece, in which the cops would continually come in from all angles, using the GTA engine, and just fight each other over and over again,” Earle said.

There is a large modding community devoted to making GTA do unexpected things, and with the right skills it is a relatively simple task to generate any combination of characters and tell them to fight. But when Earle started poking around under the hood of GTA, he soon realized that the one class of non-player characters that can’t be made to wallop one another in the game are the police. 

“It’s very easy to get, like, a mailman and a cop to fight,” says Earle, “But if you give the exact same code to two police officers, instead of fighting, they’ll run in opposite directions, or they’ll kind of sit there and look at the officer they’ve been instructed to fight or apprehend, even as that officer beats the shit out of some civilian in broad daylight. Which is of course reminiscent of the way the two officers watched George Floyd’s murder, you know?”

Whatever distinguishes police in GTA’s code is deep enough that Earle couldn't find or modify it. Although he couldn’t realize his original vision of internecine pummeling, a new project resulted, called ‘why won’t the cops fight each other?’ 


On one level, it’s a practical question from someone trying to reprogram a game. But for Earle, whose other projects include a game that invites players to launch bankers out of a cannon, and a crypto mining app that passively gathers money for bail funds, it also poses a broader question: in a highly sophisticated simulation of the urban environment, even one that encourages crime and violence as a necessary part of gameplay, why and how do familiar social assumptions and structures of power emerge?

“There are things that cannot be transgressed, even putting the relationship of the police officers aside,” Earle said. “You can only have heterosexual relationships in the game; you can only play as a male character.”

The piece takes the form of a two-screen video installation, which debuted Friday at the Center for Art and Urbanism in Berlin, before moving to Taiwan for installation in, of all places, a former police station. It documents Earle’s efforts at picking a fight among GTA’s NPC police. On one screen, Earle tries repeatedly to break through GTA’s thin blue lines of code, running through a variety of absurd scenarios in pursuit of his desired result. It all culminates in waterfalls of cops raining from the sky and running in opposite directions, as Earle holds down a key in frustration. 

On the other screen, modifications of the code scroll alongside Earle’s questions to the modding community, the same question that now names the project itself. In the online forums, Earle asked other modders why they thought there might be such "hardcoded relationship groups," a coding term that could describe a police union just as easily as a feature of the game. Sometimes, the questions sparked recognition among the modders. "True," wrote one user under the name Aurora11, connecting the behavior of police in GTA with those in their own life experience. "They are driving faster than speed limits, unnecessarily using emergency lanes, cuz they are above the laws. and no one doing anything. One day they were wrote ticket to me because I was using my fog lights, but they are fine with using their blindingly bright emergency lights."

“My piece is obviously trying to take on some naive voice, like, ‘why won’t the cops fight each other?’” Earle said. “It’s just a funny way of engaging a kind of technical community with a very political question, and vice versa, because then the people that are watching the video from an arts context are kind of coming at it from a political perspective, and seeing how those politics are reflected in the actual technical aspects of the game.”

Ultimately the piece raises more questions than it answers. As Earle freely admits, the special status of cops in GTA is not likely part of some deliberately coded political agenda. Just like in real life, the cops play a particular role in the simulation, and their relationship to one another is going to be very different than their relationship to everyone else. And games are notoriously fraught spaces for coherently engaging political or social questions. But if the systems that set authorities apart from everyone else can manifest in a game as supposedly subversive as Grand Theft Auto, it suggests they can show up pretty much anywhere.

“I don’t think there was a meeting at Rockstar Games where they said, ‘yeah, we need to make it work this way,” says Earle. “I kind of got through to an employee through a friend of a friend sort of thing, and I basically asked them if it was true, my assumption, or my discovery, and if they could give me any more insight into why the cops don’t fight each other inside the game. And they basically got back to me saying they’re under a very heavy NDA, but also kind of indicated that I was correct.”