All 'Grand Theft Auto Online' screenshots captured by the author; 'Grand Theft Auto Online' is published by Rockstar Games.
Thousands of people have so far put themselves forward to join the Reaper Lords, the best-known motorcycle club in Grand Theft Auto Online – but only a handful will make the cut. "Ninety-eight percent of people who apply won't be accepted," Dirty Worka, Sergeant at Arms of the Los Santos charter, tells me. There are currently 27 people in this charter, and a little over 100 spread across the game's entire play area, on its PlayStation 4 and Xbox One versions. But for just a couple of hours, I was one of them, invited by Dirty Worka to ride with the Los Santos bikers, learning lessons in respect, humility and brotherhood along the way – which I definitely was not anticipating from what is, basically, just another video game clan. Except, to the Reaper Lords, it's much more than that: "We know we take this too seriously," Dirty says, "and we're fine with that."
GTA developers Rockstar recently added an entire update for Online, dedicated to bikers – the wait for which has been long for the most avid members of its two-wheels community. Earlier in 2016, dozens of in-game MCs banded together to petition Rockstar for more bike-themed content. Thousands of signatures were collected, and eventually the studio responded: in came new vehicles, weapons, clothing, tattoos, and even the ability to form your own official in-game motorcycle club with its own clubhouse. The Reaper Lords are extremely pleased with the new content, and happy that other people are enjoying it too. However, when it comes to what they call "DLC MCs", they'll be "happier when they go back to their cars and rocket launchers," says Dirty. The Reaper Lords were keen to show me both what's new in the game, and what they get up to on a daily basis.
When I arrive at the exterior of the clubhouse, it looks like a scene set up from the single player version of the game. By the gate are two brown-jacketed men with shotguns, silently facing away into the street. Beyond, outside a cluster of warehouses, a perfect line of leather-clad men and women await my arrival. In front of them stands Dirty Worka, who gives me the rundown on how the Reaper Lords operates. "This club is run better than most real-life companies," I'm told – and I see that in action.
"These are the brownjackets," Dirty says, pointing to the motionless guards outside the club who could easily be mistaken for NPCs. They're the new recruits, the prospects, hoping to soon earn their patches and full membership to the club. "We torture these guys," Dirty continues; "it's horrible."
The prospects do as they're told, and they don't speak unless spoken to. One of them has been in this position for around a month, and soon the higher-ranking members of the club will be voting on whether he can join permanently. The new recruits are expected to pay attention, learn the rules and pass the tests. They have to learn how to ride in formation – and that means using proper "trigger control". Braking suddenly while you're in a formation ride will cause crashes, so new riders have to learn how to go round corners while feathering the throttle. They'll be taken on test rides, do laps of a track, park up properly, do laps of the track in the opposite direction, park up again, and so on. "After six to eight weeks we actually learn their names and what they're like," Dirty says.
The time's come to hit the road. "Reaper Lords, form up on this line," Dirty barks. I haven't come with wheels of my own, so I climb onto the back of one of the brownjackets' rides. Around the back of the clubhouse, everyone has perfectly parked their motorcycles in rows, and the engines soon roar into life as the riders form two lines back at the gate – brownjackets at the rear, of course. The Road Captain, named Swifty, takes point and calls out directions as we roll out. This being a video game, with occasional bad judgement from AI drivers, a couple of crashes are inevitable, however organised the MC members are. "Lord down, Lord down" – the call goes down the line whenever anyone falls off. The crew stops and waits for everyone to get back into position before riding off again.
Eventually, it becomes clear the lowly brownjackets' vehicles can't keep up with the modified bikes of the patches proper, and I was upgraded to the back of FireFoxKitt's ride. She's the longest-serving member of the Los Santos charter, and she tells me a little about herself, as do the other members around us. Each of them speaks incredibly highly of the Reaper Lords, and they're all proud to be part of what they consider the biggest and best club in GTA Online. But their involvement goes beyond fictional fame and glory. "If I've got trouble in my personal life, I go to my brothers and sisters in the club," says FireFoxKitt. "They give me great advice, and they often judge you less than your real life friends and family."
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After a ride out of the city and up into the more remote areas of the map, we reach a ranch where a lot of Reaper Lord activities take place. First up is Fight Club – the rules of which don't really get discussed, incidentally. The first two players to enter the ring are a couple of new prospects. After around 20 seconds of running at each other and flailing, the higher-ranking members are getting bored. It becomes apparent that these players' in-game targeting systems are set to the wrong priority, so they can't actually hit each other, at all.
"Are you guys trying to embarrass this club right now?" The gruff voice is followed by sudden gunfire and a moment later both prospects are dead on the floor. If you step out of line as a prospect, you will get punished. Break the rules, and you're put on probation for at least a week. While on probation, you might be given tasks to perform: you could be asked to rob all the stores in Los Santos and donate the money to the club, or you could be told to run laps of a track. I'm told that worst punishment is to walk up to the peak of Mount Chiliad.
A few rounds of Fight Club later, I'm asked to step into the ring. I make sure my targeting priority is right, but it doesn't matter: I'm beaten down within seconds. I perform marginally better at "jousting", although I still lose. Along a dirt track that runs next to the Fight Club ring, two members ride at full speed towards each other and try and kill their opponent with a sawed-off shotgun. A new variant involves a tomahawk, one of the weapons added in the game's recent update. I'm loaned a bike so that I can take part, and take my place at the one end of the track. While the people in front of me took their turns, I'm told more about the Reaper Lords' code when it comes to weapons.
The Reaper Lords are a "1% Club", meaning they only enter free-aim lobbies and abhor the use of assisted aim and auto-lock on (in real-world MCs, being in the 1% is said to mean you operate outside of the law). In a public lobby, they won't fire unless fired upon, but will respond with force if provoked. If an enemy is in a vehicle, pretty much any weapon is fair game – but against on-foot opponents, Reaper Lords are only allowed to use the assault rifle or pump shotgun. "For us, it's more challenging to live to a code," says Dirty Worka. He recalls the countless times he's been shot at by jets, or killed just so someone can take a picture and post it online boasting about their achievement of besting a Reaper Lord. In addition, while they have no problem with it, the Reaper Lords pride themselves on not being a "copycat club" like those based on the Sons of Anarchy or Hells Angels. "We set the standard," says Rusty Cage, Vice President of the LS charter, "and everybody follows off our coattails."
Back at the clubhouse, I spend some time just relaxing with the Reaper Lords. They've got a bar, obviously, and there's arm wrestling and darts to keep members entertained. At the back there's a garage where everyone can show off their latest wheels. I sit down with the club around a meeting table emblazoned with their logo, and learn about the friendlier side to the MC, what goes on when they're not hazing new recruits. Much like real-world MCs, the Lords do a lot of charity work, including a benefit ride in 2015 for Anthony Parello, a young boy who needed a liver transplant. "He's like a little brother to us," says Dirty, who also recounts details of the work they've done for The Make a Wish Foundation. Next up is a ride for Breast Cancer Research, taking place on October the 22nd.
Many of the Reaper Lords are friends in real life, and often meet up with one another. I'm told about one member who hooked another up with a job in a different state. They also talk about how the club came together in aid of one member who went through a period of intense personal tragedy. These are people from all walks of life, living all around the world. Some of them are real bikers, others just gamers, but they see each other as family.
As we sit around the table, one player called Sweef sums it all up perfectly. "Some people say it's just a game. Well, it is just a game, but the brotherhood is real."
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