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Can I Buy and Sell Drugs in a Video Game Better Than a Real-Life Dealer?

'Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars' has got me moving acid and coke across Liberty City. But how do my exploits measure up to the real thing?
​ Artwork from 'Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars'

Artwork from 'Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars'

As a little post-Christmas treat to myself, I bought a few old Nintendo DS games to play on my 3DS – useful when your commutes can last two hours at a time. One of these was 2009's Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars, which packs into its tiny cartridge a top-down (but still sort of 3D) version of the Liberty City seen in its bigger brother, Grand Theft Auto IV. You're cast as Huang Lee, the son of a recently murdered Triad boss, who comes to the New York analogue to deliver a ceremonial sword to the new patriarch of the family. Naturally, things don't go entirely to plan – Huang is attacked, the sword lost, and before you can say Hot Coffee the gangland families of Liberty are at each other's throats.


The game's plot is a fun ride, so far, with a bunch of mean Koreans and crooked cops coming into the picture. But one of my main in-game distractions has been Chinatown Wars' drug-dealing mini-game. Early on you get a taste of the money to be made by pushing narcotics, and while you rarely need to do so in order to keep the story going, the option to trade in uppers and downers, ecstasy and coke and weed and more, is always available, with dealers spread across the city.

Having put a little time into my GTA drug empire, I thought I'd ask a flesh-and-blood dealer about how the game's simulation compares to the real thing. Naturally, they're remaining anonymous. And I don't think I can be arrested for selling acid that doesn't actually exist. Right?

VICE: Hello, Entirely Anonymous Drug Dealer. What sort of products would you say you typically trade in these days?
Entirely Anonymous Drug Dealer: Well, it's been a while, but I've been dabbling in dealing since uni. Back then it was mainly MDMA, and weed as well, and since then I've personally dealt mostly in amphetamines.

So I've been playing this old Grand Theft Auto, with its built-in drug-dealing game. Buy low and sell high, you know how it goes. My first deal was acid. Everything's in "bags" in the game, and I buy a bunch of these bags for $20 [€18] and sell each one for $25 [€23], making me five dollars of profit on each. Does that sound like a good deal to you?
If it's sold in bags, I'd say that'd be tabs, because otherwise it comes in a liquid. If it's a bag of tabs, and you're only making a 25 percent profit on each deal, I'd say that wasn't so great. On hallucinogens, you can expect better. I've sold TCB before, which is kind of like a hallucinogen mixed with an amphetamine, and you'd expect to make 50 percent profit on each deal there, as the drug's quite rare. Stuff like MDMA, coke and pills, that's everywhere, so you make less of a profit on them.


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Well, that was my first deal in the game. Later I got some downers – again, a few bags of them – for $3 [€2.7] a time, and I sold them all for a $20 [€18] profit on each. So, percentage wise, that's pretty good, isn't it?
On downers? That'd be something like ketamine or Valium – these are dissociatives, so they take you out of the state you're in. They literally bring you down. So, you made $20 [€18] profit on each one? That's a lot, for downers. Ketamine used to be pretty expensive, and was fairly recently when there was a bit of a drought in London, but it's usually sold at about £20 [€26,7] a gramme, which is really cheap. MDMA, for example, is double that for the same amount. So that's a massive profit. You did well on that one.

At one point in the game I get an email – this guy's shifting coke for $5 [€4,6] a time, in amounts that have a street value of $791 [€726] a time. Again, these are "bags". But that's too good to be true, obviously. It's a bust and I have to flee the cops, albeit with the drugs still in my possession. Now, when a deal's something like that in real life, I'm guessing it's always going to be a setup?
That is alarm bells. Dealing is simple, really, and regardless of it being a black market, it's still a market. If someone's giving you a deal like that, which really seems too good to be true, then there's always a reason. It might be a bust, or a dodgy batch, or it's really hot because the seller's stolen it off someone else. And by accepting it and then selling it on yourself, you're liable to get fucked over pretty badly.


If you could really multiply what you paid for a supply, on a deal, you would though, right?
It might be a risk worth taking. There have been times for me in the past where I've been able to double my money really quickly, and I've gone for it. But you do have to be so quick, and sell everything you have in one go. That's the way to make the bigger money.

Well, when I did make some money, I spent it on more coke. The market in the game was listing a bag of coke at around $800 [€734], and I bought six for $651 [€597] a time. I shopped around a bit and sold each one for $972 [€892], making a profit of amost two grand on the deal. You'd be pretty happy with that, right?
You'd be pretty happy, yeah. You'd expect to make a chunk of profit every time, of course, or why else would you do it? But that kind of money would definitely be something to be chuffed about. It'd be quite a rare occasion, especially on coke – everyone loves it, so it's not hard to get hold of. So for you to make money on something that's so readily available is impressive. Every man and his dog sells coke, basically, especially in London.

Well, the game's set in Liberty City, which is the GTA version of New York.
Ah right, well, the market there pretty much mirrors London – the drug culture is very similar, with a lot of high-earning people in their 20s doing loads of coke on the weekends. It's a comparable vibe, so I imagine their coke intake is pretty similar.


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In the game, you get different prices for your goods in different parts of Liberty City. Different neighbourhoods have different demands. I'm guessing that's the same in London?
Yeah, definitely. There are regional splits when it comes to prices and the quality of the drugs. For example, the only people I know who sell good ketamine are in north London. I have some north London links for coke, but you'll get much better stuff south of the river. That's based on where most of the stuff is, and certain areas have reputations for a certain kind of drug. If you wanna get way better stuff, you're going to have to travel. You're always moving from place to place, from borough to borough, because different people will be running things in each place, and cutting their stuff their own ways. At the end of the day, there are always one or two big shipments that get cut, and cut, and cut by people, before it reaches you. If you're in the borough where the shipment is, you might get better stuff, stronger stuff. If you sell drugs that have been cut shit loads you might make a nice profit on them, but nobody's going to come back to you to buy again. Cut it less, you'll make less money, but you'll have that returning trade.

So it's like fish, right? A week passes since you know the last shipment of delicious fresh fish came in, and you're a lot less likely to touch the stuff.
(Laughs) Yeah, sort of. The best thing to do is always get your stuff straight from the source, but that's really hard these days, unless you're on the Silk Road, on the darknet.


Right. My two grand coke profit, then, would you say that's a better deal than most real-life dealers would get? At least dealers who've only been doing it for a few days?
Definitely. It's more than you'd usually get, in the real world. You have out drug-dealt a drug dealer, congratulations.


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