There’s a term that comes from the fields of robotics and 3D animation, “the uncanny valley,” that describes a phenomenon whereby people tend to be revolted when artificial intelligence (AI) possess features that move and look almost, but not exactly, as humans. When a computer looks so much like a human that you expect it to have authentic human tendencies, but then it doesn’t, it kinda skeeves people out.
That’s how I felt playing through Grand Theft Auto V, stuck in an emotional uncanny valley. Because the advanced technology of acting-through-motion-capture produces characters who look, move, and speak in stunningly realistic-looking ways. In the myriad of cutscenes, with clever dialogue that rings true, these characters seem plenty lifelike. But their words and attitudes, relative to the context of their actions (and those of their enemies)… that’s what loses me. Though they look so authentic and lifelike, the characters of GTA V do not exist in an emotional plane that in any way approaches reality, because it is not normal for human beings, even emotionally scarred, degenerate criminals, to so casually and repeatedly steal and kill with so little fear of reprisal from the authorities. Even in the many car chases involving police, the necessities of managing interesting and effective gameplay mitigate against the illusion of moral and legal gravity. I mean honestly, in what universe would police stop looking for a suspect after only five minutes of a citywide manhunt?
Even toward the end of the story, when [SPOILER ALERT] one character is tempted to turn on the other, the cinematic cues are meant to convey that these are “big important emotional moments,” but why would they be? If you’re willing to kill literally anyone who gets in your way of a big score, why would it matter if it’s someone you used to work with?
These may seem like niggling complaints, but they illuminate the larger problem. For a game that has gone to almost immeasurable lengths to create a world that looks incredibly realistic, the characters of GTA behave amazingly unrealistically. And this problem is what breaks the suspension of disbelief and takes you out of the game experience. The only way to truly enjoy the game, then, is to manually turn off that moral/ethical warning light by remembering that it’s just a game, and resuming your vehicular mayhem undeterred.
But I could see how, over time, the game’s simplified moral code could produce a sort of lazy way of thinking. After all, who needs to learn how to solve complex problems or increase their middle management skills if all it takes to solve problems are bigger guns and faster cars? This mental coddling isn’t necessarily as much of a problem if you’re talking about gun violence or auto safety, because most adult gamers have the ability to maintain the moral duality of law-abiding in real life while being an outlaw during the game. But what about when you’re talking about racial issues, or sexual politics?
In both cases, the game’s writers touch on the topics, but only superficially, in ways that are played for laughs. This isn’t necessarily a failing, for perhaps a nuanced examination of racial issues is too much to ask for from a blockbuster video game, though perhaps the people behind Assassins Creed III might beg to differ. But it does represent a cultural blind spot, not only for Rockstar’s creative staff, but for its fans.
The fact that a major title like GTA can win so much critical acclaim despite having the potential to alienate so many women gamers, just goes to show you that technical achievement and misogyny often occupy the same creative space. It also goes to show that as a society, our critical media engagement skills have regressed to such an extent that we can’t tell the difference between gleeful, satirical takedowns of a particular cultural element and the glamorous celebrations of the same (which, by the way, is one of the reasons why Dave Chappelle left Comedy Central). Despite the satirical elements lampooning contemporary society on the TV and radio stations of Los Santos, the GTA worldview suggests that effective problem solving is done by shooting first and asking questions later. Living in a nation where young black men are often killed by gun violence, I find that mentality distasteful, and I have to endure quite a bit of cognitive dissonance to enjoy it, even in jest. If this is the ultimate wish fulfillment of the average American male, we need to learn to aim higher.
As an African-American, I also had a decidedly mixed reaction to most of the game’s black characters, primarily consisting of protagonist Franklin and his homie Lamar. On the one hand, it felt familiar, and I enjoyed that part of it. Any fan of the classic 90s oeuvre of hood movies set in South Central LA (Boyz N the Hood, Menace II Society, Friday, etc.) will appreciate the interplay between Franklin and Lamar. It’s clear that Rockstar allowed their voice actors a fair amount of leeway in interpreting the script in order to make it sound true to life.
At the same time, however, I began to wonder if characters like these are the modern equivalent of minstrel shows, useful only insomuch as they reinforce negative stereotypes. Watching scene after scene of Franklin and Lamar exchange profanity-laced salvos and bromides, it occurred to me – these guys might be the dirty laundry that Bill Cosby was talking about. I felt like I needed to atone by eating a Jell-O pudding pop.
So, on balance, to the question of “do I recommend playing Grand Theft Auto V,” I offer a resounding “maybe.”
Should you buy it for your kids? Of course not. Shame on you for asking.
(But I didn’t ask, you say? Nonsense. You were thinking it, I’m sure.)
Assuming you’re an adult, then I say, “perhaps yes,” but with some qualifiers. As a Christian, I try to remember Paul’s admonition that everything may be legally available to me, but not everything will be beneficial for me. When he said that, Paul was teaching about sexual immorality, and comparing it to the intake of food. His point was that all of the things we do are subject to the lordship of Christ, and we should act accordingly.
That doesn’t mean that there’s no way to enjoy GTA V with a regenerated mindset. On the contrary, there is a vast amount of creativity on display, particularly in the way the immense worlds of Los Santos and accompanying Blaine County are rendered. Gleaming skyscrapers, vivid sunsets, majestic mountains, graceful viaducts… GTA V can feel at times less like a game and more like a vacation. You can parachute, you can play tennis or golf, you can swim or do yoga… it’s amazing, really.
But as you interact with the story, and maybe even feel a certain amount of pathos for the main characters, you must not accept all of their underlying values and premises. Unlike Franklin, you must exercise caution and discernment regarding the people with whom you associate, lest you get roped into their drama proving how much you’re “down.” Unlike Michael, you must be willing to take responsibility for your prior misdeeds, and accept that marriage and family life doesn’t exist solely for your fulfillment as a husband and father. Unlike Trevor, you mustn’t be such a homicidal maniac that even your friends are legitimately frightened by your everyday behavior (okay, so that one is easy).
Most of all, you can’t allow the game to coddle you into a false sense of agency and competence. Have fun with it, but don’t let it take over your life. Remember that actions have consequences, people are more than polygons, and men who choose only relate to women as sexual objects will eventually find themselves dissatisfied with the hypersexualized female apparitions that most video games pass off as women.
In short, be careful what you wish for, and you’ll make it through Los Santos just fine.
 Speaking of mayhem, how awesome would it have been if GTA hired Dean Winters to reprise his role as the Allstate mayhem guy in a series of TV commercials for the leading San Andreas auto insurance company? Get on that, Rockstar!