When I play Grand Theft Auto, I can be a strong, powerful, virtual bad ass.
The first time we played Grand Theft Auto, my boyfriend and I took turns driving a stolen black sports car down some roads and freeways. I was wobbly at first, accidentally slamming into a few neighboring cars, but got the hang of it pretty quickly.
During my boyfriend’s turn, I admired his technique as he skillfully navigated the game’s streets. For the most part.
“You’re getting awfully close to that pedestrian,” I said as I watched him steer the car down a narrow lane.
“It’s OK,” he assured me.
The car got closer and closer to the virtual man, who was just walking down the street, minding his own virtual business. Then, the car slammed into him. His body bounced off the roof and landed behind it in a pool of animated blood.
“Oh my god! How could you do that?” I gasped.
“He’s not real,” my boyfriend said, laughing a little. “It’s not like I ran over someone in real life.”
It’s probably important to note here that the kinds of video games I typically enjoy feature chubby plumbers and cute green dinosaurs. As a general rule, I avoid gratuitous violence in my media consumption. I have anxiety issues, so watching a lot of violence can make me extra nervous and paranoid about the world around me. I’ve made exceptions for things like Game of Thrones and The Hunger Games that captivate me and include violence because it’s integral to their brutal fictional universes. But for the most part, I stick with comedies and lighter dramas.
So I was understandably apprehensive when my boyfriend suggested that I play the newest Grand Theft Auto with him. I was surprised he even liked that sort of game given how much of a sensitive, laid-back pacifist he is in reality. I didn’t know much about the world of violent gaming and personally couldn’t comprehend the appeal of spending hours pretending to shoot people. I also knew the game had garnered criticism for not presenting women in the best light.
Still, it seemed to mean a lot to my boyfriend to share GTA V with me. He promised me that he would limit his unnecessary acts of violence when we played together. He also wasn’t sure I’d like the single player story mode, which only allows you to play as three specific male characters embarking on set journeys; the other option was GTA Online, an open world filled with other players.
At first, I was mostly interested in designing my character, then buying her clothes, cars, and an apartment to live in. It was kind of like playing The Sims. After a few weeks, I bought my own copy of the game and my first gaming headset. That way, my boyfriend and I could play on our own consoles when we were apart and go on adventures together. We spent hours driving around Los Santos, which was modeled after Los Angeles, where both of us live. Then we’d go shopping or hang out in one of our apartments, watching GTA’s version of TV. It was pretty much what we did in real life.
The problem was that when we were in the open online mode, it was a lot harder not to utilize the weapon feature of the game. People were assholes. When we were walking or driving down the street, players shot at us constantly for no reason whatsoever. Because I barely knew how to use my starter handgun, my boyfriend would avenge my inevitable death by immediately gunning down my assailant with a weapon from his extensive arsenal. Then we returned to going about our non-violent business.
Although my boyfriend enjoyed being my bodyguard, I didn’t like how helpless and vulnerable I felt sometimes when wandering around the game. One time, a random player with some ridiculous username like “BlazeItUp420” got a little too close to me, so my boyfriend shot him, point-blank, in the head. The poor guy didn’t even see it coming.
“Why did you do that?” I yelled, watching the avatar slump to the ground.
“I was trying to protect you. He might have shot you.”
My boyfriend was becoming a little too overprotective of virtual me. It was clearly time for me to learn how to take care of myself.
I’m against guns in real life, but I couldn’t think of any good reason not to utilize one for self-defense in the confines of a video game. That’s when I learned about the GTA most people are familiar with. My boyfriend helped me pick out fancy, high tech guns. We practiced shooting at targets, and then characters. I was terrible at it, not used to all the crazy combinations of buttons I had to push to take out, aim, and fire my gun, but when I did manage to kill someone, I felt very proud of myself.
It didn’t take long before the two of us were stealing cars, robbing liquor stores, and evading law officers together. We flew stolen jets, got into shooting matches with gangs, and jumped off the tops of buildings.
After playing GTA Online for a while, I started to understand some of its appeal. It wasn’t just about randomly going around shooting people and stealing cars. Well, it could be that, but it was really much more. You could do cool things in the game that were hard, impossible, or stupid to do in real life, like parachute out of a plane, bike across a wooden plank between skyscrapers, or buy a super expensive car and smash it into things. GTA’s virtual world was so huge, so well animated, and so much fun to explore.
I looked forward to our GTA Online sessions. In time, I even got used to the simulated violence. Eventually, I could shoot down players who attacked or threatened me with a decent amount of skill and absolutely no reservation.
I wouldn’t say that I am now a fan of violent video games, but seeing that world first-hand helped me realize that they really are just games. I saw my boyfriend shoot down scores of virtual characters, and I knew he was just participating in a simulation of a brutal fictional universe. He plays GTA for the same reason people watch violent TV shows and movies—it’s fascinating, suspenseful, and morbidly entertaining. I understand that better now because I’ve taken part in it myself. I’ve killed dozens of virtual characters, and I don’t feel any more unstable or inclined to commit violent acts in real life. I don’t feel more frightened of the real world as a result of playing either.
Despite being an active player in what’s happening, the virtual element actually makes it less distressing than if I were to watch the same thing acted out by people in a movie or TV show. I don’t feel any sense of control when I watch violence on TV or in movies. When terrible things happen, there’s nothing I can do.
GTA provides an expansive universe where there are exciting adventures, few rules, and no consequences. It’s also a universe where I can shoot the players who attack me and, for just a moment, escape the feelings of helplessness that I battle in the real world everyday. Hell, I can start my own fights and, sometimes, even win them.
Basically, when I play Grand Theft Auto, I can be a strong, powerful, virtual bad ass. And I like that.
Alana Saltz is a writer and editor living in Los Angeles. Her essays have appeared on HelloGiggles, Writing Forward, The Manifest-Station, and more. She has an MFA in Writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and specializes in memoir and young adult fiction. You can visit her website at alanasaltz.com and follow her on Twitter @alanasaltz.