Grand Theft Auto V is, among many other things, the most immersive simulation of Southern California — and Los Angeles — ever created. And people on the internet have started to read into the game some of that region's most vexed dynamics, particularly the relationship between police and people of color.
Franklin, one of the game's three playable characters, is black, and as the MacArthur fellow Mike Davis wrote in his seminal history of L.A., City of Quartz, "Since the early 1950s, the LAPD has been regarded by L.A.'s Black community as a redneck army of occupation."
Dozens of tweets and forum posts, sampled below, detail how players believe that Franklin is treated differently from the other two, white, playable characters, by the Los Santos Police Department (the game's stand-in for the LAPD):
So, I was strolling down a boulevard, innocuous as any upstanding citizen, and suddenly, a white man begins assaulting me, making me flee as he pursued me with his frantic violence. Abruptly, I have 1 star - absolutely no reason besides the fact a citizen reported the situation and I was presumed the culprit... and the cops arrive. As I'm innocent, I raise my hands, knowing they'll understand, but they abruptly say 'HE HAS A WEAPON' whilst I'm unarmed, opening fire.....
2 minutes later, I'm running down an alley as eight LAPD cops are behind me, GUNS DRAWN, and I still have absolutely no clue as to why. "Is it because I am black? Is this what happens? They think I am immediately guilty? I am armed? I am a huge threat? I've done something?" I see an escape, a rooftop with a ladder up it, and I begin climbing, but the police murder me - shooting me in the back multiple times as an 'armed suspect'..... execution-style as I have my back to them.
I was driving around as Franklin and stopped at a gas station in a more rural part of town. Got out of my car, walked up to this white trash woman. The fella she was with punched her in the face, ran away, she looks at me, calls the cops. 1 star."
I've played more than 40 hours of GTA V, and I've experienced this kind of aggressive police behavior and emergent violence while playing as all three characters. But are these people simply extra-sensitive to the way the game treats Franklin, or are they noticing something real? "This is absolutely false, the in-game police don't treat one lead character any differently from the others," Rockstar said in a statement.
One answer may have to do with the area in which Franklin spends a lot of his time: South Los Santos, the game's version of L.A.'s historically crime-plagued South Side. A higher percentage of non-player characters in South Los Santos carry guns, and a higher percentage of the dynamic events in this game region involve violence than in the areas of the game meant to simulate, say, Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. If you lead the police on a chase into South Los Santos with any character, not just Franklin, the gang members who are programmed to carry guns will fire on the police, who will, of course, fire back. A lot of Franklin's early missions take place here, and so it seems natural that more players would see this kind of emergent dynamic between his character, GTA's gang members, and GTA's police.
But what is even more interesting has to do with what players are bringing to the game, not what GTA is bringing to players. GTA V is such a comprehensive and seamless recreation of the region that it seems as if players cannot leave behind their preconceived, real-world notions about race and crime when they play the game. And that may ultimately be a credit to the game, that Rockstar has created a world so immersive that people credit it with verisimilitude beyond even its own massive reach.
So even though there is no differential treatment programmed into the game, in a way it won't matter to the countless gamers who will continue to experience GTA V through their unique perspectives:
Joe Bernstein is a senior technology reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in New York. Bernstein reports on and writes about the gaming industry and web culture.
Contact Joseph Bernstein at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Got a confidential tip? Submit it here.