For the past six weeks I have been leading a double life. Most of the time I am Eli Lake, national security reporter for the Daily Beast. But for a few nights a week, I become Xe BlackH20, a car thief and hit man trying to make it on the mean streets of Los Santos.
On October 1, Rockstar released the online version of Grand Theft Auto V, the most popular video game in history. Unlike the “story mode” of the video game where players test their skills against computer generated cops and gangsters, in the online version of fictional Los Angeles we also get to kill and rob each other.
I participated in street races and “death matches.” I accepted “missions,” such as murdering a witness in an upcoming trial, stealing methamphetamines from a biker gang and assaulting an Air Force base with some friends to explode a few fighter jets. Run of the mill stuff for a fantasy crime world.
I was not very good at it. I lost more than 90 percent of the street races I entered. I usually had to replay missions several times before I completed the stated objectives. My cars are nothing special. But the worst part in these early days was that I was easy prey.
Los Santos online is a Hobbesian world. I have been killed at construction sites from well placed snipers. I have died when other players affixed magnetic sticky bombs to the cars I have stolen. I have been killed in the country and in the city, in warehouses and in open fields.
One of the joys of GTA is that there are no significant consequences. When you die, you respawn. The only penalty for death is that GTA dollars are taken out of your in-game account. If you die enough times, all the money you “earned” is eventually depleted.
It creates an un-virtuous cycle for rookies like me. The players with more money purchase better weapons, better cars and better body armor. Meanwhile I was still riding around in my barely modified firebird (in the game it’s known as the Imponte Ruiner) like a sitting duck.
The worst is the bounty system. When a bounty is placed on your head, you appear to the other players in the game as a red dot on the GPS mini-map on the left hand corner of your screen. This means that everyone else cruising the city has an added incentive to murder you.
The experience of being hunted is enhanced when you play with a headset. Depending on the setting this allows the gamer to actually listen to his assailant. One of the rare times I succeeded in killing another player, he respawned and proceeded to kill me five times in a row. All the while, my tormentor kept saying, “When will you learn, when will you learn.” Message received Ninjagamer3600.
For a while, I thought my lackluster run in Los Santos was because I lacked the skills. But then I learned about “glitching,” the exploitation of programming bugs that can provide a windfall of GTA money. Until early November it was very easy to accumulate a large amount of money by selling, and re-selling highly modified cars. I won’t get into the details but let’s just say I went from pauper to prince in a few short hours.
In real life, the sudden accumulation of wealth may lead one to buy nice clothes, take a vacation, give to a charity or make sound investments. But in the world of grand theft auto, I spent my glitched cash on more lethal goods and services. I purchased a tank. I purchased an attack helicopter. I purchased a sniper rifle. Those were the goods. As for the services, I now had money to send mercenaries and airstrikes against players I did not like. Yes, the game has something called “Merryweather Security” because “everybody needs a private army.”
It was payback time. I went after as many of my tormentors as I could find. I no longer worried about dying either. With millions in my in game account, why did it matter? It was exhilarating going from hunted to hunter. Nor did I feel any guilt about cheating. This is, after all, a game where you pretend to be a criminal.
But the joke it turns out was on me. Once the challenge was removed, the game stopped being fun. After a while it gets boring coming up with new ways to kill other players.
So I turned to an internet forum to get some new ideas about how to spice things up for my new glitched life in GTA V. In a thread titled, “what’s the worst thing you’ve ever done to another player?,” I did not find the answer I was seeking.
A player who goes by biggsull, an “Irish Republican sympathizer” shared how he kept hearing the distinctive voice of a toddler mumbling into the microphone of the headset of a grown up when he was playing once. “So instead of muting him,” he wrote. “I asked what did he think child protective services would think about his kid being in front of that game while he plays it…” Biggsull acknowledged that he felt pretty bad about this. But then he added, “with all the school shootings and stuff, kids who can’t even speak shouldn’t be exposed to that kind of thing.”
Well there is no doubt about that. But it’s a line I have no intention of crossing. It’s mean to blow up someone’s car or spray another player with bullets. But reminding a fellow gamer that all of this virtual fun could be at the expense of the next generation? Well there are limits, even in Los Santos.