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Class Struggle From the Couch

On Sept. 17, Grand Theft Auto V, the latest installment in the wildly popular criminal wish-fulfillment franchise, will be released for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360, perhaps as one of the final major games of the current console generation. If you’re a leftist, there are a lot of things you could hate about the series. It glorifies an underground capitalism in which the black-market bourgeoisie are the ostensible heroes, among many, many other reactionary things. But frankly if you only allowed yourself to enjoy art that’s politically unobjectionable you would be left with a pretty small selection that’s kind of–what’s the word? Oh right…boring. At least that’s how I feel.

Maybe it’s because I have little to no life–I’ve got an OK Cupid account, for Christ’s sake! But I’m a guy who’s pumped about the release of GTA V. And I thought I’d take the opportunity to briefly look at the way the developer behind the title, Rockstar Games, has dealt with socialist themes in the past. Because, who knows, GTA V might have similar references and video games are an important and growing medium.

Red Dead Redemption, published by Rockstar, is a 2010 action/adventure game inspired by the spaghetti westerns of filmmakers such as Sergio Leone. Now, you should know: despite my enthusiasm for GTA V, I’m not a die-hard gamer. I haven’t played everything out there, or even close. I got bored and gave up during the opening character creation sequence of Skyrim, a game which, as I understand it, hardcore reviewers had a collective nerdgasm over. But I LOVED RDR. And yes, the caps lock is necessary. The story-line, graphics, and voice acting are pretty darn good and overall it’s a joy to play. So if you have any interest in wasting your life in a virtual world, seriously consider giving RDR a shot.

Anyway, part of the game is set in the Mexican Revolution. It’s my understanding that some of the characters are based on real-life figures but I’ll leave discussion of RDR’s historical accuracy to those with more knowledge on the subject. I am, sadly, just another dumb gringo. My main goal here is to draw leftist attention to a popular but critically underappreciated form.

RDR’s central protagonist is a bounty hunter named John Marston. Asked whether he is a socialist, he explains, “I’m many things, most of them bad. But a man of political principals? No.” Marston initially fights on both sides of the conflict before throwing in his lot with the rebels, seemingly more out of personal loyalty than ideological conviction.

Rockstar portrays the Mexican dictatorship as brutally corrupt, though eventually paints the rebel leadership as little better. Similarly, the publisher seems sympathetic to the revolutionary rank-and-file, while also suggesting they are naive. Luisa Fortuna, a selfless peasant fighter, is perhaps the game’s most uniformly likable character. She speaks passionately of the struggle, declaring, “I am living in history. I’m not afraid to die.” At the same time however, she speaks glowingly of the local guerrilla leader who, coming from an upper-class family, is revealed to be using Fortuna sexually and something of a political tyrant-in-waiting.

In the end, Rockstar sides with the rebels, but quite unenthusiastically. Whether this is an appropriate position is a question I’ll leave for those with more knowledge of Mexico’s history. But the publisher seems to go further, cynically suggesting government can never be representative of the people’s interests, no matter the consequences, no matter how much the masses struggle. This, of course, leaves no room for progressive change.

L.A. Noir, also published by Rockstar, is a 2011 pulpy period piece set in the 1940s. While I have admittedly not finished it, so far it’s not fractionally as fun as RDR. There’s very little overarching story or character development to propel you forward, and the cases you work through could probably be played in any sequence, as you might watch the TV show Law & Order, without missing much.

One investigation could be interpreted as a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it criticism of Red Scare hysteria The central protagonist, a police officer named Cole Phelps, investigates a series of suspicious fires he believes to be connected. The game leads you to charge a low-level gas company employee found in possession of anarchist pamphlets, specifically Peter Kropotkin’s Law and Authority. And if I’m following the game’s twists and turns correctly, which I very well may not be, he’s actually innocent.

Another investigation, however, introduces us to a communist character who, while also falsely charged, is probably by far the most unflattering representation of a leftist in both L.A. Noir and RDR. The guy’s insufferably snotty and just in case you didn’t pick this up from what he says, he’s wearing an ascot. I mean, an ascot? Isn’t that a little too on the nose? But it doesn’t stop there. He looks down on working class people and beats women. Just in case you didn’t get that he was a monstrous hypocrite too.

Anyway, do you know of different games, by Rockstar or other publishers, that deal with socialism, socialists, or class struggle more generally? Are you similarly psyched for GTA V?

Jon Hochschartner is a freelance writer from upstate New York.

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