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‘Grand Theft Auto’ Got Me Through Quarantine

How playing a violent video game brought me peace

If you’d rather listen to this essay, you can do so here:

This may sound strange, but I enjoy the idea of playing video games more than actually playing them. It’s been this way since the beginning, when I saw a coin-operated Ms. Pac-Man in the arcade of my youth. Shiny bright pixels, multicolored ghosts, wakka wakka wakka — I placed many quarters on the lip of the machine’s marquee, claiming my turn at the red joystick.

I really sucked at this game.

Except, when it was my turn, I was terrible. The maximum I could ever clear was three boards, and that was after toiling for a good couple weeks and spending a significant amount of my allowance.

I have decent hand-eye coordination, but my timing isn’t the best — though, really, my gaming Achilles’ heel is my penchant for giving up. And it’s not because I don’t have grit. As someone who has published three novels and makes a living writing computer code, let me assure you that I have resiliency and perseverance to a fault. No, I relent because playing video games is indeed a waste of time, and nothing reinforces that old saw more than continuous failure.

And yet when I see an advertisement for a new game, my spirits buoy to inappropriate levels: the bank heist I’ll pull off, the criminals I’ll put away, the horse I’ll ride into the sunset. Why, when I’ll never actually do any of those things because I stink? It’s a trick, of course, fueled by nostalgia. Because I equate video games with those lazy, languorous days of summer vacations and idle channel surfing, my teenage life full of promise and empty of limits, the unplayed video game is potential itself.

During this extended Covid-19 shutdown of social distancing and no travel, I have finally found the wherewithal to play and stay playing video games—one in particular. And it doesn’t matter that I remain controller challenged, because the only game I’m playing is that of a virtual tourist.

Vacationing in Los Santos.

That game is Grand Theft Auto V, and its adjective deserves to modify more than vehicular larceny. What is grand about this game is its sprawling world, the fictional state of San Andreas, a stand-in for Southern California. Los Santos is its Los Angeles, and all parts of that enormous city are here — the glitz of Vinewood (Hollywood), the sands of Vespucci (Venice) Beach, even Little Seoul (Koreatown). The game was released almost a decade ago, so to say I’m late to this party is as severe an understatement as saying this game is a little violent.

Who knew a game about a trio of criminals could be this beautiful?
Little Seoul, in Korean.

Even those not versed in video games should be familiar with the GTA universe, as the series has been the poster child of everything that is objectionable about computerized entertainment. The games all center around criminal activity, and winning them requires a whole lot of killing, stealing, and from what I’ve read about this fifth incarnation, even torturing. Grim stuff, but I’m not doing any of those things, because I’m not interested in winning anything. No, all I want to do is get in my car and drive down the highway with the Pet Shop Boys blasting on the stereo (“In a West End town, a dead-end world/The East End boys and West End girls…”). Time passes more quickly in GTA than in the real world, so in an hour you can drive through the city and up the canyon as night turns to dawn, heading for the morning sun peeking through the clouds. You can almost feel the warm California breeze.

I can do this all day.

I can’t understand how this could ever be possible, but if driving becomes too monotonous, you can take in the city on foot. One of the marvels of GTA V is its first-person camera feature, where you no longer see your character on screen and experience the world through his eyes. There are three movie theaters to visit, playing three different movies. I’ve seen one of them so far, an über-artsy black-and-white film Capolavoro, in which the man speaks in Spanish and the woman in French, though the nostalgic highlight was just seeing my fellow moviegoers sitting in front of me in their non-socially distanced seats. I’ve checked out street festivals, played tennis against a trash-talking lawyer, and golfed nine relaxing holes. On Vinewood Boulevard, I’ve walked up to the Oriental Theatre (a Grauman’s Chinese Theatre knockoff) and followed the stars on the Walk of Fame like the rest of the gabbing, selfie-taking tourists. It’s beginning to feel very much like a real vacation.

As you can see, I’m not the only one taking photos!
Only in my dreams do I have perfect courts like this.

Even though a GPS exists within the game, only mission-related points of interest are shown, so driving to the Kortz Center (the Getty Center), an arts and entertainment museum, requires a bit more effort (Google). I didn’t arrive until two in the morning, but no worries — as long as I ducked the security guard, I had the run of the place. The modern architecture is breathtaking, though I was disappointed that none of the exhibitions could be experienced. Pharaoh’s Riches, a journey through the Egyptian dynasties, would’ve been right up my alley, but that’s all right. There are still vast swaths of blackness on my Los Santos map, so many places I haven’t yet visited. Like the VINEWOOD sign on the side of a hill, as large and as white as its HOLLYWOOD counterpart, which I’ve seen in the glittering brightness of the noontime sun as well as enveloped in the softness of dusk, but I have yet to stand next to it. Tomorrow. That’s where I’ll go tomorrow.

Tomorrow.

Beneath the dark heart of this glossy city are assassinations and bank jobs, gang wars and meth labs, but they can wait. They can all wait, because right now, all I want to do is drive.

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Sung J. Woo

Sung J. Woo

Novelist (Skin Deep, Love Love, Everything Asian), essayist (New York Times, Vox), occasional traveler. www.sungjwoo.com

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