Can Immigration Be a Game?

Written by - Tyler Palmese


Edgy, gritty, and highly offensive, Grand Theft Auto V is no stranger to controversy. It has been the subject of numerous attacks in the gaming industry, resulting in major distributors like Target pulling the title off shelves in late 2014 for its over-the-top depiction of violence, sex, and torture. But despite the negative connotation the game has received over the past few years, I would argue that Grand Theft Auto V should be viewed through a different, much more critical lens. Instead of focusing on the “shock value” and cheap laughs the game provides, Grand Theft Auto V could be seen, for the purposes of this essay, as a commentary on contemporary social issues in the United States—specifically immigration. Much to developer Rockstar’s avail, many of their successful IPOs are thematically rooted within a particular historical and/or cultural context; for example the previous iteration of the serious critically challenged the conceptualization and practicality of the “American Dream” through the perspective of a man escaping a war-torn country. GTAV is similar and can be interpreted as another critical challengeof the United States, except the focus this time is on the hypocrisy of the “American Reality”.

There are two primary goals for this essay. First, to critically engage with the public perception of immigration through the analysis Grand Theft Auto V. Through this analysis, I’ll place Grand Theft Auto V in its historical and cultural context amid the already increasing discourse around immigration in the media. Second, I’ll draw conclusions on the potential impact video games can have on debates such as this given its unique place within the world of mass media.

The following passages will contain a selection of video clips I’ve directly captured from the game that highlight specific issues and more importantly, the rhetoric surrounding this particular debate. The footage has been roughly edited into a narrative that covers three main topics; the first discusses the historical claims made by the characters and the racial implications/subtle ironies of the immigration issue, the second focuses on the experience of the interaction one has with this particular set of missions, the final addresses the perception of immigration as it's presented in the media in an attempt to establish Grand Theft Auto V as a truly viable source for critical analysis.

When viewing these clips, I would ask you to keep an open mind about what you’re seeing. Some of the content may, and will be disturbing to viewers. Others may find it utterly hilarious. I only ask that instead of viewing this particular video as a source of entertainment, as one would view a television show like South Park, you retain your critical lens and focus on what’s being said in the particular moment it’s being said. Remember, video games have the unique ability of breaking the fourth wall for viewers, engaging the audience at all times. This is an interactive experience in which I, the author, have full action over my abilities, yet I’m subjected to a particular narrative. It may be difficult to translate this to a conventional audience because you are not subjected to my experience, but superimpose your being into my shoes and feel free to examine the complexity of not only hearing the anti-immigration rhetoric of the game’s characters, but actually contributing to it as well.

The Historical Claim of the Civil Border Patrol:

Let’s start off with a brief contextualization of the characters in the following scene. First, the player assumes the role of one of the game’s three protagonists, Trevor. I use the term“protagonist” loosely here because Trevor is by all accounts a psychopathic criminal. For the lesser part of the past two decades, this character has been traveling throughout the games’ fictional representation of Los Angeles robbing banks, distributing methamphetamines and actively engaging in unwarranted acts of sexual/physical violence against men and women alike.He was originally born in Canada and immigrated to the United States sometime within the past twelve years. Throughout the entire narrative of Grand Theft Auto V, Trevor maintains his status as an undocumented immigrant to the United States. Keep this in mind while viewing the video. His legal status in the United States helps establish one of the key ironies of his encounter with the following two characters.

In this first selection of clips, you are introduced to a man named Joe, a United States Park Ranger who leads the “Civil Border Patrol”, a group tasked hunting down “illegal immigrants” and deporting them back to their country of origin. His accomplice, a man named Josef, was born in Russia and, just like your character, immigrated to the United States. While his legal status is unknown to the player, we know that his characterization conflicts with his ideals. He is fanatically obsessed with the idea of assimilation and being an American, however despite his immigrant background, he himself does not speak English.

Let’s reflect on Josef’s opening dialogue:

“We are here to keep America pure. This is manifest destiny. A proud land where Europeans can commit genocide and call it God’s will”

The first statement repeats the already established goals of the Civil Border Patrol; to remove the influence of immigrants on the United States. Following the mission statement is the reference to “manifest destiny”, which I find interesting because in this moment Josef has drawn a direct link to America’s historical claim to expansionism. Given Josef’s contemporary context, it makes sense that he would make this connection to the past. Being a potential disciple of John L. O’Sullivan’s branch of Jacksonian Democracy, Josef is actually making a moral case for the Civil Border Patrol. Similar to O’Sullivan, the concept of “manifest destiny” falls under the category of a “moral law” that in turn has the power to supersede rational limitations. By equating the Civil Border Patrol to that of “manifest destiny”, Josef is actually claiming that he has the power to act outside the law given his cause’s special “moral” considerations.

The second part of this passage can be interpreted in two ways. One could assume that it’s a continuation of Josef’s acceptance of “manifest destiny”; this view makes sense given that the final sentence vaguely sums up America’s history with violence during the 19th century. However, if we look closely at the term “Europeans," we can see that Josef is actually making a racial claim that sets up the rest of the footage. By using this term in conjunction with “A proud land," Josef implicitly states that this country privileges those of European descent. He’s making a historical claim given “manifest destiny," as well as a contemporary one due to his allegiance with the Civil Border Patrol (as the spiritual successors to the pioneers). We need to keep the second interpretation in mind going forward, as the dialogue begins to shift among the characters after they encounter certain people. For example, you’ll notice in the second selection of clips, the Park Ranger Joe is accepting of both Trevor and Josef, yet is entirely dismissive of another character named Manuel, who will be introduced later on.

If Not Immigration, Then Why Mexico?

We’ve already established the connection between the rhetoric of Trump and Joe, but we need to examine this situation further. If we conclude that the status of the immigration debate is currently contested between issues of legality and race, why are these two individuals focusing on Mexico? If we refer back to the announcement speech quote, I want to focus on two specific terms: “problems," and “rapists”. When used by Trump, they create a very specific image, one that portrays immigrants, specifically those of Mexican heritage, as nothing but criminals. So let’s look at the way Joe characterizes illegal immigrants.

As we can see, Joe frames immigration in a strikingly similar fashion; averting broader implications of immigration policy in the United States in favor of a highly specified attack onMexico. I cannot give a specific definition for what Trump is trying to say here because his terminology is overly broad. But to me, “problems” is being used in reference to the economy as the current debate within immigration stems from employment. Joe later reopens this discussion with the player where he states, “They come here taking our jobs…They don’t just take one. No! Some of them are doing two or three thankless, low-paid jobs to support their families. It’s an outrage!” In this moment, Trevor refutes this claim by casually saying “All those mariachi singer jobs have been stolen?” Trevor’s response satirizes Joe’s understanding of the work force. He understands the context of Joe’s profession. Becoming a Park Ranger requires a unique set of skills, a bachelor’s degree in a related field, as well government-approved certification. Joe should not feel the adverse effects of job loss given that he’s presumably a member of the middle class who is not really competing with immigrants (hence the joking “mariachi” reference).

The use of “rapists” is much more specific compared to its counter-part. This issue is no longer about immigration policy, but the continued institutionalization of racism in this country.This is the power of Grand Theft Auto V. The game takes racist anti-immigrant arguments heard in the media and engages with them through satire and parody. Grand Theft Auto V may just be a game, but the arguments and sentiments felt by its characters speak to what the developers consider the "American reality."

But we must remember that Trump is only one, rather extreme, voice in this debate. Grand Theft Auto V does a great job of subtly referencing the complaints made by members of the Republican Party against the Obama administration.

The term “big supporter” does not directly represent Joe’s history as a voter, but rather his continued legacy as a self-proclaimed patriot. He takes issue with the “fact” that the current President of the United States has “gone soft on the key issues." If this passage was included to
represent the image of Obama’s administration, then we must be mindful of the fact that the rate of deportation has soared to an extreme high under President Obama. According to an article in The Washington Post, as of 2014, the Obama administration had an exclusion rate nine times greater than any other president over the last twenty years; resulting in an estimated two-million removals from the United States.[1]

Coming To Terms with Responsibility

Video games are able to break down the fourth wall between the creators of content and the audience. Conventional forms of media, such as this very essay, fail to capture the complexity and dynamics of the viewers’ response to the text. This is true for our relationship; I am the author and you’re the reader. While you’re reading this article, as well as watching the videos I produced, you are subjected to my interpretation of the text at hand. You are seeing what I see, as I see it. However, your relationship to the source material is different because you’re vicariously living through my experiences. When playing a video game, you are the one who’s experiencing the narrative first hand. You may be role-playing as a specific character, yet you have the power to make that narrative your own. At this moment, I want you to imagine that you’re in my position as the gamer. How would you react to the following clips?

I want to focus on my role as the character. As soon as I accepted this mission, I was subjected to a pre-determined set of outcomes. However at any point, I could simply walked away from the mission. I could have pressed the [Start] button, exited the game and avoided the mission by reloading a previous save state. As you see, I didn’t. The mission carried on. When Joe asked Trevor to shoot these individuals with a stun gun, he was essentially asking the player to commit this act of violence. This isn’t the same as watching a presidential candidate during the debates. If you choose to accept, you are responsible for this.

In most games, a moment like this becomes obligatory. Random acts of violence tend to accumulate so quickly in the games, one often forgets about the things they’ve done. Anyone who picks up a controller can play this game and commit mass genocide against civilians and police officers, yet the lasting effects of those acts are negligible at best because it’s “just a videogame." With this particular quest line, Manuel makes a second appearance later on and confronts the player. In this moment, your character Trevor becomes dismissive of the impact his actions had on Manuel’s family. It may have just been a pay check for him, but Manuel makes you realize the folly of your ways. You didn’t have to accept this quest line. You, at any point, could have said no. You didn’t have to assault several people with stun guns and kidnap a complete stranger. Yet you did if you’ve reached this point in the game.

Responsibility is difficult to accept, especially when it’s starring you in the face. It’s easy to write off the comments made by Joe for the same reasons people detest Trump. Yet these are voices are real, and speak volumes regarding the nature of immigration in the United States. I
don’t know why Rockstar chose to put this scene in their game. Nevertheless it’s a moving experience because most games scoff at the notion of violence. They’re fictionalized worlds in which people can do pretty much whatever they want at the expense of potentially life-changing ramifications.1 The faces of video game characters tend to be nothing more than artistic renditions and models of human beings, lifeless and non-descript. Yet Grand Theft Auto V repositions the burden of guilt onto you, the player. Manuel isn’t just another faceless model, in the same way a person held in immigrant dentition is still human. His struggle is very real, and you need to come to terms with your contributions to his oppression.

[1]Law, Ann O. “Lies, Damned Lies, and Obama’s Deportation Statistics” The Washington Post. 21 April, 2014.