The ‘Grand Theft Auto’ Rampage: The Violence of Cultural and Subcultural Politics

The rampage mission was a feature of all of the Grand Theft Auto missions until the release of Grand Theft Auto IV. While the Grand Theft Auto series has been criticized because of the hyperviolent sandboxes that Rockstar’s game worlds present to its players (given that essentially at any time in a GTA game, you can conceivably simply go crazy and shoot up anything in your vicinity), there are actually some boundaries that define and hinder play styles of this sort.

Murdering citizens indiscriminately in Vice City, for example, does come with a penalty of sorts (or at least a potential consequence for Tommy Vercetti’s seemingly random and possibly uncharacteristic psychopathic behavior). The player will begin to rack up wanted levels as he shoots citizens, and police will arrive in ever increasing numbers and packing ever increasing levels of fire power to shut down your expression of “rage” if you simply choose to gun down grannies in the street.

The rampage side missions featured in Vice City and GTA III, though, offered a bit of an anodyne for a player that sought largely indiscriminate carnage as an activity. They merely organized the chaos in a sense and allowed a less consequential form of senseless murder to occur. Basically when a rampage mission is initiated in these game, the “rules” of the mission are presented briefly to the player in text, instructing him to kill X amount of a type of individuals — usually these individuals were gang members. Again, for example, in Vice City, the player might be instructed to kill 25 Diablos or 35 Yardies or whatever group might be defined by a gang association (designated, of course, by those NPCs’ appearance — these characters are identifiable because they wear gang colors).

The relationship between these activities and the premise of any given GTA game is tenuous at best. While Tommy Vercetti, as a career criminal, is charged in many missions to perform violent acts, those acts are sensible within the larger narrative. Tommy is just “doing business” when he is asked to frighten jurors in an ongoing trial as a favor to a fellow gangster. These acts of violence have pragmatic purposes within the context of criminal enterprise. The rampage missions seem acts of a purely absurd nature. They exist to enact violence for the sake of violence. Indeed, it is unsurprising that these missions lack the cut scenes that define the goals and objectives of other missions in these games. There is no rhyme or reason to them in terms of the larger narrative. They are just a moment that gives the player an excuse to “act out” in the world.

Thus, it is probably unsurprising that rampage missions are not featured in Grand Theft Auto IV, a game in which Rockstar probably took character development a bit more seriously than in the past, and in which, many of the side missions in the game existed to flesh out the game’s protagonist or the overall plot or game world. Side quests like fostering relationships with other characters are not necessary to complete in order to get through the game but because Niko Bellic actually interacts with characters, fostering romantic relationships and friendships with others, these missions actually do contribute to understanding Niko and his world more. They may not be essential to the plot, but they do add to our understanding of it and him.

Despite a probably equal interest in a slightly more serious attempt at characterization, though, in the latest game, rampages have re-emerged as a part of the GTA experience.

The fifth game in the series benefits from its multiple protagonists in this regard, though. As I observed a couple of weeks ago, while two of the three protagonists in GTA V are relatively grounded criminals (guys that enact violence with a clear sense of purpose for the sake of practical outcomes), the third protagonist, Trevor, is the embodiment of the most unhinged, violence loving Grand Theft Auto playing reprobate (“Trevor, Grand Theft Auto‘s Fictional Player Comes Alive”, PopMatters, 9 October 2013). While it may not make much sense for an “all business” oriented mafia type, like Tommy Vercetti, to just go nuts and start blowing away every Diablo that he sees, Trevor’s sociopathic tendencies, which are clearly embodied in the character from his introduction in the game, make him seem a perfectly reasonable choice to resurrect the rampage mission. This is a guy who seems to take pleasure in meting out pain. Why not, then, have him simply be instructed to kill 25 rednecks (and it should be noted that rampage side quests are only available to this character, neither Michael nor Franklin are offered the opportunity to go off on a nearly senseless killing spree)?

However, what is most interesting about Trevor’s “meaningless” killing rampages is that this is the first game that actually bothers to contextualize these mass murders, Trevor’s five rampage side missions all feature cut scenes in which Trevor first interacts with members of the social group that he is about to exterminate before he goes off on a killing spree. While Trevor goes completely nuts, a narrative context is created that suggests why Trevor feels provoked by these groups. Interestingly, also, is that a couple of patterns do emerge in these provocations. One of the commonalities that exists in the cut scenes that precede Trevor’s rampage is that the epithet “mother fucker” always comes up. In most instances, Trevor is in part set off by being called a “mother fucker” by someone, a redneck, a Mexican gang banger, a black gang banger, a soldier, or a hipster.

All of these groups exclude Trevor from their society by calling him a name that evokes his involvement with the universal cultural taboo, the incest taboo. Sure, every culture has its own social norms and values, adultery may be a more culturally accepted part of marriage in France than it is in the United States, maybe, for example, but as anthropologists have reported in their studies of cross cultural norms, nobody likes a mother fucker.

This “Othering” of Trevor, though, also seems to be expressed by the other element that frequently comes up in these pre-rampage conversations, the fact that Trevor isn’t an American. He’s Canadian. Now Trevor himself is picking on social groups, as noted already, rednecks, gang bangers (defined in part by their ethnic or racial type), military personnel, and hipsters, and when he does so, he takes offense at one or two members of that social group before he then allows his rage to explode into murderous generalization. If one hipster offends, then kill them all.

However, he does do so within a larger cultural context. While all these groups might represent discrete and very different subcultures, they do have one thing in common. They are all Americans. And, of course, Trevor is not. In that sense, Trevor does remain the ultimate outsider in the streets of Los Santos. If anything, the very first group that he goes medieval on is the group that he himself might best be categorized within, the rednecks, but even they don’t accept him. Even within a group that he may share some values and experiences with, he becomes chiefly defined by his “foreignness.” He’s different in a “significant” way and difference implies to these groups that he may represent strange and reprehensible values. Maybe, mother fucking?

Now, of course, all of these issues of othering and social differences are of course contextualized within the gross absurdity of GTA-style satire. So, if it sounds stupid that a white Canadian is rejected by Americans as some kind of exotic, well, of course it is. Rockstar loves to hyperbolize and make utterly grotesque the ideas around anything that it is interested in critiquing. If there is no actual fear of the Canadian outsider, foreigner, or even (gasp!) illegal in the actual United States, that is hardly Rockstar’s goal in bringing up the issue in such a ridiculous context. That being said, the unlikely nature of rejecting someone from another nation who largely looks like what traditionally “the American” is supposed to look like (even if he does have a “faint accent,” as Trevor himself complains), these moments do reveal in a grotesque microcosm the nature of the American obsession with national identity, group identity, and the rage that is provoked on both sides when something “foreign” appears in a country that was ironically in part founded on the possibility of forging a union between diverse racial, ethnic, and subcultural values.

GTA rejects the old fashioned vision of the Melting Pot, just as it rejects the new vision of cultural awareness leading to tolerance. When Trevor acts up in these short vignettes, they instead seem to serve as a cautionary tale about the divisions that exist between American social groups and what happens when those divisions become apparent. Forming a more perfect union or forging some form of unity through awareness of others’ backgrounds and values may be a less likely outcome in a diverse nation than simple blind, murderous rage.


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