I was interested in playing Grand Theft Auto: Vice City because I’d heard so much about it. Phrases like “sandbox-style” and “the first truly open world” were bandied about by bloggers and reviewers, and I wanted to see what the hubbub was about. My girlfriend and I crossed the lobby of our building to visit our neighbors, friends with the correct hardware and newly-purchased software, for the express purpose of seeing and playing Vice City. That was my purpose, at least. I’m sure my girlfriend wanted to see the female counterpart of our neighborly hosts, to talk perfume and tampons and whatever else ladies converse about.
I was duly impressed by the video game. It was actually the second of the Grand Theft Auto series to feature point-of-view game play, but this was the first to make it look believable. It looked like Miami, sounded like the 1980s and felt like you were in Goodfellas. Game developers Rockstar Studios presented this slick, engaging world whose playability could be measured in tens of hours. Even my girlfriend was impressed, until she saw something in the game that horrified her: my neighbor showed us how you could actually have implied sex with a prostitute for money, then kill her immediately afterward to reclaim your payment. That was it for my girlfriend, she had seen enough. She insisted the game be turned off and we departed shortly after so she could go home and simmer.
Over the years since, I’ve seen this specific aspect–that one can employ and murder hookers in the Grand Theft Auto video game franchise–come up again and again. Very recently, I saw it referenced on a repeat episode of The Big Bang Theory. It’s obviously a sticking point with many people, something fundamentally revolting that supersedes the more average revulsion reserved for prostitution or murder alone. It is true, you can hump and then slay prostitutes in the Grand Theft Auto series. You can also kill business people, students, and scores upon scores of police officers, FBI agents, and the military. The carnage eventually becomes so absurd that it would be a feat to avoid killing prostitutes, peppered as they are between explosions and streams of automatic weapon fire. In fact, you don’t actually recoup your losses by killing prostitutes after services–a point I laughingly tried to impress upon my girlfriend in the Vice City days: when you kill hookers, they cough up a randomized amount of money like any violently deceased citizen, so that you might actually earn less than you tendered all told. Of course, this point of video game coding was lost on her.
There’s very little in the Grand Theft Auto series that isn’t calculated to offend your sensibilities. You can gun down an old woman pleading for mercy. You can lay waste to throngs. Still, there’s something about killing a hooker you’ve just poked that rankles more than blowing a police helicopter out of the sky with a guided rocket launcher. I think there’s an element of misogyny implied in the act that heightens indignation. This collection of colored and textured polygons meant to resemble a prostitute is just trying to ply her virtual trade. She’s got enough pain in her life, theoretically, without having to be murdered by a video game sprite. Hookers are fairly marginalized in mainstream society, that’s why many serial killers test their skills on a half a dozen of them before moving on to blond women and closeted homosexuals. And a 128-bit murder is still murder, I suppose.
But isn’t it fantasy, a “thought crime” at best? If someone thinks about having sex with hookers and then offing them, but never actually does it, has a crime really been committed? This is sort of topical now, as the “Cannibal Cop” court case begins in New York. The case involves, in short, a NYPD officer chatting online with like-minded deviants about wanting to capture and cook women. There are transcripts of him discussing how to prepare his wife, how to bind and properly subdue her, as well as boasting by another party about the women he’s eaten. But no ropes, no chloroform was found. The officer talks about a house upstate with an oven suitable for cooking people, but no such place seems to exist. So it seems like this officer was talking a lot of shit, but the nature of his shit-talking is, itself, a crime. Using this logic, anyone who has written or produced a horror film is subject for arraignment.
Similar questions are raised in the haunting HBO documentary Capturing the Friedmans. If we can be arrested for the things about which we’ve fantasized, then I’m set for death row. And I won’t be lonely, because I know that many of my male peers have considered scenarios so offensive that they’ve disgusted themselves. Perhaps it’s women, to an extent, that do not consider these dark fantasy scenarios, and it’s too bad really because you could be imagining breaking my balls for some video game infraction instead of MAKING MY ACTUAL LIFE A GODDAMNED LIVING HELL FOR THE LAST HOWEVER MANY YEARS FOR FUCK’S SAKE! I need to blow off some steam now. Time to kill a virtual hooker.