I’ve been playing a lot of Grand Theft Auto V online lately. My handle is TheSilverWoman, which is a reference to my co-worker Alex Goldman’s last name. In real life, I’m a boringly normal straight dude. But in GTA, I’m a forty-year old woman. Dark bangs, dark eyes. I don’t wear makeup and I’m not particularly fit. I own one set of clothes plus a monkey mask I wear when I rob convenience stores.
People react to women, even fake women, in online video games. Computer-controlled characters will try to flirt with me. Characters controlled by actual people tend to be kind of hateful. “That bitch just stole my Elegy FX.” “Oh shit, even the fuckin’ Silver Woman has more kills than you, man.”
Last night something unusual happened. I’d been playing in survival mode with a group of players. That’s a cooperative mode where you team up to fight waves of computer controlled enemies. After the mission, the game dumped us back into Freemode, which allows you to roam around the city aimlessly, causing whatever mayhem you want.
I put in a friend request to the best player from the previous mission, a guy named ProX, so that we could play more missions together later. He sent me a message back: “what’s your name.”
“PJ.” I answered, remembering for the first time in awhile that I have a gender neutral name. “What’s yours?”
At that point, I saw a player who had been annoying me by playing selfishly in cooperative mode. So, I murdered him. He died, but when he respawned, he was very angry. He pursued me. I shot at him and missed, and worse, my missed shot attracted the police. I started sprinting down the highway, waiting to die.
And then, out of nowhere, a horn honked. I turned. It was ProX, sitting calmly in a black sports car on the side of the highway. He honked again. I was supposed to get in. I got in. We sped off, away from the police and my would-be murderer.
ProX drove me to an airfield and showed me a military helicopter I’d never seen before. The police were still chasing us. We left his car and flew off towards the sunset and the Pacific Ocean, out of the law’s reach.
This is the point where I realized that maybe, perhaps, I was on a date. Players in GTA rarely cooperate, with the exception of those situations where the game makes it literally impossible not to. ProX had saved me from death or arrest. And now he was peacocking, flying the helicopter low over the Pacific Ocean, and then threading it through the mountains around GTA’s version of Los Angeles.
In the city, he flew me down a crowded street where I gleefully fired missiles at other players and cops. He was a good pilot and I was a decent shot. We Bonnie and Clyded together for quite awhile. Surprisingly, I felt taken care of. My mind sincerely wandered toward the idea that a lot of relationships are founded on projection and misunderstanding.
Eventually, the cops caught up to us, like they always do. They shot ProX first. I tried to kill myself rather than let them take me alive, but GTA’s suicide option is buried in a clunky menu, and a SWAT guy shotgunned me in the torso before I had the chance.
When I respawned outside of the hospital, ProX picked me up again, but it had gotten late and I realized I should go to bed. It felt strange to just sign off without thanking him. So I navigated over to the chat menu while he drove around. “Thanks for all the mayhem. I’m going to sleep.” I sent it, and closed the chat window.
In the meantime, he had somehow driven me into his apartment. When the chat window closed, I found myself standing in his eight car garage, a sea of very nice cars. He was standing between two of them looking very lonely. I felt real and palpable feelings of anxiety and guilt. A message came back in chat. “ok.” It seemed very sad. I powered down the PS3, feeling like a tease.
It’s funny. Thinking back on it today, I’m not sure what else could have really happened in that apartment. People love GTA because it’s a game that theoretically lets you do anything. But when it comes to human connection, the game’s strict. You can’t sleep with another player, or kiss them, or cook something for them. There are the people you murder and the people you choose not to.
Edit: Hi, Reddit! We're noticing a lot of traffic coming from you guys. Thanks for reading and I hope you like it. If you're into this, check out some of the stories On the Media has done about gaming, and also check out the TLDR podcast hosted by PJ Vogt and Alex Goldman (AKA The Silver Woman).