Videogame corporate satire is really overdue an upgrade

August 15, 2019
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In Grand Theft Auto 5’s final scene, protagonists Michael, Franklin and Trevor have odious billionaire Devin Weston trussed up like a turkey in the boot of a swanky car. It’s time for some payback – Weston, a marauding tycoon of the Gordon Gekko school, has double-crossed Michael and attempted to hire Franklin to kill him. But first, a little speech from Michael on the subject of the “great evils that bedevil American capitalism”. One of these evils, he says, is offshoring – the act of moving part of your business overseas to lower costs by, for example, paying less tax in the country where you’re based.

Offshoring is legal in many countries, but is widely regarded as a dirty trick, denying the society that supports you an appropriate share of your earnings – and in a moment of blunt poetic justice, Michael, Franklin and Trevor proceed to “offshore” Weston by rolling the car over a cliff into the Pacific Ocean. It’s typical of Rockstar’s brand of social satire, clownish and macabre and, in this case, spiced with hypocrisy. Six years after the game’s release, the company’s UK businesses stand accused by TaxWatch of moving billions of dollars in profits overseas in order to avoid paying corporation tax, all the while claiming back £47.3 million via a tax relief scheme for creators of “culturally British” art, and doling out large bonuses to UK-based executives. It’s difficult to assess that accusation without knowledge of how development of GTA5 was distributed across Rockstar’s various studios, but well, I’m not sure Michael would be very forgiving.

Videogame “satires” of giant corporations have never rung that true for me, largely because some of the most prominent examples are developed by giant corporations. GTA aside, the field is led by Portal 2, a historical and architectural cross-section of a dysfunctional science company created by Valve, the owner of the world’s largest PC game distribution platform. I don’t think it’s impossible to critique the upper echelons of the private sector while working for one of the Powers That Be – if I did, I wouldn’t be writing this for a website owned by a million-dollar events business. But it’s harder to laugh along to jokes about, say, brutal working practices or womanising CEOs when they come from those at the summit of an industry that worships crunch and has a lingering sexism problem.

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