Grand Theft Auto: Arab City

The following took place during the summer of 2011 in an Arab capital city, just a few months after the start of the Arab Spring. I got home from Arabic class to find one of my roommate’s students in front of the TV. I was astonished to find out he was playing Grand Theft Auto, the game where you can kill hookers, steal cars and everything in between. Perhaps ignorantly, I didn’t know the game was available outside the U.S. and Europe. Being a fan of the game, I sat down and joined him. He couldn’t have been more than six or seven years old, but hell, I wasn’t his dad so I let him play.

I watched him drive around until he died, and then it was my turn. I drove around and ran some people over. Typical stuff. Then he said “I want a gun!”. I didn’t know the weapons cheat, and we didn’t have enough virtual money to buy one. So I went to a place where I knew there were guns: the police station. I walked into the parking lot and entered a cop car, taking the shotgun inside in the process.

“No! No! Not the police!”, he shouted. What was wrong with this kid? He had no problem running over pedestrians and destroying property. Yet the mere sight of me stealing a weapon from an empty police car had him up in arms. Certainly what we had done earlier were worse offenses. But he wouldn’t stop yelling. I gave up my trusted cop car and got a different vehicle.

And then I realized I may have just encountered a striking cultural distinction between America and the Middle East. Maybe this kid feared the police enough to be frightened by their digital recreation. Maybe to him stealing from the police was such a grave crime that it should not even be committed in a video game. Or maybe he was just being a kid. It’s not like we don’t have our own problems with the police in the states, but I’ve never seen someone afraid of the Liberty City PD, as they are known in the game. Except for Mike Bloomberg.

No matter what happens in this world, remember that in Grand Theft Auto you are free.

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