Rediscovering normalcy in an abnormal world through GTA Online

The world’s a bit of a strange place right now. Many people are working from home even as social distancing has robbed them of the simple pleasure of hugging their loved ones or high fiving their friends. And while we don’t like to think about it, the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic has upended a lot of people’s lives, disrupted their sense of what “normal” is, and in some cases cost them their jobs or worse.

To help us cope, my friends and I have naturally turned to video games, and games where we can all play together online have become a cherished resource as of late. We’ve flitted around from game to game, dabbling in a Rocket League here and a Battlefield 4 there, but our individual tastes and preferences naturally make it challenging to find a game we all unanimously enjoy. One game, however, has become an absolute obsession for us as of late, and it’s honestly not a game I expected us to stick with: GTA Online.

The online multiplayer component for Rockstar’s infamous crime-centric title Grand Theft Auto V initially appealed to us thanks to its abundant offering of different activities and game modes (a welcome benefit of Rockstar’s continuous support over many years). However, what we also discovered as we played was that GTA Online was giving us much more than a place where we could race each other or get into shootouts; it was helping us rediscover some sense of the normalcy we’d lost, if only in digital form.

Revisiting Los Santos

Up to this point, my personal history with GTA V and its accompanying online mode wasn’t very long or storied. Like thousands of other gamers I had played the game’s open-world story campaign back when it first arrived way back in 2013. I also suffered alongside those same players through GTA Online’s initial takeoff, a period where the experience was plagued by severe network connection issues and frequent game freezes to the point of being virtually unplayable.

Once GTA Online’s performance finally stabilized, I would occasionally play it with a few co-workers of mine at the time, but mostly I played alone. This naturally limited my enjoyment since GTA Online is arguably an experience that’s best played with friends, especially since making other players’ lives harder through griefing and other shenanigans is pretty much baked into the game’s design philosophy.

GTA Online’s overt focus on open-world PvP chaos combined with its initially limited selection of PvE gameplay options meant that it was destined to fall out of my favor quickly. I occasionally revisited it over the following years, most notably when Rockstar launched a few tie-in promotions in anticipation of Red Dead Redemption 2, but every time my lack of a dedicated GTA Online friends group would inevitably drive me away.

I eventually realized that I was much happier admiring GTA Online from afar, taking note of major content updates and additions such as co-op heists, structured businesses, and motorcycle clubs as they were released, but also knowing I’d probably never play such additions for myself. Little did I realize that my opportunity to experience such content additions was indeed coming, and all it would take was a global pandemic which forced me and my gaming buddies into self-quarantine.

Communal Chaos

I can’t even take credit for initially suggesting GTA Online to my regular gaming group. My friends and I have unanimously chosen the PlayStation 4 as our communal platform of choice, and one of my friends who recently switched from Xbox over to PlayStation so he could play with us actually received a free PS4 copy of GTA V along with his new console. It was he who first brought up the idea of giving GTA Online a proper go, but only once we had collectively reached our wit’s end.

You see, when it came to deciding which game to play together, my friends group and I recently found ourselves in a bit of a rut. For the past several months we’d been mostly sticking with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare, but we’d also gotten seriously burnt out trying to keep up with the game’s seasonal battle pass track (one of my friends was simultaneously going for full battle pass progress and the Damascus weapon camo grind, the poor bastard).

Other games in our usual rotation included fellow shooters like Rainbow Six Siege and Battlefield 4, though we also tried to mix things up with more party-centric games like Crash Team Racing and the aforementioned Rocket League. Unfortunately, only a small portion of the group enjoyed playing first-person shooters, and the novelty of our party game selections wore off quickly, bringing us into the aforementioned rut.

When my Xbox-to-PlayStation friend first floated the idea of playing GTA Online, I remember our individual reactions varied from polite yet hardly serious consideration to vehement dismissal. Like me, some of my other friends had prior experience with GTA Online, and like mine those experiences hadn’t been overly positive. I was willing to make a case, though, mainly because I was desperate for something new to play and also because I already had a copy of GTA V on hand.

I argued that, while GTA Online can absolutely be a griefer’s paradise, it also supports small group play via private invite-only sessions (something which its newer sibling, Red Dead Online, currently does not). I also explained how, thanks to its many post-launch updates, there’s a ton of stuff you can do in GTA Online, so at the very least finding new and unique activities to try wouldn’t be a problem. We could shoot things, race cars, do missions, or just goof around in the overworld all from within a single game, and that wasn’t even taking into account all the newer post-launch features and game modes.

Once we were actually in GTA Online proper, we discovered we could also head over to the recently-added Diamond Casino and spend an entire afternoon playing Blackjack or trying our hand at slot machines. We could start our own motorcycle club and just hang out in the clubhouse watching TV and playing darts whenever we weren’t cruising around on our bikes looking for trouble. If we were feeling bold, we could also try our hand at the structured co-op heists which admittedly demand a little more patience but are also some of the best cooperative experiences we’ve ever had as a group.

Oddly enough, though, it wasn’t just GTA Online’s big and bombastic experiences that we came to appreciate. The game is also chock-full of more mundane details which, when looked at objectively, don’t seem like they’d add up to much. In practice, though, these mundane items helped my friends and I better appreciate the things we’d largely taken for granted before the Covid-19 pandemic.

A Day in the Life

Every GTA Online character has bills to pay. Whether it’s the mechanic who maintains and delivers your owned vehicles, the cleaners who keep your apartment tidy, or the personal assistant who manages your business, these folks are working for you and thus they’re entitled to a small portion of the profits you bring in from your illicit activities.

On paper, the idea of having to actually pay NPC’s (most of whom you never actually meet face-to-face) for the services they provide certainly sounds like an annoyance. However, what my friends and I discovered is that simply going though the routine of doing activities to make money so we can pay our respective staff was surprisingly cathartic.

Many of the friends I play GTA Online with work in industries that were entirely derailed due to the shelter-in-place mandates being enforced to help curtail the spread of Covid-19. They’re still able to pay their real-life bills and buy food thanks to their unemployment benefits, but they also clearly miss the routine of being able to go out and work for a living.

Now, making money and paying employees in a digital game like GTA Online is obviously not the same as working an actual job, but there’s still that same sense of routine, that satisfaction of earning the services and material things you have access to through effort.

GTA Online’s robust catalog of different activities further bolsters that sense of routine by incorporating more leisure pursuits like tennis and golf, pursuits which have their own tangible rewards (golf is a surprisingly effective way to bolster your character’s strength stat) and are also just genuinely fun to play. In real life, every trip I make from my house is a carefully orchestrated and cautiously executed excursion complete with face masks, details checklists, and copious amounts of hand sanitizer. In GTA Online, I can freely stroll around the city, enjoy a sunny day of golf, and then cruise over to see what my friends are up to without missing a beat.

During our adventures, my gaming group and I have learned the hard way that GTA Online is still far from a perfect game even after so many post-launch updates. The controls can be awkward, making money can be a real grind, and the sheer amount of asshole griefers makes trying to manage businesses where goods have to be sold in public sessions (i.e. pretty much every business) a hopelessly lost cause. However, we’ve also learned how to make the game our own and, in the process, reclaimed some of the normalcy we lost when Covid-19 hit.

This isn’t to suggest that GTA Online is an ideal Covid-19 coping tool or that it’s guaranteed to be as helpful an experience as it was for my friends and I. I fully acknowledge how privileged it sounds for me, a white male living in America, to be espousing the virtues of a video game during a national crisis that has already taken many lives and livelihoods.

What I’m hoping to convey here is that sometimes relief comes from unexpected places. Being able to keep in constant contact with my friends and family members, even if it’s through the headset of my PS4, is something I will absolutely never take for granted again now that I’ve accepted the full reality of living in a Covid-19 world for the foreseeable future.

Whatever routines you’ve established to help maintain your mental well-being, by all means keep them up. But also, don’t be afraid to venture outside your comfort zone every now and then, even if it means doing something mundane like giving a new video game to try. You don’t have to wait until the Covid-19 pandemic is over to rediscover the normalcy you once had, you just have to keep an eye out for new experiences to try and go into them with an open mind.