Tired of the current news cycle and feeling a little lonely, I decided to jump onto the streets of Los Santos and ride through Grand Theft Auto Online. At first, it felt pretty similar to a normal city. The streets were full of cars and pedestrians, my cell phone was blowing up from people asking for favors, and the radio only played cheerful pop tunes and slightly dated satire. It was great.
And then another player in chat wrote two alarming lines. “Anyone who’s not at home in this session will be attacked. Coronavirus curfew is in order.”
The chatter was a reference to how real-life governments use curfews in an attempt to battle the spread of COVID-19. Italy, for example, used a 6PM curfew in endangered “yellow zones” in hopes that citizens staying home and being unable to engage in nightlife would slow the infection rate. Other regions have completely stopped citizens from leaving their home throughout all hours of the day, except for essential reasons.
But that’s in real life — and GTA Online is a video game. People can say anything in chat, so I just chuckled to myself and kept driving. After completing a mission or two, I found myself suddenly plucked out of my car by the vengeful hand of an invisible god, only to be surrounded by an impenetrable steel cage. The player in chat was a hacker. “Shelter in place orders are in effect,” said the player, who now held me hostage.
In the distance, I heard an explosion — a pair of rockets had slammed into another player’s luxurious sports car. “Make sure to wash your hands when leaving the house” the hacker wrote. It wasn’t totally serious: To my knowledge, you can only shower in the game. But still, I was stuck.
I only managed to escape by playing along with the hacker’s own mischief. “I was going to deliver some cocaine,” I pleaded in the chat. “I’m an essential delivery service!” Technically, in the crime-fueled world of GTA Online, my reasoning was sound.
I was set loose into the world once more, but I knew that Los Santos was changing in response to real world events. GTA Online players seem to be taking on new roles right now, and they’re taking these play styles seriously.
I don’t play on role-play servers where such dramatics typically happen; these activities were taking place on public servers, which are usually far less structured. Apparently, I am not alone in noticing a change even in normal servers recently.
“Everything feels different already,” Ren, a GTA Online hacker who admitted to unleashing cheats on public servers to enforce the idea of a digital coronavirus, told me over Discord. “On day four [of self-isolation], I saw a guy getting camped, which happens ... every day. But then he started complaining that it wasn’t fair to camp him because he was quarantined ... and the other guy apologized and stopped. Everyone’s kind of going through it right now.”
With everyone in the same proverbial boat in real life, Grand Theft Auto Online — a game that is extremely open-ended and therefore adaptable in endless ways — has become a natural fit for players like Ren. “And I mean, fuck it,” he added. “This is a game where I can fly a hoverbike and play Mario Kart in the sky, so like ... yeah, I can be the corona police. Why not?”
Not every session of GTA Online is being hit by players who are hacking and otherwise enforcing coronavirus curfews. I’ve also noticed a huge increase in wholesome meetups — players congregating at clubs, having car meetups in spacious parking lots, and offering each other big cuts on well-paying heists. But the sudden shift on some servers is a reminder that games reflect reality, and as players share online spaces together, we’ll likely see those social mores morph over time as well.