Can 'Grand Theft Auto V' Help People Understand the Climate Crisis?

Grand Theft Auto V has been a parodic, hyper-violent and distorted version of our own society since its release in 2013, but has the game also come to reflect our planet's environmental degradation? A new movie explores how GTA V has seeded environmental messages in updates, which dramatize the effects of global warming within its fictional California-like state, San Andreas.

In Plastic Scoop, filmmakers Andy Hughes and Dr. Mandy Bloomfield, a lecturer in English at the University of Plymouth in the United Kingdom, explore environmental messages they have found in Grand Theft Auto V, juxtaposing them with public service information films from the past 100 years.

A still from "Plastic Scoop," using in-game footage from "Grand Theft Auto V." University of Plymouth / Rockstar Games

"I've been playing this game for probably about 10 years and I've noticed over a period of time the game designers have started to integrate into the game aspects of contemporary culture. Not only in terms of advertising and politics, but also in terms of environmental issues," Hughes said in a video interview. "Waste, trash, references to climate change, have all started to appear in the game."

The third-best selling video game ever released—behind only Minecraft and Tetris—exploring pollution and global warming via Grand Theft Auto V connects mass culture with our current best understanding of the coming consequences of a changing climate, which will include an increase in extreme weather, like droughts and floods, plus dire consequences for ocean life and human social systems, including substantial drops in crop yields, mass population displacement (with attendant military conflicts) and flare-ups of diseases like malaria.

Litter in "Grand Theft Auto V." University of Plymouth / Rockstar Games

The film looks at Grand Theft Auto V from a perspective outside of the primary mechanisms of gameplay, including the grand theft auto so essential to the game's cast of criminals. Instead, it finds in GTA V visual parallels to the billions of pounds of plastic pollution swirling atop approximately 40 percent of our oceans' surfaces.

Hughes, an award-winning photographer, uses plastic litter and other waste materials in his projects, and saw the same proliferation of garbage in the game environments. He began capturing in-game footage of cityscapes choked with litter, Los Santos air pollution and deep sea waste.

Andy Hughes, who created "Plastic Scoop" with Dr. Mandy Bloomfield. University of Plymouth / Rockstar Games

"Gaming and virtual reality has often been accused of being a form of escapism that actually takes away from the material world and in some respects perhaps distracts us from many of the problems in material reality," Bloomfield said in a video interview. "We'd like to find out whether there are ways in which virtual realities in gaming can in fact bring people back to thinking about the issues that affect the material world."

Plastic Scoop was supported by the University of Plymouth's Sustainable Earth Institute, which searches out new ways to communicate scientific research to the public.