Racing car video games have been around since the early 1970s, making them one of the oldest types of game out there. And yet, despite the plethora of titles and changes that have happened since, the emphasis has always been on the driving part of the game, with vehicle acquisition usually taking a back seat, and rarely involving more than semi-magically upgrading to the next car available to race. The idea of acquiring a car through finance, through PCP, HP or a straight loan, has rarely got a look in.
In 2001, Grand Theft Auto (GTA) III was released and changed the industry forever. In its fully 3-D world, players could simply take the car they wanted. Although earlier entries to the series had this feature, none had the cultural impact of III, and stealing became the new method of choice for virtual vehicle attainment. Finance options fell even further down the pecking order.
The most recent entry in the Grand Theft series, GTA V, which brought in over $1bn (£620m) worth of global sales in the first three days after its release (and on a par with Miley Cyrus’s buttocks and blue meth for being the cultural touchstone of 2013), has sought to change that with the introduction of the character of Simeon Yetarian, a crooked Armenian car dealer and financer, finally giving the industry some representation in the land of video games.
As is the way in games, as opposed to TV shows which can run to 60-plus episodes, characterisation is dealt with in broad strokes and Yetarian is a parody of a cliché of a stereotype. He boasts of selling cars on credit at exorbitant rates to people who can’t afford them, and then sends one of the game’s protagonists, a gang member named Franklin, one of three characters in the game of which you have control, to repossess them. In this way, the early part of the game plays out like a dodgy collections simulator. You’re in control of Franklin, you can break a window and harangue a debtor, all the broad-stroke fun of a repo man but without the compliance forms.
Although the game soon moves on, as Yetarian’s treatment of Franklin (and, by proxy, you, the player) inevitably causes a rift, the point stands – motor finance now has its video game representation, on a par with plumbers and Mario, or hedgehogs and Sonic.
This being GTA, though, the character is almost inherently vile and a caricature of what the industry was once meant to be. A conversation with anyone involved in collections shows how divergent Yetarian, or any popular portrayal of a subprime financier, is from the truth.
At one point Yetarian sends Franklin to break into someone’s home to take a car away before even informing the customer he is behind on his payments. Once the player is caught it transpires that there is a very good chance the car was under a month old, and the customer couldn’t have defaulted. Events quickly escalate, and – aside from a phone call – this is the last you hear from the dealership. The reality is almost the opposite of this, and at round tables, delegates have told Motor Finance that taking the car back is always the last option, with a clear preference of trying to keep customers in vehicles. Of course, in a business involving lending people money for vehicles, sometimes a company is forced to take back the car, no matter how generous and patient they are with a customer. However, even in these cases there are strict guidelines. A policy of sending armed gang member repo men to repossess a motorbike from a rival gang seems like the opposite of best policy.
And then of course there are the interest rates. Here we are at the start of a fresh quarter-year and the low-rate finance offers are out again. In the race to get as many cars to as many customers as possible, manufacturers are relying on finance to offer that extra bit of value.
By contrast, in GTA V, which is admittedly set in a fictional but uncannily familiar US state, rates are set to a point where customers are bound to fall behind on payments. In fact, Yetarian could be the exact opposite of best practise, and a company could almost use him as a checklist of what not to do: abusing customers, mistreating staff, arranging finance with advance knowledge the customer won’t be able to pay, taking back a vehicle with no communication with the customer, starting inter-gang warfare, these are all things a motor finance company would be advised to avoid if at all possible. This is not a rainy Tuesday in Nuneaton.
Then there are the other collection agents. Whilst Franklin is a relatively ‘good’ guy in the world of GTA, another member of the collections staff carries around an uzi and neither of them views the people losing their vehicles with any compassion. Again, in the real world, the contrast could not be stronger, and collections staff are increasingly being trained to take into account people’s circumstances in their approach. With this level of responsible behaviour, why not revel in an inaccurate, adrenalin-heavy computer game?
Ultimately motor finance’s moment in the global cultural spotlight is a brief one. Yetarian’s corrupt business practises ensure his time in the game is short, even if his business goes on beyond your involvement. For now, we can dream of a future where finance simulators are commonplace alongside the next Call of Duty or FIFA 14. We could call them CCJ Annihilator 3000, or Mondeo Panic: Scarborough Edition, or Non-prime Legislation of Rage. Sure, they would place a little more emphasis on realism than gun-toting thugs but for those of you, wiping off your soggy boots after a day of doorstep negotiations, wouldn’t it be fun to forget the