Cultural Phenomenon or Cultural Cringe?

Release of Grand Theft Auto V breaks all records

Gigi Cook | October 3, 2013

What do the words “Grand Theft Auto V” mean to you? If you are a stock holder in Take-Two Interactive Software it means your portfolio just grew stronger. If you are a parent it means there is one more video game your kids could be playing. If you are an observer of American culture it may mean that you are cringing a bit.

Grand Theft Auto V is the latest installment from the world’s most successful video game franchise. The game is rated “M” (for mature audiences), and sells in the $59.00 – $130.00 range, depending on the package. In its initial launch last week, the game generated 800 million dollars in sales and by day three topped the one-billion dollar mark. The makers call it a “cultural phenomenon,” while critics continue to call it a crime against culture.

For those not familiar with the gaming world – a quick review: Grand Theft Auto III was launched in 2001 and changed the video game world forever. GTA-III introduced an open-world, non-linear experience that conveyed players into an ongoing story in a fictionalized world: a world they could explore at their own pace and in their own style.

The game mobilized an army of protesters objecting to its subject matter. In it, players adopt criminal identities to plan and pull off crimes. The violence is shocking to many because the game awards points and status for random killing. When it was discovered there was a side line to the game – where players could hire a prostitute, have (off screen) sex with her, kill her and then steal her money –the outcry was even greater. Nevertheless, GTA-III became the best-selling action-adventure video game series in history.

“GTA III” was named by now defunct GameSpy as both “Game of the Year” and “Most Offensive Game of the Year.” “I think this is a technically marvelous game that at the same time is absolutely reprehensible,” the reviewer said. Now, twelve years later, GTA-V is again setting the industry standard, incorporating amazingly complex and interactive artwork along with explicit sex and stunning violence.

Digital World Research analyst P.J. McNealy says: “GTA has arguably been the most controversial franchise in video game history, pushing the envelope with game play, content and violence.”

Today, GTA-V is being regarded as having crossed an even larger line. In this newest version, the player is allowed to choose different instruments to inflict pain on a suspected terrorist under the instruction of an FBI agent. The player must torture the terrorist to proceed to the next level. At one point in the game play, the gamer is given the option of bringing the terrorist back to life with adrenaline if his heart stops.

CNN reported several weeks ago that President Obama voiced a strong distaste for the latest release, Grand Theft Auto V. “We are all aware of the violent, devastating scenarios which have played out in recent years,” he said. “Yet, we are buying our children a game so they can mimic such behaviors: we are allowing them to commit horrific acts in a virtual world where they are encouraged with ‘points and upgrades.’”

Advocates say society votes with its dollars, and when the game quits selling, the graphic violence, sex, and drugs will go away. Steve Butts, editor-in-chief of the games and entertainment site says “I will say that the drift of modern society normalizes subjects that the previous generations would have found objectionable, and creators in all media intentionally shock sensibilities either to make a point or simply to get noticed.”

Video game reviewer Jack Thompson – who has campaigned against the Grand Theft Auto franchise since 2001 – had this to say about the 2008 release of GTA-IV: “So now the purveyors of filth have returned once more with another Grand Theft Auto violent video game, ratcheting up the depravity to unimaginably obscene levels. The Grand Theft Auto IV violent video game recycles each repulsive sin from the previous titles, encouraging gamers to engorge themselves upon a trough of mindless blood lust, like a pig who eats body parts.”

Grand Theft Auto V builds upon that dubious legacy.