Has 'Grand Theft Auto' made itself irrelevant?

Once 'radioactive' with shock value and controversy, former critics are silent as new installment hits shelves

A screen shot from "Grand Theft Auto V," which hits shelves Tuesday.
Rockstar Games/AP

If video games are a religion, then for the past 15 years "Grand Theft Auto" has been cast as the devil: A shadowy projection of everything we don’t want to see in our culture. The dark sexuality, senseless violence and biting cynicism throughout the game series has made it a darling among critics, a must-have collection for gamers and a lightning rod for cultural watchdogs. The hysteria surrounding "GTA" video games is legendary, even compared to previous cultural hot spots such as comic books and television.

"The disturbing material in 'Grand Theft Auto' and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children and it’s making the difficult job of being a parent even harder," then-Sen. Hillary Clinton said at a press conference specifically about the latest "Grand Theft Auto" game in 2005.

While the new, reportedly $266 million in cost, "Grand Theft Auto V" hits store shelves today, the past week has been eerily quiet. There isn’t a cadre of talking heads going over their bullet points, nor any advocacy organizations picketing outside developer Rockstar Games’ offices. The only perceptible buzz is from the video-game contingent, collectively frothing at the mouth after "GTA's" four-year hiatus. Rockstar has another virtually guaranteed best seller on its hands, but it is unclear whether the game’s relevance has diminished or if our world has become too smart for "Grand Theft Auto's" satirical whip.

"'GTA' has always satirized the culture it’s portraying, and 'GTA V' is no different. What is different now is that the gamer generation has grown up and taken over, so all the people who were shocked at 'GTA' – who tended not to be players – have less influence today than they had in the past," said David Kushner, author of "Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto."

"Does 'GTA' still matter? Massively. Is it still shocking? Absolutely not," said journalist and video game consultant Scott Alexander. "’Grand Theft Auto’ was f---ing radioactive for, like, five to seven years. This game will be brilliant, but it won’t grow the cultural territory of video games."

That radioactivity brought in billions of dollars for Rockstar Games and its parent company, Take-Two Interactive, though the series began in 1998 as a simple 2D car-jacking game. The game formula is simple: Drop a struggling anti-hero in a free-to-roam urban environment where he can do virtually anything he pleases, including solicit sex workers, kill innocent bystanders and, of course, steal cars (though, as one critic once woefully noted, it is nearly impossible to do good things, such as walk old ladies across the street).

Attacking cultural mores

Scottish game programmer David Jones came up with the concept, publishing the game through an offshoot of music publisher BMG. Brothers Dan and Sam Houser later took over the series and changed BMG Interactive to Rockstar Games. Coming from the music side, the Housers injected "Grand Theft Auto's" now notorious cultural references, such as walking in on a Jenna Jamison movie shoot or hearing a car-jacking victim use a popular saying from a current TV commercial. "Grand Theft Auto III," in 2001, was the brothers’ first hand at development and thrust the series into the consciousness of critics and gamers alike.

Video games are no strangers to controversy – the 1976 violent driving game “Death Race”  foreshadowed the protests, bans and parental handwringing to come with 1993’s "Doom," 1996’s "Tomb Raider" and other titles. But critics argue that "Grand Theft Auto" has always been different.

"'Doom' was around, but, aside from the Columbine shootings, no one got mad at it. You could refute its violent impact on kids pretty quickly – every kid at the time was playing 'Doom,' but not all of them did high school shootings," Alexander said. "'Grand Theft Auto' made people mad because it attacked cultural mores."

The Mafioso-inspired "Grand Theft Auto III" had pop cultural nods to "Scarface," "Goodfellas" and other classic films, but it became best known for letting players solicit a sex worker, have sex in a car, pay her and, if the player wanted it for free, beat her to death and take the bloody digital dollars off of her body.

"Grand Theft Auto IV" nose-dived into LGBT culture with its expansion story, "The Ballad of Gay Tony." Most infamously, "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas" had a hidden mini-game that allowed players to have graphic intercourse with an onscreen lover – even though the game was rated "Mature" (Rockstar Games later said the hidden game wasn’t meant to be found and later recalled and re-rated the game an X-inspired "Adults Only." The recall cost the company an estimated $50 million). The New York publisher has said everything was done with tongue firmly pressed in cheek.

"The Rockstar guys aren’t particularly famous for their sensitivity, and I expect that they will try something that is over the top culturally," said Michael Pachter, a game industry analyst and managing director of equity research at Wedbush Securities. "I doubt we’ll see porn, but prostitutes and gay themes are likely in there, and possibly some attempt at poking fun of evolving cultural norms."

Satire well run dry?

The "Grand Theft Auto V" trailers haven’t revealed any scintillating content, but the game is entering a world where sex workers are no longer nameless, gay rights are in vogue and one-time Disney Channel heroines are destroying their own façades. Where, exactly, would "GTA’s" satire take aim? Critics seem convinced that Rockstar Games has run out of juicy territory, as if the current pop-cultural world has become too ironic and self-parodying for satirical treatment.

A decade and a half since the game’s first release, "Grand Theft Auto’s" once-young gamers are now parents themselves, representing a sea change in how today’s parents view mature video game content.

"'Scarface' is a brilliant movie. It’s a piece of art. And not in a million years would I show it to an eight-year old," Alexander, a father of four, said. "We’re getting to the point where most people who are parents grew up with Pac-Man… so they understand what is culturally appropriate to share, just like movies and TV."

Pachter, a father of two, said, "'GTA' is still viewed as a bad-boy game, and there is some type of taboo feeling that other games don’t have."

The once-young Entertainment Ratings Software Board (ESRB) now gives detailed information to parents on what’s in the games. For the "Mature 17+"-rated "Grand Theft Auto V," the ESRB lists "blood and gore, intense violence, mature humor, nudity, strong language, strong sexual content, use of drugs and alcohol."

But today’s kids seem more focused on what has become secondary in "Grand Theft Auto’s" controversial history: The gameplay.

As one 14-year-old New Yorker shared, "I look forward to 'Grand Theft Auto' very much. There’s the multiplayer – like that cool scene in the new trailer where the guy is looking off the tower – and the choices between the three main characters."

He then adds, "Also, the storyline looks hilarious."

Damon Brown is the author of "Porn & Pong: How Grand Theft Auto, Tomb Raider and Other Sexy Games Changed Our Culture."

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