While the success of a mere videogame can be counted in dollars and cents, the importance of Grand Theft Auto III can only be measured in panic. Like the horror comics of the ’50s, the ‘video nasties’ of the ’80s and ‘parental advisory’ CDs of the ’90s, the hysteria surrounding Rockstar’s game speaks not to any purported links to crime and depravity, but to its power to set agendas, fire the imagination and shape the minds of its audience. Whenever those prerogatives of the press and politicians become threatened, as they have by works from Lady Chatterley’s Lover to The Wild One, the creation of a ‘folk devil’ is all but assured.
Among the many reasons why GTAIII is one of our games of the last decade is its complete (arguably deliberate) ownership of that role. From Child’s Play to Driller Killer, Death Row Records to the Rhyme Syndicate, controversy has traditionally been shared within movements – especially by those looking to profit from the transaction. But GTAIII is such an arch-provocateur, such a perfect storm of brilliance, innovation, appeal and mischief, that it’s stolen almost every headline. Over 4,000 articles have been published about it, notes the Guinness Book Of Records. Rival scare stories about Manhunt and Bully depend on it. For better or worse, it has shaped the relationship between gamers and non-gamers for as long as it’s existed.
That storm’s been rumbling on the horizon since long before GTA became a brand rather than police procedural shorthand. For their own reasons, consumers, creators and moral entrepreneurs were waiting for this game ever since entertainment, heady enough as a surrogate experience, got personal in the world of videogames. Which was it? Mercenary? Encounter? Turbo Esprit? Doom? When did you first wonder when a game might let you walk the streets of a ‘real’ place, doing ‘real’ things to ‘real’ people, not all of them legal? What would those things be, and what would be the outcome for you, your character and society?
In the winter of 2001, Rockstar answered those questions in ways so complex and revolutionary that previous GTAs, though hardly ignored by the press, seemed impotent in comparison.
“The thing that struck me most, once it had gone from very enjoyable top-down 2D to deep and expansive 3D, was that it was unbelievably ambitious, but managed to achieve its aims,” says Alex Garland, acclaimed writer of books (The Tesseract, The Coma), movies (28 Days Later, Sunshine), the Ninja Theory game Enslaved and the aborted movie adaptation of Halo. “In my working life, I see ambitions as something important to have, but almost impossible to fulfil. They’re like a sleight of hand. You aim at them while knowing you will fall short. Success and failure are then measured by how far you fall short. But GTA did everything it promised, and then, as far as I was concerned, delivered more. I don’t know if I’d call it an influence exactly, but it was quite arrestingly impressive. Galvanising, I suppose.”
As you shudder to think of how things could have been had GTAIII launched just two months earlier, right before the September 11 terrorist attacks and a frantic period of self-censorship, you realise the importance of timing in its story, tied as that is to the third of those controversial powers, its portrait of reality. Carjacking is surely one of the most important interactions in 3D games, a seamless transition that turned two genres – action adventure and driving – into just one of seemingly infinite scope.
“The game was a dream that many designers had, but no one dared make,” says David Nadal, president of Test Drive Unlimited creator Eden Games. “When we were making V-Rally – I think it was V-Rally 3 – we were asked if we wanted to continue making driving games. My answer was that the genre was always the same and needed renewal, and our idea was that it needed to go outside of the car. It needed avatars. But it seemed too soon and we had no experience of action adventure games, so we made Kya: Dark Lineage [a thirdperson action game with unusually deep combat] while still continuing with racing games, so we’d have the technology to unify everything at the end. Then GTAIII came out.
“I remember saying to Atari: ‘Look! This is possible now.’ [GTAIII] opened the bridge, as it were, and created a mindset. It was the original genre-blender, which I love and is what we’re trying to do with Test Drive Unlimited, and I thank [Rockstar] for doing it first.”Making its name against the backdrop of the War On Terror, the invasion of Iraq and the infamous Patriot Act, this new experience became an unlikely player in the battle for western hearts and minds. In a decade that’s seen unprecedented media and state control over what we consider real, here was an extraordinary threat: a means of escape to a replica reality built, owned and shaped by the private sector, inhabited within months by millions of consumers. In the microcosmic Liberty City, unregulated airwaves fire freely at real-world targets which, like South Park’s, seem chosen for their desire to tell us how to behave. Worse for them, a healthy spirit of scepticism and rebellion is carried on the air itself, not to mention in the bricks and mortar. More on that shortly.
To most, GTAIII is still just the game that lets you randomly beat people up, shoot them as they try to escape, hotwire their cars and then kill your way out of police pursuits. Nothing new for the series, of course, but entirely renewed by the jump to 3D. Though drunk on the influence of classic movies and peopled with club-handed freaks, GTAIII was the point at which games became the latest tool for the architects of social anxiety. It’s no coincidence that Fox News, often accused of sociopolitical engineering and producer of the ‘reality’ show Cops for the last 22 years, was one of the first to broadcast the game’s violence at its most believable.
Being one of the first PC series to launch significantly on console, creating the phenomenon of the timed exclusive, GTAIII’s visual ingenuity needs no introduction. Proving that texture doesn’t have to mean ‘textures’, nor graphic ‘graphics’, its illusion of reality survives all kinds of technical hardships by attending to trickier, more creative details like ambient dialogue, camera behaviour and gameworld junk. But to the audiences of network news, reared on negative portrayals of life in local towns and cities, its domesticity was its real breakthrough.
Its characters, though caricatures, weren’t fighting on some foreign or alien battlefield with army-issue weapons and hard-earned skills. Nor were they hermetically sealed inside some 2D throwback to the ’80s, like Rambo trying to fight his way out of a zoetrope. This was immediate, street-level violence in a universe full of new and dangerous verbs. You left your apartment, went to the store or dealer and bought the gun or baseball bat, even if it meant choosing victims (‘prowling’, to the press) and mugging them for cash. Inevitably, this freedom crystallised in bulletins and columns into an act synonymous ever since: doling out cash to hire prostitutes before killing them for a refund.
Add to this the game’s somewhat orchestrated emergence as an accessory to various real-world crimes and the notion of the videogame nasty, always a bit wobbly with games like Death Race and Mortal Kombat, suddenly found its feet. There was the Thai student who stabbed 54-year-old taxi driver Kuan Pohkang ten times before stealing his car, realising he didn’t know how to drive, and surrendering moments later to police, confessing his addiction to a game that, said police, “made it look easy”. William and Joshua Buckner, teenage brothers who took two rifles from their home, hid in trees and began firing at passing cars, killing a man and wounding a woman; GTAIII, they told investigators, gave them the idea. The three teenagers charged with 57 felony counts in Milton, Georgia (the US state), ‘taught’ by the game how to throw Molotov cocktails at passing vehicles.
Other examples border on parody. The Nassau teenagers who ‘menaced motorists’ with a baseball bat and broomstick, then told detectives about the game they were imitating. Or seven-year-old Preston Scarborough, who as recently as 2009 survived a lengthy downtown police chase after stealing his family car. “How did he even learn to [drive]?” pressed Fox News. “We’re not exactly sure,” confessed Captain Klint Anderson of the Weber County Sheriff’s Office, “except that his father has grounded him from one of his videogames which involves operating vehicles.” “Something like a Grand Theft Auto, something like that?” “I have no idea. I didn’t ask… but some of those videogames are pretty realistic.” It was left to Preston, appearing on NBC’s Today Show, to speak the truth: “Watched my mom. Watched my sister.” His father, meanwhile, had rather sweetly mistaken the police sirens for a videogame.
“GTA’s provided a wealth of precedents which add some certainty to future legal decision-making,” says Chris Bennett, a partner in videogame law specialist Davis LLP, and author of its popular Video Game Law Blog. “Some would argue that Rockstar’s the perpetrator in this because it initially claimed that Hot Coffee [the mod that exposed sexual content left in the code of San Andreas] was the work of hackers – which was, in a sense, correct. It’s added sex to a mix previously concerned with violence.” The bottom line in every such furore since time immemorial: “The games aren’t intended for kids, though, and shouldn’t be an issue if parents pay attention.”
GTAIII’s misogyny is hard to dispute but, much like Resident Evil 5’s ethnic stereotyping and the equally pilloried Night Trap (the 1992 FMV game in which vampires descend on a co-ed slumber party), it’s also fed by umbilical ties to movies, crime novels and comic books. More relevant is the role of modding in the equation, a culture which exploded once the game arrived on PC, and has hopped between almost every open world since, from Oblivion’s Cyrodiil to Test Drive Unlimited’s Oahu. It’s an issue which, thanks to renegade US attorney Jack Thompson, returned to haunt The Sims 2, mods for which revealed genitals to rival those of Barbie, but raised questions about authorship and ownership. That game’s apparent crime, again, was its closeness to the home.And that, traditionally, is about as far as ‘debate’ over GTA has stretched. In this partisan battle which has been almost entirely self-serving, vilification and validation are the sole conflicting aims. “I’ve read reviews in publications as diversely respectable as the New York Times and Daily Variety,” writes Stuart Fischoff, editor of the Journal of Media Psychology and Emeritus Professor of Media Psychology at Cal State, LA, on his blog. “Curiously, the focus of commentary was technology, narrative breadth and complexity, graphic wizardry and the likely gazillion-dollar profit for its publisher. But nary a word about its culture of violence. Nary a word.
“In a parallel universe, but just as curious, I’ve never heard a psychologist or serious-minded media critics, discuss the game without launching a spittle-rich rant on the obscenity of the game and its cousins, all promoting murder, rape, torture, cop killing, etc.” Both perspectives, he advises, “can use a little tempering and sensitisation.” (So, you might argue, could his generalisation.)
To put it another way, somewhere in the heart of Liberty City, deeply hidden like some collectible item, is the truth that much of what we assume about GTA is actually false. There’s the trifling stuff, for starters: that this uniquely troublesome product of the videogame era is, in fact, just another milestone for an anarchic Scottish post-punk movement which, prior to this medium, got its kicks from comic books like 2000AD and Crisis, spawning world-renowned creators like Grant Morrison and Ian Kennedy, and which continues through ‘hooligan simulators’ like APB, Crackdown and State Of Emergency.
Then there’s the media-fuelled assumption – hardly helped by Rockstar’s self-professed reticence on the matter – that GTAIII is a game that tacitly, prematurely, teaches kids how to be adults, whereas in fact it reminds adults how to be kids. Is beating the loose change out of its cartoon characters really any different to pummelling a piñata once you’ve swept up all the sweets? Breaking laws to discover consequences is, after all, a child’s way of understanding its world – and as free-roaming virtual citizens we’re still learning to walk. To understand any world – the urban world, in particular – you have to engage, challenge and occasionally even invert it. Not all of us, though, have the balance or balls to become skateboarders, free-runners or BASE-jumpers, which is where GTA and its progeny, from Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater to Prototype, come in.
“When designing kindergartens it’s common for architects to consider the building as part of creative play, actively encouraging children to explore and constructively misuse their environment,” suggests Geoff Shearcroft, co-founding director of AOC, a London-based practice of architects, urbanists and cultural interpreters. “Regrettably, this attitude rarely makes it into other public buildings or the city as a whole. GTA demonstrates that it’s possible to design publicly accessible, suggestive environments that can accommodate a vast range of individual approaches, allowing a diverse range of users to enjoy unpredictable encounters.”
Merrily debunking another myth that GTA’s cultural relevance exists solely in baiting the tabloids, Shearcroft adds that its environment, evolving through our visits to Liberty City, is vitally different from the world it apparently clones, exerting its own potential influence.
“For over a century New York has prompted architectural fantasies of vertical living yet the ground place continues to dominate. In its full three-dimensional glory GTA allows us to experience the city at every level. Perhaps most intoxicating are its opportunities for fatal experiences; after images of people freefalling from the burning twin towers we can now experience our own fatal freefall from any of New York’s heights. This changes the way we want to look at the city.”
Furthermore: “Anyone passing through Times Square is distinctly aware of the moments when inert, dark buildings give way to the iconography of attached electric and printed billboards. In GTA the buildings have the same equivalence, the same level of presence, as billboards, screens and adverts. Steel, information, glass and lights become a continuous rendered soup, an intoxicating surface experience that imagineers, advertisers and architects could only previously imagine. This seamlessness of experience is beginning to infiltrate buildings, in part as a result of the digital means of production but more significantly as user expectations evolve. The game has offered a challenge to the designers of our future cities to accommodate, rather than dictate, individuals’ needs and desires.”
There are other misperceptions that warrant more space than we have here, testifying not just to the depth of GTA but how its leap into the public sphere has left that consciousness baffled, even in the learned minds of gamers. It is not some monolithic enterprise but a deeply personal one, moving with the trials of Rockstar co-founder Sam Houser in particular. It is not a game of death and destruction but life and construction, owing as much to SimCity as oft-cited ancestor Body Harvest.
The game’s days as the greatest folk devil of its time are thankfully numbered. Power and controversy go hand in hand with a consistent lifespan. In this sense, incorporating all the subsequent episodes, GTAIII might not just be the game of the decade, but a game of a decade. Thirty years after I Spit On Your Grave, movies of its ilk air pre-watershed on cable TV to a nominal and numb demographic. Just eight years after the aptly named Power, Ice-T starred in Frankenpenis, a porno spoof starring a ‘post-op’ John Wayne Bobbitt, and it was largely downhill from there. Ice Cube’s trajectory is too terrible to recount. The crimes of GTA will seem equally comical in generations to come, in a world it changed forever.
Tomorrow, we'll reveal our game of decade between 2000 and 2009.