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The immersive world that games like GTA 5 offer is the appeal, not the violence

Grand Theft Auto is a razor sharp satire of modern American culture

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of weeks, you’ll know the latest instalment of Grand Theft Auto has hit the shelves.

After earning over £500 million, it’s well on the way to becoming another global smash. However, the only thing more predictable than the glut of near perfect review scores has been the accompanying debate over video game violence. Yet scapegoating the franchise demonstrates little knowledge of today’s gaming market, and misunderstands what consumers are looking for.

The title Grand Theft Auto - a term describing vehicle theft - not only foreshadows the crime based nature of the series, but also its revolutionary open world approach.  Upon release in 1997, the original GTA changed the outlook of gaming: for the first time, the player dictated the game, rather than the other way around. The ability to steal cars, escape the police and vicariously live the life of a crime boss underlined this sense of liberty.

The boundaries and depth of this underworld evolved with the technology, so by its 3D incarnation, the ability to pick up prostitutes and mow down civilians took on a whole new level of realism.  Parents used to the innocence of Pacman expressed shock at this pioneering approach, outraged by the violent possibilities presented in the game: despite the clear 18 rating. 

Developer, Rockstar, continues to pay the price for this innovation. Concerns over video game links to anti-social behaviour saw David Cameron lead a high profile charge against mature gaming. During a speech on social order, he spoke of the “responsibility” games held in “choosing not to promote casual violence”, because we need to “think of the context in which people are growing up.“

GTA V does not heed these remarks, because it sees itself as an adult game – a razor sharp satire of modern American culture. Controversy has surrounded a particularly graphic torture episode which cannot be skipped. But consider that the player is in fact carrying out the act on an alleged terrorist, under the instruction of the FBI, and the perspective changes.  For the record, you then help the innocent suspect escape.

Another mission sees you assassinate the founder of LifeInvader, the in game Facebook parody, at the launch of the company’s venture into the mobile phone market. Given that a recent study found the average UK gamer is 35 years old, with their American counterpart two years older, these themes fit with the demographic.

Critics should recognise that computer games now operate on the same plane as Hollywood blockbusters, in budget, concept and emotional impact. Over recent years there have been a number of acclaimed games, from Heavy Rain to Bioshock and Deadspace, which incorporate heavy violence, but do so justifiably within their narrative. 

Take this summer’s universally praised The Last Of Us. The player is required to escort Ellie, a 14-year-old girl, across plague ridden, post-apocalyptic America - fighting off infected humans in the process. Apparently immune to the virus, Ellie represents humanity’s best chance of a cure and   must safely re-join the resistance so that a vaccine can be engineered. Grittily realistic, the player eventually controls the girl, as she carries a gun, killing humans and animals to survive. A spiky character, she also swears frequently. Free from GTA’s infamy, the game dodged simplistic mass media criticism. Just imagine the outcry if young teens carried guns in GTA.

But the factor which really sets these games apart and acts as the main selling point - are the immersive worlds they offer, not the violence itself. In The Last Of Us, it is the surrogate father/daughter bond which evolves between Ellie and her protector, Joel, which makes the game memorable. In Deadspace, it is the tension of staying alive in a climate that makes Alien seem like ET.

In GTA V, it is the thrill of speeding down the Los Santos highway, thinking about what you will do next in the bustling vibrant city. Because you can. For the most part, you can choose how to approach missions – violence or stealth? The choice is yours. 

Perhaps GTA V is causing so much controversy because it so accurately satirises society. And some don’t like what they see.