The Grand Theft Auto franchise is no stranger to controversy and has been taken to court time and again over the years. Considering the subject matter, this should surprise no-one. However the frequency of GTA’s legal tangles with various groups and individuals makes it stand out among games, and funnily enough, contributed much to the popularity of the franchise.
But how far back does the string of debacles go? How many times did someone try to get the game banned? How often was the game wrongly considered to be the cause of a violent crime? Let’s take a look at the history of the GTA franchise and the various controversies it got itself into.
To find the very first instance of the franchise kicking up dust, we have to go all the way back to 1997, when the first GTA game debuted. Even though Grand Theft Auto had crude visuals and a top-down perspective with each individual person represented by about a dozen pixels, the violent and criminal acts in the game did not go unnoticed. You know, some people just can’t abide a well crafted and entertaining video game to have its way.
A controversial figure himself, Max Clifford, used his fame – or notoriety, depending on who you ask – as a publicist to rain on DMA Design’s parade. That said, the move backfired, as his comments on the violence in the game sparked a campaign to have the game restricted. However this merely resulted in it become more famous and popular. Talk about a publicist, right? Fun fact – Clifford was later convicted as a sex offender. That must sting.
In spite of being more of the same but with marginally improved visuals, GTA 2 actually skirted the controversy-curse that seemingly dogged every other title in the franchise. It didn’t take long for GTA to appear in the headlines again though, as the release of the third game saw yet another controversy.
By moving into a fully 3D world and thus becoming more realistic, the violence and criminal aspects of the game were also much easier to sensationalize. Between players being allowed to have off-camera sex with prostitutes, commit various criminal acts like carjacking and kill NPCs in ways that counted as gory for the time, it was easy for the media to latch on to.
The game was banned and later re-released in a censored state in Australia since the vanilla release did not fit into the MA15+ rating, which was the highest that could be commercially sold. Austraila’s game rating board is notoriously strict which is why it got a pass in other countries.
Now, whatever the visual standards of the time might have been accounting for hardware, the fact of the matter is that the graphics of both GTA and GTA 3 were far from what you’d call realistic, and the violence was pretty tame compared to some of the games – or even movies – out there today. Banning games on account of virtual violence is pointless if you ask us.
For years, the groups campaigning against games with some conservative message mixed in usually claimed that the violence in the game would prompt the players to commit real-life violence. Thing is, in the years since a number of independently conducted studies proved that there is no link between violence and the consumption of video game media. Usually, if someone commits a violent crime and also happens to play games, the latter factor is irrelevant and underlying mental conditions are at play.
This doesn’t deter the masses though, as the banning and censorship continued with Vice City. It was toned down for the Aussie market again, however the game also angered a number of Haitian and Cuban communities in the USA for the depiction of the two nationalities as criminal gangs in the game. Rockstar settled with the groups amicably by removing certain voice-lines from the game which included racial slurs.
Things got heated with the release of GTA San Andreas. While the game initially was met with your standard set of complaints about violence, there was more coming down the road. Some time after release, a 38-year old modder from the Netherlands, Patrick Wildenborg, uncovered and unlocked a number of game files on the PC version for an interactive sex minigame.
The whole thing was so crude that it was very likely a joke side-project put together by a few of the devs in their off-hours rather than a genuine feature that got cut. The protagonist and their liaison would engage in crudely animated sexual positions and sort of flail about with a little “excitement” meter on the side of the screen.
A new version of the game was soon released with the files entirely removed, so the Hot Coffee mod wouldn’t unlock the minigame. Take-Two also entered a settlement where people who bought the launch version of the game could exchange it for the second edition and get paid $35 in the process. Apparently, the content was a lot less offensive than the whole controversy, since only a total of 2,676 people made the trade-off, and they likely did it for the cash, too.
While all of these controversies were fairly famous in their own right, the word was inseparably linked to GTA when the next numbered title, GTA 4 would be released. This is when Jack Thompson came onto the scene, who attempted to ban sales of the game entirely by declaring the product a “public nuisance”.
Thompson was very open about his plans, so Rockstar delivered a pre-emptive strike by suing him first. The two parties tangled before in a series of lawsuits regarding the game Bully, which Thompson targeted on the grounds of it promoting bullying in schools. That particular legal battle went in Rockstar’s favor, to such an extent that the developers accused Thompson of improper conduct, which put him under threat of being found in contempt of court – leading to jail time.
Eventually the two parties settled, which resulted in Thompson not being allowed to move to have the game banned, while Rockstar dropped the contempt of court lawsuit against Thompson. Animosity remained, and Thompson found ways of spitting in Rockstar’s soup regardless.
Thompson once again tried to sue after discovering the Final Interview mission in GTA 4 involved the assassination of a lawyer who says the line “gun don’t kill people, video games do”. He claimed that this was a personal attack and would resort to legal means if they were not removed. In spite of this, Rockstar did nothing, and Thompson failed to put his money where his mouth is.
After this, the man resorted to what is possibly the most childish course of action – sending an angrily worded letter to the mother of Stauss Zelnick. In the letter, Thompson derided Zelnick, Mrs. Zelnick, and the business conducted by Take-Two Interactive Software.
After Thompson was barred from practicing law due to misconduct and having his appeal thrown out by the highest court of the USA, he seemingly had no tools to use against GTA. That didn’t stop him from appearing on a TV talk show where he called the game a “murder simulator”.
GTA 4 found more enemies than just Thompson, though. Various New York City officials called the game out on the high levels of crime shown in a city obviously based on NYC, however no move to censor the game was made. Mothers Against Drunk Driving also took on the title for allowing players to drink while under the influence, however the ESRB didn’t change the game’s rating.
Further controversy dogged this title upon the release of the Lost and Damned expansion pack, which includes a scene showing an uncovered penis in all of its blocky, low-res virtual glory – something which is more controversial than the preceding games, apparently, if the Common Sense Media group is to be believed.
Things took an all new turn with the latest installment of the franchise, GTA 5. The most controversial aspect of the recent title was the mission titled “By the Book” which includes an interactive torture scene. In it, players controlling Trevor are tasked with waterboarding a prisoner, beating him with a wrench, electrocuting him or removing his teeth with pliers.
GTA 5 also for the first time saw controversy kicked up within the gamer community, believe it or not.
Of course, the subject wasn’t violence or the like, but the depiction of women. With the topic being increasingly discussed in the wake of the GamerGate and related controversies of the last few years, the fact that pretty much every female character in the game is a walking amalgamation of negative stereotypes didn’t sit well with a few people. Sam Houser responded to the issue by admitting that the team might have a few shortcomings in terms of the depiction of women, however these characters fit the story they wanted to tell.
Other than these, a handful of violent crimes including murders and kidnappings have been linked, often arbitrarily, with GTA games. In some cases, the perpetrators were simply known to play the game, and that fact was often sensationalized. That said, there were a handful of cases in the past where the perpetrators themselves named GTA as possible influence, however in each instance the convicts had previous history of mental illness and abusive pasts. GTA 5 remains banned in Thailand due to a murder which was allegedly inspired by the title.
And there you have it all. As we can see, GTA has quite the history with controversy, and while negative publicity is something that’s to be avoided as a general rule, all these high-profile cases ended up driving more popularity for GTA – and knowing Rockstar, a bit of controversy won’t make them tone things down for sure.