GTA: Courting Controversy, But Only The Right Kind

You may have heard that Grand Theft Auto (GTA) V launched and made over $1 billion dollars. Literally.

I’m perfectly happy to jump on that bandwagon, but I typically try to avoid writing about games I haven’t played. However, there were two articles I came across a while ago that I thought were interesting parts of GTA’s history. They also raised to me the idea that Rockstar likes to be ‘safe’ in the kind of controversy it attaches to the GTA series.

GTA Controversial? Always!

There is an interesting counterpoint to the “PR in games is evil and corrupting and turns everything bad” attitudes raised by ongoing events in games “journalism” – what happens where games PR helps create a successful franchise? Say, something like Grand Theft Auto (GTA)?

There was a small article a while ago that pointed out how the original 2D version of GTA benefited immensely by the PR work of Max Clifford, who used his abilities to point out how terrible GTA was to the right kind of right-leaning politicians and newspapers, thus whipping up the kind of controversy (and associated free publicity) that made GTA a desirable title. This kind of attraction was important, because in my humble opinion GTA in 2D was an incredibly frustrating title that quickly wore out its welcome. Since you had such a limited view of the road (2D, so overhead) that if you went too fast it was very easy to miss a turn and slam into buildings or spin out of control.

You can see that kind of thing below (from about 1:30) – getting into a fast car meant a constant game of speeding up / slowing down and then recovering from cornering too hard:

But with a whole bunch of people saying how socially taboo it was (due to a campaign organised by the publishers and developers of the title) then suddenly it becomes attractive for a teenage boy to buy.

You may say that, “Yeah, but GTA didn’t get big until GTA III,” and you’d be right, but for there to be a third title in a series, the first has to do well. GTA benefited from its infamy to the point that let it become an industry juggernaut… right up until it slammed into the backlash.

I Only Did It Because I Was Young And Needed The Money

There was another article that covered GTA: San Andreas’ Hot Coffee controversy – for those just back from Mars, Rockstar designed sexual content for GTA:SA, but hid it prior to release because such content would have raised its censorship rating to exclude selling to minors and therefore reduced the title’s revenue. The mod community found that hidden content however and released a patch that would let players see it. Rockstar subsequently got hauled over the coals and fined over US$20m for its breaches – which wasn’t the content itself, but releasing the content on the disk and not informing the censors about it – and it is apparently still a topic that they get defensive about.

The interesting thing about Hot Coffee is that it was based on Rockstar’s desire to include strong sexual elements in their game. Rockstar wanted player-driven explicit sex to be a gameplay element. Arguably it was a push into the final big video gaming taboo that Rockstar first courted, then hid and now generally tries to pretend didn’t happen.

Given the reaction – and that was arguably enhanced by the content being hidden – Rockstar seems to have gone gunshy on the issue. GTA V has naked cannibals attacking women, the gameplay involves torturing information out of someone and if your character pays a stripper enough money she’ll go home with him, but sex itself is relegated to off-screen action.

I don’t believe on balance that video games are Art (and that’s capital-A art, which would meaningfully separate the medium from other ‘art forms’ like finger painting and advertising) and one of the reasons for this have been games’ inability to deal with some basic elements of human experience. Sex is part of what it means to be human  – certainly much more than shotgun-based combat versus opposing gang members – yet it hasn’t been part of notable gaming output.

(Yes, there are porn games, but porn is to real world relationships what action films are to driving lessons.)

A small cup of hot coffee.

In an alternate universe, Hot Coffee was part of GTA:SA, video games survived the shock and we’d have games that dealt with relationships at least as well as daytime television. (Image Source: Wikipedia)

Video games are absolutely comfortable with high resolution bullets flying from real-world gun designs and into thousands of human-looking targets (blood splatter and exit wound modelling have hundreds of work hours invested in them as well), but the idea of creating even PG-rated sex scenes sends the industry into a tizzy. Which is why I saw Rockstar’s back down on GTA:SA as so important. Here was the big studio that likes to push boundaries – remember: naked cannibals in a proxy-Los Angeles! – running away from a key human issue because it might cost them sales.

I wouldn’t have expected GTA:SA to have perfectly dealt with the human issue of sex and sexuality, but it would have been a start. Instead, the reaction to Hot Coffee appears to have made the gaming industry extra scared of even looking at the issue. Torture is fine, the idea of sex workers existing for titillation is fine, spree killings are fine and part of the basic gameplay. But actual sex? Best keep that hidden away in case it offends someone.

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4 thoughts on “GTA: Courting Controversy, But Only The Right Kind

  1. Big-A Art of all kinds has dealt with the issue of censorship throughout human history, so that whole argument is either disingenuous or just plain flimsy. Furthermore, Big-A Art isn’t always about realism and doesn’t HAVE to deal with the entire spectrum of human experience (what single medium could possibly do that?), so even your basic premises could stand a little examination. Of course, art debate aside, you do raise some very interesting points.

    • True – I didn’t go into a detailed examination about why games aren’t capital-A art, just that the inability to use sex meaningfully was one of the things holding it back.

      There are other reasons that I sometimes mean to go through, but also generally resist to avoid that particular can of worms!

  2. The introduction of the character has him having sex with a women in exchange for meth. It doesnt show genitals but it does include ass shots. He then goes outside and kills her boyfriend. Rockstar has gotten over the sex part — they just arent putting it directly in control like in Hot Coffee. This is a “you can look, but dont touch strategy”.

    • Yes – Trevor is introduced in such a way to show that he is an unstable sociopath.

      The sex element is downplayed in comparision to the violence. And as you say, it’s a cutscene.

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