What is Grand Theft Auto, and why does it cause such controversy?
Published 29/04/2008 | 09:40
On sale across the world today, Grand Theft Auto IV is expected to be the fastest selling video game of all time
Why are we asking this now?
Because the eagerly awaited video game Grand Theft Auto IV goes on sale today across the world and is expected to sell 6m copies within the next week, earning its makers more than $300m by next Tuesday. The 18-rated game is also likely to break retail records to become the biggest-selling entertainment title of all time, eclipsing DVD and music sales. It's also the first Grand Theft Auto title to appear simultaneously on rival games consoles the PlayStation3 and the Xbox 360.
What will people be getting for their €59.99?
Access to a fully-realised world where almost anything is possible. According to Tim Ingham, online editor of the video games industry bible MCV, the game will offer its players "hours upon hours of the most immersive and interactive entertainment ever seen".
The game follows Niko, an eastern European immigrant newly arrived in a city modelled on New York, as he makes a life for himself in an unforgiving urban world. As well as cutting-edge graphics and realistic locations, the game is the best example of a virtual "open-world environment" where players can roam freely, completing tasks as they choose rather than following a pre-established script.
With its mix of street criminals, city-dwellers and more glamorous characters such as virtual versions of comedian Ricky Gervais and fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, it's light years away from traditional video games like Space Invaders or, later, Sonic the Hedgehog. So popular is this free-form style of gaming that Ingham says he has already heard reports of people booking the rest of the week off work to play the title.
How did this phenomenon begin?
The company behind GTA, Rockstar Games, is a British success story. It was founded by English brothers Sam and Dan Houser with their childhood friend Terry Donovan in 1998 after the three worked together at a record label, BMG Music, in London. When the label launched an interactive division in 1993, the three signed up and began creating video games. Their first big success was a game originally called Race and Chase, which went on to be renamed Grand Theft Auto. The game saw players steering a car around a city while committing crimes. The aim was to become as notorious as possible while avoiding police attention. The mix proved popular and the game sold around 2m copies.
What happened next?
In 1998 BMG's interactive division was bought by New York games publisher Take-Two, a move that saw the Houser brothers, Donovan and their team relocate to the city. With a new name – Rockstar Games – and financial backing, they created GTA 2 in 1999 which, like its predecessor sold a respectable 2m. The game's next incarnation, GTA 3, was the first to introduce three-dimensional graphics and to feature an open-world environment where players could explore at their leisure. It launched in 2001 and was a huge success, selling 10m copies. The next title, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, was another instant best-seller, becoming the fastest-selling game of all time in a number of countries. Grand Theft Auto San Andreas was released in 2004 and like it's predecessors was an immediate hit worldwide. It was followed up by two supplementary GTA titles, Liberty City Stories and Vice City Stories.
Who plays Grand Theft Auto?
Males aged between 18 and 35, the biggest spenders on video games, make up a large part of the game's demographic, although the title is popular with female and older gamers too.
How did it fall foul of moral guardians?
By being unashamedly controversial in its subject matter. The game features casual violence, sexual explicitness, prostitution, bad language and, some commentators claim, a glorification of criminal activity. The first GTA game was described as "sick, deluded and beneath contempt" by the Police Federation. Following the release of GTA 3, US representative Joe Baca, a Democrat from Southern California, introduced the Protect Children from Video Game Sex and Violence Act of 2002, asking, "Do you really want your kids assuming the role of a mass murderer or a carjacker while you are away at work?" Australia banned the game.
In 2004 GTA: San Andreas cemented the series' reputation when a secret mini-game, called Hot Coffee, was discovered by a hacker. The game allowed players to have sex in the game and was the subject of a number of lawsuits. Hillary Clinton said that "the disturbing material in Grand Theft Auto and other games like it is stealing the innocence of our children". Despite the game's adult age rating, many under-18s have managed to play previous GTA titles and will no doubt try to acquire today's release.
Is there any evidence that such games affect behaviour?
"Copycat" behaviour following viewings of violent films has been claimed for some decades, and studies by Iowa State University argue that "violent video games are significantly associated with increased aggressive behaviour," and that "high levels of violent video game exposure have been linked to delinquency, fighting at school and violent criminal behaviour." But the video-game industry does not accept the premise, and applies its rating system strictly.
What is the games business worth?
Last year the games industry was worth $37.5bn, according to PricewaterhouseCoopers. It is forecast to expand by more than 9 per cent annually over the next few years to become worth $48.9bn by 2011. The GTA franchise has sold 70m in total – and that's before today's expected bonanza.
How have these games changed the entertainment industry?
Video games have stolen a march on Hollywood – not only do the sales of games dwarf those of films, they also have a detrimental effect on the box office and TV viewing figures. According to Variety, "TV network execs who pay attention to the numbers know that young male viewership can dip in the first few days after a blockbuster video game launches. And home-entertainment honchos avoid releasing big titles aimed at that demo in the same time period."
Take this week. Industry analyst Mike Hickey says, "we anticipate the video game release of GTA IV on April 29 could dampen the potential from Iron Man's release on May 2." Grand Theft Auto is on the march again.
So is GTA damaging to society?
- Some studies show that children who play violent video games suffer behavioural problems as a result
- Research has found exposure to violent video games can desensitise individuals to real-life violence
- The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants fears the new game will have a negative impact on eastern Europeans
- Inventive, funny and intelligent, GTA IV is one of the best video games of all time
- The games industry says it is united on not letting games like GTA fall into underage hands
- The game has an 18 age certificate and is no different to adult-rated films that depict sex or violence