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By the time the average American teenager has reached the ninth grade, chances are they've been exposed to one or two (or 20) graphically violent films. When I was growing up, most parents seemed to accept (if not condone) the viewing of these kinds of movies and television shows. It was inevitable that their children would eventually discover them. I vividly remember a friend's father renting a Freddy Kruger film for us when we were 12 years old. The year was 2002 – just a few months after the release of Grand Theft Auto III.
Gang violence, high-speed police chases, and hit-and-runs were nothing new to the Grand Theft Auto franchise (and nothing new to American entertainment). However, when parents learned that their children were taking on the role of an ex-convict, they were outraged. But the question stands: Why? Why was it okay for the same children to watch movies like The Godfather, but not play games in its likeness? Perhaps it was the fact that the interactive nature of video games meant their children were choosing to commit the crimes.
Parents were determined to shut down GTA developer Rockstar Games. Soon after the release of GTAIII, a tidal wave of lawsuits hit the studio. Ironically, the headlines spawned by this controversy only served to perpetuate the game's success. In 2001, Grand Theft Auto III sold over 12 million units. In 2002, its sequel, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City sold 15 million units. In 2004, the second sequel, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas sold an astonishing 20 million units.
Was the success behind this groundbreaking game simply a happy accident? Perhaps not; some critics claim contrived controversy. Today, we can all agree that Rockstar Games is the master of one-upping itself in shock value to become a trendsetter in milking the media for all it's worth. Join us on a morally ambiguous journey to the past as we revisit the franchise's most shocking and controversial moments that propelled video games into the headlines and kept us coming back for more.
Picking up Prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto III
Being the first of the series made using a 3D graphics engine, GTAIII presented its creators with their first opportunity to turn Liberty City into a dynamic open world. The themes of GTAIII remained similar to those of its predecessors. However, Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto II had played out from a bird's eye perspective. In the now three-dimensional Liberty City, pedestrians were no longer anonymous 2D figures. They now had identities.
Enter the prostitute. As a criminal world, Liberty City wouldn't be complete without sexual solicitation. To engage with prostitutes in the game, all the player had to do was pull up to certain scantily clad women, who would enter the vehicle in exchange for a sum of money. There was no nudity for those crudely animated characters; instead, it was left to the player's imagination to guess what was happening in the bouncing vehicle. Disturbingly, players found they could reclaim their cash by simply killing the prostitute with their car after she'd exited.
When first-person mode was introduced in Grand Theft Auto V, no one predicted the transformative effects this new perspective would have on the game. Prostitution became much more lewd, and much less was left up to the player's imagination. When confronted with his choice to make prostitution a part the Grand Theft Auto V Online experience, Take-Two Interactive's CEO, Strauss Zelnick, stated:
"Look, this is a criminal setting. It's a gritty underworld. It is art. And I — I embrace that art, and it's beautiful art, but it is gritty. And let's not make — you know, let's not make no bones about the environment in which we operate. And we stand shoulder to shoulder with other major motion picture releases and major television shows that explore a similar universe. So yeah, this is a tough universe because it's a criminal universe. However, there's hundreds of hours of gameplay. People have been engaged with Grand Theft Auto Online for over a year and there are plenty of things to do, and it's an incredibly exciting environment. But can it be rough? Absolutely."
In 2001, Grand Theft Auto III earned the title, "Most Offensive Game of the Year"... but it was also an innovative title that inspired a slew of games built in its likeness.
Cuban-Haitian Gang Wars in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City.
Set in Miami-esque city in 1986, GTA: Vice City let the player take on the role of Tommy Vercetti, a former gang member newly released from prison. Tommy befriends a Cuban gang leader, Cortez, and begins to do regular work for him as an errand boy and hit-man. Tommy is called in for a job to protect the high-end cocaine deal with a drug baron named Ricardo Diaz. During the deal, Diaz is ambushed by a gang of Haitians. The player, as Tommy, is tasked to kill them in order to complete the mission and save Diaz's life.
In November of 2003, Cuban-American, and Haitian-America civil right organizations in Florida publicly criticized Vice City. They contended that the game essentially invited people to harm immigrants from those two nations. Rockstar Games, which is based out of New York City, held its ground at first. However, after the following statement was made by former mayor of New York City, Mayor Bloomberg, the game was pulled for modification:
"This type of hate has no place in our City and as Mayor I will not tolerate it. I have asked the City's Human Rights Commission to suspend its investigation while the game is being modified ... as they do, that they will be able to repair their relationship with our vibrant Haitian community."
The Hot Coffee Mod in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas
"Hot Coffee" is the nickname for what was meant to be an inaccessible mini game in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. It portrayed a crudely animated sex scene between the main character, Carl Johnson, and one of his many girlfriends. The name came from the fact that the minigame would have been initiated when CJ's girlfriend asked him inside for a cup of coffee.
Though the entire minigame was dummied out and meant to be inaccessible to players, Hot Coffee was discovered in the game's 2005 PC port by a 38-year-old software developer from the Netherlands, who made a patch to restore the content available to other fans. The patch allowed players to enter the homes of a few of Carl's girlfriends and engage in a poorly animated sex mini game. Although the patch was originally PC-only, players eventually figured out how to access the AO-rated scene on the PlayStation 2 and Xbox versions.
This turn of events led to the biggest recall in GTA history. Not only was the Hot Coffee content removed in the re-release, the game received an upgraded ESRB rating of AO (Adult Only.) In the following months, a bill titled the Family Entertainment Protection Act was implemented by Hillary Clinton, which mandated enforcements of the ESRB rating system.
In 2007, Take Two announced a proposed settlement to the class action litigation they facing following the Hot Coffee controversy. A report in the New York Times revealed that a whopping 2,676 claims had been filed. That's one expensive cup of coffee!
Full Frontal Male Nudity in Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned
In the tradition of one-upping themselves, Grand Theft Auto IV: The Lost and the Damned DLC featured full frontal male nudity. But not the sexy kind. Instead, it revolved around a portly 50-something-year-old Congressman, Tom Stubbs. In the scene called "Politics," Johnny first meets Tom Stubbs at a massage parlor to discuss plans Stubbs has to hire him. When Johnny enters the room, Tom Stubbs gets off the table and exposes his family jewels for all to see as he delivers a full monologue in the buff. Surprisingly, the first-ever game DLC featuring 3D male genitalia didn't get as much buzz as Take Two expected, but nonetheless it was still shocking — especially to those who hadn't expected it.
The Playable Torture Scene in Grand Theft Auto V
There comes a point in Grand Theft Auto V at which the player, as Trevor, is forced to extract information from Mr. K about an Azerbaijani fugitive who poses as a threat to the FBI. For those who haven't played GTA — and for those less detailed-oriented gamers who have — GTA focuses heavily on satirizing American culture. In this case, the unfortunate truth about this minigame is that the torture methods available to Trevor are still used by the FBI to extract information from prisoners today.
Being such a politically heated and heavily debated topic, it was unsurprising that the choice to include a playable torture scene in the game came under its fair share of criticism. Freedom from Torture chief executive, Keith Best, said of the scene:
"Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game. Torture is a reality, not a game and glamorizing it in popular culture undoes the work of organizations like Freedom from Torture and survivor activists to campaign against it."
Unfortunately, Best hadn't actually played the game. The torture scene in Grand Theft Auto V isn't fun to play, nor is it meant to be fun. It's there to make a statement. Before you even begin the scene, Mr. K says he'll tell you whatever you want to know. But upon orders, the player must ignore that statement and proceed anyway. As the scene progresses the following statements are made:
"The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing. We need it to get information, to assert ourselves," Trevor says. "Did we get any information out of you?"
"I would have told you everything!" the man replies.
"Exactly!" says Trevor. "Torture's for the torturer. Or the guy giving the order to the torturer. You torture for the good times! We should all admit that. It's useless as a means of getting information."
There it is! The big message this terrible player experience is trying to communicate is right there in the script! All it takes is one good play through for the player to hear it. This isn't just another contrived controversy to get sales. This is a statement about politics and ethics.
Over the years, Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive have made a name for themselves in the gaming industry and in the mainstream media for being one of the smartest and most contentious game developers out there. At a time when games were perceived to be an underground hobby for adult nerds and a past time for children and adolescents, they pushed the envelope by covering content no other game developer had before. Including such lewd and controversial material in videos games was an incredibly risky move that potentially could have resulted in far worse. Through a little ingenuity, and a lot of PR creativity, Grand Theft Auto managed to pull gaming out of the niche and into the norm.