With a record-setting three-day haul of over $1 billion in sales on launch week, Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto V has put violent games on the front burner of mainstream media once again. Despite the violent nature of shooters like Call of Duty: Ghosts, Gears of War: Judgment and Halo 4, it's usually the GTA franchise that the less games-savvy public figures like to focus on as the poster child for what's wrong in society today.
GTA V is about more than violence
"Anyone who has any conception at all about the games and hasn't played them should go play the games before they open their mouths," says actor Ned Luke, who plays Michael de Santa in GTA V.
"The biggest misconception is that it glamorizes violence. It really doesn't. If you look at my character, Michael, he's rich, but he's a miserable man. Even in the commercials you see that. This is a guy who's struggling with his life's decisions."
"If you want to take something out the game, take out of it that here's a guy who loves his family, who's kind of lost. He's trying to hold it together. He's trying to become a good guy, but he can't. He just has all these demons that he's battling. It's the struggle. Take that and look at how he loves his family even though he wants to kill them and that's what it is. Look for the relationships. Look for the humor. Look for the irony and the satire in the game. That's another big misconception, "What, do they think we're serious?"
These days, plenty of people are playing the game, as well as the included multiplayer mode Grand Theft Auto Online. Research firm Super Data Research forecasts GTA Online will generate $41 million in revenue from in-game transactions (players buying in-game cash with real money) in its first year and $93 million over five years. The Mature-rated game has over 20 million gamers playing, and it's the best-reviewed game in the Grand Theft Auto franchise. Yet the fact that the game has sex, violence and drugs--just like many TV shows and movies--still bothers some politicians and media "talking heads."
TV and film are equally violent
"The hypocrisy drives me crazy," said actor Steven Ogg, who plays the ultra-violent Trevor Philips in GTA V.
"It just sets the wrong focus. Why not talk about gun control? Why not talk about parenting? Why not talk of lack of family values? There are so many other things to talk about. Look at what's on TV. Breaking Bad had that episode where Giancarlo got his face blown off. There's a lot of intense stuff out there. Video games are just an easy scapegoat. My nephew plays this game. I asked my sister if she was worried because there's some pretty nasty stuff in there and she said, 'I know he's not going to go to school tomorrow with a gun. He's not like that.'"
Over 145 million Americans between the ages of 10 and 65 play games today. Given this huge audience, the odds are pretty good that when something bad does happen in society, the culprit likely played video games, just as he likely watched TV and movies and drank orange juice. Even Americans who live a violent lifestyle through gangs find escape in a game like GTA V.
"I know a few people that live that kind of (violent) lifestyle and when they play GTA they can relate to it," said Shawn Fonteno, an ex gang member who plays Franklin Clinton in GTA V.
"It has an impact to the point that they're happy that they can just play it in the game and not have to relive it in real life. And that's the big key thing with this, man. It's just a video game. And people that have lived that life and have done them things, as I did, can just have fun with it in a game. You can leave it there and nobody's getting hurt and you're just having fun."
Violence is a key reason that many shooters and games are popular, just as Hollywood has glorified guns and fighting in movies since the very inception of cinema. Games offer an escape from everyday life.
"GTA allows you to tap into everything that you can't do in real life," said Luke. "In real life, you don't get to go out and rampage and do all these bad things. Gangster movies have been huge forever--Godfather, Casino, Goodfellas, all the way back to Jimmy Cagney. People lose themselves in the bad boy. And there isn't anybody badder than the dudes in GTA. That's why they're so popular. You get to actually go out and do all these horrible things."
"As an actor, I got to go out and do all these crazy things and then go back home to my wife and my son and go out in the back yard and throw a baseball around like a normal all-American dad. I think that's what these games are. People who take them too seriously and go, 'Oh, this is life.' No, this isn't life. This is imagination. It's just fun. You definitely don't want GTA raising your children. But it's not a bad release from them, when you need to get away."
Luke doesn't allow his 11-year-old son to play GTA V, which makes sense; the ESRB rates the game as suitable for kids 17 and older. Despite the fact that the Entertainment Software Association has reported that the average age of a gamer today is 30 and 68 percent of all gamers are 18 or older, there's still the misconception that all games are for kids.
Parents should get involved
"People already have it in their mind that GTA is for kids because it's a game," said Fonteno. "Then they hear about the violence and they're instantly going to attack because it's a game. Now, if it was a movie it would be a different story and these same people would be out there supporting it. GTA V is like a movie. Once they get the game in their hands, they'll see. It says it big as day--Mature. It's not for the kids to go get. It's for Mature audiences only. If kids get it, then that's on their parents."
This being America, those who have a problem with GTA V or any other game, movie or TV show, have the freedom to not buy it or play it or watch it. This game isn't being forced on anyone. The 20 million people who waited five years to buy a copy on launch day know exactly what they're getting when they purchase a Rockstar game. They understand the satire and irony in the game that paints a picture of everything that's wrong with society today. If those who complain so vocally about the game would actually play it, they might better understand the controversy.