Ten Major Ways Grand Theft Auto Has Altered Pop Culture

By Brian Hanson in Daily Lists, Video Games
Tuesday, September 17, 2013 at 6:00 am

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Today, Rockstar Games' latest virtual magnum opus is unleashed on the world.

And in a completely unrelated incident, millions of adults are calling in "sick" to work due to unspecified, quickly-resolved illnesses.

As it just so happens, in case you've been living under a rock with only your Atari ST and Intellivision for companionship, Grand Theft Auto V is out now for everyone to devour. Surprisingly, the game is by many accounts incredible, and it is going to make approximately five separate shitloads of money.

Not bad for a series that began with a bunch of dudes in Scotland screwing around with top-down 2D graphics. Along the way, there have been controversies, lawsuits, a particularly pernicious lawyer, and more man-hours logged in for these "murder simulators" than any NASA space mission. All the while, the Grand Theft Auto series has left an indelible mark on pop culture around the globe.

Let's look at ten major ways Grand Theft Auto has altered our pop-cultural sensibilities!




10) Excess in the Form of Satire

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Make no mistake, a lot of Grand Theft Auto's most vocal critics are right; these games promote and incite the player to do reckless, dangerous, and sociopathic things. Steal cars, extortion, assassination, and basically the entire gauntlet of criminal activity cribbed from the script to Goodfellas. But like Goodfellas, there's a certain sense of joy in Rockstar's satirical, askew view on America's time-honored fascination with crooks and thieves.

In Rockstar's vivid game world, your street-level thug has more of a soul and much more compassion than the corporate entities that form the fabric of the idyllic American society; tech firms like Facebook are rebranded as "Lifeinvader." Low-hanging fruit like Reallity TV and pop stars become nihilistic strawmen of vapidity. Your entire arsenal comes from your friendly neighborhood gun shop, "Ammu-Nation."

In short, this is a silly, crass, ugly society, where bad behavior is rewarded while the innocents suffer. And this is something you can trace all over pop culture today. Think of the idiotic dystopia of Mike Judge's Idiocracy, where wrestlers become US Presidents. Think of the daily jabs at our cultural fabric courtesy of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, or the boorish, gleeful display of poor taste courtesy of Sacha Baron Cohen. Not to mention the weekly adventures of desert drug-peddlers from Breaking Bad.

Grand Theft Auto doesn't exist in a vacuum. The world of Grand Theft Auto is startlingly closer to our own world than we should be comfortable to admit. In order to palpably present to us a video game world where we are encouraged to indulge our worst desires, Rockstar has, from their offices in the UK, held up a heightened mirror to the American experience, in all its gross and stupefying glory.

And that irony can't be lost on Rockstar, because...

9) Video Games Make More Money Than Hollywood

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To be fair, there are actually a lot of things that make more money than your average Hollywood movie. The problem is, nobody ever felt the need to talk about it. Until Grand Theft Auto, anyway.

On its first day of release, Grand Theft Auto IV sold a staggering 3.6 million copies - which Take Two, the game's publisher, was keen to insist made the company a cool $310 million. Take Two's chairman was quick to mention, "Grand Theft Auto IV's first week performance represents the largest launch in the history of interactive entertainment, and we believe these retail sales levels surpass any movie or music launch to date."

Since then, other industries have been quick to hop on the "let's throw our dicks in front of Hollywood's face" bandwagon. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows did it, the later Twilight books did it, and virtually every major video game since has done it.

Fundamentally, though, big-budget movies and packaged products - like books and video games - are completely different products and their grosses are divvied up in a lot of different places compared to a film, but no matter. Suck on those day-one grosses, Hollywood!

8) Video Games Can Now Be Advertised Everywhere

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And the Hollywood comparisons don't just end with the money. All summer long, Take Two and Rockstar have been waging an epic war against the American public to ensure that we understood one simple thing; Grand Theft Auto V was coming out, on September 17th. If you lived in any major urban environment, you saw Grand Theft Auto V posters. Take Two probably spent more money advertising GTA V than most Hollywood studios spend to make an entire movie. The scale and ubiquity of these ads - on television, in movie theaters, on bus stations, you name it - is staggering.

And yet, nobody bats an eye anymore. That is, without a doubt, insane. If we had enormous posters advertising Super Mario Bros. 3 hanging on buildings in downtown Los Angeles in 1990, we would've lost our minds. But, slowly and quietly, from the 2002 release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, Rockstar has made it a healthy practice to inundate the public with such aggressive marketing that the games become a sort of de-facto event, rivaling any major blockbuster.

And then, of course, there's the sort of marketing you CAN'T control.

7) "There's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity" is, in Fact, True

Still, to this very day, Grand Theft Auto is known as "that one game where you can have sex with prostitutes, kill them, and steal their money."

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A murder of crows, meet a murder of prostitutes.

Yep! You can indeed do that, given that the game is all about giving you a large sandbox of bad behavior, and the media - itching for a story about moral outrage - picked it up and ran with it. And, surprisingly, they're still running with it, even a decade later. Here, for example, is Fox 11 LA's morally righteous, impatient screed against Grand Theft Auto V and all the evil contained therein. It should be noted that there is a familiar face - namely, mine - that appears near the beginning that gets to speak on the game for about 5 seconds (out of a 30 second interview) at the game and hobby shop he works at, before the intrepid reporter continues her litany of misrepresented facts about the game's salacious content.

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LOCK UP YOUR KIDS, THERE ARE VIDEO GAMES AFOOT.

Too bad that stories like these don't seem to do dick. Grand Theft Auto V will make more money in one day than any of us will ever see in our entire lifetime, while the older, out-of-touch generation shake their heads in dismay as the Youth In Our Country murder innocents with these Murder Simulators. Before, controversies like these were enough to sink or stall something like Grand Theft Auto. In the UK in the '80s, the outrage over "Video Nasties" was enough to scare away potential customers and had horror movie purveyors shaking in their boots. Tipper Gore's crusade against hip-hop and the Dead Kennedys got records pulled from store shelves and blocked from radio airplay. What the hell happened, then?

6) The Death of the "Moral Majority"

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Now, this isn't entirely the doing of Grand Theft Auto, but if I had to pick one specific thing that seems to speak against the kinds of pop-culture censorship that has rocked the world of comics, film, television, books and music for decades, GTA would logistically be the next poster child. And yet, it continued unabated, and if anything, as outlined above, all this hysteria seemed to only fuel the game's success, rather than hinder it.

By all accounts, Grand Theft Auto should've been rent asunder by our nation's moral protectors as far back as the original PlayStation release in 1997 - where, even then, media outlets were concerned about the game's content. But the games have grown bigger, stronger, leaner, and meaner in the intervening years. Maybe it's simply cultural exhaustion over manufactured controversies, or maybe it's that we've become so inured and desensitized to violence and chaos from all forms of media, but whatever the case, Grand Theft Auto seems to be firmly stating that there is, finally, no more room for bullying from sanctimonious, morally righteous interest groups.

That's not to say there isn't a way to cross the line. Oh, you bet there is. It's on the next page.

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