Let’s get controversial.
Before we begin, I do not condone or endorse the acts depicted in Grand Theft Auto. This article is for the education and understanding of professionals who work with young people and gamers.
As always with these… this game is clearly not for kids. Video games are a medium like cinema or books, and each game should be considered as such. However, some kids I’ve met do enjoy this game series, and I’ll go into the why of that later.
Grand Theft Auto, or GTA, by Rockstar Games, is one of the most infamous video games ever made, and was the subject of much media notoriety for its depiction of crime and criminals. There was public outcry and various petitions were raised to have the game banned.
Simply put, the players take control of a fictional career criminal who is working towards their characters’ goal, whether it be retirement, the next big score, or getting their brother out of prison. The games take place in an open world full of diverse and larger-than-life characters and activities, set in fictionalised versions of existing locales in the United States:
- Liberty City (New York)
- Vice City (Miami);
- Las Venturas (Las Vegas)
- Los Santos (Los Angeles)
- San Fierro (San Francisco)
Players can walk, run, or steal vehicles to navigate these cities. Later games include vehicles legitimately owned by the player character, but car-jacking one’s way across the city is still pretty standard.
GTA began its life as a top-down game on the Playstation 1, with limited graphics, but a large, if superficial, open world to travel about in. The game series became a hit with the release of Grand Theft Auto 3 on the Playstation 2, with a full suite of 3D graphics, voice acting and cinematic cutscenes.
It sprang back into the media spotlight with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, when a previously blocked activity in the game was unlocked by game modders, allowing players to download a mod which enabled the activity. The mod was called Hot Coffee, a reference to the character’s girlfriends asking the player’s character inside for “coffee”. In the mod, the player controls the lead character, CJ, as he has sex with one of his girlfriends after a date. Rockstar would later release versions of the game, and game updates to existing versions, which removed this activity entirely.
The games have all been set in different eras, with the first two games not having a particularly driven or notable plot; GTA 3 is where the story-driven elements of the series began, and is set in Liberty City in 2001, following the lead character Claude, who gets embroiled in gang warfare after a prison break. GTA 3 draws inspiration from The Sopranos and other Mafia films and series. GTA Vice City is set in the 1980s and draws inspiration from Miami Vice and Scarface, with a vibrant pink, purple and blue aesthetic. Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, possibly the most well-received game of the franchise, is based on urban street gangs rather than the Mafia focus of previous instalments. It draws heavily from Boyz ‘n the Hood and gang violence in the 80s and 90s. This game had a really strong narrative with a genuinely good story; Carl “CJ” Johnson returns to San Andreas to bury his recently deceased mother, and gets dragged into the gang feuds within his family and neighbourhood. Meanwhile, he is also blackmailed and threatened by corrupt police officers into doing dirty work for them.
Grand Theft Auto 4 brings players back to Liberty City in the mid 2000s, playing as Eastern European immigrant and war veteran Niko Bellic, who sought to escape the troubles in Eastern Europe and live the American Dream in Liberty City, inspired by stories from his cousin, Roman. Unfortunately, Niko arrives to find that Roman has been wildly exaggerating his wealth and status in the USA, and Niko is quickly forced to evade loan sharks and crime bosses whom Roman had crossed.
There are sixteen entries in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, with the most recent being Grand Theft Auto V, and its online component, Grand Theft Auto Online. This game is set in San Andreas, a fictionalised version of California and includes the city of Los Santos and the desert region beyond the hills. The game follows three protagonists; Michael, a bank robber and film enthusiastic in witness protection, Franklin, a former gang member who wants more out of life than to fight and die for the ideals of a street gang, and Trevor, a former accomplice of Michael’s, who is an unrepentant murderer, torturer and meth dealer. Trevor actually fills a role in the game as being a mirror for the player – he gives words to the urges and actions of players, and often suggests mass murder or other criminal acts as solutions to problems, much to the dismay of his colleagues. Trevor’s words and actions mirror that of how GTA is played; with no regard for road rules or firearm safety.
The three protagonists rob banks, break into military facilities and pull the heist of all heists on a location analogous to the Federal Reserve, all while under pressure from crime lords, movie executives, and corrupt agents from the “IAA” and “FIB”, parodies of the CIA and FBI respectively.
The games are loaded with references to crime history, pop culture and current events. In GTA V, players are tasked with placing a device on the phone belonging to the CEO of “LifeInvader”, a mobile app and smartphone creator hybrid of Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg. The device turns out to be a bomb, and he is killed on live television. This triggers a series of missions where players kill businessmen in order to manipulate the stock market, which players can invest large sums of money in. This act is seen as just by an affiliate of the protagonist, as he sees LifeInvader as an insidious force which harvests and markets users’ personal information.
There’s a lot to talk about.
Video games aren’t completely for kids: There are franchises and genres that aren’t for kids. Just because they’re seen as an immature pastime, doesn’t mean they’re exclusively for kids. This series is one of them.
Subversion: This game is all about enjoying doing the things you probably shouldn’t do in real life. Driving on the sidewalk, evading police, storming military bases, chasing celebrities down a busy street while trying to get a perfect picture to sell to the tabloids… there’s very little pro-social behaviour here. The game is pretty honest about itself and rarely pretends what they’re doing is morally justifiable. Ironically many players report that they have, if only once, tried to adhere to road rules within the game to varying degrees of success. There’s something odd about a game where prosocial behaviour can be seen as amusingly subversive.
Social Commentary: The game series is full of commentary on social and political issues, taken to bizarre and irreverent extremes. See above, where a parody of Facebook is literally called “LifeInvader”, and the CEO, a satirical depiction of Silicon Valley tech-bros, announces new devices and new ways of stealing personal information, much to the orgiastic glee of a screaming crowd. Multiple references are made to various government agencies’ involvement in organised crime and drug activity. Celebrity culture is mocked ruthlessly, with a side-story in GTA V involving protagonist Michael’s attempts to prevent his daughter becoming exploited and humiliated on camera by men in Hollywood, in her attempts to become famous regardless of cost.
Crime is dangerous: “No plan survives contact with the enemy” is an old soldier’s maxim. Many times throughout the entire series, characters are betrayed—sometimes to their death—in a heist, robbery, assassination or other form of criminal activity, by associates hoping to reduce the number of witnesses or loose ends, or merely to heighten their own take. One side-character in GTA V dies in a setup, and the police shoot him dead instead of an accomplice. One character in GTA V is not as cunning or charismatic as he believes, and this results in constant attempts on his life from people he thought were his loyal friends, because he is seen as an expendable liability. Thankfully he has allies in the form of Michael, Trevor and Franklin to pull him out of danger.
Driving around aimlessly is fun: GTA was doing open world exploration in the 1990s before other big franchises like Far Cry and Assassins Creed in the mid-late 00s. GTA has a lot of world to explore, and it can be fun to find the wreckage of alien spaceships, climb the “Vinewood” sign and see references to films and other videogames out in the world.
What leads people to crime: GTA V did try to make its characters more relatable, although the San Andreas game does a great job of this too. Michael is a self-described “washed-up jock whose football career never took off”, and who came from an abusive household. Michael became a professional robber because it was the only thing that he felt good at, and eventually began to utilise his leadership skills as a heist leader. Franklin was born in the lower socioeconomic parts of Los Santos, based on Compton and South Central LA, and only ever knew gang life. However, he has bigger dreams than fighting in endless gang wars, and chooses to join Michael’s team as he sees it as his way of making real money. Trevor admits to having grown up in an abusive household, and claims to have grown up in “five states, two countries, fourteen different homes, eight fathers, three care homes, two correctional facilities, one beautiful, damaged flower of a mother”. These characters have complicated backgrounds and come from disadvantage, resulting in a cycle of crime and incarceration that is mirrored in real life. I’m sure our friends in forensic psychology and criminology would have some deeper insights than I.
Cooperation and team play: A plan needs a team to make everything come together. Heists in GTA V are well-planned, with all involved clearly aware of their risks, roles and rewards. The team acts as a team, and gets away with the big bucks, because of well-organised leadership and delegation of tasks.
You aren’t always someone else’s friend: Trevor repeatedly refers to himself as Michael’s best friend. Trevor is incredibly mistaken in this, as Michael views him as a volatile and dangerous liability. This is a great look at complicated relationship dynamics.
Adaptive behaviour: You can use this as a platform to discuss behaviours which might be adaptive or maladaptive, but also understandable in context. Most of the criminal behaviour in the games might not seem reasonable, but in Michael, Trevor & Franklin’s shoes, arson and gunshot wounds just might make sense.
There’s a lot to explore, in terms of subversive fun and the allure of the forbidden and the taboo. They’re entertaining enough games and are huge worlds to explore. Some folks just like driving around getting into mischief and doing stunts!
GTA is controversial and popular. It’s not to everyone’s tastes but it’s an iconic series of quality games. Sure, they’re not for kids and they definitely don’t depict prosocial behaviour, but we don’t make that demand of other forms of media either. Consumers and parents need to make informed decisions with their media content.
If you have questions, comments, or requests; are interested in seeing me as a therapist; or wish to consult your practice on deeper topics within popular culture, please feel free to reach out via my Facebook Page, or by my Contact page here. I’m currently developing seminars for in-depth looks at popular franchises, and am creating resources for work contexts.
Pop Culture Competence is an ongoing resource project by Mike Keady, a counsellor from the northern suburbs of Perth, Western Australia. He is currently developing Roll for Growth, which uses Dungeons and Dragons as a group therapy tool, as well as Minecraft Therapy.
You can find him on Facebook at Counselling with Mike – The Nerd Therapist.
Pop Culture Competence can be found on Facebook at Pop Culture Competence by the Nerd Therapist.
The Nerd Therapist is proofread and edited by Mandy at SeeMeAfter Editing & Proofreading Services, and she can be reached at email@example.com