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In 1997, a game was released that sent shock waves throughout the world. 17 years later, it’s here to shock us again -- or maybe not?
On Tuesday, Rockstar Games will release “Grand Theft Auto V,” the 15th installment of the one of the most controversial series of all-time. Yet there are indications that it may be taking some steps away from its hyper-violent predecessors.
Back in 1997 when Miley Cyrus was still in diapers and President Clinton was enjoying his pre-Lewinsky glow in the polls, “Grand Theft Auto” hit the shelves. At that time, two years before Columbine, the idea that videogames were a possible inspiration for real violence had been raised only sporadically.
Editor's Note: This is Part Four in a series exploring the connection between video games and violence.
Part One: 'Training simulation:' Mass killers often share obsession with violent video games
Part Two: 'Frag him:' With today's ultraviolent video games, how real is too real?
Part Three: 'Watch this:' How ultraviolent games and films different
Part Four: Case Study: Has 'Grand Theft Auto' grown up?
“Grand Theft Auto” changed that.
“GTA” as the game became known was a cathartic title that allowed players to recklessly rampage in a city. From running over civilians to blowing up cop cars with rocket launchers and causing multiple train pileups, the possibilities were endless.
The whole game was designed to allow the gamer to cause as much carnage as physically possible.
The game was enormously popular in the videogame world, spawning a string of sequels across multiple consoles. Yet the mix of obscene violence, accompanied by a lack of care in offending sensibilities (in one installment, huge bonuses were given for slaughtering Hare Krishnas) caused a media storm unlike any game before.
Additionally, as the media started to question whether videogames could inspire violence in the post-Columbine world, GTA became the poster child for the games that were fingered for corrupting America’s children.
The controversy has lingered ever since. Rockstar, the company behind the series, was not available for comment to FoxNews.com. However, Rockstar’s president Sam Houser recently told The UK Sunday Times that the controversy has sometimes become frightening in its scope, expanding even beyond violence.
Houser recalled Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who was later embroiled in a prostitution scandal, holding a press conference to slam the prostitute characters in the GTA games. “The hypocrisy is so funny, you can’t make it up,” Houser told The Times.
Yet something was missed in many media reports as the GTA series expanded. The violence increased, but the use for it in the game matured.
This recent wave of titles are not necessarily less violent, but they contextualize it, giving it a role beyond exploitation.
While the protagonist was anonymous in the first few installments, a voiceless entity through whom the gamer could unleash his inner sadist, later titles introduced characters and storylines. The most notable breakout was 2008’s “Grand Theft Auto IV.” The protagonist is Niko Bellic, an Eastern European immigrant seeking to make a new start in the land of the free.
Although violence was still the order of the day, it was crafted into an interesting tale about a rough man trying to escape the criminal underworld into which he has become entangled.
Some hints as to Rockstar’s new direction may be gleaned from its 2010 hit “Red Dead Redemption” – a Wild West title similar to GTA in many ways. The game gave players control over John Marston, a former outlaw who had reformed his life to be with his family, but who, on the orders of the police, must go back and hunt down one of his former comrades in crime.
Marston is a religious man who now abhors violence, and seeks redemption, but is forced back into the lifestyle against his will to save his family. The game’s theme therefore is about escaping violence, not about embracing it.
This recent wave of titles are not necessarily less violent, but they contextualize it, giving it a role beyond exploitation. Consequently the violence is more akin to what is seen in Oscar worthy R-rated movies.
"Grand Theft Auto V" also seems to be taking this approach. One of the three main characters, Michael, is a retired criminal who wants to leave the illegal world behind.
In the opening line of one of the trailers for the game, Michael says, “I want something that isn’t this. I want to be a good Dad, love my family, live the dream.” While he is speaking, the trailer shows carnage ensuing -- indicating Michael does not get what he wants.
Some of the game’s new features also seem less inclined to teenage boys, and more to a more mature gamer. Fancy playing tennis and dabbling in the stock market before investing in some real estate? Surprisingly this all seems to be part of the new title.
This isn’t to say that the game won’t be bloody. The Entertainment Software Rating Board – the de facto rating system for videogames – has given “GTA V” an M—Mature rating, noting that it contains blood and gore and intense violence. It's definitely not one for the kids, but then again Rockstar never claimed to make "Grand Theft Disney."
Whatever “GTA V” contains, it will be packed full of controversy to ignite the airwaves. But it may be a different controversy for a different world than that which greeted the 1997 original. Gaming fans and concerned parents wait with baited breath.