A screenshot from Grand Theft Auto.
The latest edition of Grand Theft Auto shows that the maturing video-game industry is making huge leaps in creativity and technological innovation. Yet there is no games franchise more misunderstood than Grand Theft Auto. “If the Devil had his own bible, it would probably take the form of a computer game,” wrote Peter Hitchens on 22 September, in a quintessentially Daily Mail critique of GTA V.
That an MP can write a column admitting playing the game shows how far video-game culture has permeated the mainstream since GTA was launched in 1996, in the heady days of New Labour. Back then, playing GTA felt like a wholly rebellious act, to be confined to the privacy of your own home. The cars were almost impossible to drive but they had great radio stations, which seemed really cool then. In the latest version, I couldn’t find how to flip between stations, so I kept breaking into cars in order to change the music.
When GTA emerged, the Mail described it as “criminal computer game that glorifies hit-and-run thugs”. It set off a moral panic so great that virtually no commentator said anything positive about the game that is now an integral part of innovative gaming history and culture around the globe. But Hitchens and the outraged political classes have been duped, like one of the weak-willed minor characters designed to add colour to the lives of Michael, Franklin and Trevor in GTA5.
GTA came to the notice of the public as a result of a public relations campaign masterminded by the streetwise Max Clifford and the game’s maker Sam Houser, a former classmate of George Osborne. They deliberately promoted its violence to grab headlines. The media elite have been inadvertently collaborating with the GTA PR people for the decade and a half since. To quote the paparazzo character who features in the game, “It’s a beautifully abusive relationship.”
GTA wrote the golden rule of games PR: always include a scene that pushes the boundaries of taste and decency, such that Keith Vaz MP will condemn it in the pages of the Daily Mail. GTA V is no different. This time there is a completely unnecessary torture scene where a victim is electrocuted and waterboarded and has a tooth extracted to force him to talk. Last time I checked, the scene had been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube. Many gamers don’t feel comfortable with gratuitous violence of this kind and there has been legitimate criticism that there wasn’t even an opportunity for players to opt out of this particular section.
Sam Houser’s games franchise has already netted $1bn for GTA V: surely he can afford to make a departure from the shock-and-awe PR formula to talk in a more mature way about the developments in the new game, which are vast – from the hundreds of options a character can take and the extraordinary animated detail in missions to the muchimproved user experience as you drive vehicles around the city.
His response would probably be that, with the tabloid media so willing to write about it, why should he change tack? Just this past week, the Daily Mirror, historically more supportive of our video-game industry than most tabloids, splashed on its front page a story that the Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis had heard “voices in his head” after playing violent video games.
None of these sensational stories helps consumers choose good material to buy; at up to £40 a go, many agonise over their purchases. Make the wrong choice and you can end up with a game you discard after a few hours. With GTA V, the investment is worth it. You can, if you want, spend hundreds of hours at it. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that, when the online world gets switched on, some will spend thousands of hours.
Thankfully – despite what Peter Hitchens might think – gamers understand satire. And Grand Theft Auto Five is one giant targeted missile of satire locked on to the superficiality of media, commerce, celebrity and politics. Early on in the game Michael, an unhappily married ex-con, bemoans his good-for-nothing son who “sits on his arse all day, smoking dope and jerking off while he plays that f***ing video game”. This game has such market power that it can defy all media attacks and laugh at itself, knowing that millions of us get the joke.
That’s not to say GTA hasn’t missed a few tricks. Helen Lewis  has written about the lack of strong female characters, surely a mistake in a growing global market? Yet the producer, Rockstar Games, is defiant, mocking the political classes from inside GTA. “Democracy can suck my fatty,” says one of the many eccentric characters, sending Michael into an ethereal world where he is attacked by aliens as they attempt to abduct him.
As I write this, I realise how hard it is to describe the game to you. You just have to play it in order to understand the comedic depth of the world you enter when you switch on your console – a world so layered in detail that even the most dedicated players will not get to see most of Los Santos and Blaine County, the world created by Rockstar North for you to adventure in. Every feature, from the flickering streetlights and unique advertising hoardings to ambient noise and radio station playlists, has been painstakingly woven into the experience. How could poor Hitchens have a clue?
There is room for legitimate criticism of GTA V, but politicians and commentators will have to work much harder to understand this creative medium before they can be taken seriously by gamers.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East (Labour)