Reading the comments section of the BBC News article on the latest installment in the massively popular Grand Theft Auto series, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was service as usual. "I won't be buying this myself. As a child I was completely influenced by Tom and Jerry and now spend all of my spare time hitting cats in the face with frying pans," quips one user. Others are more direct in their rebuttals of the criticism that has dogged the series since its inception: "Married, 40 years old, good well paid job, own home. Never been trouble with the authorities. Been playing GTA since GTA III. Great games, great bit of escapism."
These comments, and the legions like them across the net, hint at a gargantuan moral furore on the other side of the argument, the likes of which hasn't been seen since, well, the last GTA was released. The series has courted controversy since its humble beginnings as a top down 2D game in 1997.
But these intrepid, internet-bound defenders of the series that has been dubbed nothing more than a "prostitute murdering simulator" (amongst other colourful monikers) needn't have bothered. For the first time in the series' illustrious history, the hype, combined with writers and gamers alike falling over each other to lavish praise on the game, has completely eclipsed the naysayers and detractors. The moral outcry that was meant to greet the game has simply failed to materialise. But why?
It could be that GTA, as a target for moral repugnance, is simply old news. Moral crusades often come across as a bit stuffy at the best of times, and at this point, anyone trying to fight the veritable behemoth that GTA has become risks looking as out of touch as Mary Whitehouse trying to get home video banned in this day and age. Perhaps those seeking to demean people who volunteer their free time to mow down digital denizens have realised that over 1.6million people in the UK and counting can't be wrong (or, more likely, can't be redeemed).
Just like Whitehouse's attack on VHS soon after its arrival on our shores, moralistic rhetoric frequently centres on the necessity of urgency; if these things aren't nipped in the bud they will become pandemic, spreading through society like wildfire and bringing life as we know it to a shuddering, debaucherous end. Ironically, few had the faith in GTA's nefarious potential as those who sought to have the very first edition removed from our shelves. The first game sold just 150,000 copies and the first 3D version around 15million, a number that the latest edition has dwarfed in less than a week.
That isn't to say that there hasn't been some who are willing to make themselves look about as up to date as Windows 95. MP Keith Vaz was quick to condemn the game: "I am astonished at the level of violence depicted in this game" he said, betraying the fact that he presumably must have stayed up the entire night before in order to complete the game's lengthy story mode and gain a fair, balanced view of the game. Another to weigh in was Jack Thompson, once taken almost-seriously as a figurehead for those outraged about pixel-on-pixel violence and a chief espouser of the theorem that violence in games equates to more violence in real life. Since his disbarment, Thompson has become little more than a self-parody (not that he was ever much more in the first place), descending into rampant hyperbole the moment someone thought to seek him out for his take on the new game: "You aren't killing virtual people. You are killing real people. You are an apologist for an industry that knowingly trains people how to kill and to want to kill. Blood is on your hands."
One reason that certainly can't be attributed for the shift is Rockstar (the game's producers) pulling any punches in this latest installment. Curiously, the righteous march against the series was its peak when the games themselves were at their least offensive (relatively speaking) both in terms of presentation, first in their 2D form and then the early rudimentary, almost cartoonish 3D iterations, and content, with crimes rarely exceeding killing and the eponymous car stealing. One of GTA V's major achievements is the sheer immersion possible in the world of Los Santos, and this gritty realism is coupled with a level of violence that Alex deLarge would consider a tad excessive, including one mission that involves "interrogating" someone by removing their teeth with a pair of pliers.
Whatever the reason for the subsistence in outrage, it appears that GTA has once again redefined the boundaries of the medium, not just in terms of gameplay and sales figures, but cultural impact. Just a few years ago, it would have been unfathomable that a game featuring such provocative content would be met by such an overwhelmingly positive reception. Video games are no longer the cultural whipping boys, no longer a pariah that could only look on enviously as films, TV, and music were granted liberties that the games industry could only dream of.
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