It's odd how history has played out for the Grand Theft Auto series. Its first incarnation found media uproar by the fact that a medium generally held to be for children's toys would include a game lavishing the player in all sorts of violence. It became culturally located beside Mortal Kombat in the minds of parents and news anchors as a pollutant of innocence. The children who played it called it more of the same and downplayed its impact, barring to bask in the media attention as justification of their hobby and as a way of upsetting the parents. GTA was considered transgressive, but mainly by those who would never play it.
With the recent release of Grand Theft Auto V, the roles have shuffled around a bit. Parents and news anchors seem largely disinterested in the latest instalment. Instead it's the fans, now grown up, calling it transgressive as a satirical text, in light of critics' dressing down of the game's attempts at a message.
The fans' motives are still the same: they want to defend their enjoyment by denying the game has any impact on them. After years of exposure to allegedly harmful media, how could this one game cause any damage? Or any of these other thousands of games, taken individually? Few to none of those who've played GTA have stolen a car and driven it through a house just yet, suggesting widespread immunity to the effects of violent media.
For GTAV, the recent focus of critics has been on the attitudes presented, rather than the exact actions on-screen. While you might never in your life rob a bank, it's highly likely the values depicted here by developers Rockstar are common to you or those around you, especially concerning the treatment of women and minorities.
GTAV is horrible to every social group under the sun in an effort to appear fair in its denigrations, but Rockstar ignores how not every group they target receives their malice to an equal degree. Because of this oversight, its attacks upon certain social groups resound unfairly - groups such as those already downtrodden by society, who lack the luxury of escaping the insults by turning off the console.
The very scary thing about the GTA franchise is how these attitudes are masked to those who believe them. In response to criticism, many fans have tried exonerating GTAV via its veneer of satire: since the blatant misanthropy of Los Santos is so out there, you can't take it seriously. In their minds, it frames the game's subsequent dealings with humanity - the misogyny, transphobia, racism.
Except the misogyny, transphobia and racism presented by GTAV are not ridiculous. They occur every day in the same incarnation presented, the exact thing being treated as nothing by fans who call it satire. It's the same stuff being perpetuated on a mass global scale, the same latent values already kept and treasured by those laughing along with Rockstar. Pop over to the GTA forums and then tell me who Rockstar are satirizing with their transphobia. It's not the fans, who unabashedly repeat the scorn directed towards trans folk.
Nowadays the violence of the original GTA would be considered blasé, given how widely available such violence is in the medium. It's become normal, and through years and years of watching it settle comfortably into the industry's core, we now cheer and whoop at something intended to shock and unsettle. As physical violence has become normalized in our fiction, violent attitudes and beliefs are likewise normalized, only we lack the self-awareness to spot it. Easy to tell when you're robbing a bank, not so easy to spot the questionable beliefs you've long since taken for granted.
The invisibility of it all is what's most damaging, as nobody can tell whether something harmful has become normal to them without first knowing to look out for it. Every example of violent attitudes helps to normalize violence, one game at a time, one line of dialogue at a time. It happens over and over again until it's just part of the scenery, long since accepted as the way the world works.
It's an uphill battle to fix that - to make transphobia taboo, to have misogyny socially acknowledged, to drain the casual racism out of our social spheres. Even just to acknowledge that media can have an effect on us as it subtly encourages commonly held beliefs. While the debate of violence in games has largely been impressed into a dichotomy - either games definitely make you repeat in real life the actions of your in-game avatar, or games have zero capacity to impart attitudes on the player - we could do with looking towards the nuance characterizing the critique of gender roles in the medium.