To the surprise of absolutely no one, Grand Theft Auto V (GTA V) earned a metric ton of cash in its first week. What’s a little more surprising, perhaps, is the lack of controversy for a game that’s been the poster child for outraged parents, conservatives and pundits.
I speak with some experience here. As a newly minted professor, I testified before the US Senate on video games and violence, jousting with fan favorites like Jack Thompson, and a gallery of senators ready to pounce on the evils of violent games. I was there because I’d published a dissertation and subsequent papers that found no long-term impact. My study had players of an MMO play for 60 hours, which was the longest study exposure ever (by 59.5 hours). Needless to say, this was a hand grenade in the research, and was cited by partisans as evidence that games were perfect, I was crazy, and more besides.
But, as they say, that was then, and this is now. Flash forward about 10 years and the story is very different. Game scholars now have a much more nuanced view of gaming and aggression. While there is still a lot of disagreement, more scholars than ever believe that there are minor short-term effects and fewer than ever believe that games are causing serious violent crime. As a group, we’re more circumspect about knowing what we don’t know.
To be sure, there is still the camp that’s ready to call this a smoking gun, exemplified by the group of scholars connected to Iowa St.’s Craig Anderson. This is the latest iteration.
But more common is this interview, which I recommend soaking in.
This is an unusually thoughtful interview with a scholar not willing to go beyond the data. Saying "we don't know" is uncomfortable, but he did it very well.
What struck me most was actually the reporter. He wasn't looking for the "gotcha" or the sensational. If anything, he appeared to be acknowledging the public perception but then shifting the discussion into the real science. I've done probably 50 of these interviews and the tone has rarely felt like this one because the reporters all arrived with a very different mindset.
Maybe this is because the spate of shootings has been so horrific lately that easy scapegoating answers feel less appropriate? Or maybe it's that some of the news media have turned the corner on this discussion? I hypothesized about 10 years ago that the media would have a generational cohort phase-out, and that may be what we're seeing. The exec producers and editors who act as gatekeepers are now very likely to be both game players and parents, which makes them utterly unlike their counterparts 10-20 years ago.
Richard Bartle made this argument with some gusto back when GTA IV launched. Check this out for a real twist of the knife. What he was saying then, and appears to be playing out today, is that the generations ready to be shocked and outraged are, in fact, dying off. They are being replaced by generations who were raised on games and are not ready to rubber-stamp calling them evil outright. And, those generations are coming into positions of authority as policy makers, reporters and editorial gate keepers.
It will be telling to see if there is nothing more than this little whimper, or if the next horrible shooting is or isn’t “linked” to game content. Maybe games are getting their reprieve.
If so, it’s not as if the social forces that lead to these reactions are going away. Parents are still fearful, conservatives are still conservative, and no one wants to face up to their responsibilities or guilt at not being present as much as they want in their children’s lives. Until those things go away, this will be an “old wine in new bottles” dynamic. And it may not be games that have the proverbial target on them, but something else inevitably will. Brace yourself for fears about Google Glass or whatever’s next to come down the pike technologically . . .
Below I’m copying a little interview I did on GTA V that may be of interest.
Q: "Grand Theft Auto V" released Tuesday to a record first-day sale of more than $800 million. What about this specific game caused it to steamroll its way into the history books?
Williams: GTA is the "Star Wars" of video games. The developers could roll out of bed and their next game would make a fortune. Having said that, this is a studio that's produced consistently excellent content and so their brand value and loyalty are very high. The GTA games have been subversive, fun, high quality, and widely embraced by the core game audience of young men. This particular entry is somewhat overdue, so anticipation has built up, and it features online networked play, which has become critical over the past 5 years.
Q: One Bloomberg report estimated this game, after five years of development, cost $250 million to develop and market. Is this high cost common for such a popular franchise, or is GTA V on a whole new level here?
Williams: It's one of the more expensive games every made, but probably not the most. High-end games, called AAA titles, are typically [more than] $20 million, but the market has really split with just a few marque titles costing more and more while many many more new titles are made for less and less.
Q: GTA is unleashing its new online universe in a few weeks, allowing multiplayer action for the first time in the series’ history. Do you think GTA has the potential to rival the "Call of Duty" franchise in terms of console-based online play?
Williams: That remains to be seen. Some games are what we call "persistent," meaning that the game world is always on rather than that it's a session that starts and stops. "World of Warcraft" is a persistent game, while "Call of Duty" is session-based. Persistent games like WoW are very popular but much more niche than session-based shooter titles. "Call of Duty" is the WoW of its world and no one has been able to dethrone either title. GTA is a hybrid of the two. I would expect GTA to do well online, but would be surprised if its online presence is anything like Warcraft. Still, the developer does not need immense online numbers to print money. Having "only" a few hundred thousand or a million or two players can be fine. And if the title goes free-to-play with virtual goods, much larger numbers are likely.
Q: The GTA franchise is notorious for sexualizing women in a particularly dark light – prostitutes frequent the games’ covers and are found throughout the GTA universe. Keeping in mind your past work with female body imagery in video games, what impact do these portrayals have upon children – both male and female – who will surely obtain copies of the game despite its adult rating?
Williams: People should think about GTA like an R-rated movie. If they don't think that's appropriate for their children, they should take steps to ensure they don't play it. All of the consoles have parental controls, so there's really no excuse for "oh, they'll play it at their friend's house." Know where your children are, eh?
What impact do these portrayals have? The evidence on females and body image is very consistent, showing that sexualized women have negative impacts on both genders. Females are subject to poor self-image and eating disorders, and males are subject to objectifying women. The same is true, by the way, of beefy or sexualized male characters, which is rarely discussed but is just as real. Women's magazines are some of the most damaging media out their for young girls. Is GTA better or worse? There hasn't been any comparative research, so we don't know the trade-off between comic-style prostitutes and airbrushed, busty, size-0 supermodels.