Controversies surrounding Grand Theft Auto IV

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Grand Theft Auto IV is an open world, action-adventure video game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. Upon its release on 29 April 2008 for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, Grand Theft Auto IV generated controversy. The game's depiction of violence received mass commentary from journalists and government officials, occasionally being referred to as a "murder simulator".[1] The ability to drive under the influence of alcohol in the game also received criticism, resulting in a request for the ESRB to change the game's rating. Former attorney Jack Thompson, known for his campaigns against the series, heavily criticised Grand Theft Auto IV prior to its release, filing lawsuits against parent company Take-Two Interactive, and threatening to ban distribution of the game if some gameplay features were not removed.

Gameplay features[edit]

Depiction of violence[edit]

There is nothing in the game you would not see in a TV show, or a movie a hundred times over, so I don’t understand what the conversation is about. We set out to make games that felt like they could culturally exist alongside the movies we were watching and the books we were reading, and hopefully we’re getting close to those goals.

Dan Houser, Rockstar head writer and VP for creative, Vulture.com, 2 May 2008[2]

Grand Theft Auto IV has been widely criticised for its depiction of violence and murder. On his program, conservative American talk-radio host Glenn Beck used Grand Theft Auto IV as an example to make wider claims about the use of violent video games by the US military, repeating claims made by Lt. Col. Dave Grossman that the military uses shooting games to desensitise soldiers to killing.[3] Beck also spoke to Jack Thompson, who labelled the game as a "murder simulator". Gavin McKiernan, national grass roots director for the Parents Television Council, added that the game is an "adult product", claiming that research displays the potential effect violent media has on children. Thompson reiterated that the game should be re-rated in the United States, referring to the Australian release as an example.[4][5]

There have been a number of reported crimes in which the perpetrators cited Grand Theft Auto IV as their primary influence. On 27 June 2008, six teenagers were arrested after participating in a crime spree in New Hyde Park, New York. The teenagers mugged a man, knocking his teeth out, attempted to hijack a car, and smashed a passing van with a bat. According to the Nassau County Police, the teenagers claimed that they were inspired by Grand Theft Auto IV.[6][7] On 4 August 2008, BBC Newsbeat reported that an 18-year-old student had been arrested in Bangkok, Thailand for the murder of a taxi driver after attempting to hijack the vehicle. Bangkok police captain Veerarit Pipatanasak stated that the student "wanted to find out if it was as easy in real life to rob a taxi as it was in the game".[8] According to local sources, the student wished to rob the taxi driver to obtain money to continue playing the game in an arcade.[8] Grand Theft Auto IV was subsequently banned in Thailand as a result.[9] On 24 August 2013, Sky News reported that a 90-year-old woman was killed in Slaughter, Louisiana when an eight-year-old boy grabbed a handgun and shot her in the head after playing Grand Theft Auto IV.[10]

Drunk driving option[edit]

Player character Niko walks down a road while intoxicated, followed by driving in a car while intoxicated. In both scenes, the gameplay vision is blurred and shaky.
The game allows players to walk or drive while intoxicated, resulting in a shaky and blurry vision. This gameplay option led to controversy, resulting in a request to change the game's rating.

Grand Theft Auto IV allows players to become intoxicated, resulting in a shaky and blurry gameplay vision. Players also have the option to enter cars while intoxicated, and to drive under the influence of alcohol.[11] This gameplay feature received criticism, particularly from the nonprofit organisation Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD referred to the action as a "choice, a violent crime", and that it is "100 percent preventable".[12] As a result, MADD requested for the Entertainment Software Rating Board to change the rating of the game from Mature (17+) to Adults Only (18+), effectively removing the game from retail stock. They also asked Take-Two Interactive and Rockstar Games to consider halting the game's distribution out of a sense of social responsibility, or out of respect for victims of driving under the influence.[12] Rockstar later issued a statement to the Associated Press:

We have a great deal of respect for MADD's mission, but we believe the mature audience for Grand Theft Auto IV is more than sophisticated enough to understand the game's content.[13]

Sexual and nudity allegations[edit]

On 16 June 2008, British newspaper The Sun reported the presence of an in-game Internet resource titled Little Lacy Surprise Pageant–a reference to the fake commercials featured in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories (2006). The in-game resource warns that anyone caught viewing the website will be investigated, followed by a statement similar to the quote found at Grokster.com.[14] In November 2008, 19-year-old Ryan Chinnery was jailed for performing two sex attacks on women at night. During the court hearings, it was told that Chinnery had spent considerable hours playing Grand Theft Auto IV. The judge said that Chinnery's experience with the game "cannot have helped him in all the circumstances of this case".[15]

Grand Theft Auto: The Lost and Damned, the first episodic expansion to Grand Theft Auto IV, features a cutscene displaying full-frontal nudity.[16] As a result, parents group Common Sense Media condemned the expansion, issuing a public warning against the nudity. The organisation claimed that the inclusion of nudity resulted in the game's status as "more controversial than its predecessors".[17] Rockstar vice president Dan Houser stated that the game's depiction of sexual content is intended as humorous, hoping that "the fans" recognise the humour.[18]

Censored release[edit]

A dead civilian from the uncensored version on the left, and the censored version on the right. A pool of blood is visible on the uncensored version, while the censored version features a small splash of blood.
A comparison of the uncensored (left) and censored (right) versions of the game. The censored version removed various features from the game, including pools of blood that emerge from dead bodies.

Despite confirmation in February 2008 that the Australian version of Grand Theft Auto IV would not be edited,[19] Rockstar later revealed that some features would be censored. The game was assigned an MA15+ rating on 11 December 2007. Rockstar stated that a special version of the game was produced to comply with the Australian classification system.[20] Features censored in the Australian versions include: the inability to select a "service" when hiring a prostitute, and the restriction of animation and camera angles; the lack of blood pools and bloody footprints; the replacement of bullet wounds and blood patches with "slight discolouration".[21] For the game's PC release, the uncensored version of the game was awarded MA15+ in Australia.[22] Following the release of The Lost and Damned, Rockstar distributed a patch which uncensored the Australian release for consoles.[23]

On 15 April 2008, it was announced that the New Zealand release of the game would be identical to the censored Australian release,[24] with Take-Two Interactive attributing "time scales and logistical reasons".[25] Bill Hastings, Chief Censor for the New Zealand Office of Film and Literature Classification (OFLC), stated that Rockstar "did not tell [the OFLC] which version of the game they submitted", and that "the version [Rockstar] submitted for classification was the version they intended to market in New Zealand".[26] However, the game was resubmitted to the OFLC by Stan Calif, a 21-year-old student who was unhappy that New Zealand received an edited version of the game as a result of Australian censorship laws. The unedited version was subsequently given an R18 rating and cleared for sale in New Zealand.[25]

Political response[edit]

Former attorney Jack Thompson, known for campaigning against games published by Rockstar Games, heavily criticised Grand Theft Auto IV prior to its release.

In 2007, then Florida lawyer Jack Thompson, who had previously campaigned against other games from Rockstar, stated that he would take measures to prevent the sale of Grand Theft Auto IV to minors.[27] On 14 March 2007, Rockstar's parent company Take-Two Interactive filed a lawsuit against Thompson in an attempt to preemptively restrict him from his attempts to declare Rockstar's games as a public nuisance.[28] Games declared to be a public nuisance are effectively banned for sale, which Take-Two believed would be a violation of First Amendment rights.[29] Thompson responded by filing a countersuit,[30] accusing Take-Two of violating federal RICO statues, committing perjury, obstruction of justice, and conspiring against him with third parties to deprive him of his civil rights.[31][32]

Both parties reached a settlement on 20 April 2007, agreeing to drop their respective lawsuits.[33] Under the terms of the settlement, Thompson has been barred from suing to ban the sale or distribution of games by Take-Two or its subsidiaries. He is restricted to communicating through Take-Two's attorneys on any future matter, but is able to maintain his outspoken stance against their titles and may act as counsel in lawsuits against Take-Two by other parties. For their part, Take-Two agreed to drop the contempt of court lawsuit against Thompson regarding alleged improper conduct during the court hearings for Rockstar's game Bully in 2006.[34]

Thompson filed a document with a federal court in Florida on 18 September 2007, claiming that the assassination target of a mission in Grand Theft Auto IV is a lawyer character based upon himself.[35] When the player enters his office and brandishes a weapon, the lawyer yells "Guns don't kill people, video games do!", a phrase often attributed to Thompson.[36] Thompson threatened that he will "take necessary and proper means to stop release of the game" if the similarities were not removed;[37] the similarities were not removed, and Thompson did not follow through. On 25 April 2008, Metro reported that Thompson had written a letter to the mother of Strauss Zelnick, director of Take-Two Interactive. In the letter, which strongly criticised both the game and Zelnick's upbringing, Thompson labelled Grand Theft Auto as a "murder simulator". He follows:

The pornography and violence that your son trafficks [sic] in is the kind of stuff that most mother would be ashamed to see their son putting into the hands of other mothers' children ... Maybe you, Mrs. Zelnick, were so taken by your handsome son that you spared the rod and spoiled the child. That would explain why he has brought you, by the way he presently acts, "to shame." ... Happy Mother's day, Mrs. Zelnick, which this year is ... two weeks after your son unleashes porn and violence upon other mothers' boys. I'm sure you're very proud.[1]

Thompson subsequently claimed that he sent the letter to Zelnick's lawyer, as opposed to his mother, formulated as a parody intended to induce feelings of "shame" in Zelnick.[38]

A mural in New York City, advertising Grand Theft Auto IV in July 2007.

Following the release of the game's first trailer, New York City officials were appalled with the choice of their city as the inspiration for the setting of the game, stating that a game like Grand Theft Auto does not represent the city's crime levels accurately.[39] A spokesperson for Mayor Michael Bloomberg said that Bloomberg "does not support any video game where you earn points for injuring or kill police officers".[40] Although points are not awarded in the game and the murder of police officers is discouraged to the player, the game often suggests to players that police officers must be killed in order to advance in the game's main story without difficulty.[41][42][43] As a response, Jason Della Rocca, executive director of the International Game Developers Association, accused New York City officials of double standards, for criticising video games of using the city, but avoiding the argument in terms of other forms of entertainment, such as books, films and television shows.[44]

Legal action[edit]

Take-Two Interactive filed a lawsuit in response to the Chicago Transit Authority (CTA) removing advertisements promoting the game from their property, which violates a contract that requires the advertisements to remain until June 2008.[45] In response, a representative from the CTA attributed the removal of the advertisements to the controversy surrounding the advertisement campaign for Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas in 2004.[46]

References[edit]

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