Grand Theft Auto: Vice City
"Time Again to Kill Police Officers"
Game's violence bloody alluring
Fans rush stores for parent-panned video
Time again to kill police officers, steal cars, dump prostitutes, smash windows, traffic cocaine and distribute porn.
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the latest instalment in the violent video game series, made its debut Tuesday, both to the delight of video game enthusiasts and the chagrin of parents.
The game, which is made by U.S.-based Rockstar Games for the Play Station II platform and retails for $74.99, comes with a "mature" rating and includes a warning of "blood and gore, violence, strong language, and strong sexual content."
Alex Davis, of Gamerama Video Games on Yonge St., said sales yesterday were so brisk he couldn't keep up with the demand.
Nearly all the buyers were males aged 20-25, Davis said, noting he called a few parents of younger buyers to ensure they had consent.
"The one thing people don't get is that this is not a kid's market anymore," Davis said, adding many adult players use the game to relieve stress.
Its predecessor, GTA III, was the biggest selling video game of 2001 with more than six million copies sold, despite fierce opposition by parents and anti-violence groups.
Like that version, Vice City is a first-person driving game with shootouts, carjackings and fights.
The game has been panned by the U.S.-based National Institute on Media and the Family, which said it's not appropriate for "children of any age" due to its "extreme violence ... (and) sexual content."
The Video Game Grand Theft Auto Has Riled Up the Critics
Welcome to Grand Theft Auto:Vice City, or "GTA," as fans affectionately call it. This Miami Vice-ish video game is the newest and perhaps most realistic first-person, shoot 'em up video game ever made. The rules? Ignore all peace-loving instincts. The more you kill and the more crime you commit, the better.
Here is the action in a typical game: Steal a police cruiser, and you're off. Kill a cop and take his gun. Kill an innocent - even better. Finish it all off by blowing up an ambulance and going down in a blaze of bullets.
In short, it is a delinquent's dream come true. It is also the subject of heated controversy.
"I'm for freedom of speech but � Grand Theft Auto is heinous," Washington Post columnist Mike Wilbon said on ESPN's live commentary show, Pardon The Interruption. "The people who put it together should be stoned in the street."
The game isn't intended for anyone under 17 years old, but nothing prevents a younger person from buying it over the Internet, getting it second-hand, or borrowing it.
"There's a lot of stuff [in it] you don't want to see in real life," one 13-year-old said.
If you wanted to buy a copy of Vice City now, forget it. You would have had to call months ago. The new Grand Theft Auto video game is sold out nearly everywhere.
Rockstar, the maker of Vice City, has learned one lesson: Simulated crime pays - and it pays well. The game sold 4 million copies before it was even released - and an industry expert says it could eventually sell 10 million copies, bringing in $400 million.
Compared to a top-grossing movie like Jackass, which brought in $22.8 million on its opening weekend, Grand Theft Auto has already earned blockbuster status: $160 million in sales before it even hit stores.
In a statement, Rockstar Games - the maker of Grand Theft Auto:Vice City said: "Rockstar Games is a leading publisher of interactive entertainment geared towards mature audiences and makes every effort to market its games responsibly, targeting advertising and marketing only to adult consumers over the age of 17.
Rockstar Games submits every game and advertisement to the Entertainment Software Rating Board, and clearly marks every game with the ESRB-approved rating."
David Walsh, the president and founder of the National Institute on Media and the Family, a non-profit research organization on the impact of media on kids, says most parents he's talked to don't really know of the game's violent content, even though it's marked for mature audiences.
"It's full of wonderful graphics and wonderful technology but there isn't enough attention being paid to the content," Walsh said on ABCNEWS' Good Morning America. "There is killing and prostitution," he said.
Walsh said he is concerned about how the game will affect kids' perception of what's normal in real life.
"It's not so much the copy cat factor � but kids and teens are in the process of shaping their norms," Walsh said. "When you kill a prostitute after having sex with her - that's not something we want boys doing," he said.
New 'Grand Theft Auto': Looking for trouble
Sixteen-year-old Armando Bulnes Jr. has no idea exactly how many punks he has gunned down or prostitutes he has picked up over the past year.
The junior at Chicago's Walter Payton College Prep High School isn't a criminal. He's a video game player. And he's talking about "Grand Theft Auto 3."
"It's not a great thing to do," Bulnes said of the game's content, "but it's fun playing video games and you can't get in trouble for it."
On Tuesday, the game's sequel, "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City," will be released.
The game, along with others to follow suit, almost certainly will revive long-running debates about the responsibility of the computer gaming industry and the effects of violence and sex on young minds, especially in the wake of the sniper killings.
The video game industry and its supporters say that such games are clearly labeled as inappropriate for youths and that people need to realize the medium is maturing and diversifying like television, movies or literature as the demographics of gamers skew older. And some wonder if the games are being held to an unfairly high double standard.
"We give kudos to 'The Sopranos' on HBO for exploring the same themes that 'Grand Theft Auto' does," said Henry Jenkins, a professor of media studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. But critics say companies are marketing to children and producing items that will have huge repercussions for the society -- as well as backfire on the manufacturers.
"The video game industry is interested in only one thing: the bottom line," said Daphne White, executive director of The Lion & Lamb Project, a game-industry watchdog group in Bethesda, Md. "As it continues to push the line on content, it will have to deal with an increasingly outraged public."
Most recently, with fears about the sniper attacks in the Washington, D.C., area, some video game critics had raised concerns about the potential role of violent video games and suggestions that the shooter or shooters may have been avid players. A variety of games, including "Grand Theft Auto 3," allow players to use sniper rifles, and others display the viewpoint of the shooter.
But nothing in early coverage of the two suspects arrested in the case, John Allen Muhammad, 41, and John Lee Malvo, 17, has revealed that either had anything to do with such games. And supporters and other critics of the games say it would be irrelevant even if there were a connection.
"I find it all so staggering that there are people who are so bent on attacking video games they will say anything and they will exploit tragedies of this kind," said Douglas Lowenstein, president of the Interactive Digital Software Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade group.
White agreed that the sniper attacks were unrelated to the issue of video gore.
"I don't think you can make a direct relationship between any one incident and what the video game industry should do," White said. What matters, she added, "is what the video game industry should do if it wants to be socially responsible . . . and the responsible thing to do is to stop marketing adult-level violence to children."
Concerns date to '70s
Concerns about objectionable content in video games dates to the '70s and the outcry over games such as "Death Race 2000," in which players drove over pedestrians for points. Graphically, games today are light years more advanced. Leading the way in technical and financial success is "Grand Theft Auto 3," or "GTA 3." Its publisher, Rockstar Games, reports selling 7 million copies for PCs and the PlayStation 2 since its release last year, and it is widely considered the biggest success story in the $9 billion-plus industry.
The game's story line follows a low-level mobster rising through the ranks by accomplishing various missions, including hijacking vehicles and shooting rivals. Unlike most action games with their narrowly structured plots, the setup allows players to decide to shoot random passers-by for kicks, become a taxi driver or a firefighter, or to engage women in an implied sex act, then assault and rob them.
But defenders of the content say the salacious and bloody material is incidental to the enjoyment of the game.
"It's very clear the game found an audience not because of the violent content so much but because the game itself has a fundamental advance in game design," Lowenstein said.
Preorders for "GTA: Vice City" are estimated at as much as 4 million units. The game sets the action in a Miami-like town during the '80s.
But with the game publisher declining interviews and refusing to distribute final review copies of "Vice City" before its general release, it is unclear whether the game will tone down the levels of blood and raunchiness -- or turn them up.
"One thing we know about media violence is if you watch a lot of it you get desensitized to it," Gentile said, "so to get the same rush, you need more."
Each side has its claims
Each side of the debate points to studies bolstering its point of view. Professors at Iowa State University, for example, have reviewed a wide assortment of research in the field, and said it supports the idea that violent video games lead to aggressive behavior. But video game backers point to studies by the Australian government and by Washington State University that find no connections to real-world violence.
"GTA 3" and "GTA: VC" are classified by the Entertainment Software Ratings Board as "Mature," a category that makes up about 10 percent of the field and indicates potentially offensive levels of violence, language and sexuality.
In a statement, Rockstar Games said it "makes every effort to market its games responsibly, targeting advertising and marketing only to adult consumers over the age of 17.
The Federal Trade Commission and Illinois Atty. Gen. Jim Ryan and his office have conducted stings in which minors have purchased "Mature" games.
Bulnes said he became interested in "GTA 3" after another teenage friend rented it from a video store over the course of six weeks and said his 12-year-old brother Aaron bought the game at a retail electronics store without being questioned by clerks.
His mother, Migdalia Bulnes, a Chicago police officer, said she was a little dismayed to hear about some of the criticisms of the game. Nevertheless, she doesn't restrict either of her sons from playing.
"I have all my faith in them," she said. "They know they're right and wrong, and even though the game has a lot of wrong parts in it, they will make the right decisions."
But there may soon be more controversial titles to make decisions about.
In November, another contender for the most hardcore gaming title is slated for release.
"BMX XXX" will have players try bike-riding stunts but also will feature half-naked women cyclists and see video of strippers from a Manhattan gentlemen's club as a reward.
Officials with that game's manufacturer, Acclaim, said they wanted to make the game more fun and edgier in keeping with the industry's changing demographics and inspired in part by the success of "GTA: 3."
With IDSA research finding that 55 percent of console gamers are above 18, it makes sense to target them, they said.
"If you look at the demographics and what performed well in the market, there's a strong demand for mature content," said Alan Lewis, an Acclaim spokesman.
Armando Bulnes Jr. has his own take on "GTA" and controversial video games: "It's not that bad. These parents need to grow up and realize we're moving on in time and everything is bound to get a little more offensive and raunchy. They have to understand that's the way it is."
Bigger, Bolder, Faster, Weirder
New York Times
When things got out of hand - I mean out of hand - was when Phillip Michael Thomas came into the picture and bodies started flying. The man had been invisible since the days of "Miami Vice" and Ronald Reagan, and yet here he was, cursing a blue streak and wearing a white suit that hadn't been current in at least as long. And he was jacking cars and menacing pedestrians.
I did what anybody would do under the circumstances. I jacked a fire engine.
So began my immersion in the animated world of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, the PlayStation 2 game that comes out this week riding a wave of hype, hand-wringing and canny satire. Set in a Miami-like virtual city circa 1986 and featuring the voices of Mr. Thomas, Ray Liotta, Dennis Hopper and others, the game is the latest in a series that has been denounced by critics, including Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, Democrat of Connecticut, as an incitement to mayhem.
Produced by two refugees from the English music business, it is the rare game that assigns you your mission in bluntly cinematic terms: find the people who stole your cocaine and kill them.
On a rainy afternoon in Lower Manhattan, Terry Donovan, one of the partners behind Grand Theft Auto, described its world succinctly: "Bigger, bolder, faster, twisted, more weirder. Remove all the boredom, heighten all the action."
In gaming circles, the release qualifies as something akin to the Super Bowl. Last year's Grand Theft Auto III sold more than eight million copies worldwide, at about $50 each, making it the best-selling home video game of the last two years. Sales of video games are expected to rise close to 30 percent this year, driven in large part by adult games like Grand Theft Auto.
In the bland offices of Rockstar Games, the company that produces Grand Theft Auto, Mr. Donovan and Dan Houser, who writes the profanity-laced dialogue for the game, expounded on the game's moral universe. Mr. Donovan - 31, hulking, balding, British - rubbed the sleep from pink, tired eyes. For the last few months, both men have been working marathon hours and trying to quit smoking, which seems to have affected them in different ways.
Mr. Donovan, who was using the nicotine patch, drifted in and out of attention, dropping hints of problems with "anger management"; Mr. Houser chattered and chomped at successive squares of nicotine gum. They discussed their product not as a game but as an experiment in narrative.
Mr. Donovan began: "Most films or whatever tie things up neatly at the end, with some kind of - what's the correct literary term for the scene where the character discovers the saving grace?"
"Denouement," Mr. Houser said.
"Thank you. Traditionally the denouement is the moment where everybody feels O.K. about themselves no matter how many bad things happened. And if you remove the need to make someone feel morally justified in everything they've just done, you leave yourself a lot more freedom."
To critics, the environment is nothing but a playground for pathology. Like past Grand Theft Auto games, Vice City inverts the usual direction of video carnage. Instead of blowing bad guys away, you play one of the bad guys, what the company calls an "aspirational gangster," free to kill whomever you want.
In an often-mentioned feature, you can also pick up a prostitute, pay her for (offscreen) services, then kill her and get your money back. Other games may offer more killing and gore, but few are as ethically ambiguous. All Grand Theft Auto editions have come with a voluntary "M" rating, not for sale to minors, though in practice many stores sell M-rated games to children.
Michael P. Wallace, who follows the industry for UBS Warburg, predicted that Grand Theft Auto: Vice City would sell three or four million copies before Christmas, for reasons not immediately obvious to outsiders. "Violence gets you headlines, but this is about the game play," Mr. Wallace said. "And the violence doesn't hurt."
In a statement this year, Senator Lieberman singled out the game as a tutorial in bad behavior: "Games like Grand Theft Auto are particularly troubling because they go beyond just celebrating violence generally, and actually reward players for engaging in organized crime, murdering innocent people and other forms of perverse, antisocial behavior."
Since the criticism began, Mr. Donovan has compared the violence and humor of the game to that of "The Sopranos." But the comparison does not hold up. The brutality in "The Sopranos" forces viewers to confront their feelings about the characters and their lives; in Grand Theft Auto, it just shapes the scenery. The game owes more to the quip of the director Jean-Luc Godard, who when asked why there was so much blood in his film "Pierrot le Fou," answered, "Not blood, red."
Warren Spector, a game designer for a rival company called Ion Storm, said he found the violent content of Grand Theft Auto "reprehensible" but also beside the point. "People focus on the wrong things," he said. "The real appeal has little to do with the havoc." What the game did, Mr. Spector said, was create a virtual world where players are free to decide where to go, what to do.
"You can kill everything that moves, or you can kill no one," he said. "Every player has a unique experience. It's free-form, sandbox-style play. That's the future of games." Still, Mr. Spector lamented, "the best example of game design of the last couple years is something I don't want to show my mother."
With sales of games and consoles expected to top $10 billion this year, the video game industry generates more business than the movies. But in the food chain of popular culture, video games still occupy a slot next to comic books or crossword puzzles: popular, often imaginative, but not the sort of thing you talk about in mixed company.
To Mr. Donovan and Mr. Houser, this is unjust.
Mr. Donovan advanced a theory of pop evolution. "If you grew up in the 70's, you wanted to be a guitar player," he said. "If you grew up in the 80's, you wanted to be a D.J. I grew up a bit in the 70's and a bit in the 80's." Mr. Donovan came of age in London amid the accouterments of celebrity and music. His father, Terence, was a fashion photographer and directed music videos, including Robert Palmer's slinky "Simply Irresistible." His brother, Dan, played in the band Big Audio Dynamite and was briefly married to the English ing�nue Patsy Kensit. By the time Mr. Donovan graduated from spinning discs in nightclubs to a job at a record company, he felt the fun of it had passed him by.
"You go on thinking the music business is going to be phenomenal when you get there," he said. "But it's only phenomenal because somebody else has already taken all the risks or broken all the rules. I wasn't sitting at my desk with my nice pair of monitors going, `Yeah, yeah, I'm going to change the world tomorrow.' "
With his school friend Sam Houser, Mr. Donovan began to think about their other obsession, video games. Mr. Houser, whose father ran a London jazz club, worked for a record company that was spinning off an interactive division, and he followed the spin, eventually landing in New York. Before the division crashed, Mr. Houser adopted an embryonic version of Grand Theft Auto, created by a little company in Scotland called DMA Design. In 1998, he persuaded Mr. Donovan to come to New York and build a company around the game. Compared to the music business, Mr. Donovan said, the video game industry was wide open, changing at the speed of technology. All you needed was an idea and the geek power to program it.
Most promising of all, the nascent industry was still tethered to the toy business, and pitched its fantasies to reach children. As the generation that grew up with Super Mario and Donkey Kong moved into its 20's and 30's, Mr. Donovan and his partners, who by now included Mr. Houser's younger brother, Dan, saw a huge opportunity: a market for the equivalent of R-rated movies. They formed Rockstar Games in 1998 as a division within a larger company called Take-Two Interactive Software. Drawing on their roots, they positioned Rockstar as if it were an independent record company, with a T-shirt line and a short-lived series of Rockstar nights at a local club.
"You're trying to reach the same people" as a label, said Dan Houser, 28. "Why can't you talk to them in the same language and make content that is interesting to them?" The way things had stood, he said, "you'd be watching a film about gangsters or somebody's marriage breaking up, reading a book about something serious, listening to music, and then playing a game about a dolphin. And look, the dolphin game was fun, but the subject matter was obtuse."
Grand Theft Auto is not the only game playing with what are generously called adult themes. Next month, Acclaim Entertainment, a once-leading company, plans to release BMX XXX, a racing game that includes nudity. At least seven major chain stores, including Wal-Mart, Best Buy, Target, Circuit City, Toys "R" Us, Kmart and KB Toys, have announced that they will not carry the game. Mr. Wallace, the stock analyst, called the move "a hail-Mary pass to save the company," and unlikely to work.
To create the background environment for Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, a technical crew of about 50, working in Scotland, combined digital photos of Miami with imagery from "Miami Vice" and Brian De Palma's 1983 film, "Scarface." They added 80's-vintage cars and acid-washed jeans, and weaponry from baseball bats to heavy ordnance. The soundtrack allows players to flip among nine radio stations, including one that plays nothing but power ballads. As a tie-in, the music will be released on seven CD's.
Eighteen months into the development, Mr. Donovan was still learning the extent of the game's moral freedom. He had spent the previous night trying to figure out one of the new game's features, which allows the player to score points peacefully, by delivering pizzas. Finally he made a breakthrough. "What I learned as a criminal helped me to deliver pizza," he said. "The same button combination you use for a drive-by shooting is how you hand the pizza to someone. Which I thought was really cool."