Grand Theft Auto's greatest controversies

An armed, scrubby man standing in the street
(Image credit: Rockstar)

There was a time when the Grand Theft Auto remasters Rockstar announced the other day would have everyone preparing for redeployment in the culture war. CNN chyrons would be hyping up the butchery of Rockstar's latest, promising a wave of frothy-mouthed killers. US senators would hurriedly pass along Highly Concerned Statements about the vulnerability of our youth, all of whom have been taken by the phantasmagoric crime sprees in Liberty City. Teenagers would huddle together and hatch plans—as I once did—about how to secure a copy of an M-rated game with an underaged ID. This is how we lived throughout the 2000s, when Grand Theft Auto was the most popular, and most dangerous, videogame in the world.

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Honestly, you can make the argument that Grand Theft Auto still reigns supreme over gaming culture, but the belief that Rockstar is turning kids into killers has faded to the margins. Videogames are a lot less scary now than they were in 2002, when the medium was newer and the mass media decency scale was calibrated differently. 

As we await the remasters of Grand Theft Auto 3, GTA: Vice City, and GTA: San Andreas, here are the highlights and lowlights of murder-simulator mania, from Tommy Vercetti to Michael, Trevor, and Franklin.

1997: Designing the outcry

(Image credit: Rockstar)

The original Grand Theft Auto—back when it was a top-down arcade-y shooter—was already begging for drama long before the franchise went 3D and the takes went nuclear. The designers of that game, David Jones and Mike Dailly, hired a controversial PR whiz named Max Clifford, who was known for planting sensational stories and at one point represented OJ Simpson. Naturally, Clifford purposefully drummed up outrage for the first official "murder simulator" on the market.

"Max Clifford made it all happen," Dailly said in 2012. "He designed all the outcry, which pretty much guaranteed [media publications] would get involved… He’d do anything to keep the profile high."

GTA's pedigree changed significantly after it moved onto the PS2 with GTA 3: Getting the media involved is one thing, congress is quite another. I mean, who was really losing their minds about a 2D shooter? The same people complaining about Death Race? Still, it worked. Lord Campbell of Croy expressed outrage over the game's assault on our social order. "There would be nothing to stop children from buying it," he said. It's interesting that even in these early days, the proto-Rockstar braintrust knew the precise sector of culture they were barreling towards.

Clifford's story goes in another direction: He died in prison in 2017 after being convicted of sex crimes in 2014.

2001: Banned in Australia

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

It's the early 2000s. You just got out of middle school and are hitching a ride with your buddy Glenn to chug Jolt Sodas, crank the first Alien Ant Farm CD, and play about 12 consecutive hours of the greatest videogame in the world, Grand Theft Auto 3. That is, of course, unless you live in Australia, where you are very much out of luck. Australian videogame regulations are a riddle wrapped in an enigma, which is why nobody should be surprised that GTA 3 was refused a ratings classification by the OFLC—the now-dissolved down-under government bureau that served as the country's version of the ESRB, now replaced by the Australian Classification Board. Rockstar had to go back and edit the version of GTA 3 that fit Australian regulations, toning down the gore significantly. If you're curious, YouTuber Vadim M put together a compilation showcasing the differences between the editions, offering a strange perspective into a universe where GTA was rated T for Teen.

2002: Still banned in Australia, Miamians rankled

Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

(Image credit: Rockstar Games)

The release of Grand Theft Auto: Vice City was controversial in the exact same way GTA 3 was—summoning up censored editions in certain markets who still possessed a prehistoric perspective on videogames. The only difference is that this one also earned some (reasonable!) pushback among Haitian and Cuban communities in South Florida, who objected to the game's instruction to kill "the Cubans" and "the Haitians," gangs in Vice City.

"The game shouldn't be designed to destroy human life, it shouldn't be designed to destroy an ethnic group," reads a quote from Jean-Robert Lafortune of the Haitian American Grassroots Coalition in an ancient CNN story.

I do wonder how some of those stories and universes will fare in 2021. Tommy Vercetti is obviously a total Scarface pastiche, but I bet if Rockstar were rendering a Miami send-up now, it would probably think a little bit harder about how it represented these communities. I suppose we'll have to see how the remaster sits with today's sensibilities.  

2003: It's Jack Thompson time 

In 2003, two teenage boys in Tennessee shot and killed a motorist. Later, they'd claim that they were inspired by Grand Theft Auto, where they frequently fired guns at passing cars. This led to a $200 million lawsuit filed against Rockstar, which was later voluntarily rescinded. The lawyer representing the plaintiffs in that case? You guessed it: Disgraced legal operator, hammy, unrepentant talking head, and genuine eccentric Jack Thompson

Maybe some of you younger readers don't know about Thompson. Basically, the man was some flunkey Florida attorney who built a career by bringing these exhausting, dubious moral panic charges to court. (Rap music, Howard Stern, and violent videogames were frequent targets.) Thompson would become something of a fixture throughout the decade, always popping up whenever there was a new GTA in the can. He's since been disbarred, and I don't think anyone knows what he's up to now.

Above: Jack Thompson appears on Fox News following the Northern Illinois University shooting.

This is a bit of an aside, but when I look back on Jack Thompson's reign, I can't help but consider how poorly his whole deal has aged. It's not just that gaming has become a permanent fixture of the global omniculture, capable of powering Space Jam sequels and Ryan Reynolds projects (though that certainly does matter!), but if you page through the stacks, you can find the guy stoking panic about Bullyparticularly about how Jimmy Hopkins can kiss other boys. That particular element was downright progressive in retrospect. Thompson was consistently on the wrong side of history. It's actually kind of impressive.

2004: Hot Coffee, the most infamous mod

(Image credit: Rockstar)

Oh boy, here we go. I'm not going to write an exhaustive recap of Hot Coffee, because it's one of the most famous and well documented sagas in videogame history. The short of it is that Rockstar released Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas with a cheeky sex minigame baked deep into its source code. It was supposed to be a gag shared among the developers, but tinkerers found that minigame, put it in a mod, and unleashed one of the dumbest and most frustrating reckonings in the history of the hobby. 

The ESRB reclassified all versions of San Andreas—not just the PC port where the minigame was first accessible—to "Adults Only," a distributional death kiss that led US retailers, who by policy didn't stock anything rated above Mature, to stop carrying the game. This provoked a massive recall, causing Rockstar to restock the shelves with versions of San Andreas that obstructed the minigame. Senators Hillary Clinton, Joe Lieberman, and Evan Bayh got involved, all of whom cosigned a bill that asked for federal oversight over the ESRB.

This was the nuclear moment for Rockstar, where the dam burst and the publisher transformed from a relative afterthought into a singular enemy of the moral majority. The company had to go make a table tennis game to cool off before heading back to the fold. It was that bad (not the table tennis game, which was pretty good). The worst part? All of this blood was spilled for a stupid, fully-clothed sex minigame that wasn't even available to the public without installing a crack. 

Stupid though it was, though, the Hot Coffee incident was hugely influential to gaming. At the time, fewer console games came to PC, which is partially because console exclusivity really meant exclusivity back then: Microsoft didn't release everything on Xbox and PC like it does now. Piracy was also a worry among publishers, and Hot Coffee tacked on the fear that PC modders were going to dig around in every game's innards to find all the controversial easter eggs hidden by debauched game designers.

Hot Coffee also set the stage for sex and nudity to start appearing in ESRB-rated games on purpose. Fox News would later call the Xbox the "Sex Box" because of Mass Effect's awkward, barely erotic sex scenes, and GTA 4: The Lost and Damned featured a brief view of a penis, which upset the usual conservative media watchdog groups. 

Ultimately, the US federal government didn't take over ESRB rating enforcement; it's still an industry self-regulation organization run by the Entertainment Software Association, and in 2011, the US Supreme Court finally established that videogames are protected by the First Amendment. Phew.

Console certification boards and the ESRB have always been foreign powers on PC—Fox apparently wasn't aware of nude mods when it was getting upset about Mass Effect—but these controversies feel extra absurd today, when PC gaming is more mainstream than ever at the same time as Steam has started hosting hardcore animated porn.

2008: GTA 4, and the downfall of Jack Thompson

Remember that first trailer for GTA 4? Where Niko Bellic stares out at the Liberty City harbor, pondering a future in America? It was clear that Rockstar was eager to get away from some of the delirious excess of its previous trilogy, and honestly, there wasn't much controversy around its release. Sure, Jack Thompson was in the mix, as he always is. My man spent the entire hype cycle trying to get GTA 4 preemptively banned to no avail. Mothers Against Drunk Driving wanted the "Adults Only" rating again, probably because the player can get loaded, jack a car, and fishtail into oncoming traffic. That measure also failed.

Honestly, GTA 4 should be remembered as the quiet conclusion of the boomer anxiety surrounding the franchise. The nudity in the aforementioned Lost and Damned DLC caught some angry letters, but the idea that games were kids toys was finally fading away; if HBO could do it, they could do it, too. 

Today, nobody in the mainstream is preaching about Rockstar's ability to trigger latent school-shooting instincts within the impressionable minds of lonely young men anymore. Instead we're just broke in a fake New York, on a permanent, blustery late-Autumn day.

2013: The afterlife

Grand Theft Auto 5

(Image credit: Rockstar)

Grand Theft Auto 5 caught Rockstar in full auteur mode. The company had survived its early travails and emerged as a genuine transmedia blockbuster machine—recruiting their favorite bands for the soundtrack, unveiling a twisting narrative about money, power, and crime in America. Rockstar games are now treated like Scorsese epics; only coming around once a decade or so, usually packing some sort of grand statement about What It's Like To Be Alive. 

It makes me consider the future of the franchise. In the inevitable Grand Theft Auto 6, will players be able to hire and murder sex workers like in the previous games? That's one of the strongest sustained criticisms of the series today. And will the flagrant juvenilia persist into the 2020s, when so much of Grand Theft Auto 3 looks tawdry and overworked in comparison? The only thing we know for sure is that Jack Thompson won't be in the picture. 

Luke Winkie
Contributing Writer

Luke Winkie is a freelance journalist and contributor to many publications, including PC Gamer, The New York Times, Gawker, Slate, and Mel Magazine. In between bouts of writing about Hearthstone, World of Warcraft and Twitch culture here on PC Gamer, Luke also publishes the newsletter On Posting. As a self-described "chronic poster," Luke has "spent hours deep-scrolling through surreptitious Likes tabs to uncover the root of intra-publication beef and broken down quote-tweet animosity like it’s Super Bowl tape." When he graduated from journalism school, he had no idea how bad it was going to get.