We have just witnessed the greatest entertainment launch in human history, though I suspect few of us noticed. We remember the buzz around James Cameron’s Avatar which quickly became the highest-grossing film of all time, raking in over $2 billion since its 2009 debut. Well, last week Grand Theft Auto V, a video game, put it to shame, raking in $800 million on launch day, and surpassing the $1 billion mark on its second day.
To put this in perspective, the previous entertainment launch record was $500 million in one day, set by another video game: Call of Duty: Black Ops 2. It crossed the $1 billion mark 14 days after it was released. The Avengers holds the record for the fastest movie to gross $1 billion, a feat that took 19 days. And now GTA V has smashed all previous records; it is not implausible that it will surpass Avatar in earnings.
We are accustomed to looking to the movies or to television to take the pulse of the culture around us, to see what people believe, and to see what they deem important. But this week proves we should be looking to video games as well. GTA V is a cultural phenomenon. Smashing those records must mean something. And as it smashes those records, it is piling up rave reviews, currently holding down a 97% at Metacritic, a site that collects reviews and offers an average score.
There are important differences between movies and games. It is easier to gross $1 billion in games when a game costs five times more than a movie. This means that $1 billion in film revenue indicates that more people have seen it than have played the game that gains $1 billion. Then again, where a movie will last for two or three hours, a game offers deeper immersion as it will often take forty or fifty hours to complete and many people will play it repeatedly. Not only that, but a game typically appeals to a narrower demographic than a movie, which means a narrow slice of the population may be heavily impacted by it. This game is making a huge mark in a relatively small crowd—men in their teens, twenties and thirties.
I have not played GTA V, so have relied on reviews to tell me what it is all about. I did not need to read much about it to see how and why it appeals to that crowd. The game takes full advantage of modern hardware by presenting a fun, interactive and beautiful world; there are many side activities to provide fun as players progress along the main storyline; there are well-developed characters; there is enough complexity to make it difficult, but not overwhelming. The $260 million in development costs were put to good use in creating an interesting and vibrant experience.
But those are not the only things that give the game its appeal. It is also pervasively violent, crude and sexualized. The game’s creators insist the game is meant to be tongue-in-cheek and subversive by exposing society’s hang-ups and peccadilloes. However, based on reviews, it seems clear that it pushes far beyond the boundaries of good taste or good satire. The game offers an exaggerated world of violence, crime and sleaze. It is unapologetically misogynistic and crude, the language is harsh, and “everyone you meet is a sociopath, narcissist, criminal, lunatic, sadist, cheat, liar, layabout, or some combination of those. “Players will visit strip clubs and encounter explicit sexuality there, they will consort with prostitutes, they will be involved in a lurid scene of torture, and they will kill gratuitously, graphically and repeatedly.
GTA V is told through three different characters. One is a retired con man with a long criminal past, an adulterous wife, and children who hate him, while another is a repo man with no real prospects in life. The most memorable is Trevor, who according to one review, is “a methamphetamine entrepreneur living in a desert town north of Los Santos. Trevor’s a truly horrible, terrifying, psychotic human being—and a terrific character. He possesses a chilling combination of intelligence and insanity, and he’s so monstrously violent and frightening at times that he almost makes the other two protagonists seem well-adjusted by comparison. Exceptional voice acting and animation help make Trevor a character you will never, ever forget, even though you might want to.”
The game has a borderline plausible plot that demands and then carries the player through all of this violence and sexuality. As you may surmise from the title, there is car theft and car racing, but there are also helicopters and jets, off-roading and parachuting. It doesn’t slow down and doesn’t grow boring.
Not surprisingly, the game is rated M for Mature, indicating that it is appropriate only for ages 17 and up. Some retailers will require identification before selling the game, however, most children who really want it will have little trouble tracking down a copy.
It is easy to be outraged by a game like GTA V. I believe it should cause some outrage. That said, I do not expect it will represent a tipping point in culture or a moment that will appear in the history text books as historians attempt to understand the decline of Western culture. Yet it certainly is significant nonetheless.
GTA V is significant in that it shows how many men are playing video games. We hear statistics about the average gamer being in his low to mid-thirties and this week’s sales record backs that up. While children and teens certainly do consume vast quantities of games, the industry is growing in its appeal to older men—men who grew up playing games and who will continue to do so. Video games are not evil in and of themselves. In many cases they can be a very legitimate form of entertainment, just like movies and books and other media. But people who enjoy sex and violence will demand those elements in their games.
GTA V is significant in that movies allow us to watch violence and sexuality, but games allow us to experience and participate in these acts. We do not passively consume games, but interact with them and make choices that carry us through them. As games grow more powerful and as both hardware and software continue to develop, we can expect the experiences will grow ever-richer and ever-closer to the real thing. Realism combined with the desire for sex and violence will have inevitable consequences.
GTA V is significant in that it proves there is broad appeal in games that are blatantly violent, crude and sexual. Few people who bought the game will be shocked to find that it contains these elements; most of them expected and demanded it. We can expect competing game-makers to emulate what made this one so successful and we can expect they will ramp it up all the more. There is no reason to think GTA V is at the end of the trajectory.
The fact is, we are more than the games we play, but we are certainly not less. Games like GTA V offer choices—hundreds and hundreds of choices. Though a player is experiencing this world through a controller and a screen and fictional characters, he still makes choices and every choice is moral. Every choice matters. Every choice is significant. Every choice says something about who he is and what he values. The things that entertain him shine a powerful spotlight into his heart.