How Grand Theft Auto changed video games (and the world)

With "Jacked," veteran video games journalist David Kushner explains how the Grand Theft Auto franchise helped usher in a new generation of games and set the tone for a decade.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
8 min read

In the summer of 2005, one of the biggest scandals in the history of video games broke: Hot Coffee. If you don't recall the brouhaha over some very sexual content that was found to be hidden on the disc for Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, then you probably weren't reading much news that summer.

David Kushner

The scandal embroiled one of the most popular game franchises in the industry's history, and it wasn't because the game allowed players to shoot cops or run over hookers. Grand Theft Auto, which emerged from Scotland, took the world by storm and went on to break some of the entertainment industry's all-time sales records, besting even behemoths like Harry Potter and the biggest movie openings of all time.

But while anti-game heavies like lawyer Jack Thompson and California Assemblyman Leland Yee tried to take the game and Rockstar down for having left some very explicit material on GTA: San Andreas' game disc (which was subsequently discovered by "modders") while carrying an "M" rating -- meaning it was suitable for those 17 and older -- the franchise only flourished.

Now, veteran games journalist David Kushner has written "Jacked: The Outlaw story of Grand Theft Auto," a deep look at the game's development, its rise to the top of the charts, and its battle with the Jack Thompsons of the world. Kushner, who had previously chronicled the beginnings of the modern game industry in "Masters of Doom," sat down for a CNET 45 Minutes on IM interview yesterday and shared his thoughts about why GTA was such a genre- and culture-shifting franchise and why it still matters today.

Q: Thanks very much for doing this. So, why did you think a book on the story of GTA was something people would be interested in?
David Kushner: GTA is really the story of the game industry over the last decade. My first book, "Masters of Doom," told the story of the birth of the modern game industry -- specifically the industry that rose up out of the PC gaming underworld. Doom and Quake, the games I covered, defined an era and a generation in the '90s. And I wanted to tell the next chapter of that story -- the story that evolved into the 2000s.

I call it the GTA decade. To me, that was the decade when games really broke wide. But it was also when two generations--I call them the Players and the Haters -- butted heads. When I say "haters" I'm being a bit tongue-in-cheek of course. But it's about a generation clash. On one side you had people who grew up playing GTA, and on the other you had those who were scared by the game, and what they thought it represented.

What did you personally feel was the most compelling part of the GTA story?
Kushner: The clash. On the one hand you had this game that was pushing the boundaries of the medium: The music. The art. And most of all, the freedom to explore. Yes, GTA is violent, but that isn't what sold it. What sold it was the "open world" -- the ability to go anywhere (or just about anywhere), the freedom to ditch the missions and just joyride around, the freedom to do bad things, or do good things. All in the context of this very funny satirical world. And I do think that a lot of the "haters" missed the satire completely. It's important to remember that GTA is essentially a British product--forged in the back alleys of Scotland, picked up in London, then brought to America. I call it the ultimate love letter to American excess; the violence, the crime, the sex, the drugs.

But the joyriding was what hooked all of us when we played it. I remember the first time I played Vice City, I took a car and just drove down to the beach and watched a sunset because I'd never seen anything like this before in a game.

Jacked author David Kushner Mia Kushner

What do you think the success of GTA says about modern society?
Kushner: A few things I suppose. There's a quote I put in the book from media theorist Marshall McLuhan, "The games of a people reveal a great deal about them." I think that's true. It's really interesting that GTA III came out in the U.S. right after 9/11. Maybe that was just the right game at the right time. I think a lot of people felt overwhelmed and vulnerable after that experience, and here was a game that let them be in control and get out some aggressions. But in a "safe" environment of pixels.

Do you think that The Sims and GTA are two sides of the same coin?
Kushner: The genius of The Sims was its banality. Who would ever imagine a game about doing the dishes? It may sound kind of funny but in a way both games are like dollhouses. Except one of the games lets you shoot your dolls.

How much of GTA's success was due to the Rockstar team's bad-boy image?
Kushner: I think that was a big part of it. But that alone doesn't sell a product. In the book, I tell the story of how a tabloid publicist in UK conjured up the initial controversy over GTA. I found that story amazing, and an amazing portal into how the media and politicians are so easily manipulated -- something we all know but maybe haven't really seen so clearly from behind-the-scenes. But controversy only goes so far. The road is littered with products that tried to be controversial but sucked. At the end of the day, GTA was a great game, and that's what sold it more than anything.

Let's talk about Hot Coffee. One of the things I found interesting from the book is the notion that some in the modder community wanted to bend the truth about the sexual content in the game to protect Rockstar.
Kushner: It was fascinating to the read the forums from the modders at that time. I really loved piecing all that back together and telling the story from their point of view, and also interviewing some of the key people behind it. Ultimately they loved this game, and were really scared about not being able to play it and mod it. I think that while Hot Coffee was a very difficult time for some people, ultimately it was a good thing for the medium and industry.

How so?
Kushner: It finally got out the message that games are played by adults, that this can be an adult medium, just like we have "The Sopranos," "Goodfellas," etc. And I do believe that the GTA decade brought the end of that debate. I don't anticipate the debate rekindling when GTA V comes out.

Say a little more about how you think Hot Coffee changed the video games industry?
Kushner: It forced the [Entertainment Software Ratings Board] to develop some more refined guidelines about how games are submitted, reviewed, etc., and new penalties. During that era, the game industry was in a battle with Capitol Hill over violent games. You had a lot of powerful people who were threatening to regulate the industry, which is something that would have been awful in my opinion. And Hot Coffee seemed to be the smoking gun for these detractors. But ultimately the controversy passed, changes were made, and detractors like Joe Lieberman came around to say that the game industry's ratings were doing a good job. I think the days of those threats of regulation are behind us, fortunately.

Why do you think Rockstar thought they could get away with lying about building the sexual content into GTA: San Andreas?
Kushner: Game making isn't really a familiar process to most people, who don't realize that unused content is sometimes left on a disc but essentially disabled so it can't be played. That's what happened here. But hackers found a way in, and that caused the media storm. Obviously it came out rather quickly to anyone who understood games that the scene was in the game, even though it wasn't meant to be played. But the mainstream media didn't understand the nuances, so they were wrestling over whether or not this was in the game. There's another side of this question too: How far are gamers willing to go for a game that they love? I think Hot Coffee dramatized just how passionate gamers are about these products.

Is Jack Thompson a true believer or a media savvy opportunist?
Kushner: Maybe a bit of both. I spent a lot of time with Jack over the years, and he's more nuanced than people realize. He and I disagree about games but I tried to write about him the same way I write about anyone: sympathetically and as a real person. The fact is, whether you love or hate Jack, he had a big impact on shaping public opinion about video games. And I think that is partly the fault of the game industry. There was a specific strategy in place to not engage him, and as a result he was on many talk shows unopposed. I'm just a writer about the industry, and I was being asked to go on CNN to provide a counterpoint, when all along I was wondering: why isn't a game developer or publisher doing this instead of me?

Right now, the GTA web site is promoting GTA V "coming soon." Will it be another blockbuster?
Kushner: I bet it will break the record again to be the biggest entertainment launch of all time. There is such a built-in base for the game -- just like Call of Duty -- and it will be huge.

So, you mentioned earlier that your story about Doom was kind about the birth of modern gaming. And GTA is the last decade. What's the story about the next decade of gaming?
Kushner: "Jacked" ends right about now -- and I reference the rise of social/mobile gaming, like Angry Birds, Zynga, etc. We are in the second golden age of gaming, the first being the arcade boom in early '80s. For a while, you really couldn't break into the industry if you had a dream to make games because PC games were waning. But now look at the market: Look at games like Temple Run or Draw Something. The dream is back on. We've finally broken through to the mainstream where more and more people now identify themselves as gamers. Blockbusters like GTA will still be around, but the overall market will continue to expand with new experiences we can't even imagine. I mean, who's going to create the Pong for Google Glasses? It's going to happen, and I'd like to write about it.