Since it was first unleashed onto the world way back in 1997, the Grand Theft Auto series has become a hugely successful franchise, shipping more than 250 million units worldwide to become the fourth most successful video game franchise of all time. Moreover, it has also become an influential series on the sphere of gaming, with the term “Grand Theft Auto clone” being liberally applied. Beyond the gaming sphere, the game has lead to endless discussions about violence in media. With five main series games and ten spin-offs, the series seems to go from strength to strength and with no indication of slowing down. The latest game in the series, Grand Theft Auto V, was a huge commercial success and broke multiple records, while also going on to be the most highly critically regarded entry in the series.
Much of the series success has to be attributed to its less than savory subject matter, most of which tends to involve cars, guns, and girls. Grand Theft Auto’s publicity machine runs on controversy, and whether it’s explicit sexual acts seen on screen, violence against women, or racist police officers, the series' developers' Rockstar Games' seem to know exactly what buttons to push for maximum effect. In this list, we’ll explore some of the most memorable controversies from the past twenty years of GTA, looking not only at the in-game features and events themselves but at the shock waves that each one created around the world upon release. Strap yourself in.
15 When They Secretly Hide A 'Love' Mini-Game In The Code
By far the most controversial of all of Grand Theft Auto's debacles, the ‘Hot Coffee’ mini-game made a huge stir in the international news circuit back in 2005 and was even brought up in public discourse by the likes of U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton and the now-disbarred Florida attorney Jack Thompson. Originally developed as a mini-game in GTA: San Andreas for protagonist CJ Johnson and a girlfriend of his choosing, ‘Hot Coffee’ involves one of the game’s female characters inviting Johnson into her home for “coffee” before allowing the player character to control his actions during a variety of sexual escapades.
‘Hot Coffee’ was disabled in the final version of the game, replaced by an exterior view of the girlfriend’s house as the muffled voices of the pair doing the dirty are heard. But when players realized they could hack the game's code, the mini-game was swiftly reinserted (pun intended) into thousands of save files across the world. The consequences of this were far-reaching, leading to a huge lawsuit in New York (courtesy of 85-year-old grandmother Florence Cohen) and the reclassification of the game from Mature to Adults Only.
14 When Male Nudity Became A Thing
While female nudity has been a near constant in the Grand Theft Auto series practically since it's inception, Rockstar has generally made a conscious effort to avoid explicit depictions of the bottom half of the body, and males are generally never depicted nude at all. This all changed in 2010 with the release of the GTA IV expansion pack The Lost and Damned, which shocked players with an explicit shot of the character Tom Stubbs. The scene in question takes place at the beginning of the mission ‘Politics,’ during which Stubbs gets off a massage table and discusses plans with main character Johnny Klebitz.
In response to the scene, the parental watchdog group Common Sense Media issued a warning about the game, saying that the full frontal male nudity made the game "even more controversial than its predecessors" and stating that it “should be kept away - far away - from children.” In turn, Rockstar’s Dan Houser dismissed worries, saying that he’s sure that fans “recognize ... the humor” in such scenes.
13 When Slaughtering 'Ladies Of The Night' Became A Thing
When Grand Theft Auto III was first released back in 2001, most players weren’t familiar with the franchise, which had up until then been an overhead driving game. Perhaps that’s why it came as such a big shock when talk of murdering prostitutes made it around the media circuit. As soon as it was revealed that players could hire sex workers for their services before killing them to take back their initial payment, tensions started to flare, and the story became emblematic of everything people saw wrong with the game.
David Walsh, a psychologist for the National Institute on Media and the Family slammed the game for glamorizing "antisocial and criminal activity" and stated that "the purpose of the game is to perpetrate crime." While The National Organization for Women spoke out against GTA and asked for it to be taken off the market, alleging it "encourages violence and the degradation of women." But things really got heated when the prostitute anecdote was used to get the game banned in Australia, even after it had already been released in the country with an MA15+ rating. This forced the developers to recall the game, and for them to re-release a censored version in 2002 removing all references to sexual acts with prostitutes.
12 When They Massacred The Hare Krishna
The first entry in the Grand Theft Auto series was never the most popular, which might be lucky for the developers who managed to avoid what could have been a huge controversy if enough people were paying attention.
In the first game, players were encouraged to hit and run as many civilians as possible and received rewards for doing so. Hare Krishna appeared in the game randomly as pedestrians walking the streets in large groups, recognized easily thanks to their trademark orange clothing. If players ran over an entire line of Hare Krishna, the word “GOURANGA,” which translates to “be happy,” would flash across the screen briefly. Adding insult to injury, Hare Krishna re-appeared in GTAII as one of the gangs that players take missions from, but they have been conspicuously absent from the series ever since. If Rockstar is trying to avoid controversy, it’s probably a good thing.
11 When GTA Was Linked To Real-World Violence
On a more serious note, GTA has often been linked to tragic deaths in the real world. In 2003, 18-year-old Devin Moore shot and killed two Alabama police officers and a dispatcher. When questioned by police, Moore, who apparently frequently played Vice City, stated, "Life is like a video game. Everybody's got to die sometime." Later that year, teenage brothers William and Josh Buckner shot and killed two people. In statements, the attackers claimed that their actions were inspired by Grand Theft Auto III. Then in 2006, 14-year-old Cody Posey murdered his father, stepmother, and stepsister in New Mexico. Once again, the boy was an avid Vice City player.
The one thing each of these crimes has in common is that each was used as reasoning to sue RockStar Games by onetime attorney Jack Thompson, who has made a name for himself in the media criticizing GTA. In his lawsuits, Thompson claimed that none of these deaths would have occurred had it not been for the series, despite Rockstar claiming that they were protected under the First Amendment.
10 When They Mocked Jack Thompson
Continuing GTA’s ongoing cycle of life imitating art imitating life, Rockstar then went on to parody the infamous anti-game activist Jack Thompson during a scene in Grand Theft Auto IV. In the scene, the player character enters a law firm office to kill lawyer Tom Goldberg before he can file suit against the protagonist's mob boss. When he takes out his weapon, the lawyer yells, "Guns don't kill people, video games do!" — a phrase often quoted by Thompson.
Exacerbating the situation further, Thompson filed suit with Florida court in 2007 stating that he would "take necessary and proper means to stop the release of the game" if the similarities were not removed, however, Rockstar took no action and Thompson did not end up going to court. He did, however, write a letter to the mother of Strauss Zelnick, director of the company that developed the game. Ouch.
9 When They Tackled Drunk Driving
The idea of drunk driving may be pretty much a standard in the Grand Theft Auto series now, but when it was first introduced back in 2008 in GTAIV, it was another controversial addition to the series. In that game, players under the influence had to deal with a shaky camera and blurry vision; and when driving, the entire viewpoint would twist relentlessly, making it almost impossible to drive in a straight line.
While the feature went unremarked for the most part, it did garner criticism from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, a nonprofit group who requested that the Entertainment Software Rating Board change the rating of the game from Mature to Adults Only. "Drunk driving is not a game, and it is not a joke," the organization stated. In response, Rockstar said, “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."
8 When They Added Celebrity Lookalikes
Grand Theft Auto has often been praised for its detail-oriented replication of the real world, but the series does more than just recreate iconic landmarks for all to interact with. So far, Rockstar Games has faced two separate lawsuits from celebrities who allege that the fifth game in the main series, GTAV, had made use of their likenesses without permission.
The first of these was filed by Karen Gravano (known as a character on the reality TV show Mob Wives), and as the daughter of Sammy the Bull, a former kingpin in the Gambino crime family which brought down Paul Castellano. In her suit, Gravano claimed that Rockstar used not only her image, but also her life story as part of their plot involving a minor character Antonia Bottino. Following Gravano’s lead, troubled child star Lindsay Lohan was the next to file a lawsuit, claiming that the character of Lacey Jonas was influenced by her likeness without permission. Sadly for both of these starlets, both lawsuits were dismissed in early 2016.
7 When They Used Music Without Permission
GTA may have always been a controversial series, but it's rare that the developers will intentionally break the law. Intentionally or not, it seems to have happened in Grand Theft Auto V. According to hip-hop artist Daz Dillinger, the game's West Coast Classic radio station makes unauthorised use of two songs he has produced for other artists: 'C-Walk' by Kurupt, and 'Nothin' But the Cavi Hit' by Mack 10 and Tha Dogg Pound.
Apparently, Rockstar Games contacted Dillinger before the release asking to use his beats, but the fees they were offering were "offensively low" — only $4 271 for both. Dillinger turned down the offer, but they used the music regardless. He ended up giving the company two options: either they make him a "better offer" than the initial amount, or they "recall and destroy all unsold copies of the game."
6 When Their Stereotyped Characters Got It Taken Off Shelves
The representation of women in GTA has always been a hot button issue, but tensions really came to a head with the release of Grand Theft Auto V. GameSpot reviewer Carolyn Petit was particularly pointed with her criticisms of the game, saying that women were stereotyped and restricted to the roles of "strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humourless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists." But her review faced huge backlash from GTA fans, who responded with 20 000 mostly negative comments and a petition for her firing.
Due to Petit’s comments and the responses of multiple journalists around the world who supported her, the Australian branch of Target was later put under pressure to remove GTAV from their shelves. The store received customer complaints that the game had "depictions of violence against women." Eventually, a petition to stop the sale of the game amassed over 40 000 signatures. Target gave in to the petition, with corporate affairs manager Jim Cooper saying that they made the decision after "extensive community and customer concern about the game."
5 When They Used Racial Slurs Against Haitians
Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is one of the most popular games in the series, selling over 20 million copies and retroactively being considered as one of the most significant games in history - but not everyone loves it. Much of the plot focuses on rival Cuban and Haitian groups which make up the population of the fictional city, and people in the real world weren’t too happy about it.
Criticism came from the Haitian Centers Council and Haitian Americans for Human Rights, both of whom staged a protest in New York to argue that the game would incite violence against members of the Haitian community and that it depicted Haitians as "thugs, thieves and drug dealers." In an uncharacteristic move for them, Rockstar did, in fact, apologize for their actions, but stated that the violence was acceptable given that the game was violent towards pretty much everyone, and refused to remove offensive statements from the game. It was only when New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg threatened the developers with legal action that they removed offensive statements against Haitians from all new copies of the game. This issue later led North Miami’s council to introduce a bill to ban the selling of violent games to anyone under 18 without parental permission.
4 When In-Game Riots Became Too Real
In another case of racially charged controversy, the series has also come under fire for its allusions to the real world 1992 L.A. Riots that resulted from the controversial Rodney King verdict. These riots began after police officers were acquitted of all charges, despite the fact that they were seen on camera beating a defenseless black man unnecessarily.
In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, a similar set of riots occur as the final major event in the game. As in the real world, these fictional riots begin after murder charges facing two police officers are dropped unjustly. The sky turns grey, darkened by smoke from flames; buildings and cars catch fire and explode, making travel a chore; and pedestrians and police officers will attack the main character with little provocation. While certainly making for a dramatic scene, the influence of real riots which left over fifty dead in a fictional video game can be seen as pretty tasteless.
3 When They Coded Racism Into Their Cops
In one of their more interesting reflections on racism in the world, Rockstar later went on to explore police brutality in Grand Theft Auto V — maybe. The idea of racial profiling in the game was first brought to light in a YouTube video which featured a black character saying something completely innocuous to a white police officer who then promptly began shooting at him. This led to another YouTube sensation, The Game Theorists, exploring the concept more closely in one of their videos. On that channel, the owners experimented with two white characters and one black character talking to the police repeatedly to see how often this simple act would lead to police brutality, and went on to find that it happened much more against the black character.
For their part, Rockstar has denied claims that their cops are programmed to be racist. "This is absolutely false,” they confirmed. “The in-game police don't treat one lead character any differently from the others." But it’s an interesting observation nonetheless.
2 When They Messed With Dead Police Officers
Although the Grand Theft Auto series is based in a fictional universe, there are clear similarities between the in-game world and our own; a fact which worked against the developers with the release of GTAIV. While the game is set in Liberty City, there are strong parallels between that location and New York City, a fact which wasn’t lost on the city’s police department.
Following the release of the game's trailer, the NYPD, who has long been attempting to rehabilitate the city’s bad name as a criminal safe haven, was reportedly fuming at the representation of police in the game and what they saw as an inaccurate representation of crime levels in the city. Mayor Michael Bloomberg agreed with their complaints, stating that he "does not support any video game where you earn points for injuring or kill police officers." In response, Jason Della Rocca, who works with the International Game Developers Association, accused New York officials of double standards for critiquing games while they let films and television shows slide. "There's a lot of stuff out there that's pretty over the top, and doesn't put New York in the best light," Della Rocca stated. "They don't complain about that, yet when a game depicts similar incidents as movies in a similar setting, they're up in arms."
1 When They Depicted Torture
Grand Theft Auto V’s mission ‘By the Book’ was another controversial one thanks to its layered representation of torture in interrogations. The mission features the player working with the FBI as unhinged protagonist Trevor Philips as he “extracts information” from a fugitive named Mr. K. In the scene, the player chooses from torture techniques such as electricity, pliers, or waterboarding to use on the man. In typical Trevor style, after receiving the information he needs from Mr. K, he betrays the FBI by letting the man live, driving him to an airport instead. This affords Mr. K an opportunity to escape, and Trevor an opportunity to lecture him on the ineffectiveness and heartlessness of torture as he drives.
While most reviewers appreciated the commentary on the atrocities of torture, the scene beforehand was more widely criticized. British Labour Party politician Keith Vaz said he was “astonished” by the violence in the scene, while Alison Sherratt from the Association of Teachers and Lecturers warned parents about letting their children play the game. Violence had always been a part of the series, but it seemed like torture was just a step too far.