New 'Grand Theft Auto' finds new ways to outrage critics

Key Points

Scene from 'Grand Theft Auto V'
Source: Rockstar Games

Is a video game that requires torture going too far?

Critics and gamers may love "Grand Theft Auto V," but, like its predecessors, the game is proving to be a lightning rod for controversy.

Alleged misogyny, rampant use of racially offensive terms and heavily sexual scenes are just some of the game's polarizing moments. An interactive torture scene is most likely to stir up a hornet's nest of criticism.

Whether those critics will have any impact, though, is questionable. With the gaming industry receiving blanket protection from the Supreme Court two years ago, the debate over in-game violence has settled down considerably.

In the first several hours of gameplay, the N-word is heard several hundred times (usually, but not always, by black characters). Other harsh obscenities are part of the speech patterns of every character in the game, including drivers you cut off.

There's also a strip club, where players can pay for a lap dance and are encouraged to grope the strippers, but not get caught by the bouncers. Other female characters are largely shrews, liars and objects of derision.

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"I counted roughly (and generously) six semi-important female characters in the game, maybe a couple more if I include the occasional quest giver or victim of theft," Polygon's Chris Plante said in his review of the game. "None are playable. All but one are shrill buzzkills; the latter has Stockholm syndrome. And the two grisliest murders in the game happen to women. One side story involves the persistent and unsettling harassment of an absent female character, the purpose of which is to show the cruelty of Trevor [one of the lead characters], but which goes upsettingly far beyond what feels necessary to the story."

Adding to the debate about the game, which is available on Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3, is the timing of its release. "GTA V" hit shelves the same day as the Navy Yard shootings. Media outlets were quick to note the alleged shooter, Aaron Alexis, was a gamer. The industry has rejected suggestions that playing games ties in to real world violence.

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Ultimately, though, it's in a mission called "By the Book" that developer Rockstar North truly pushes the boundaries in "GTA V"—and for which it's feeling the most heat from critics.

The mandatory game segment has players interrogate a suspected terrorist using torture, with instruments such as sledgehammers, electric cables and pliers. This is done via a series of mini-games, including one where you yank a tooth from the victim's mouth. Should the suspect's heart stop, players give him an adrenaline shot and continue with the torture. (The scene, which is disturbing and is not safe for most workplaces, can be seen on YouTube.)

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"Rockstar North has crossed a line by effectively forcing people to take on the role of a torturer and perform a series of unspeakable acts if they want to achieve success in the game," Keith Best, CEO of Freedom from Torture, said in a statement. "Torture is a reality, not a game and glamourising it in popular culture undoes the work of organisations like Freedom from Torture and survivor activists to campaign against it. This adds insult to injury for survivors who are left physically and mentally scarred by torture in the real world. If Rockstar North's message is a satirical critique of the practice of torture, it's lost on us."

Neither Rockstar nor publisher Take-Two Interactive replied to a request for comment about criticism of the game's violence.

In past interviews, though, Take-Two CEO Strauss Zelnick has addressed how he views the controversies that sometimes erupt around the violence in the company's games.

No Pixar, but a lot of 'Grand Theft'
No Pixar, but a lot of 'Grand Theft'

"My barometer is ... does it create an emotional response?" he said in a 2012 interview with "Is it an act of desperation when you resort to going to that well? I like to think our creative folks are more elegant than that. ... The buck stops at my desk. I have to make these choice and they're really important choices. I say we're making art. We're in the art business and I stand behind that."

It's worth noting that "GTA V" is rated M—the video game equivalent of an R-rating for films. It's not intended for audiences under the age of 17—and Rockstar has been very clear on that.

Some critics note that while the content disturbs them, what they view as being truly over the line is how aggressively the game is being marketed in places where children are likely to be watching.

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"The 'Grand Theft Auto' games have always been incredibly violent, with extremely coarse language, drug and alcohol abuse, unhealthy sexual representations, and a lack of good role models," said James Steyer, CEO and founder of Common Sense Media. "And the newest one seems to be more of the same, with an especially egregious torture sequence. ... Of course we believe that game developers should have the right to their own creative expression.

"The issue I have, though, is when games with age-inappropriate, graphic content gets marketed to kids. I am deeply offended ... when ads for games like 'Grand Theft Auto' are shown during times when kids are watching, like during sports games or in the middle of the day."

There's a difference, though, between "GTA V" and "Grand Theft Auto III" or "Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas," where critics of the series were given ample time on airways and opinion pages.

Some of the videogame industry's biggest opponents have gone away in recent years. Attorney Jack Thompson, who lobbied tirelessly against videogame violence and sex, was effectively de-toothed in 2008 when the Florida permanently disbarred him. And the National Institute on Media and the Family, another vocal critic of "GTA," closed down in 2009.

The paucity of anti-gaming activists comes, in part, because of the 2011 Supreme Court decision that granted videogames First Amendment protection. While controversial story elements can still be debated, there's little opponents can do to have them removed from the game.

—By Chris Morris, CNBC.