The Grand Theft Auto video game franchise has been no stranger to controversy over the years and blamed for glamorising violence and crime ever since its first incarnation back in 1997.
But a new paper from researchers from York St John University suggests that its reputation as a bad influence on players may be somewhat unfair.
Dr Jack Denham, Learning and Teaching Lead at the School of Psychological & Social Sciences for York St John University, and Dr Matthew Spokes, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, have published research in the British Journal of Criminology which argues against the idea that games can be ‘violent’ by themselves and that the player and the decisions that they make are an equal part of the puzzle.
The study says the modern games, which allow players to make different narrative choices as they explore the worlds created by developers, mean large numbers of players of Grand Theft Auto will opt for pursuits like riding Ferris wheels, getting a haircut or shopping for clothes.
Dr Denham says: “Our research shows that people play open-world games, where violence is part of the options open to the player, but not all of them, in a similar sort of way that they engage with real life.
“In real life, people are often repulsed by and abstain from violent behaviour.
“In GTA5, all of our participants at some point mentioned these feelings of disdain and at some point opted for play that did not involve violence. “Participants chose to fill their gameplay time by going on the Ferris wheel, driving a taxi to earn money, shopping for nicer clothes or getting a haircut.
“On top of this, participants used the game as a sort of ‘world-simulator’ - exploring the mountains, hiking through the countryside, or driving around in nice cars obeying the rules of the road.
Grand Theft Auto’s focus on protagonists who attempt to rise through the criminal underworld has always been contentious - and the controversy was actually deliberately stirred up when the franchise was first launched in the 1990s as a 2D game that allowed players to hijack cars and run down pedestrians.
Publicist Max Clifford was brought in to promote it and talked up the controversy as a way of generating publicity as campaigns were launched in Britain and America to have it banned; something that ended up helping sales.
Nowadays, violence is a common factor in many of the world’s best-selling video games.
Research carried out in 2017 showed that seven out of 10 of the most popular games featured an element of violence.
In Dr Denham’s and Dr Spokes’ recent research, the team noticed that participants sometimes embraced the violent aspects, but their pro-social behaviour outweighed antisocial behaviour within the game.
Dr Denham adds: “Sometimes they embraced it, other times they fought back against it. We take it for granted that violence is programmed into - and therefore, encouraged - as part of the narrative of the majority if popular games, GTA included, but also things like Red Dead Redemption or Call of Duty.
“In these games, violence is a necessary part of player progression through the game narrative, but every single participant at some point also decided to play pro-socially. Pro-social behaviour definitely outweighed antisocial behaviour.”
The research also suggests that what we bring from the real world can shape what we might do in a gaming scenario.
Thinking Outside the ‘Murder Box’: Virtual Violence and Pro-Social Action in Video Games can be read in full on the British Journal of Criminology website.