A New “Grand Theft Auto” for a New Social Climate


An image depicting Trevor, one of the protagonists of GTA V

Sam Kennedy, Managing Editor

Grand Theft Auto V is currently the second-highest grossing video game of all time. Second only to Minecraft, the 2013 open-world crime sandbox was a hit upon release and is still consistently culturally relevant years later thanks to a passionate community and a continually thriving multiplayer spinoff in the form of GTA Online. The game’s crass sense of humor and unpredictable gameplay combined to form what, for many, is a cathartic experience like no other, one in which the player is rewarded for repeatedly breaking the law. Part of the continued appeal of the franchise is its ability to act as a safe space in which players are actively encouraged to unload any rage they might hold towards societal institutions in a way that is ultimately harmless and played for laughs. But developer Rockstar Games does not expect a nine-year old game to stay in the limelight forever, livestream viewer counts be damned. This begs the question: how does this famously (or infamously) edgy and nihilistic franchise exist in 2022?

The original Grand Theft Auto was created by a very different Rockstar Games than the one that exists today. In fact, the studio wasn’t even called Rockstar yet: it was still DMA Design. The team of developers was made up of around thirty people, the overwhelming majority of which were white men and gen-xers. By the time GTA III, the game which thrust the series into the limelight, rolled around, DMA Design had two divisions under the control of Take-Two Interactive. Despite this change in management, Rockstar Games remained a “boy’s club.” A 2018 report by the outlet Kotaku showed that at Rockstar North, the company’s UK division, the median earning rate for women was 34% lower than it was for men. In 2019, a series of reports from a multitude of outlets detailed numerous sexual assault allegations aimed at high-ranking men within the company. Included in these reports were multiple stories of Rockstar work trips to strip clubs. The studio also has been known for having an intense culture of what in the games industry is known as “crunch,” wherein developers are forced to work overtime and potentially even on weekends in order to finish a project before a tight deadline. This strain leads to burnout among many employees and can have a large negative effect on their mental health as well as their relationships with others. 

Additionally, the entire GTA series is plagued with sexism; an issue rampant in games as a whole but likely amplified by the misogynist culture at the company. When GTA V launched, many reviewers (such as those from Polygon and the Los Angeles Times) cited the game’s portrayal of women as antiquated and sexist. Dave Cook of video game outlet VG427 said in an editorial that the women of GTA were “either there to be rescued, shouted at, f*cked, to be seen f*cking, put up with, killed, heard prattling away like dullards on their mobile phones or shopping.” GTA V also featured various jokes aimed at the transgender community, with various NPCs acting as caricatures of trans women, being mocked for having male genitalia. The game’s sense of humor is much more dated than that of its contemporaries, a relic of a bygone era where games existed on the fringes of popular culture and were never held accountable for hateful messaging.
So where does Rockstar go from here? As various teams within the company converge to begin work on GTA VI, does Rockstar have any motivation to change its ways? According to a Bloomberg report from prolific games journalist Jason Schreier, the answer seems to be a resounding yes. While 2018’s Red Dead Redemption II (the only other game the studio has released since 2013) was met with a lot of praise and excellent sales, the game left many employees burnt out and exhausted because of extensive overtime and extremely long work weeks. The company now plans to support GTA VI with updates after launch, which should allow the team to spread out their workload as they will be able to add extra features in the future instead of cramming everything in before release. 

The studio has also significantly narrowed its gender pay gap, and transphobic jokes were removed from the recent re-releases of GTA V. Additionally, GTA VI will feature the series’ first female protagonist, who will be one of two playable characters in a story reminiscent of Bonnie and Clyde, hopefully breaking the trend of women within the series being reduced to the role of sex objects. The studio seems intent on not “punching down” and joking at the expense of marginalized groups this time around as well. All of these changes should in theory make Rockstar a better place to work and make GTA VI a game that invites a much more diverse group of players to feel welcome to jump in. Hopefully this paves the way for a more accepting and healthier industry as a whole.

NOTE 9/20/2022: Recently, a large amount of information regarding GTA VI was leaked anonymously to the public. The leaked information revolves around a very unfinished build of the game and thus did not contain anything relevant to the article except for a confirmation of the game’s protagonists.