Popularity, controversy intersect with release of GTA V

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WASHINGTON — Critics describe it as a vicious glorification of violence, an exercise in taking the worst parts of society and blowing them up, both figuratively and literally, on a flat screen. Supporters call it a milestone in video gaming, one of the most detailed and visceral fictional worlds ever created. However, it might be easiest to simply think of Grand Theft Auto V as the most successful media release in history.

Less than a week after releasing the fifth edition of the controversial open-world franchise, publisher Take Two Interactive announced over the weekend that GTA V reached $1 billion in revenue, making it, “the fastest that any entertainment property, including video games and feature films, has reached this significant milestone.”

Once a lightning rod for discourse on the depiction of violence in media, GTA V seems ready to take on a new tone. As Polygon.com editor-at-large Chris Plante points out, the game’s success has proven a bigger narrative in the days since its release. “I think people are more interested in the fact that it hit a billion dollars in three days,” Plante said. “… once something becomes so successful, that almost trumps its controversy.”

At the Best Buy on Wisconsin Avenue in the Tenleytown neighborhood of Washington, D.C., that reputation reared its head in the days after GTA V’s release. Instead of seeing people line up outside the store to protest the game’s mature themes and veneration of violence, moms were perusing the aisles looking to hit it big with their kids’ next gifts. “My son watches this violent stuff on TV so I can’t really hide it,” said Carolyn Robson.

Buying video games at Best Buy, for the most part, is a simple experience. Customers go to the aisle full of Xbox 360 or Playstation 3 games, browse for a select title, head to the register and make purchases. That’s how brick-and-mortar retail typically works, but not what happens when trying to buy GTA V.

Upon entering the store, advertisements for the game don’t pepper the aisles; instead, lesser titles like NBA 2K14 and the upcoming Call of Duty, another franchise that scoffs at the idea of too much violence, have cardboard cutouts at the front of the store. The only indication that the store carries GTA V is a small cardboard cutout placed near the other games. Asking an employee revealed that buying GTA V requires a much different procedure than any other game.

An employee checks your driver’s license before taking the game out of a locked safe – anyone who has bought an “M”-rated game at Best Buy knows this legally required step is usually skipped for anyone who looks like he/she is an adult. 

But as Plante says, that’s really the result of reputation more than content. Talking about the possibility of retailers selling to minors, he says, “They know just how it is, and they know that maybe there will be watchdog groups, or people hoping to catch them.” In other words, accidentally selling GTA V to a minor is a far greater risk than doing the same with a different “M”-rated game.

Actually discerning that risk is a more difficult task. While exposing minors to the content in GTA V seems inappropriate almost immediately, links between violent video games and subsequent violent action have been found to be effectively non-existent. In fact, finding actual responses to the release of GTA V from media advocacy groups proves quite difficult – both ParentFurther and Media Matters for America both did not respond to inquiries for comment. Instead, the fervor seems to be limited to sections of cable television and the Internet, where Plante pointed out anti-feminist themes have received nearly as much attention as violence.

Even with the advocacy groups seemingly turning their attention elsewhere, Best Buy’s selling practices reflect a reasonable commitment to protecting minors from mature content. The bigger question seems to be whether the chain’s efforts actually reach their intended goal.

Spending time in Tenleytown, one could watch naive parents bypass the system to purchase the game for children leads to concern. Whether they’re unaware or unappreciative of the mature content, Plante says the issue plays similar to the evolving underage drinking problem in our country. He adds that Gamestop, another major retailer, has a policy of notifying parents of the specific themes of different mature titles before selling them. Ultimately, parents will still make decisions for the well-being of their children.

When asked about this, and the different practice for selling GTA V at the Tenleytown location, Best Buy’s public relations department directed me to the company’s “M”-rated game policy. “I can assure you, Best Buy has a longstanding commitment to educating customers about the Entertainment Software Ratings Board so they can make informed decisions about age-appropriate content,” said Ericka Webb, a company representative. She added that a March 2013 investigation into executing “M”-rated game policy revealed 87 percent compliance.

But what does that say about how many children actually get their hands on the game? Companies leave it up to parents to decide what’s appropriate for their children, and with the framing of GTA V’s narrative being more about success than violence, many parents seem unaware of what they’re exposing to their kids, and the apparent fatigue from media advocacy groups only magnifies that. Ultimately, it means stores like the Best Buy in Tenleytown could be fighting a lost cause.

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