Jacked: The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto by journalist David Kushner explores the creation of the Grand Theft Auto franchise and how Rockstar Games changed the video game landscape forever.
We spoke with Kushner to discuss GTA’s ambitious creators, the evolution of the franchise and the cultural changes it has provoked.
What was it about the RockStar story and Grand Theft Auto that inspired you to write Jacked?
To me Grand Theft Auto was not just the defining game, but the defining entertainment product of its generation. And when I say defining, I mean the game had this really massive impact on culture and on the industry.
I think you would be hard pressed to find something equivalent that was in one sense so galvanising and alluring to so many players, but something that also seemed so dangerous to a generation of people who didn’t really play games. That was the story, to tell the story of that conflict and that generation clash.
You portray Sam Houser as a meticulous and ambitious pioneer who wanted to break down the barriers of what a game could be. Do you think he succeeded?
I look at this as a British invasion, sort of like what happened in the music industry some years ago. In the mainstream world I don’t know how many people realised that this iconic game about America was actually the creation of some people in England and Scotland.
I think it was a kind of a love letter to American excess and I think part of that motivation was about pushing the medium of games, about representing what that excess was; sex, drugs, violence, crime. All done in an over the top satirical way.
If we go back in time 10 years or so, the game industry was different and we weren’t really seeing the equivalent of hip-hop in the video game world. When I say that I mean something contemporary that represents urban culture, something that’s a bit cheeky, a bit brash. That’s what these guys were setting out to do and I think they certainly succeeded, not only in doing that with a game, but in proving there was a market for that kind of material.
Do you think Grand Theft Auto could have ever been created by an American team?
It’s impossible to speculate, but the reality is the game did come from England. A lot of the guys at DMA Design in Scotland, who made the first GTA, had never even been to America, and here they are making this game, a kind of fantasy about New York that was drawn from their own fantasies and love of crime movies. There were certainly other crime games prior to this, but maybe it was the distance that helped make it what it was.
You cover the Hot Coffee scandal in great detail. In retrospect do you think the affair ended up being of benefit to the industry and the medium?
I definitely do, and I explore this in the book at great length. Hot Coffee is the centerpiece of the book with reason. I think that it was a very difficult at the time for the people that were involved, but ultimately I think it was good for the industry because it forced the issue.
Prior to Hot Coffee there was this notion that video games are for kids. I don’t think that’s necessarily the case now. It was important that not only did the general public and politicians get that through their heads, but that the industry refined its own self-regulatory process, especially here in the United States, because the industry had long been warding off the threat of legislation. I do think we are past that and maybe it was a necessary growing pain for the industry.
What approach did you take to get behind the public persona of Jack Thompson?
I got to know Jack pretty well over that decade. He and I actually debated over video game violence and its effects. I’ll never forget, we were up on stage and he was almost preaching against the game and eventually against me for coming to the defence of the game. And then afterwards, here’s this really chummy guy at the bar and we’re talking about the Ali G show and American Idol. It was striking.
Obviously Jack and I had very different points of view on what we are talking about but, as with any book and any story, what I am trying to do it portray a person and all of his or her complexity. It’s easy to shrug Jack off as a caricature, but he is a real person, he has concerns and obviously his concerns resonated with a lot of people. That’s why he was given a platform.
I think it’s actually dangerous to shrug critics off, especially ones who have a loud voice. I think it’s important to engage them and maybe it was the fault of the industry that Jack wasn’t engaged for all those years. He was on these shows with his point of view, but the problem was there was no counterpoint. As a result he was able to credibly shape public opinion about what video games were among people that had never even played them. So whether you like him or don’t like him, he had a massive impact.
Grand Theft Auto was certainly a product of the people behind it, but maybe of its time too. Do you think the series can remain relevant?
I guess we’ll find out with GTA V. I think that GTA at this point is sort of like Doom, which I wrote about in Masters of Doom. It’s like a Star Wars or an Indiana Jones, it’s now a franchise that people grew up with and have a soft spot for, so it’s almost like they can play just on nostalgia.
When the new game comes out people are going to want to go back into that world, they are going to want to listen to the radio stations and pick up on all the inside jokes and fool around. It’s established there in the pantheon of massive franchises, and I am sure all the attention to detail will be there.
My bet is that GTA V, like GTA IV, will beat all records and be the biggest entertainment launch of its time. Personally I found GTA IV a little dour and hope that maybe the new game goes back a little to that humour that everybody liked, in San Andreas and Vice City especially.
You mention your first book, Masters of Doom, how does Rockstar as case study compare with id?
Going into it I knew it would be very different for a few reasons. One is that Rockstar did not take part in this book. So that created challenges, but it also changed the focus. With this book I wanted to write about the game as a character, that’s why the subtitle of the book is “The Outlaw Story of Grand Theft Auto”.
Also this book is set in the world of console gaming, the other was in PC gaming and this is also more focused on the publisher side than on the development side. So more about marketing, business, branding and politics.
There are only so many stories within the game world that would lend themselves to a book and I am happy to have a couple of them.
Jacked lends itself to a wider audience than most books about the games industry, are you pleased with the response?
Definitely, it’s getting covered and a lot of people are reading it and that’s all you can hope for. I am happy people are reading it and enjoying. I always want to reach a mainstream readership, people who don’t play games, so I did write it in such a way so that people who are curious about this world can get up to speed on it. Part of my motivation was to write a book I would want to read.
Note: this interview originally appeared on Careers Arcade.