How Grand Theft Auto (GTA) became a controversial multi-billion dollar icon

GTA or Grand Theft Auto is arguably the most sought-after game franchise of this era. What started in 1997 has grown into a multi-billion dollar pop culture icon despite years of controversy – here’s how.

Since the late ’90s, whenever someone bought a new gaming console – be it an Xbox, Playstation, or Windows, the first game on their wishlist was always Grand Theft Auto. Driving an Infernus on the Vice City Coastal Strip or The Green Saber Mission in San Andreas certainly has unparalleled charm. More so, the cheats, guns and mods literally let you dive into a fully customizable reality with a true ‘No Holds Barred’ feeling. I mean, what else would a teenager want? It is obvious. However, one wonders how this singular open-world franchise exploded? What made it successful? And why was it so controversial that Australia, Germany and Britain banned it?

First, let’s talk about numbers

Today, with a total of 16 editions, they have sold over 350 million copies and with their latest installment, Grand Theft Auto V with over 150 million sales alone. He managed to rack up over a billion dollars in just 24 hours after being released. As of May 2020, the game was available for free on Steam and reportedly saw nearly 20 million downloads causing the site to crash. It’s also the third best-selling game of all time, after Tetris and Minecraft, and the most popular video game of the past decade. Although GTA V debuted in 2013, it reported over 140 million active players across all platforms in the fourth quarter of 2020.


How it all began

Grand Theft Auto was born with a different name that most of us don’t know. In 1993, Scottish game developer David Jones gave the world “Race And Chase – Get Truckin”. It started out as a 2D open world game where you could drive, destroy, and essentially teleport to a digital city where the antics were limitless and the consequences didn’t matter. It’s the same formula that GTA V uses today if you think about it. In 1997, the game was renamed and released on PC and Playstation.

gta controversy


The game gave teens the chance to drive recklessly, kill and steal. I could see why parents would find it dangerous. The history of the game has mainly touched on fictional mafia wars, violence and illegal activities. The game suffered serious backlash from authorities in Germany, Britain and Australia, it was banned completely in Brazil before it could even be launched. However, with GTA 3 the creators went not only to 3D, but also to violence, sex and drugs. In 2005, GTA San Andreas could have been the last we would see. Players managed to unearth hidden codes in the game that unlocked a minigame that simulated sex. The game had to be revised and published. However, it didn’t slow Rockstar down at all.


Why is he so loved?

I think the fact that GTA is a “bad boy” game makes it so desirable. Its very essence is freedom without consequence. I always thought open world games were truly limitless, and GTA is proof of that. You can drive a car as fast as you want or fly a plane as high as you want. More so, you can wear a sleek black suit or a red carpet dress, fly like a superman, drive a tank, or have a million GTA dollars – it’s all literally at your fingertips. More so, the storyline and tasks of the game resembled the meeting of different worlds. While some moments seemed a James Bond car chase, others looked like a gang war between drug lords like Narcos. You can also customize and jack up your car like in the Fast ‘n’ Furious movies and dress like a Hollywood star. It was all packed with hyper-realistic graphics.

How did GTA connect to the real world?

Even though Grand Theft Auto was just a game, Rockstar made sure it wasn’t “just a game”. It has become a creative playground with serious pop-cultural influences and twists. Over the years, the creators have incorporated Samuel L. Jackson, Tyler The Creator, Dennis Hopper, Burt Reynolds and Ice T as voice actors for their games, giving it a cool touch of celebrity. Sometimes the characters even shared visual similarities with these celebrities.

GTA x Misbhv

That’s not all, GTA also featured various real-world lifestyle influences. In GTA V, brands like Misbhv and Civilist have launched clothing lines and special in-game pieces that players can buy and purchase. In 2020, BornxRaised used GTA V to launch their actual capsule collection. In every GTA game, the vehicle’s radio played trending music from its day, trying to mimic a real-life street driving experience while listening to the radio. Denzil Curry and Cordae have released tracks to play exclusively on GTA radio stations. More so, Frank Ocean even created an in-game radio station for players to listen to their songs while driving.


What’s interesting is that Grand Theft Auto used pop culture to build its aesthetic and franchise without realizing that one day they will become a part of pop culture. In 2013, they also extended this by introducing GTA Online where players could not only customize their appearance and cars, but also compete against other players around the world. Since they are simply unlimited.

All images: Courtesy of Rockstar Games

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