Grand Theft Auto milestone is cause for celebration in Scotland – Martyn McLaughlin

There have been no motions laid down at Holyrood, and no retrospective features in the media, but this column seems as good an opportunity as any to ensure that a significant anniversary of one of Scotland’s greatest 21st century success stories does not pass unnoticed.

It is 20 years since the release of Grand Theft Auto III, a video game which not only transformed the fortunes of DMA Design, the small Dundee studio which created it, but redrew the boundaries of what was possible in interactive entertainment.

Though not the first game to introduce a fully formed 3D open world, the 2001 title claimed the genre as its own, transporting players into a teeming, hyper-real approximation of New York, where every street and alleyway was packed with incident and character.

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To mark the occasion, the title and two of its sequels have been released on modern consoles, inviting a new generation of gamers to inhabit their sprawling metropolises. Revisiting them two decades on, the graphical limitations are evident, but the sheer imagination and ambition on show still impresses.

Considering the readiness with which cultural commentators talk up the global success enjoyed by some of Scotland’s homegrown talents in the worlds of music, television, and film, there has been a curiously muted appreciation to the re-releases, a fate which has long befallen the Grand Theft Auto games.

I suspect this lack of engagement is, in large part, due to the historic and fatiguing ignorance surrounding the medium they occupy.

The echoes of the affected moral outrage and hysteria which dominated gaming coverage in the 1990s can still be heard to this day, and both developers and gamers continue to come up against prejudice, misunderstanding, and hoary tropes. These persistent stigmas take many forms, and the most common help to perpetuate stubborn myths linking gaming to violence, addiction, and social isolation.

Thoughtful critical assessments remain largely the preserve of the specialist gaming press, and for all that technology has expanded the boundaries of creative expression in other fields, there is a reluctance to even consider the partly authored worlds of gaming as art.

A young man plays Grand Theft Auto IV on a Playstation 3 (Picture: Cate Gillon/Getty Images)
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Not all are, of course, but the Grand Theft Auto games are undoubtedly a cut above. No one has come close to rivalling their dense visions of US cities like New York, Miami, and Los Angeles. It is not just the technical mastery that sets them apart, but the imagination, detail, and playfulness which underpins the games’ sprawling urban playgrounds.

All of which perhaps explains another reason why Scotland seems so reluctant to acknowledge the series as one of its greatest products. It is, at heart, a pastiche of American politics and culture.

Time and again, the GTA games have engaged with contentious issues such as white extremism, police brutality, and big pharma. The way in which they have done so has often been broad brush and crude, with lashings of scabrous and heavy-handed satire. Yet it held up a funhouse mirror to the US and how it is perceived from further afield.

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Whatever Scottish references have existed in the digital universe imagined by Rockstar North have been tangential at best, although a special mention must go to the ship berthed in the latest instalment, Grand Theft Auto V. Its name? Dignity.

Which is not to say that the games’ focus on the US can, or should, explain their lack of recognition at home. Even turning to the bluntest metrics, there is a blindness to the extraordinary business success of the franchise.

Be in no doubt, this is a series which can easily lay claim to the title of Scotland’s most successful cultural export. Despite the fact some eight years have passed since the release of Grand Theft Auto V, the latest instalment in the franchise, accounts posted by Rockstar North and its parent firm, Take-Two Interactive, give a sense of its extraordinary economic half-life.

Within a day of going on sale back in 2013, the game made more than £197m. Today, that figure runs into the billions, ensuring its status as the most commercially successful entertainment product ever released.

The source of much of this revenue is the online component of the game, which allows players to populate a virtual city, and team up with – or take down – other avatars in a series of missions and quests. In doing so, users are encouraged to splash out on microtransactions to acquire cars, clothes, properties, guns, and even in-game currency.

Over the course of 2019, those nominal purchases added up, and brought in the makers of the game close to £450m. Today, Rockstar North continues to augment the game world, while developing future triple A titles. To achieve this, it employs around 1,170 staff at its Edinburgh studio – a headcount broadly comparable with BBC Scotland.

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The inward flow of money continues, and with GTA V set to be released once again next March – this time, for the latest generation of Sony and Microsoft home consoles – there is no sign that it is about to dry up any time soon.

In light of such mind-boggling figures, it is hard to imagine that the team at Rockstar North are overly aggrieved at the lack of appreciation amongst non-gaming Scots. But the breathless ride they have taken us on over the past 20 years has been an astonishing success story, and one which has helped inspire countless other developers. It seems a shame that we don’t shout about it as often as we should.

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