Grand Theft Auto (GTA) is a series of action-adventure games. GTA games are known as sandbox games, because of their open-world format—the player can travel freely through the game-world and interact with it however they want. The games focus on crime and criminal activities, and are famous for being intoxicating fun as well as just plain toxic.

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Sex, Drugs & Rock n’ Roll

Every Grand Theft Auto game pushes boundaries. After the release of Grand Theft Auto III in 2001, the series became a runaway hit, at the same time gaining attention for featuring drugs, alcohol, sexual content, vulgar language, sexism, and a general encouragement of criminal behavior.

Violence: Violence is a major component of Grand Theft Auto. It is impossible to complete the games without perpetrating many murders. Additionally, players can kill civilians at a whim; the police will be put on alert, but there are ultimately no in-game repercussions. There is blood spatter in all of the games. Gore and dismemberment are minimal, but can occur. In GTA V there is an extended graphic torture sequence that is required to complete the game. In GTA: San Andreas, a large purple dildo is used as a weapon.

Sexual content: Sexual content is definitely present in Grand Theft Auto. GTA III became famously controversial because it gave the player the ability to have sex with prostitutes and then kill them to get their money back. This is still an option in later games. The explicitness of the sexual content varies. In GTA III, for example, if a player picks up a prostitute and pays for services, the only animation is the car rocking. In GTA IV and GTA V, however, you can change the camera angle and watch the character have sex. There isn’t any nudity in these sequences, but from the movements and the audio, it’s pretty clear that they are simulating sex. Usage of sexual language is prevalent in all the GTA games.

Foul Language: GTA pulls no punches on foul language. All of the basic swear words that you might not want kids to hear are present, along with racial, gendered, transphobic, and homophobic language.

Substance Use: GTA protagonists usually don’t use drugs voluntarily, though the characters around them do. Protagonists can be involved in selling drugs to varying degrees. All this changed in GTA V, where two of the three protagonists are active drug users, and the third, though anti-marijuana, can still smoke if the player chooses to. Players can drink alcohol and drive under the influence.

Nudity and Costuming: Again, there is increased nudity in the series as time goes on. In GTA III and GTA IV, the strippers and prostitutes are scantily clad; strippers wear only nipple pasties and thongs. In GTA V the strippers’ breasts are exposed. There is casual male shirtlessness in most games, and The Lost and the Damned downloadable content for GTA IV introduces full-frontal male nudity. In GTA V there is a disturbing instance of graphic full-frontal male nudity with implications of sexual violence.

Player Interaction: GTA IV introduced online multiplayer, and this is also a feature of GTA V. Players can connect in groups of up to 16 through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network and engage in online play. As always, when playing online, players can be exposed to concepts and language that may be inappropriate. Considering that this is Grand Theft Auto, the online multiplayer version is unlikely to be less appropriate than the single-player game.

Save Points

In Grand Theft Auto III and IV players can save the game by accessing a save point or safe house. There are several of these throughout the game, but some are accessible only by paying in-game money for access. In GTA V players can save at save points and safe houses, but also through their character’s cell phone.

Story & Themes

Most GTA games tell the story of a man rising to power in the criminal world, often simultaneously getting revenge on someone who has wronged him.

In every GTA game you can expect lots of over-the-top thrills in the form of car chases, assassinations, explosions, heists, etc. You can also expect misogyny, racial slurs, homophobia, and transphobia.

Ironically, the GTA franchise has more playable people of color than any other game franchise. As usual, this is a double-edged sword because even if the characters are fully fleshed out and interesting, they are still always violent criminals—not exactly realistic or progressive representation.

GTA also features several gay characters. The game runs into problems with its portrayal of gay characters—all of them, except Tony Prince, use the female screaming animation when threatened. The inclusion of gay characters, however stereotypical, lends to the richness of the world.

There are good and bad sides to GTA’s characters of color and its LGBT characters. Where the franchise consistently fails is in its portrayal of women. The series bills itself as a satire, but when it comes to female characters that means tired stereotypes passed off as comedy.

With every new installment the GTA franchise pushes the boundaries of gaming technology. GTA III was one of the first games to feature a fully open world, and with each installment the series has improved. Many modern games owe a debt to the innovations made by Grand Theft Auto. GTA V has continued this trend, featuring a gigantic map that the players can explore at will, with fully interactive environments. This means players aren’t stuck in a linear plot. If players want to spend entire play sessions playing golf or driving around listening to the radio, they can.

The Creators

Rockstar Games pushes the boundaries of technology as well as story content. They have revolutionized open-world gaming, and are aggressively nonconformist when it comes to game genres—they don’t make first-person shooters, for example. They have produced controversial games (Grand Theft Auto, Bully) and games that are hailed as cinematic art forms (Red Dead Redemption, L.A. Noire). If you’re looking for morally ambiguous open-world games, Rockstar is a company to know.


When GTA: San Andreas was released it came under fire because of a sex minigame called “Hot Coffee.” The minigame could only be unlocked by going into the code of the game and unlocking it, but families still sued Rockstar for leaving the content in the game. Rockstar released a patch that caused the game to crash if a player tried to access Hot Coffee. The sex in Hot Coffee was fully clothed.

GTA: Vice City was criticized for its portrayal of Latino and Haitian characters.

GTA III incurred media attention when it was revealed that the player could not only solicit prostitutes, but kill them and get their money back after buying the prostitute’s services.

GTA IV came under fire by Jack Thompson, Glenn Beck, and the public officials of New York City, as well as numerous other organizations. Complaints were generally about the violence and sexual content of the game, as well as the illegal activities the player could commit. It is worth noting that Thompson’s critique was heavily exaggerated and he did not take into account the fact that game retailers are very conscientious about not selling M-rated games to minors.

Numerous unsuccessful lawsuits have been filed against companies involved in the production and distribution of the GTA series; links between the games and real-world crimes are tenuous at best.

GTA V gained media attention for a gratuitous and graphic torture scene.


There is a lot to talk about in Grand Theft Auto. The GTA series doesn’t necessarily reward players who break the law, but it creates an environment where crime is over-the-top thrilling and ridiculous. Defenders of the game’s content usually point out that the game doesn’t tell players to hijack cars and go on drunken joyrides. Players can easily choose not to do those things; the highly interactive games just give them the ability to try. The distinction between being able to do something and choosing not to, versus actually doing something bad, is one that you can bring up with family members who play the game.

• Do you think these games are realistic? What happens when people behave this way in real life?
• What is your favorite part of this game? What makes it fun?
• When people criticize this game on the news, do you think they are being fair?
• Are these games funny? If so, what is so funny about them?
• Do some parts of this game make you uncomfortable? Is the game still fun if you’re uncomfortable?


2D Universe: Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto II take place in what is called the “2D universe,” meaning their events have no bearing on the later games.

3D Universe: Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City all take place in the 3D universe. This refers to the updated technology used to render the game world in 3D. The continuity is reinvented in the 3D universe.

HD Universe: Grand Theft Auto IV, Grand Theft Auto V, and all of GTA IV’s expansions take place in the HD universe. The name change again reflects advances in rendering technology used to create the game.

Liberty City: The setting of Grand Theft Auto, Grand Theft Auto III, and Grand Theft Auto IV. It is based
on New York City.

Vice City: The setting of Grand Theft Auto and Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. It is based on Miami.

San Andreas: In Grand Theft Auto, San Andreas was a city. It has since been reimagined as a large county, representative of California and Nevada. It has featured in Grand Theft Auto, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, and Grand Theft Auto V.

Los Santos: Los Santos is GTA’s answer to Los Angeles. It exists in the fictional San Andreas county, and is heavily featured in Grand Theft Auto V, as well as GTA: San Andreas.

This article was written by

Simone de Rochefort is a game journalist, writer, podcast host, and video producer who does a prolific amount of Stuff. You can find her on Twitter @doomquasar, and hear her weekly on tech podcast Rocket, as well as Pixelkin's Gaming With the Moms podcast. With Pixelkin she produces video content and devotes herself to Skylanders with terrifying abandon.