Warren Spector clarifies GTA critique

The esteemed Deus Ex designer explains and expands on his now-controversial comments at the Montreal Game Summit.

Last week, one of the industry's revered and celebrated designers, Warren Spector, delivered a keynote presentation that he had hoped would spark a serious dialogue among game creators. Addressing attendees at the Montreal Game Summit, Spector dove headlong into the current debate about game content, tackling the most controversial--and successful--game franchise on the market: Rockstar Games' Grand Theft Auto.

"I'm really angry at the Rockstar guys," Spector was quoted as saying by Canada's Canoe Network Web site. "Not like I'm going to go beat them up and yell at them, but they frustrate me because Grand Theft Auto III, in particular, was an amazing advance in game design. It was a stunning accomplishment as a game design. And it was wrapped in a context that completely, for me, undid all the good they did on the design side. ... At this point, GTA is the ultimate urban thuggery simulation, and you can't take a step back from that."

His comments were first picked up by a number of Canadian media outlets, then percolated south, eventually landing on a short list of US game-industry Web sites. Almost uniformly, Spector's comments in Montreal were characterized as a slam against Rockstar Games, the Grand Theft Auto franchise in general, and a good portion of the game industry at large. "Warren Spector Attacks Rockstar," blared one headline. "Warren Spector vs. Rockstar," cried another. "Video game icon sounds alarm," said a third.

Spector's alleged words were also seized upon by anti-game activist and attorney Jack Thompson. In one of his near-daily press releases, Thompson said he quoted Spector in documents filed in an Alabama civil suit. The suit's plaintiffs are the families of several police officers slain by a youth who was allegedly obsessed with Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The defendants are PlayStation 2-maker Sony, Rockstar parent Take-Two Interactive, and game retailers Wal-Mart and GameStop. (Thompson has since left the case.)

So how would Spector feel about one of gaming's most vociferous critics appropriating his words? GameSpot News contacted the Deus Ex and Thief designer to see if he had intended to come off as critical of Rockstar as the press had portrayed him as being. In a lengthy e-mail reply, Spector explained his speech--and had some candid comments about the hoopla it caused. It reads as follows:

"When I got your mail really hadn't seen much coverage of my talk. After I got your mail, I did some checking and found that the headlines associated with some of the stories about my GTA comments were far more inflammatory than anything I said. Happily, I also found several discussions on a variety of online forums that actually made me feel pretty good--gamers are having a pretty nuanced discussion of what I think is an interesting and important topic (i.e., what our content says about us as a medium).

"My talk in Montreal was, unashamedly, about asking questions and getting a dialogue going, not about me providing a lot of answers. Gamers, at least, seem to get that!

"As far as Jack Thompson naming me in a legal filing: That's incredible--and not in a good way. For one thing, the comments I made about Rockstar and GTA, mentioned in the filing, came from an interview I did after my talk. The other comments attributed to me came from the talk itself and weren't specifically about GTA or Rockstar at all--I certainly never intended for those thoughts to be put together to support the conclusions Thompson reached in the court document! Take two or three things, from different contexts, mash them together and you can mislead people pretty dramatically. Scary, really.

"If my comments have done any damage to Rockstar or games in general, I am truly, truly sorry. I hope the court, if it pays attention at all, dismisses those comments, given that the filing takes them so far out of context.

"But, to your question and to the comments themselves--did I intend to be so critical? I guess so... Sort of. But not in the way some people seem to think. Look, I'm not really angry at Rockstar, for crying out loud. I was simply trying to make a point--about which, more in a moment--in a semihumorous (if unsuccessful!) way that I thought gamers would 'get.' I don't actually know anyone who worked on any of the GTA games, but overall I respect the hell out of their work. I think GTA is a remarkable achievement--artistically and commercially--and represents a genuine advance for game design. The attention it's received may even have helped push gaming into the mainstream of cultural relevance, which is all to the good.

"My 'criticism' shouldn't be interpreted as an attempt to dictate what sorts of games Rockstar (or anyone else) should make or what sorts of games anyone should like or have the opportunity to play. I'm completely opposed to enforcing limitations on game content.

"Having said that, I am frustrated that the games in the GTA series, some of the finest combinations of pure game design and commercial appeal, offer a fictional package that makes them difficult to hold up as examples of what our medium is capable of achieving. The fictional context of GTA all but ensures that it will be portrayed in the mainstream press (and, I guess, in the courts!) as little more than a 'murder simulator' when it clearly is so much more--if you take the time to look.

"Sadly--and this is part of the point I was trying to make in the interview last week--most people won’t take the time to look past the surface, the fiction, the context. They don't see the fun and the freedom the game provides. They see carjackings and gun battles and hookers. You can talk about game design genius 'til you're blue in the face. The people who want to regulate games, and the mainstream audience we want to reach, will ignore you. And then they'll drop the hammer on our medium. Hard.

"Wouldn't it be nice if people as talented as the folks who made GTA would devote those talents to something that wasn't so easily misinterpreted and so easily vilified by politicians, moralists and other cultural gatekeepers?

"Wouldn't it be nice if game developers--especially developers as talented at the folks who created GTA--would devote their energies to simulating a wider variety of fictional worlds?

"You don't think the GTA team could rock hard on something that didn't involve criminal behavior? Wouldn't you love to see them try? That's what I was saying. Well, that and the fact that it's worth our while to examine what our content says about us--as a medium and as contributors to our culture. But that's a longer discussion for another time...

"Look, as an individual and as a player, I'm tired of so-called 'violent video games'--not because I think they cause real-world violence (I don't believe that for one second), but because the 'edgy,' 'violent' routine is getting so dull...

"I'm tired of urban crime, alien invasion, war stories and orc-killing. I'm tired of most every game having to be the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie. I'm tired of always having to solve game problems with a gun or a spear or a fireball (and not having to deal with the consequences of such a solution). I don't mind that we make games like that--I mind that the mainstream of console and PC games (apologies to Will Wright and the entire Nintendo DS lineup!) consists of almost nothing but that.

"Where's our Lost? Our CSI? Our Law & Order? Our West Wing? Our Seinfeld? Our musical Buffy episode? Okay, maybe those last two are a bit beyond our capabilities. But the others are within our grasp if we would only try, and if we could find someone to fund and truly support the not-insubstantial effort involved.

"The key thing to remember is that there is, and should be, a huge gulf between personal opinion and public policy. The fact that I'm bored, and even in some cases offended, by the range of content options available in games these days (and not just Rockstar's stuff--not even primarily Rockstar's stuff!) is not a reason to use legislation or the courts to impose limits on game content.

"The fact that Jack Thompson used my personal frustration to support a political and social scientific view that I oppose with every fiber of my being really does anger me. And, unlike my comments about Rockstar in that interview last week, I'm not trying to be remotely humorous here! (Let's not even talk about how I feel, knowing that my words were taken out of context and combined in ways I never intended, to convey something I flat out don't believe!)

"The really funny thing is that my explanation here of what I was trying to say is so much longer than the comment that originally sparked this controversy! You spend an hour talking about all sorts of big issues and no one pays much attention; you speak a handful of words in response to one question about one game and you get mentioned in frivolous lawsuits and end up writing clarifications for journalists. Go figure..."

"Warren Spector
Junction Point Studios, Inc."

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everybody let me just get to the point. gta isn t much different from any other violent video game. you' r a criminal so what. u were a criminal on thief to. u kill. so do u in mostly any other game on the market. u can have sex with hookers sooo? can anybody explain whats the problem about this. i dont find it. if i go out side and kill ppl y thats wrong why because i m taking away from that person the freedom to live!! u can t take rights or cut away someone s freedom thats why u can t kill or can t steal (freedom to own property). on a computer game u do not take one single freedom from one single person therefore no harm taken. now i didn t like gta i find it repetitive. fine its got great freedom and all that (in this aspect i give it 5 stars in becoming a great evolution in the video game industry, no doubts about that). should the game be banned no!!! never! by doing this u would cut away a fundamental freedom, the freedom of expression that so many men died for!! is rockstar responsible for any crime practiced by a gamer who spends every second of his life playing gta? nnooooooooo obviously not. the model of justice and guilt followed in most countries follows these terms: ur only responsible of something if u consciently did it yourself. when someone is killed the muderer is the person responsible for the action. by other words the murderer. the murderer deliberately grabbed a weapon and killed someone. now how about rockstar were they responsible? definetly not. they had no idea of what ppl would do by playing there game nor what they will do in the future. therefore they are not even indirectly involved in any crime. nor did they force anyone to do something (if u tell someone to kill another person they dont have to kill that person if they dont want to they're free to do as they wish). now fine we can criticize the game all we want (freedom of expression), but it sold a lot! and in the capitalist system we live in, what sells is whats good, by other words good production leads to good market results, and thats what gta got, and the few ppl who didnt like the game, are free not to buy it. but i honestly believe rockstar wont drop this formula, because the market has shown its a good one!


yeah, but the GTA games were fun...sure, the content was not something my mom and dad would approve of if i was still a kid, but it's still fun. I've never picked up a hooker in real life, or car-jacked someone. Sometimes it's just fun to get 4 or 5 stars and see how long you can last out-running the cops. The games are fun, and I think thats their point, I would have no problem if they keep making games like that! Fun games...sure violence is at the core of that game, but at least it's not another FEAR, Farcry, (insert random FPS shooter here)...


Warren, you are right, GTA 3 is ridiculous. I love that you could do ANYTHING but who really needs content like beating police to death with sex toys. Rockstar is pushing the limit but how much is too much? Hey warren, when are you going to make another Thief game? I miss my Garrett, taffer ;)


"Wouldn't it be nice if people as talented as the folks who made GTA would devote those talents to something that wasn't so easily misinterpreted and so easily vilified by politicians, moralists and other cultural gatekeepers? "Wouldn't it be nice if game developers--especially developers as talented at the folks who created GTA--would devote their energies to simulating a wider variety of fictional worlds? "You don't think the GTA team could rock hard on something that didn't involve criminal behavior? Wouldn't you love to see them try? That's what I was saying. Well, that and the fact that it's worth our while to examine what our content says about us--as a medium and as contributors to our culture. But that's a longer discussion for another time... " Amen. I mean really, couldn't GTA been a great game without carjacking, hookers, and cop killings? The truth is, as far as I see it, is that those elements were added in for the distinct purpose of getting frenzy started, for good or bad. As far as I am concerned, in referance to GTA and Manhunt type games, is that it is irresponsible game production. Just because you can do something with a medium doesn't mean you should. And while I support a parents right to control the content of media their children get involved with, it doesn't help the industry to be potrayed as created and/or promoting criminal and delinquent behavior.


Warren, don't feel bad. Thompson and others are only doing to you what they've been doing to other public figures for centuries.


I have been playing computer games for over 25 years now and while combat has been around since the beginning of them it used to not be the focus of them. I still pull out and play great old games like the Monkey Island, Kings Quest, and other RPGs like The Dig. Yes the Graphics by todays standards stink but nothing out there today can match the depth (and in some cases Humor) of these games (except maybe the Elder Scrolls games which has stayed fairly constant since Arena first came out over 10 years ago). Look at our first games out... Adventure, Zork, Planetfall and others... All these were text games IE white text on black background... no graphics what so ever. It was great writing that cause our imagination to come alive and create the world the game was played in. I am not calling for returning to those games, but I am calling for developers to return to the depth of those games... stop relying on flash and put some substance, humor, and life into your characters. Make them ones we want to save, play with and remember and not just as shallow as the two dimensional media they are drawn on.


I'm also getting tired of all the violent video games. They're almost all the same now, and everytime I see a commercial for one I get annoyed. Games need to have more story and innovation. Developers need to try new things, because all these games are just getting so boring and repetitive. Maybe this is why I don't play games as much as I used too.


I get what he's saying and he has a point. But politicians will vilify anything. I don't think it's the violent content that people have such a problem with. I think it's the games themselves. When someone actually sits down and plays a game like GTA and sees the over-the-top violence and satire, they are sure to understand that this game, by and large, is a satirical reflection of American popular culture. GTA skewers American popular culture, just listen to the radio stations. But Spector has a point and I know I'd like to see more VARIETY in video games. I'd also like to see more innovation in the traditional beat 'em ups, shoot 'em ups, and so-called violent games out on the market now.