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Grand Theft Auto made video game history this week: The latest version of the game had a record $800 million in sales on its first day. As with past versions, the game is generating controversy over its glorification of violence and drugs and its demeaning portrayal of women.
But around 15 percent of its fans are women, who find much to like about the game, even if they do have some ambivalence about it.
Game developer Whitney Hills, 28, says initially she was nervous about even trying it. "Most of the press surrounding it was — Oh, it's a prostitute-killing game, you know," she says, "like this entire game is about murdering people and the worst things humanity can possibly do."
But, a few years back, with a bit of trepidation, Hills tried Version 4. To her surprise, she says she found the writing to be "incredibly sly, intelligent and subversive."
In real life, Hills drives a motorcycle. But in Grand Theft Auto she can have a car, and if she doesn't like the one she's in, as the title of the game suggests, she just steals a new one.
"You can just cruise around in your car or any number of cars and sort of just experience the open world and listen to the radio, which always has great music on it," she says. And the commercials crack her up.
Among the commercials is one from Fineberg and Vanwick International Realty that promises "an up-and-coming opportunity for the go-getter. Take your future by the throat, throttle it, get mortgaged to the hilt, take no prisoners."
Hills was cruising around a town modeled on New York in Grand Theft Auto IV. The new release is a fictional version of Los Angeles.
Chelsea Stark, a gamer and critic for the website Mashable, says it's just as fun. "Everything is clearly this satirical image of Los Angeles and Southern California. And it's almost like appreciating something like South Park, where you're like, this is just satire of what criminals are," she says.
Stark says one of the big draws of Grand Theft Auto is that it is a really full and complicated world and between heists you can explore it. "You can get in your car and you can drive for 40 minutes and the world around you changes from city to the country and you see like wild animals crossing your path. It's just kind of this crazy immersive world," she says.
Among the game's details are sendups of social media; there's a fake Facebook called LifeInvader and a fake Twitter called Bleeter. You can play golf and tennis, and one of the characters — Michael, a retired bank robber — lives in the suburbs with his wife, portrayed as a nag (as you'd imagine in this game), and his kids.
The family lives in a mansion in Vinewood, clearly a fictional version of Hollywood.
This being a sendup of Hollywood, Michael gets introduced to yoga by his wife's personal teacher. The couple gets private lessons by the pool, while Michael's wife releases her barely masked frustrations with him. "Look at the concentration on this face," she says mockingly. "It's like a gorilla with a cellphone."
As in previous versions of Grand Theft Auto, there's a strip club; you get points for groping the women while avoiding the bouncer's attention.
Stark admits she is ambivalent about those parts of the game. "It's hard for even me to reconcile. I'm like, I still like this game a lot, I get why it's problematic because I'm a critic. But I also appreciate it for being fun."
One of the most innovative features of Grand Theft Auto V is that you can switch perspectives from Michael, the suburban bank robber, to Trevor, a meth dealer and gunrunner, or to Franklin, an aspiring crook.
That's where Stark starts to feel frustration. "For the first time you can play three different characters, and yet it's like, couldn't one of them have been a female?"
The creators of Grand Theft Auto turned down a request to talk to NPR, but in other interviews game developer Sam Houser suggested that women didn't fit into the hypermasculine narrative.
Gamer Karen Price, 43, says she understands some of the ambivalence about the game, but she thinks most grown-ups are smart enough to get that it's satire.
"That's what's enjoyable about it. It's like dress-up. You had a hard day at work, you go home and you run over some people and steal their money. You feel better," she says.
To Price and other fans of the Grand Theft Auto franchise, video games are part of a culture that's already exploring anti-heroes like Walter White in Breaking Bad or Tony Soprano. Price says it would be nice if there were a few more female anti-heroes.