David Kushner's new book Jacked delves into the personalities and culture of the company that became Rockstar Games. As with his 2003 portrait of id Software, Masters of Doom, Kushner spent significant time interviewing the founders and other employees to get as complete a record as he could. The result is a very readable and interesting book.
A person's upbringing guides their tastes and interests for life. Sam Moffat, one of the founders of Rockstar Games, is the son of Geraldine Moffat (co-star with Michael Caine in the crime film Get Carter) and Walter Houser (who ran Ronnie Scott's, a popular England jazz club). Moffat's parents were supremely cool, as were the video game systems they bought for their kid. One game, Elite, let him steal cargos to advance within the game. This ability, plus the game's multiple galaxies and broad scope, left a strong impression on Moffat. In his early adulthood, the music of Def Jam records struck a similar chord.
The premise of Grand Theft Auto, that you're encouraged to break the law to complete the game's missions, doesn't sound all that different from what came before. There have been games about thieves for years. What's different is the level and graphic nature of the violence depicted in GTA. For example, your character could pay for services from a prostitute and then mug her (or run her over) to recover the money. When you include gory violence and dismemberments in the equation, you get a game young males love and some authority figures, or would-be authority figures, hate.
Kushner goes into significant detail of how Rockstar Games' desire to push against societal limits led to trouble with the American establishment. Many builds of Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, had explicit sexual content included until the company's lawyers and content reviewers convinced Moffat that there was no way to avoid a sales-killing Adults Only rating. He reluctantly ordered his developers to wrap the offending content with program code designed to prevent it from appearing in the game, but individuals who modified the game discovered the content and found ways to access it. The scandal, referred to as the "Hot Coffee" incident, led to battles with ratings boards in the U.S., Australia, and elsewhere. The sexual content wasn't a problem for most European countries, but in the stodgier U.S. it was anathema.
Adding to their constant battles with the game ratings board, Rockstar Games also had to contend with the tragicomic figure of Jack Thompson. A Florida lawyer, Thompson waged an endless battle against violent video games, claiming (many argue without convincing evidence) that such games caused the Columbine school shooting and other violent incidents. After years of court fights and having the laws he helped draft declared unconstitutional, Thompson eventually settled with Rockstar rather than face huge legal fees and possible disbarment. Unsurprisingly, Thompson doesn't come across as a sympathetic figure in Kushner's book.
Rockstar Games is still a going concern, but growth, politics, and constant crunch mode have taken its toll on the team. Executives, programmers, and testers from the early days have left the company. One or two of them have even taken their own lives. Kushner doesn't back away from problems such as these, which makes his book an even more interesting read.
Curtis Frye is the editor of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He is the author of more than 30 books, most recently Improspectives; his list includes more than 20 books for Microsoft Press and O'Reilly Media. He has also created over a dozen online training courses for lynda.com. In addition to his writing, Curt is a keynote speaker and entertainer. You can find more information about him at www.curtisfrye.com.