What Grand Theft Auto taught me about the importance of graphics in serious games

When I was growing up on Lookout Mountain in the great state of Tennessee, there was a tourist shop close to my house that sold items that were supposed to reflect the rural culture of the area. I particularly remember a ceramic trivet you could hang on your wall that showed a country woman saying, “Good looks don’t last, good cookin’ do.” I thought of that quote when I thought about what Grand Theft Auto taught me, namely, “Good graphics don’t matter, good gameplay do.”

For those of you who aren’t familiar with Grand Theft Auto (hereafter GTA), it was and still is a very controversial series of video games made by Rockstar Games. One or more of the GTA versions have been banned in Australia, Brazil, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, South Korea, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates due to the games’ inclusion of themes of violence, cruelty and prostitution. The release of many of these GTA games were often accompanied by news reports of how the games were banned. The sales would soar despite concerns in the media about the games being violent and glorifying criminal activity, especially car-jacking, a key game mechanic.

GTA Screenshot

I cynically concluded that the GTA games couldn’t be that good. After all, screen shots from the game looked like they didn’t have very good graphics. I assumed that the game was selling because people wanted the forbidden fruit of playing with a banned game.

So I played the game to see what was going on and I found that I couldn’t have been more wrong.

Wait, I wasn’t wrong about the graphics. They “sucked” as we like to say in academia. The graphics were blocky and the characters walked around the environment like they were wearing diapers that needed to be changed. In a city scene with lots of people in it, I remember laughing about how you would see identical characters walking around in the same scene. The graphics overall made the game look very low-budget. I have, by the way, heard that the first GTA games were very low-budget compared to industry standards and you could see where they were saving money.

Where I was wrong was in my thinking that the game was popular because of the negative hype. After playing it I realized it was popular because it simply was a really good game. It drew me in with a suspenseful story line. For me, it is one of the few games where the story line is actually prominent and important to the progression of the game. In most other games, you can have fun in the game without having any idea of what the backstory is. It was also fun because you could freely explore an environment. I usually don’t like exploring environments in games because they usually tax my limited spatial reasoning skills (ability to navigate 3D environments). The environments in GTA often had unique landmarks in them so that they actually supported my more female strategies of navigating environments successfully by using landmarks. Also, progression in the game included a pretty broad array of activities so it was continually challenging and new. I definitely got immersed in the game which led me to understand a major reason it was popular. It had awesome gameplay!

So, whenever I hear someone say that graphics are key to having a good video game, I ALWAYS disagree and bring up Grand Theft Auto as an example. It has horrible graphics but it was wildly popular and it was really fun to play.

This conversation is often followed-up by some kind of comment about how Grand Theft Auto is a terribly violent game. I always try to follow-up these comments by asking these people if they have ever played it. I can confidently say that 10 times out of 10, these people criticizing the game have never played it. This is a very, very unfortunate situation. First of all, these people who are making serious games don’t have the experience of playing a really fun game because they were turned off by negative hype. Second, these serious game makers are really missing out on learning about what makes for a really engaging game. It is not necessarily through flashy graphics (but I will admit that it often helps) but through engaging gameplay.

In closing, there are two points I want to make in this article. 1) Good gameplay is more important than good graphics and 2) draw conclusions about “bad” games based on direct experience, not the hype.

So get out there and play those games!

By pamkato

I am a Harvard- and Stanford-trained Ph.D. psychologist, social entrepreneur, and serious game visionary. I want to work with other people to change the world while having fun doing it.


  1. Hi! I completely agree with you there 🙂
    When I did my master thesis I was in a group of people in which I was the only gamer. I found that odd because we had a video game to test in an interactive platform, so I took care of “designing” the game in the end, adding changes and I wanted to do more with it but we ran out of time… But how can people who don’t play games create games? I think people who is serious about creating video games (any type of them) should play at least 4-5 “hit” games.

    1. Dear Lost Nurse, I am so glad you commented to support my position AND gave some concrete advice. I agree with YOU that anyone creating a serious game should play at least 4 – 5 hit games. We want our game developers to understand the “research” and “content” side of the game so those of us who don’t come from the game world need to take steps to bridge the knowledge gap as well. It was also nice that you pointed out that you ended up helping out with “designing” the game in the end. Your games background was absolutely helpful! Thank you for again for commenting.

  2. May I ask which of the GTA games you’re referring to? GTA1 and 2 weren’t much of a looker I agree, and not that great either, but were mostly popular (and quite fun) based solely on their outrageous premise. However I did think GTA3 was quite spectacular when it came out in terms of the graphics (the city a lot more than the characters admittedly, but still). The visuals of Vice City and San Andreas were definitely showing the age of the engine, but then GTAIV was really gorgeous when it came out.
    I think it’s interesting, because of these games I thought GTAIV was by far the worst. A beautiful cityscape, without the developer doing anything interesting with it; essentially the same game as the previous ones repackaged in prettier looks. So I agree with you (although you may have meant GTA4, I don’t know), but then from the other way around. Good looks don’t make a good game.

    1. Hi Erik, I was thinking specifically of GTA III. Sorry, I should have specified that. But you thought the graphics were spectacular? Perhaps they were in comparison to the earlier releases. I thought that overall the graphics were pretty bad compared to the other console games I was playing at the time. I wasn’t playing any PC games at the time because my graphics card “sucked” so that it wasn’t worth even trying to play good PC games on my computer. I think this is a female thing of not being inclined to purchase computer hardware to enhance gameplay. Just a guess.

      I haven’t played the more recent GTA games for lack of time and also lack of console since I’ve moved to Holland. But it sounds like the more recent GTAs still make my point. It’s interesting because “remakes” of games seem to go through a cycle of getting better and then getting worse as the budgets increase while the creative inspiration gets lower with each new remake.

      Thanks for your comments! You’re always setting me straight!

  3. My pedantry knows no bounds, I just keep on giving.

    (but you’re probably right, I see now that it was released for PC–the version I played–around the same time as Rogue Squadron 2 for the gamecube, which I also bought at that time and was much prettier. May just have been the scale of the city that I was in awe of instead of the actual graphics)

  4. The scale of the city was pretty awesome given that you could explore it. Maybe the graphics were better on the PC. I was pretty shocked by how bad the graphics were since I had heard that the game was so popular.

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