Communications researcher Dmitri Williams studies how the behavior of gamers in massively multiplayer virtual worlds can serve as a predictor of human behavior in the real world.
USC / Trojan Family Magazine / Mark Berndt

Five Minutes with Dmitri Williams: The record-breaking release of "Grand Theft Auto V"

Communication Professor Dmitri Williams is an expert on the social and economic impacts of new media and video games. Below, Williams spoke with us about this week's record-breaking release of "Grand Theft Auto V" and his work with startup Ninja Metrics .

"Grand Theft Auto V" released Tuesday to a record first-day sale of more than $800 million. What about this specific game caused it to steamroll its way into the history books?

GTA is the "Star Wars" of video games. The developers could roll out of bed and their next game would make a fortune. Having said that, this is a studio that's produced consistently excellent content and so their brand value and loyalty are very high. The GTA games have been subversive, fun, high quality, and widely embraced by the core game audience of young men. This particular entry is somewhat overdue, so anticipation has built up, and it features online networked play, which has become critical over the past 5 years.

One Bloomberg report estimated this game, after five years of development, cost $250 million to develop and market. Is this high cost common for such a popular franchise, or is GTA V on a whole new level here?

It's one of the more expensive games every made, but probably not the most. High-end games, called AAA titles, are typically [more than] $20 million, but the market has really split with just a few marque titles costing more and more while many many more new titles are made for less and less.

GTA is unleashing its new online universe in a few weeks, allowing multiplayer action for the first time in the series’ history. Do you think GTA has the potential to rival the "Call of Duty" franchise in terms of console-based online play?

That remains to be seen. Some games are what we call "persistent," meaning that the game world is always on rather than that it's a session that starts and stops. "World of Warcraft" is a persistent game, while "Call of Duty" is session-based. Persistent games like WoW are very popular but much more niche than session-based shooter titles. "Call of Duty" is the WoW of its world and no one has been able to dethrone either title. GTA is a hybrid of the two. I would expect GTA to do well online, but would be surprised if its online presence is anything like Warcraft. Still, the developer does not need immense online numbers to print money. Having "only" a few hundred thousand or a million or two players can be fine. And if the title goes free-to-play with virtual goods, much larger numbers will show up.

The GTA franchise is notorious for sexualizing women in a particularly dark light – prostitutes frequent the games’ covers and are found throughout the GTA universe. Keeping in mind your past work with female body imagery in video games, what impact do these portrayals have upon children – both male and female – who will surely obtain copies of the game despite its adult rating?

People should think about GTA like an R-rated movie. If they don't think that's appropriate for their children, they should take steps to ensure they don't play it. All of the consoles have parental controls, so there's really no excuse for "oh, they'll play it at their friend's house." Know where your children are, eh?

What impact do these portrayals have? The evidence on females and body image is very consistent, showing that sexualized women have negative impacts on both genders. Females are subject to poor self-image and eating disorders, and males are subject to objectifying women. The same is true, by the way, of beefy or sexualized male characters, which is rarely discussed but is just as real. Women's magazines are some of the most damaging media out their for young girls. Is GTA better or worse? There hasn't been any comparative research, so we don't know the trade-off between comic-style prostitutes and airbrushed, busty, size-0 supermodels.

Can you tell us a little bit about Ninja Metrics and the projects you’re currently working on?

Williams: Ninja Metrics tracks the Social Value of consumers. We've found a way to literally calculate the value of people in how much [they] impact others. This comes out of our labs and years of research in the overlapping area of big data and consumer psychology. For example, you may spend $20 on movies in the next year, but your interactions with your friends will drive an additional $50 in spending among them. We are able to report both numbers with high accuracy, allowing businesses to acquire, monetize and retain their most valuable customers. This is big data for the social shopping era. We're just about to launch our flagship product, Katana, and are pretty excited about it.