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Players want more options than murder, and GTA 5 proves it

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This is a photograph of lightning in Grand Theft Auto 5. It's one of 16 similar screenshots taken in the game by a player organized by Imgur user AmericanWarfare. The collection has 1019 up-votes on the GTA 5 subreddit, making it the third most popular post of the week.

The photographs deserve the praise, not just for their composition but their construction. Each picture required the uncanny ability to ignore distractions in a world filled with hundreds of other exciting things to do handcrafted by experts in fun.

As striking as the image is its context: This photographer isn't alone.

Grand Theft Auto 5 is known for its controversial, violent storylines and the freedom to kill nearly whomever you'd like in its stylized take on southern California. But as the game approaches its one-year anniversary, the most popular videos, photographs and stories inspired by the game have nothing to do with violence. They have to do with lightning. Or photography as social commentary. Or shot-for-shot recreations of films and television shows. Or stunts.

What we see in the Grand Theft Auto community, and in communities sprouting around other games that offer more to do than firing a weapon, is a crop of creativity that's ready to be harvested on a daily basis by people on social media and websites like this one.

People don't share raw violence as often as astonishing acts of creativity. And I can tell you, as someone who makes a living understanding the trends of the internet, violence generally underperforms. I suspect that's because in-game violence is stale, easy and explicit. Violence leaves little room for self-expression, other than choosing which weapon and which target. Most players experience a game's murder methods within a few hours.

People don't share raw violence as often as astonishing acts of creativity

Landscaping, interior design, costuming and photography are better methods of self-expression. And increasingly, games — even violent ones — are including these as simple, effective tools for allowing the player to express themselves in a game and share that expression outside of it.

These creative works often "go viral" via social media, forums and blogs. They're fun looks at how people engage with virtual worlds, and to be a little crass, they're also free advertising. By sharing their work, the player invites others to do the same.

In 2014, game publishers who don't include methods for this expression are leaving money on the table. And to be clear, there's a difference between the gobs of lame automated social media hooks superglued onto so many new games and legitimate opportunities for creativity that use social media as a vessel for sharing.

The popularity of games like Animal Crossing: New Leaf on 3DS, Infamous: Second Son on PS4 and, most importantly, Minecraft on nearly everything with a screen is directly tied to the way players used the creative modes — the home decorating, the photo mode and the world building, respectively — to impress fellow players, and promote the video games in the process.

Naughty Dog and Sony released The Last of Us Remastered this week and the big new feature to one of last year's best and most violent games is a Photo Mode, similar to the one popularized by InFamous: Second Son, that allows players to stage and snap screenshots, then apply digital frames and filters before sharing them via social media. If you skim any video game outlet, or just have a game-loving friend on Twitter, the images have been inescapable.

Players are being funny and dramatic, they're imagining new narratives and they're spending as much time being creative as they are brutally stabbing people in the neck. They're not even players anymore; they're witnesses, and they want to capture and share what they see in a way that taps into the emotion they feel as they play. It's wonderful.

Players are witnesses

Players want the fantasies games offer, the violence, the carnage, the adventure, but they also want to engage in the same way they engage with the real world: by creating, by tweaking, by building, by improving and — more and more, thanks to Instagram — by photographing.

This doesn't mean adding photo mode to every game, nor does it mean the PS4's video and screen-sharing options count as some instant "creative social experience."

Creativity should beget creativity, not cynical pandering me-too for-profit horseshit. Do more. Discover original things. I assure you, publishers, there are treasure troves of creative ideas in the dark corners of the brilliant minds of developers that you're often paying too little to do more of the same. Learn from, of all things, the best Minecraft clones. So many games aped the pixelated aesthetic, missing what fans truly love: the freedom. The best and often most successful Minecraft wannabes aspired to be more than just Minecraft.

You can keep the guns. I know you won't get rid of the guns. But ask yourself, how else can people enjoy this world I've sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into, other than shooting holes into it?

In Grand Theft Auto 5 players are profiling virtual gangs, organizing extreme sports teams, even criticizing the real and virtual world in thoughtful, sometimes profound ways. There's a reason it's the best-selling game of all time, and it's not because you can kill people.