I think that a reserved, standoffish approach is necessary. That's when the ridiculous nature of society really comes out.
GTA 4 nailed the satire of the GTA series in my opinion. The story was kept realistic enough to feel you were in a real world, and all the radio and billboards that crept into a game that already felt so real just made me really double take, "that's something we actually do, isn't it?"
When Weazel (FOX) news comes on, deliberately and briefly stating something important like a health care or financial crisis before moving onto something sensational like TERRORISM or a new cupcake store, I start drawing the parodies in real life yourself. In 2008, we're still a bit more heated in the Iraq war, and the fact that police and civilians blame everything out of place Niko does on terrorism is reminiscent of things we've deemed ludicrous like the Red Scare.
Introducing all that, I'd love to take a jab at your questions.
Do you think social commentary has a place in gaming?
After spilling out my initial thoughts, I must agree, in that background, you only really notice it when it creeps up on you and throttles you sense. GTA V's "Oh man, we're on social networking all the time and torture's bad, m'kay?" felt like another bad GI Joe PSA, or something to that effect. GTA V's story also felt like some sh*tty action comedy. Something that took itself seriously like IV definitely was spot-on with its views on sensational media and corrupt politics.
Do you notice Grand Theft Auto's attempts at social commentary?
Of course. ^
Do you feel comfortable with Grand Theft Auto depicting society?
To a degree. Being a British company, some criticisms R* has had of American society have been either through European glasses or completely wrong. They still have the misconception that we treat immigrants of all origins like sh*t, which is hardly an issue in 2008 or 2013. Same with the whole torture case, I never really noticed that to be a hot-button issue. I think when it comes to their criticism, specific aspects of social corners of life, social media, television, theater, consumption, etc, are pretty flexible and they've done fine with them so far. (America's Next Top Hooker showing our fascination with sleaze and objectifying. The motorized power-scooter commercials mimicking Americans trying to justify an increasingly sedentary lifestyle. Burgershot, taking quite the literal approach on reminding us of our fatal attraction to the slow death of fast food.)
Politics are a different issue. GTA does a good job satirizing general ideas of class separation, the futility of partisan loyalty, but I'd wish they'd stay away from specific issues like torture, healthcare, and immigration. American issues Europeans think are black and white but they really don't know sh*t about.
Do you think social commentary within Grand Theft Auto can benefit the player or even educate them?
Yes and no. I think the exposure is a good introduction into what's wrong with America and human nature. When I played GTA III when I was twelve, I didn't really know what aspects of society the radio shows were mocking, but I did enjoy them. Humor is the universal educator. I bet more people have become politically aware through stand-up comedy than through Fox or CNN. Mainstream media never really capitalizes on the real issues of the country, worried about loss of funding or ratings. Comics, like Lazlow was saying while being interviewed about his work in GTA, have no censor to fear, and without that censor, really can "tell it like it is" AND reach large masses through humor.
Do you think Grand Theft Auto is helping gaming veer away from the 'just entertainment' tag that it has?
GTA is a loaded franchise. There's a lot I expect out of a capital GTA game like The Lost and Damned or GTA IV. There's plenty of fun mechanics, layer one on the cake. But then we move to the demonstration of graphical scale and ability. Vice City, modern Liberty and Los Santos, they're an experience even when not on a mission. Game's are fun, but also, games are art. GTA has covered two of those. Layer three on the cake is the story, the fact that GTA can convey such intelligent stories (in some of their games) and remain a really good time easy on the eyes is mind-opening. GTA 4 and its episodes have really stuck with me with their characters and story even more than some classic movies or books. GTA might not be educational in the sense of those math games you'd play in elementary school computer labs, but their comments toward how we function as Americans, as human-beings is definitely another layer on the cake. After Red Dead Redemption, GTA 4 is really the pinnacle of what video games can hope to achieve.
Sorry if I typed so much. I saw you were doing a report so I wanted to be thorough.