Yes everyone it’s that seemingly inevitable time for me to write about GTA. GTA as a series has always inspired a lot of controversy and comment and despite GTA 5 coming out over a year ago now it seems we’re still not finished with the GTA conversation. This week saw GTA thrown once again into the spotlight with it’s removal from sale by discount retailer Target in Australia because of this petition containing 30 000 signatures. The petition objects to the available option of the game to commit violence against women, with particular reference to sex workers. According to the petition “This misogynistic GTA 5 literally makes a game of bashing, killing and horrific violence against women.” Target’s decision to remove GTA from sale has reopened the age old debate about censorship and video games containing mature content. Other retailers in other countries have noticed Target’s stance and have begun to follow suit.
Game journalists seem to have a somewhat love/hate relationship with GTA. I think it has become some kind of bizarre rite of passage in video game journalism to write an opinion piece decrying the evils of GTA and holding it responsible for all the ills of the world, though naturally this opinion piece has to occur long after the game has been released and been given glowing reviews and massively high scores by the same publication. It seems that in the wake of the GTA/Target controversy senior news writer at Polygon, Colin Campbell, took the opportunity to participate in the now seemingly annual tradition of holding GTA responsible for real life violence, this time against women. I imagine the conversation in which the decision was made to write this piece went something like this
“Hey Colin, have we done a piece this year about how GTA is responsible for violence in real life yet?”
“Well we’d better get on it then, it’s December now and it’s bad luck if we don’t do it by the end of the year and we need all the luck we can get. Knock something up and get it on the site before the Christmas party would you?”
Hence we have this piece, entitled ‘Grand Theft Auto 5’s Misogyny is a Problem Its Creators Must Finally Address’, which opens with criticism of those that have responded to detractors of GTA with the sentiment “If you don’t like it then don’t buy it” Campbell claims “this cheap line usefully reduces the relationship between products and humans to a base financial transaction. The product has no meaning for those who do not consume it, or so we are supposed to believe…they reduce GTA 5 to a mere purchasing choice, they also want you to believe that the game is an essential work of art that is being stifled by a mob of censors.”
Campbell’s dislike of GTA as a game is clear throughout the entire piece but his particular problem with it seems to be that players have the option in the game to commit violence against sex workers, he says “I take issue with the portrayal of sex workers being abused and murdered, because sex workers are already victims” and this is my first major problem with this piece. Mr Campbell’s claim that all sex workers are victims is a statement layered in assumptions and stereotypes. It might not have occurred to Mr Campbell that not all sex workers are women and not all sex customers are men. The assertion in this piece that all sex workers are victims implies that sex work is somehow shameful dirty behavior that only the desperate will lower themselves to engage in. Now of course there are sex workers of all ages and genders that are trafficked and forced into sex work, those people genuinely are victims and require all the help and support that can be given. However there are a great many sex workers that choose to be so because they enjoy the work, some of whom have come from highly educated backgrounds. There are countries such as The Netherlands where sex work is legal, regulated and even taxed. Campbell goes on to say that “prostitutes, as a class, are despised, marginalized and abused in real life, all the time” and while yes it is certainly true that many sex workers will experience violence a part of the reason for that is because of a stigma attached to sex work. And here’s the thing Mr Campbell, labeling all sex workers as victims? Does NOTHING to remove or change that stigma, in fact it only enhances it. It’s clear from this that you believe that being a sex worker, no matter the circumstance, is something to be ashamed of and something that requires fixing. This says a lot more about your personal prejudices then it says about any computer game.
Certainly the point that Mr Campbell and detractors of GTA seem to have missed is that these are sandbox games where the player is free to explore and play as they choose. The main story missions required to progress in the game are crime based, some of them require acts of violence. In fact the option to commit violence against ANYONE is there but guess what? The choice of whether or not to commit it is one that the player makes. Yes you can go through the entire game killing prostitutes, you can go through the game doing nothing but vehicle stunts and jumps, you can go through the game getting money and seeing how much junk food you can eat, it’s entirely up to you. That is the whole idea of the open world gaming experience, to offer the player as much choice as possible.
It seems that there are some gaming journalists and critics that would seek to limit the amount of freedom we as players can have in video games or even the kinds of video games available for sale. This is nothing new, during the early 2000’s the now infamous attorney and activist Jack Thomson tried to have GTA banned. Rockstar has always thrived on controversy generated by GTA, in fact in the beginning much of the controversy itself was manufactured by Rockstar with the help of publicist (and now convicted sex offender) Max Clifford. We as gamers have spent years laughing about Jack Thompson’s “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” rhetoric only to have the smiles drain away from our faces as we see this petition which instead cries “Won’t somebody please think of the women?” succeed where Thompson failed. And the biggest rub? While Thompson was mocked and derided mercilessly by gaming media for his assertion that GTA causes real life violence this petition claiming that GTA causes real life violence against WOMEN seems to have gained the full support of the gaming press.
This brings me to my second biggest problem with the Polygon piece and with these kinds of detractors of GTA. This notion that violence in a video game against one group of people is totally not allowed, while violence against another group is perfectly acceptable. The Polygon piece asserts that the choice to commit violence against prostitutes in GTA or in any other game should not be there, in my opinion because of the personal preconceived opinions of the writer about sex work. Pop culture critics such as Anita Sarkeesian assert that the choice to commit violence against women in GTA or in any other game should not be there. But violence is violence and in real life it is bad no matter who it is perpetrated against. Why should this be any different in video games? What makes a particular group special enough that violence against them in a game is unacceptable while violence against everyone else is just fine? If you’re against violence in video games against a particular group shouldn’t you be against all violence in video games?
This is where the argument posed by GTA critics falls flat. They know that GTA is one of the biggest video game franchises of all time, they know that the reason for this is that video game audiences are continuing to play games as they get older and as such are craving video games with more mature themes. They know if they took all the violence out of video games the industry would collapse and die. They know that the GTA series consistently delivers quality and innovation because Rockstar understands that what it’s customers want is the option to do pretty much whatever they want within the framework of the game universe.
So here is a message to critics such as Campbell, Sarkeesian and Thompson. I am an adult, I regularly enjoy video games such as GTA that contain violence. I am aware of the consequences of choices I make both in video games and in real life. I am able to tell the difference between fantasy and reality. I don’t need you to protect me from my own tastes. This is not me telling you “If you don’t like it then don’t buy it” this is me telling you that if you don’t want to kill prostitutes in GTA then don’t do it. You are perfectly able to play the game without doing so, the choice is yours. To remove this feature from the game purely because it’s not to your personal tastes is infantile and patronising to gamers, it assumes that because they enjoy video games containing violence they must be violent in real life. Also some of you might want to examine your personal prejudices regarding sex work, maybe actually talk to some sex workers instead of making assumptions. The overall point here is that just because you don’t understand why some people may enjoy something, it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist. One more thing? The majority of video games are made for and enjoyed by adults, they contain violence, get over it.
Thank you for reading