Thoughts Of A Feminist Gamer, The Inevitable Conversation About GTA

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?”

“Er…not 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.

 

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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

Angela

 

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Thoughts On Far Cry 4 And The State Of Modern Gaming

WARNING! THIS BLOG CONTAINS DISCUSSION OF STORY ELEMENTS AND CHARACTERS OF FAR CRY 4. AS A RESULT MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS!

Some years ago C.J Kershner, a script writer for Far Cry 4, posted this rather cryptic tweet.

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I hadn’t intended to play this game, since my feelings regarding Ubisoft have ranged from incredulity at their disastrous Assassin’s Creed Unity launch…

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…to disgust at their labelling of a large number of their customers involved in the #GamerGate consumer movement as terrorists.

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However, I was been given a PS4 as a gift (Hello current gen console gaming!) and Far Cry 4 came with the package. I remembered Kershner’s comment and I have to admit, I was curious about what he meant. Add to that these comments Kershner made to Polygon about the main character of Far Cry 4

“Our protagonist is not the white savior, not the dudebro”

The trope of the ‘White Savior’ is a well known plot device in Hollywood in which a usually male Caucasian protagonist befriends and adopts the struggles of a group of ethnic minorities, choosing to fight their corner against a group typically composed of white oppressors. Ubisoft received some criticism for Far Cry 3’s white male American protagonist, Jason Brody, and the depiction of the indigenous people as seemingly unable to tie their own shoelaces without Brody’s assistance. The protagonist of Far Cry 4, Ajay Ghale, was born in the region of Kyrat, where the game is set, though he is raised in the USA. This makes him more akin to the prodigal son returning home than than the clueless but sincere white hero. But according to Kershner, Ajay is not a “dudebro” either? Well, what does that mean in the context of Far Cry 4? Well, we’ll get to that.

Here’s the basic story of Far Cry 4. Your character, Ajay, is returning to Kyrat to fulfil his Mother’s last request, that he take her ashes back to Lakshmana. Upon arrival in Kyrat you as Ajay are immediately captured by Pagan Min, the region’s ruthless and eccentric king. Upon escaping, Ajay encounters The Golden Path, a faction of rebels founded by Ajay’s Father. The Golden Path now has two leaders, both envisioning radically different futures for Kyrat. Sabal is a religious conservative that wants to reinstate Kyrat’s traditional heritage, believing that returning Kyrat to the old ways will promote stability. Amita wants Kyrat to embrace social change. She sees Kyrat’s traditional heritage as just another form of oppression and believes that Kyrat will be unable to sustain itself without modernisation.

So how does this connect with modern gaming? Well as I was playing Far Cry 4 I kept in mind the comments made by Kershner about social justice, as I was doing so I realized that each of the main characters in Far Cry 4 can represent a part of gaming as a whole. In gaming, as in the game, the player is Ajay the protagonist. The player as Ajay has one goal in mind, to scatter the ashes i.e to play and win the games. Sabal represents the gaming media and Amita the social justice activists and critics that have currently taken up residence in gaming spaces.

Sabal and the gaming media want things to be the way they have always been, no changes, no reflection, no self examination. Sabal, though for the most part more charming than Amita, does not respond very well to criticism and will happily use others to protect himself from it, just like the gaming media. His views on women are old fashioned, that they should not fight and should remain in their traditionally assigned roles, however he is willing to use and work with woman while it suits his purposes. Once The Golden Path achieves their goal, Sabal fully expects the female fighters to return to the old ways and become subservient. The gaming media will sacrifice innocents to serve itself, and Sabal is no different. He wishes to use a 14 year old girl, Bhadra, as a religious figurehead through which to rule Kyrat.

The gaming media likes to promote itself as a champion for women in gaming, yet they have failed to promote gaming as a safe space for women to pursue a career. The gaming media does not promote or celebrate stories of women that are already working within gaming, yet stories of gaming as a terrifying den of exclusion and harassment are plentiful. It is convenient for the gaming media to use women and other social issues to distract consumers from looking too much at the behaviour of journalists. While Sabal and the gaming media will happily paint themselves as advocates for women, and work alongside them for as long as it is necessary, when the dust settles they fully expect to be able to put women back in their perceived rightful place.

Which leads me to Amita, and the social justice aspect of gaming. Amita was the first woman to officially join The Golden Path and fight alongside the men, refusing to take on a more traditional role. Like those that are involved in trying to make gaming more social justice friendly, Amita has a great deal of passion, but can come across as defensive, brash and overzealous. Amita and her kind in gaming are always focused on the desired end result of their endeavours, without always seeing the immediate cost. For the most part she is well aware that her actions cost and irrevocably alter lives, but for her the larger whole is more important than the individual and the ends always justify the means. In the case of Amita, the way to fund this new, modern and progressive Kyrat is to grow and sell heroin.

The key goal of Amita and of the political and social critics of gaming is the abandonment of old systems in favour of a new, modern, and seemingly more socially fair system. They see nothing of value in the old ways and believe that Kyrat/gaming can only move forward by leaving behind traditions, instead focusing on building a completely new set of values from the ground up. Like Sabal and the gaming media, Amita and gaming critics will work with those who do not share their rhetoric, but only for as long as it suits their purposes. Sabal and Amita are willing to use people and methods that are somewhat detestable, and they both immediately turn on those who have served their purpose when the opportune moment presents itself.

What of Pagan Min Far Cry 4’s flamboyant main antagonist? Pagan Min is the mainstream gaming industry itself, ruthless, eccentric and (in my opinion at least) strangely likeable compared to the other characters in the game. It is on you as Ajay/the player on which Pagan, and the industry, keeps a focus. Pagan/gaming industry is not above exploiting The Golden Path/gaming media and critics and even Ajay/the player for his/their own ends, manipulating them into achieving the desired response. Pagan and the industry interest lies in simply getting Ajay/you as the player to play the game and views the struggles among The Golden Path/media and critics and your interactions with them with a mixture of disdain, bemusement and ambivalence.

Pagan Min claims to want Kyrat to have a grand and wealthy future without being held back by the societal structure of old, but it is clear that his motivations are much more complex and known really only to him. Very little of what he says can be taken at face value. So it is with the games industry, from leak hoaxes, game trailer and demo controversy to launches of broken or unfinished games, it can be hard to trust the gaming industry and take any information that comes out of it with any degree of certainty. Pagan/gaming industry want to woo Ajay/gamers, and keep you happy, but they are not above exploiting you either. Pagan Min is never directly hostile to Ajay, in fact he occasionally assists him and even saves his life, but his actions as ruler leave Ajay feeling like he has no choice but to fight him. The gaming industry provides us with the games we love, but with practices such as DLC, microtransactions, and season passes, we often feel like we have to fight them in order to be treated fairly.

So then there is you, the player, as Ajay the protagonist. The one who is here to play a game and enjoy a hobby, and to win it by mastering the necessary skills and honouring the last request the character’s mother. In the context of the game Ajay is not a ‘dudebro’ but only really because he seems to lack any distinct personality, allowing you to fully project yourself onto him as a player. This seems to be a bit of a trademark of the Far Cry series, a bland and boring protagonist facing off against the entertaining but despicable villain.

In the context of video games as a hobby it is your task as a player to pick your way through the minefield that is modern gaming and potentially lend support to it’s Amitas or Sabals. Independent developers are minor characters within the sphere of gaming, comparable in Far Cry 4 to characters such as Yuma, Nor, or Bhadra. Small operators doing what they feel they need to do to get into gaming and to stay there. At the same time you are under the patient eye of the Pagan Min gaming industry which may choose to embrace you, reject you, or ignore you from one moment to the next, based on whatever they have up their sleeve.

 

As modern gaming plays out the players are realising that if the balance of power is tipped too far in either direction there will be dire consequences for gaming. In Far Cry 4, whichever choice the player makes determines which ending they get. It is made very clear that this is supposed to be considered a conscious moral choice of what sacrifice Ajay is willing to live with. Whichever decision is made will be what you as Ajay consider the lesser of two evils. In the past, we as gamers have been caught between the aspects of the gaming media and those demanding games to change, remember Jack Thompson anyone? Recently the paradigm has shifted, and the media and game critics have begrudgingly joined forces to simultaneously court gamers and bully them. One side aiming to keep things as they are, and the other to change them completely. At the moment it suits their purposes to work together, however, it is my belief that whichever side comes out on top will be quick to turn on the other. On that only time will tell.

So what did C.J Kershner’s comment about social justice in Far Cry 4 mean?. To be honest I’m still not entirely sure. If the intention of Far Cry 4 was to paint social justice as the correct and just path that will lead to a better world? I can tell you, having played the game, that it has failed miserably. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that Far Cry 4 is not at all flattering to those that choose to pursue social justice OR conservatism. Maybe story elements were changed after Kershner’s tweet, or maybe he misunderstood elements of Amita’s story arc. At this point I’m more inclined to believe that it was an elaborate troll, designed to use the current situation in gaming to generate more interest in the game. This seems particularly plausible since the initial marketing for Far Cry 5 also made gaming media/activists believe that the game was going to make some grand political statement, and yet again they have been sorely disappointed.

At this point, all I know is that it is not easy to play the game that is being a gamer in the current state of modern gaming. Gaming is a state broken by civil war, with various factions struggling for control, making and breaking alliances as they go along. As a medium, gaming appears to be on the cusp of great change, whether for good or bad is anybody’s guess.

Now, I cannot tell you how to play the game of being a gamer, that is entirely up to you. However, if you do choose to play Far Cry 4 then allow me to make one small suggestion. On your second playthrough, when you are at Pagin Min’s table and he leaves you? Sit and stay a while. Maybe try the crab rangoon.

Believe me, you’ll enjoy it.