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Sep 25 2013

The Unintentionally Worst Thing Heard About Grand Theft Auto V

So I was listening to NPR.

On NHPR’s “Word of Mouth”, a discussion of Grand Theft Auto… let’s see… it was The Bankable Legacy Of Grand Theft Auto; audio is available at the link. There was discussion of the economics, of the controversy, of misrepresentation of an adult game as a bad children’s game… honestly, I was mostly shopping, so I did not hear all of the program. I did hear one comment though, that went unremarked on the program, and I wanted to remark on it. At around the 8-minute mark, Jamin Warren, of Killscreen, a “video-game arts and culture company”, responds to the host’s (the excellent Virginia Prescott, I think) comment that one can, if she remembers correctly get points in this game for beating up prostitutes. His immediate response (my apologies if I transcribed it poorly–I think I got it, though):

(8:04) I think the important thing that is important to remember is that there are many things you can do in Grand Theft Auto; some of them, I think, are distasteful—well, I guess, a lot of them are at some level distasteful—but I don’t necessarily think that the violence in Grand Theft Auto against women–obviously it’s problematic at very, like at a very base level, but I think if you were to look at it in the landscape of broader media, it wouldn’t necessarily be anomalous.

And yes, (as I understand it) you can, but are not required to, beat prostitutes in GTA V. I played an earlier version of the game, and never once treated it as anything but a driving simulator with some really bizarre racetracks. It was well designed without the added violence against women; my personal tastes would have it with playable female lead characters, and none of the violence, but my personal version would sell, like, twelve copies in total.

But that’s not the important thing. I suspect you caught the important thing, though. “It wouldn’t necessarily be anomalous.” The distasteful violence against women… yes, it’s there, but it’s everywhere, so that’s ok.

No, that’s not ok. That’s terribly depressing. When the poster child for symbolic violence against women can simply point to “the landscape of broader media” and say “we’re just following your example”, this is not a point in favor of the game, or of the broader media, or of much of anything.

Let’s beat up some women;
Let’s beat up some whores;
Let’s steal us some autos
And rob us some stores
Let’s tell everybody
It’s only a game…
Cos the rest of the media
Looks just the same.

26 comments

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  1. 1
    garysturgess

    It’s certainly what puts me off. I know many huge fans of the series that preordered it months ago, but I’ve never played any of them, mostly because of the reputation it has that you allude to – and to be honest, I don’t even know first hand that the reputation is even deserved (though I’ve never heard anyone dispute it).

    But it’s unfortunately largely correct that it’s not that much of an aberration. Even my favourite PS3 game Infamous – which has two strong female characters in the second game, neither of whom do much more than mildly flirt with the protagonist – has a classic Woman in Refrigerator moment in the first game.

  2. 2
    Psychopomp Gecko

    Facepalm worthy moment there as far as GTA. People have been saying that prostitute stuff since 3 and they actually implemented a mission requiring it?

    And people discussing GTA V all these years later don’t realize the game doesn’t have points yet?

    Next thing, you’ll see them asking what fruit is riskiest to get away from those pesky ghosts. Sorry, I know what the focus of all this is, but there’s so much ignorance involved in the media that the game’s developers should know better than to cater to the right wing chest clutchers and their urban legends.

    I was going to say that the game’s violence toward women thing might have been it providing a mirror toward the real world than showing their own idealized version, then I remembered that the game is mostly a certain idealized version of the world, especially if you remember similar games like Saints Row series and the videogame Scarface: The World is Yours. That second one is important too, as you couldn’t shoot civilians. If there was a single woman in the game to shoot, it would only be because she had a gun and was shooting at you. So in such a world that is less about mirroring real world attitudes, I can see it being an option to maybe ease off the prostitutes or make some of them men.

    I like those sorts of games, but still…doesn’t that say something when Scarface is the more moral choice?

  3. 3
    rq

    When several friends posted their excitement about the release of this game on Facebook, I felt like adding the comment “Thanks for endorsing misogyny” to the joyful comments.

  4. 4
    Hairy Chris, blah blah blah etc

    Heck, I remember running over Hare Krishnas in the first GTA game. The violence can be doled out pretty even-handedly in all of the games.

    And the prostitute thing. Well, you get money from beating up any civilian, although having a prostitute mechanic in the game is a bit problematic. The combination of the 2 can have some unpleasant implications.

  5. 5
    Aliasalpha

    As I recall my 60 odd hours of playing the crap out of Gta5, there were no missions where violence against women was necessary. There was a cutscene where a woman was murdered alongside her boyfriend but it was outside your control . The game is a sandbox which features female characters, some of these female characters work as prostitutes, noone in the game is immortal. If significant levels of violence occur against these female characters outside of mission requirements (which as I said didn’t happen to my recollection), that says a fuck of a lot more about the player than the game

  6. 6
    Oob

    It is problematic, but then again, the story seems to be ABOUT being a terrible person doing terrible things, and their own personal justifications for what they do. The violence against women is less specifically and individually programmed so much as it is an emergent property of an existing in game ability to beat up whoever you like, up to and including taking on the US army and destroying vast sections of downtown (well, not sections so much as ALL of the traffic).

    The question to ask is if the game is doing a good job of pointing out just how terrible the things you are doing actually are and just how empty the main character’s justifications are, or if it instead seems to glorify and justify the actions of gang members. That, I think, can be pretty important.

    I say this, all of it, without even being a fan of this ridiculously popular series. I actually prefer Saint’s Row, a series that revels in being completely unable to take itself seriously (and a game that lets you design your own character, gender and all, though I am first to point out that building multiple playable characters in a story driven game is a lot harder than just building one).

    I dunno, my thoughts on this are a little complex. On the one hand, video games absolutely SHOULD be telling stories from a bad guy’s point of view, as when done well it can be enlightening (and heck, sometimes it is fun to be a Sith Lord too, a paper cutout of a stereotypical villain). On the other, sexism is a problem across the entire culture, and video games are part of that. I’m the sort of person that can enjoy the occasional shallow revenge flick, but I do know better than to “joke” about such a thing around just anybody. I keep such things to myself as guilty pleasures. To that end, heck, maybe GTA is a perfectly fine “guilty pleasure” for some people, so long as they don’t “learn” the wrong things from it. (I recall talking to some teenager or another who actually believed that the villain from the “Saw” movies wasn’t a murderer BECAUSE of that villain’s justifications. They never parsed the fact that those justifications were, were INTENDED to be, terrible and stupid. No, if you stick someone in a death trap and they end up dying because they didn’t solve your dumb sacrifice puzzle, you still are 100% responsible for their death, just as much as if you shot someone because they resisted when you attempted to mug them.) And that’s the rub I think, that many are convinced that people WILL learn all the wrong things from it, and ARE CURRENTLY learning those things, even unconsciously. I’m not so sure about that myself, but one thing’s for sure, it would at least be possible such things could REINFORCE any already-present viewpoints they had before getting into that game. Is that enough to say such games are poison and shouldn’t be made? Or, as I think, is this more a sign that a better tactic is to change the kids, get to them early on through programs in the schools, so that instead of changing media to change people, you change people and the media changes to reflect that. I don’t believe media ever changed the world, instead I believe the world changed first and media simply reflected those changes.

  7. 7
    Brian Wesley

    Exactly, Aliasalpha. You can deliberately run over or beat up people in all the GTA games, and some of the fake people are supposed to be men and some are supposed to be women, but somehow that’s misogynistic, even though you can kill either sex.

    But how much uproar is there by people who have never played the game about the cannibalism in GTA3, or how you can kidnap and sell people in GTA5 (and had a mission in GTA2 (I think) where you kidnapped children)?

    Not a lot that I can see. Because people are idiots.

  8. 8
    =8)-DX

    I only really ever played one of the first GTAs for similar reasons. I’d just like to say part of the “can, but are not required to” argument is valid. GTA is a so-called “open world” or “sandbox” reality simulator. The developer can’t really control people’s behaviour in games like this. Personally I’ve always played games with open world elements as a “consistent” character, and also enoy setting myself personal goals based on moral principles. In games like this many missions are optional, based on what kind of character one wants to play.

    Back in the day I made myself complete the first two Thief games on hardest difficulty without killing a single human (you are in a way motivated to do this, but it’s not necessary, and they aren’t completely “open world” but rather “multiple pathway resolution”). I just didn’t like killing inoccent “guards” to make the game easier for myself. A lot of how one plays is left to the player, and in “gangsta-themed” games like GTA, plenty of people enjoy playing their “gangsta” role.

  9. 9
    jamessweet

    The “points for beating up prostitutes” trope really bugs me. And yeah, the response here is even worse (“A lot of media beats up women, so what’s the big deal!”). But really, killing hookers for money is a really inefficient and shitty way to make money in pretty much any of the GTA games. You get a trivially small amount of money, and run a high risk of attracting police attention.

    There’s meaningful debate to be had about misogyny in GTA, but “points for beating up prostitutes” has nothing the fuck whatsoever to do with it.

  10. 10
    Leo Buzalsky

    The distasteful violence against women… yes, it’s there, but it’s everywhere, so that’s ok.

    I’m sorry, but that may not be completely fair. I have been raising points similar to Warren’s remarks, but I’m not raising those points to justify what is done in GTA. I’m raising them because I find it rather unproductive to be singling out a specific video game as though it were the root cause of problems in society. It’s not, and I find the people the people who imply as much to be ridiculous. Worse, when they go about attacking a symptom of the larger problem instead of the actual root, they’re not going to actually fix anything.
    Having said that, I’m going to take a guess and say that Warren, unlike me, is not even concerned about fixing that root cause. So, yeah, he may very well be making the argument to make it seem like what GTA does is OK. My point, though, is that argument alone does not mean there couldn’t be a longer argument against society as a whole.

  11. 11
    Bennie Crouch

    One of the more disturbing aspects of gta5 is the ridiculous amounts of violence the game forces the player to partake in. Most of the missions in the game can actually be skipped. The mission success is graded on a bronze/silver/gold grading scale. If the player chooses to skip they are given a bronze rating and the game continues on. But the more disturbing missions are non-skippable. There is a mission where the player is forced to torture a Muslim male. Now I’m a pretty jaded gamer when it comes to violence in video games, but I had to turn away from the screen during these torture scenes.

  12. 12
    Cuttlefish

    Leo–

    It is entirely possible that I have misrepresented his views–I heard them in this context, and was flabbergasted by the fact that it went unremarked on. It is impossible, of course, to read an entire argument in one throwaway line; he was speaking off the cuff, the comment was not elaborated on, I can see alternate potential interpretations of the comment… Indeed, my post is not intended as a criticism against GTA-V, but rather an observation that the violence in a game intended to be over-the-top is, really, not that far removed from anything you might compare it to.

  13. 13
    Kootiepatra

    I feel like GTA, and games of a similar vibe, tend to impale themselves on a weird sort of circular reasoning. Or, at least, the defensive fans do, as they bound back and forth between two mutually exclusive protests:

    Defense 1: “Well, this is mimicking real life. Criminals are misogynist in real life. Culture is misogynist in real life. Therefore, for the sake of Realism(TM), there should be no playable female characters and the game should make all kinds of sexist jokes.”

    If GTA is all about “real life”, then there are a whooooole lot of ethical quandaries to grapple with in its very existence. Of course it’s possible to address real life up close and ugly, with all of its injustices, in a responsible, thought-provoking way. Not every game needs to be rainbows and puppies in order to have a positive impact on the player–or at the very least, maintain a non-negative impact. Many powerful movies and books have unflinchingly portrayed awful things for very good reasons. There is a place for that.

    However, GTA does not just portray ugly, misogynistic, murderous “real life”. It puts the player in the driver’s seat, perpetrating the crimes. There’s no critical examination of the violence that’s going on. There’s no sense of purpose, or even social experimentation. Players have total free reign to break whatever law they feel like, purely for the lulz.

    Now, granted, free speech allows Rockstar to publish whatever kind game they like. But is it responsible for people to support them in that? Is their careless handling of “real life” crime encouraging anti-social attitudes in their players? (This is especially pertinent for misogynist attitudes, which are by no means as roundly condemned in society as theft and murder are.) Immersing players in horrific Realism(TM), and then encouraging them to be amused by it, is questionable at best.

    This, of course, naturally leads to the other protest:

    Defense #2: “Lighten up; it’s just a GAME. It’s not like I’m actually gonna DO any of this stuff in real life. This setting is totally virtual and artificial. It’s pure and simple escapism.”

    In that case, since it is just escapism, it stands to reason that the large demographic of female gamers would probably like to be able to “escape”, too. Since we’re not worrying about conveying any particular social messages, let’s throw in a few playable female characters, or at least lay off the noxious sexist ooze. After all, it’s “just a game”, and we can therefore afford to jettison Realism(TM).

    …And loop back to Defense #1.

    If GTA is just a game, it shouldn’t in the slightest if it treats women better than real life does. If it is more serious than just a game, however, then it deserves full scrutiny as to whether or not it encourages hateful behavior towards actual women in real life.

  14. 14
    Kootiepatra

    Drat my failed proof-reading. *”If GTA is just a game, it shouldn’t MATTER in the slightest…”

  15. 15
    Psychopomp Gecko

    @Aliasalpha,

    Now see, that’s the kind of answer the guy should have given. But there he was not even denying such a thing happened and it makes it look like they actually went and did such a thing in the game this time. If there’s nothing special singling out women, then I’m ok with it.

    @Brian Wesley,

    You show a distinct lack of reading comprehension. I recommend you work on understanding what was written here before making assumptions.

  16. 16
    garysturgess

    Brian Wesley@7: speaking as one of these people who have never played the game (or series), I wasn’t aware that cannibalism, slave trading, and kidnapping children. Thus my lack of outrage about it. :)

    In other words: it isn’t that I find those things morally defensible*, it’s that I wasn’t aware of them. I am entirely happy to be told that GTA’s reputation is undeserved, but I guess my point is that press statements like DC quoted don’t exactly suggest that is the case; they are not exactly doubling down, but they don’t seem concerned either.

    *Cannibalism per se I have no issue with, as long as we’re not talking about cannibalism that inspires murder. If I’m dead, by all means use me as a source of protein if you must. Just don’t kill me first. :)

  17. 17
    garysturgess

    Ugh… “that it contained cannibalism …”. Sorry.

  18. 18
    =8)-DX

    If it is more serious than just a game, however

    There is no such thing as more serious than “just a game” any more than “just a video game” or “just a book”. Things that are more serious, are real life – actual violence, hatred, abuse, crime, etc. The “it’s just a game” argument isn’t saying that games aren’t serious, but that they are something we consume and interact with intellectually, as entertainment or to inform.

  19. 19
    brianwestley

    @Brian Wesley,

    You show a distinct lack of reading comprehension. I recommend you work on understanding what was written here before making assumptions.

    What are you babbling about? My complaint was about all the people who gripe about the GTA series when they obviously haven’t ever played it. Speaking out in ignorance is never useful.

    garysturgess@16: I just think it’s ridiculous that many of the complaints about GTA amount to:

    1) Here’s a wide-open sandbox game that’s a simulation of real life with people walking around and driving cars.

    2) You can drive cars at high speeds and acquire lots of deadly weapons.

    3) If you hit people with cars or shoot them or push them off cliffs, etc. they can die.

    4) Some people are women.

    5) So, if some of the people in (3) are women, you can kill women.

    conclusion: OMGWTF THIS GAME IS MISOGYNISTIC!

    Sorry, that’s STOOOOOPID. At the very least, call it misanthropic since you can kill people in general.

    But any sufficiently realistic sandbox game has to allow for people to get killed, because that’s how the real world works; people can e.g. get hit by cars and die.

    And if you can drive cars in the game, hitting people with your car must have the possibility of killing them, not due to programmer perversity but simply because that’s part and parcel of the game mechanics — sparing them would be an anomaly and most gamers would consider that a defect, not a feature (unless there was some good in-game reason, such as you’re driving the Batmobile and it has some AI that automatically prevents hitting people).

    And if you can accidentally drive your car into people, you almost have to be able to intentionally drive your car into people, and thus intentionally kill people. And unless you only populate the world with men, some of them will be women, and thus you can kill women. So if you want to prevent women being killed, you have to deliberately cripple your simulation in some way.

    One thing I haven’t seen anyone complain about is that, about a minute into the game, you have to kill a (male) guard. I tried shooting him in the foot the first time, but I failed the mission (forced to re-do it), so it’s an unavoidable kill. Many of the other missions are either avoidable, or you can do them without killing anyone, but not this one, since you start with it. So why are there no complaints about killing this guy?

    Another thing I haven’t seen anyone comment on is that there are no pedestrian children in GTA3-5 (I haven’t played 1 or 2 so I don’t know about those). I’ve heard that Rockstar deliberately left them out just so you can’t kill them.

  20. 20
    Pliny the in Between

    Like most things, it all comes down to intent in my opinion. Let’s call it the allure of a ‘sandbox game’. There are driving games where the allure is to drive open wheel race cars fast. Some of them are very realistic. But the allure of those games is never to jump the wall into the stands and slaughter the fans. Games like GTA have a very different allure. And the violence in the game is indiscriminate. Everybody is a target or collateral damage. Whatever else their sins, these games certainly don’t instill any sense of empathy- something already sorely lacking in our society.

    Having worked in a profession where I treated real injured people for 25 years, I cannot imagine the allure of play acting mayhem and murder.

    There is little doubt that we live in a culture which increasingly embraces simulated and not so simulated violence as entertainment. Can that ever be a good thing?

  21. 21
    brianwestley

    There is little doubt that we live in a culture which increasingly embraces simulated and not so simulated violence as entertainment. Can that ever be a good thing?

    What if it allows violent people to blow off steam and act less violent in real life?

    Here’s an idea — maybe get some REAL DATA instead of merely speculating.

    This is starting to sound like “Seduction of the Innocent”, which blamed violent comic books for juvenile delinquency.

  22. 22
    Pliny the in Between

    There is ample data on repeated exposure to high stress or violent environments leading to acclimation. I saw that in trauma care. See enough trauma and it becomes just part of the background. A major part of military training is breaking down barriers to the use of deadly force. Repeating the same task over and over again until it becomes automatic even in high stress or dangerous environments. That’s the essence of training. The fact that these techniques work is why military organizations continue to invest in them.Another training and coping mechanism is dehumanization. It’s easier to shoot somebody you have no connection to. Personally I don’t think it takes great feats of mental gymnastics to consider the correlation to sitting on one’s ass for hours play-acting murder, but hey.

    As for the comment about the potential ‘therapeutic benefits’ of violent role playing, ignoring the irony for a moment, my response would be, “go out and run, shoot hoops, play football, or anything else that allows lots of well adjusted people to blow off steam. It’s better for one’s heart as well as mind.

  23. 23
    brianwestley

    There is ample data on repeated exposure to high stress or violent environments leading to acclimation.

    What is there on video games?

    As for the comment about the potential ‘therapeutic benefits’ of violent role playing, ignoring the irony for a moment, my response would be, “go out and run, shoot hoops, play football, or anything else that allows lots of well adjusted people to blow off steam. It’s better for one’s heart as well as mind.

    What’s your data on that, besides just your opinion.

  24. 24
    Pliny the in Between

    Well, let’s take one example. – Young women who are involved in sports are less likely to be overweight, have a higher level of self-confidence, and are less likely to fall victim to abuse. That sounds like something better for one’s heart and mind.

    Rather than being too concerned about video games specifically, the role of repetitive exposure to stimuli leading to permanent changes in the brain is well described in the literature on neuroplasticity. There is some truly amazing work going on in that area. One area of particular importance to any real conversation about this is concept of association that is part of the late phase of long term potentiation.

  25. 25
    brianwestley

    Well, let’s take one example. – Young women who are involved in sports are less likely to be overweight, have a higher level of self-confidence, and are less likely to fall victim to abuse. That sounds like something better for one’s heart and mind.

    Well, that has zero to do with video games.

    Rather than being too concerned about video games specifically, the role of repetitive exposure to stimuli leading to permanent changes in the brain is well described in the literature on neuroplasticity.

    Learning how to do level 1 of Donkey Kong permanently changes my brain, because I learn how to beat the level. What does this have to do with anything?

  26. 26
    Masquirina

    I have yet to try any of the GTA games.

    I think I might go ahead and play just to see what all of the controversy is about.

    Thanks Cuttlefish.

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