GTA V won’t make you kill sex workers

In a recent piece, Cassie Rodenberg wrote on Grand Theft Auto V by Rockstar Games, low income areas and sex worker violence. Rodenberg, who writes the White Noise blog for Scientific American, could rightfully be expected to provide actual evidence, data and careful linking for her claims. This is particularly so because claims of GTA and violence, as well as sex worker rights and security, are both sensitive topics (not equally, certainly); knee-jerk reactions from all sides probably mean no one will listen, especially if you’re not careful in your portrayal and writing.

Unfortunately, Rodenberg is neither careful nor clear. Instead, Rodenberg relies on a sad retelling of one sex worker’s OD and makes many dramatic points about how GTA sex workers are treated the same way as… real sex workers? About children not caring about education or life because they want to play video games?

The piece is both unclear and dramatic. I left a long comment, but in order for it to make complete sense, you of course should read the piece.

I do worry about commenting or even making blogposts when people are “piling on”; you wonder whether you’d actually add anything useful to a discussion comprised of noise.

However, I think that amidst the shouting from the usual angry gamer crowd, I’d like to indicate that I do have genuine concerns about GTA myself, as someone who dislikes sexism – which is something I hated about this game – and is concerned about safety and security of sex workers. Similarly, Ms Rodenberg doesn’t appear to be facing the same kind of animosity and threats as Ms Baxter did (I don’t wish to convey I’m umsympathetic to horrible messages she is receiving). Similarly, Ms Baxter’s piece was a lot more personal in its criticism for a cause that was pretty embarrassing afterward for her.

Anyway, this is an edited version of my comment:

Much assertion and hints at causal relations, but with no actual evidence provided by Ms Rodenberg in this piece. This is worrying, since as someone who both cares for sex worker safety and the art of video games, I don’t want to be encouraging activity that harms.

Unfortunately, this piece does little except construct the game in a scary way; one I – and no doubt many other gamers – never saw.

“This [killing sex workers] is all possible, even encouraged by tips on YouTube and chatrooms, in Grand Theft Auto V. In fact, your character’s health (aka life points) goes up when you have sex with a prostitute.”

A claim that’s been attached to GTA for too long: “there’s points for killing sex workers”. I see it’s amended to say “life points” but no one thinks or calls it that in this game. It’s just “health”.

I must also point out you’re actually showing sex work to be a good thing, if your character heals (another thing I don’t remember happening).

Second, what do you mean by “encouraged”? All that YouTube video you link to shows is where to locate sex workers, which is no different to videos about how to kill the most people in GTA, blow up the most things in GTA, etc. The only kind of “encouragement” is to play the game as fully as possible. Nothing significant is gained by even engaging with sex workers in GTA. I think I did it once in the game, but it’s actually rather boring.

“In the first 24 hours alone, the game sold 11m copies. That’s 11m pixelated ghettos.”

I don’t understand this part. First, so what? Second, one character lives in a mansion in an upper-class neighbourhood. Another one moves into same area later. Presumably, you mean the whole game is a ghetto? The map? I don’t get this.

“They play at night instead of doing their homework. It’s cool to pick up prostitutes.”

There’s many things students would rather do than their homework. That’s about as much GTA’s fault as Cartoon Network; more so, it’s parents’ responsibility to monitor their child’s education – not Rockstar Games.

“This is how you learn to “be a man”.

According to who? I would be interested in how you’re acquiring your data and also if you know what the average age is of those playing GTA 5. Even the Daily Mail shows estimates that it’s usually adults (with a few kids) who are playing (not just buying).

“And while those students play their game, in their neighborhood, perhaps under their window, real prostitutes walk.”

Yes, but there’s also presumably actual violence, murder, assault. Sex workers can walk where they want.

“Millie was one of them, a woman who worked in South Bronx, who walked the streets. She stood on the track, a simulacrum of game pixels. “

I see you’re trying to make it related to a gaming world, but I’m not seeing how other than your assertion of simulacrum of game pixels. Which doesn’t make that much sense – most of us know what’s real, what’s a game, what’s a film.

“She’s dead now, dead like the on-screen women that are fun to kill.”

No, she’s not dead “like the on-screen women”. That seems insulting to this late woman: a once living, breathing, actual human being with loved ones. Pixellated characters don’t have those human qualities; it seems the writer is the one unable to distinguish between reality and the game by making this rather crude comparison.

“There, game and real women split.”

I don’t know what you mean by this.

“These teenagers have the power to reign over those whores. Game and real women merge.”

Assertion, assertion. No evidence or causal link provided. What is the link between one of GTA’s minor activities and the horrible deaths of sex workers? What is the link to the mostly male gamers living around the sex workers and their mistreatment? Millie died because of a complications related to addiction – what is that relation to schoolkids playing GTA V?

“What they see dictates that they should mock the women outside their windows, mothers and sisters and neighbors. They should harden and laugh like the rest of the world who thoughtlessly screw, dump and kill the bitches in ghettos, things that no longer seem real to them.”

I wish this had been your focus. The game is incredibly misogynistic, in its portrayal of women as either shrieking whiners or damsels in distress. There is no depth to them. This, to me, is more worrying than a minor activity: this is more worrying since it’s emblematic of how many women are treated and how many men view them.

GTA’s awful decision to have three males – when it could’ve included one, just ONE, female lead – is further evidence of this. We know Rockstar are incredible story-tellers and character designers: I would’ve loved to have seen a complicated, fascinating woman character lead. They can do it. They didn’t.

That’s of more concern than assertions of blurring realities: Women really are treated this way, the game is evidence of that. There’s no blurring there.

“But [Millie’s children] can reach one memory of [Millie] on screen, hear her say, “hey, baby,” watch men shove her down.”

Seems a rather insensitive thing to say: again, equating a real-life person with an anonymous collection of pixels is quite insulting. Indeed, how do you know what her children will think of her? If I was one of her children, I would be quite insulted by that last assertion.

Before commenting, please note my comment policy

Follow me on Twitter


Should we stop supporting lostprophets, on streaming services, because of Ian Watkins?

The Welsh band, lostprophets, have essentially disbanded, after lead singer Ian Watkins was found guilty of horrible crimes against children. I stopped listening many years ago, thankfully, but I can imagine my first instinct would be to delete all their albums, destroy their CDs and remove any posters or paraphernalia. People have, obviously, also wondered (or screamed) about stores and streaming music services continuing to host lostprophets.

BBC Wales Arts and Media Correspondent Huw Thomas Tweeted about the music streaming service, Spotify.:

When asked if there’s a precedent for this, Thomas replied:

Major retailer HMV appeared to be one of the few he knew about that had removed the band:

(I can’t tell if lostprophets is still being hosted, as I have no access to Spotify due to living in the Dark Ages, according to the Internet.)

Assuming the band is still being hosted, that the other band members’ knew nothing about Watkins’ crimes, and services like Spotify do provide money to artists/performers, is it right for us to ask for the band’s removal from services providing them (both) with an income?

My first thought is that Watkins’ crimes don’t need to hurt more people; in this case, it would be the other band members who appear innocent. Often in our haste, fuelled by anger, we forget that punishment aimed at the offending individual can sometimes, inadvertently, hurt innocents related to that person.

Justice is meaningless if punishment is only a synonym for revenge. No, we’re not courts or police or whatever: but we too can and do punish (witness the rage and the events of the Justine Sacco incident). So the point is to target the wrong-doer and undermine punishment for those closely related.

Of course, one can say that it’s bigger than band members incomes. These gentlemen aren’t,  as far i know, struggling for money, nor are they completely reliant on streaming music services. Thus, by removing lostprophets, Spotify can show support for abused people by saying “we care more about solidarity with your safety and sense of injustice than [say] making money”.  Better yet, lostprophets could themselves withdraw.

But why only Spotify? Should the band members cease all touring, should hosts cancel the performances? Perhaps there’s less at stake with concerts, since most don’t care who host those concerts – since it’s about the band rather than the organisers. Spotify however has its name everywhere, so you can associate that brand directly with the current awful cloud around lostprophets.

Of course, the band has essentially broken up due to Watkins’ horrid crimes. But there are issues that arise if the other, innocent band members were entirely dependent on the band and income from sales.

In many cases, of course, the point is that I can buy all the albums and just destroy them and they’ll still make something; but what about tours, future listeners, and so on, that generates more and new income? This seems little different to instances to any organisation is brought into the spotlight not for the efficiency of what they do, but because of the horrible crime of one or two members. Investors pull out, clients drop them and so on.

There’s no hard and fast solution; it requires case-by-case analysis but, in response, we must remember not to punish too far and too wide off the mark of who deserves punishment (and even then we must decide what that punishment looks like). If I were a fan, I’d probably no longer be – but I would be hesitant since, if everyone did so, it could unnecessarily harm innocent people who just happened to be making money the same way as Watkins.

Before commenting, please note my comment policy

Follow me on Twitter

Wrong (or right) is a conclusion – not judgement

A commenter indicated, in a post on my comment policy, that “having a comment policy is wrong.”

That was the end of the statement.

This touches on something broader: Right and wrong are conclusions, not the beginnings of a judgement.

When people declare something is wrong – or, worse, is just wrong – we have a duty to ask why: What are the reasons that led to that conclusion? If none can be provided, what reason do we – or indeed the person making the claim – have for taking that conclusion seriously?

People forget this about the terms right and wrong, equating it with things like disgust or attraction. Of course, I’m focused here on right and wrong used in a more moral sense, rather than, say, mathematical or artistic (“That music feels right“).

“Homosexuality  is wrong” invariably for many translates into “Homosexuals makes me feel icky”. The first can be interrogated, debated, criticised. The second cannot. That people really are disgusted by gay people is a fact, not a moral discussion or argument. It’s no different than saying “I like Pink Floyd”. Of course, unlike being a Pink Floyd fan, disgust of gays translates into more harm – especially when people want government to be their feelings police, making sure other people don’t offend these disgusted people.

Interestingly, both feed each other but can be separate. I find the concept of incest a bit unnerving, but I still defend the right of two consenting adult twins to engage in a sexual, romantic relationship with each other. My disgust shouldn’t be a deciding factor in how others should live, in most cases. But, of course, one’s digust can fuel engagement with the topic. For example, my intense disgust for the American prison system and capital punishment is a big drive in my writing on capital punishment. The same is no doubt true for all of us and the things we engage in.

The point is, however, that we must treat these concepts of right and wrong in the… well, right way. Right and wrong must be treated as conclusions, otherwise it makes no sense; if they’re not conclusions, then they are probably aesthetic judgement. If you think merely asserting right and wrong makes it so, then that’s probably bigotry.

(Also, if someone asks you why something is wrong, try not to tell them to read x, watch y, etc. Sure, certain topics might require more in depth engagement. But if you can’t at least summarise your reasoning, then – yet again – no one has to take you seriously just because you declare it so.)

Before commenting, please note my comment policy

Follow me on Twitter

Justine Sacco wasn’t the biggest problem about her Twitter storm UPDATE

Over at Big Think, I argued that Sacco’s apparent racism – or rather, her racist Tweet – was probably the least worrying part of her whole “Twitter storm”. What worried me and continues to worry me are our default responses to people and how we caricature, so we can attack, convey pure bile, and do little to actually advance cause or thought.

I didn’t see evidence of rape or death threats at Sacco, though I did look. If you know of any, please let me know below.

I’d like to see more silence than noise online, especially when something makes us angry. That default to convey that anger publicly should be considered: you don’t get a free pass to say and do what you like just because you’re justifiably angry: I argued this about the Elan Gale case. We should stop this being our default and, if there’s a competition for response, it shouldn’t be about who’s the nastiest or most “hardcore”: it should be who’s the smartest and most effective in combating the mindset causing you (justifiable) anger.

I would be terrified of being the target of a Twitter storm: we mess up in various ways and there’s no one to actually shut off or calm down the masses of the moral march. Even if you said something stupid or idiotic, the response is disproportional as you are one person and they are legion. This is inherently unfair. And that’s another reason I worry.

Updated: Thanks to commenter “oolon” below for links showing threats.

Please note my comment policy before commenting, unless you love the taste of Banhammer.

Follow me on Twitter.

Go to


Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!

— Justine Sacco Tweet (@JustineSacco) December 20, 2013

…led to someone taking time to not send threats to Ms Sacco or merely complain to their friends about how nasty racists are (who would disagree?) and do this:

Using attention, current focus and intense emotions and funneling it properly. Excellent. Truly excellent. Want to do something about people like Sacco? Go donate to Aids charities, encourage others to, and don’t send that threatening Tweet or yell about more obvious moral standing (“racism is bad!”).

I will write something on this later. For now, it’s a little too fresh.

Canada top court is sensibile about sex worker laws; Internet reactionaries are not

Great news from Canada.

Canada’s top court has struck down three key laws concerning prostitution in this country, declaring them unconstitutional, disproportionate and overly broad.

In a unanimous ruling, the Supreme Court said the laws prohibiting keeping a brothel, living on the avails of prostitution, and communicating in public for purposes of prostitution “do not pass Charter muster.” It said they infringe on the rights of prostitutes by depriving them of security of the person.

Showing it is possible for old legal folk to act sensibly toward such a touchy (excuse the pun) subject.

[Chief Justice Beverley] McLachlin wrote that given prostitution itself is legal [in Canada], the three laws made it far too difficult for prostitutes to safely engage in sex work.

She wrote the laws “do not merely impose conditions on how prostitutes operate. They go a critical step further, by imposing dangerous conditions on prostitution; they prevent people engaged in a risky — but legal — activity from taking steps to protect themselves from the risks.”

The law banning brothels forces prostitutes onto the streets, McLachlin wrote, and the resulting health and safety risks imposed upon street workers is “grossly disproportionate” to the law’s objective of preventing public nuisance.

Sex work is legal in Canada, though some elements, such as public communication, appear to still be criminal.

And with the sensible and adult treatment of sex, not to mention defending it on a public health and harm perspective, inevitably those with less sensible, more knee-jerk reactions, will also find their voice. This doesn’t mean all opposition comprise less sensible people and those in favour more sensible; I’m focusing here on the reasoning, not the people. [Read more…]

Watch the video of talks from Free Society Institute’s conference “Thinking Things Through”

Some time back, some of the most thoughtful, eloquent people from South Africa joined forces, in some kind of Avengers move, to discuss and combat “[o]bstacles to a free society [such as] oppressive or irrational legislation, moral confusions, bigotry and prejudice, and misconceptions about science and secularism.” This was the Free Society Institute‘s conference titled Thinking Things Through, which got support from the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU).

You can witness all their smarts on full and delightful display now in a single YouTube channel. Here’s the first, with FSI Chair Jacques Rousseau.

I hope to be watching and writing on each one.

For now, I hope you’ll give them all a watch (and witness that South Africa is not comprised solely of lions, grasslands and combat, but critical thinkers and eloquent speakers of international standing).

I just unpublished an article: Here’s why (UPDATED)

I made what I thought were legitimate criticisms of Holly Baxter’s piece, premised on criticisms with her points in her piece for the Guardian on crowdfunding. I spent a long time writing it and trying to be careful, since I’m aware she is currently facing much unnecessary, unwanted and unwarranted digital hate.

I’ve decided, despite spending a long time on the piece, not to publish it (at least for now). I do not wish to add to the Internet’s hate or criticism of Ms Baxter. No one will die because I didn’t say something, but the least I can do is be sensitive to her position right now. Apologies all round. That was an asshole move on my part.

I will perhaps publish it later, but for now, I’d rather spend time making social media and Internet in general a better place for discussion and not add to Ms Baxter’s unnecessary catalogue of negativity.

No, she doesn’t deserve it. And, no, I don’t agree with her arguments. But right now, what matters more is her sense of safety and I don’t want to do anything – even minor – that might detract from that. I’m no one, of course, but as we all know, we are all public figures.


After seeing Baxter’s response on Twitter, I’ve chosen not to publish the article at all. Nothing significant will be gained by my publishing.



I forgot to mention how lovely the Internet can be

Last week I went for (mild) surgery. I’m so special, I know.

I had never been before and I was told I’d be put under general, so would be completely unconscious. I hate sleep enough already precisely for this reason, of being immobile and unaware of what’s happening. Anyway, somehow one of my digital friends on Twitter, the wonderful artist Sally Jane Thompson, asked what she should draw for me.

I replied, not realising she was serious, with “the beauty of two different minds creating a single thing of beauty (ie comics)” [excuse the poor phrasing] – due to my love of the medium and my desire to write comics one day.

Anyway, she really did create a stunning piece for me. I’d rather not post it here as I want you to see it on her lovely site. Do give it look.

Amidst all the horribleness of most Internet interaction, it’s wonderful that someone who is effectively a complete stranger took time out of her busy life, to use the very skills she earns an income from, to draw something to wish me well.

It might sound silly, to some, but it means a great deal to me. It’s not often we get gifted with such things, especially as I know what it means to use your money-making skills for a friend, just to make his or her day slightly better.