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.

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  1. HappiestSadist, Repellent Little Martyr says

    I think there is something to be said about the fact that brutalizing and killing sex workers is considered amusing and a punch line in our culture in general, and that this is so normalized does reinforce beliefs that make life more dangerous for sex workers, but it’s not exactly one video game’s reason that whorephobia exists.

  2. Jacob Schmidt says

    Second, what do you mean by “encouraged”?

    Well, there is incentive in game for doing so: murdering them get’s you your money back.

  3. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    #2 If you bother to read the article you linked to you’ll find that there is nothing connecting the assault with the game, and it wasn’t even the only thing stolen. Or do you think cell phones and watches also lead to violence?

  4. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    Don’t worry, the anti-video-game kooks will keep throwing shoddy studies at the wall. Sooner or later, something will stick

    Mother fucker I AM FUCKING LOGGED IN..

  5. Tauriq Moosa says


    That’s like saying anything that has ever been stolen “leads” people to steal them. It’s almost victim-blaming the items for being stolen.

    Your point makes no connection between GTA V and crime, much like the article I criticise. Sorry.

  6. says

    More screeching from the puritans. If the article was about the actual misogyny (also homo- and transphobia) it would have a point. Instead it focuses on a minor detail of the game that’s purely optional. Video games do not link to violence – there may be a small correlation between violent behavior and playing games, but the player has to already have an inclination towards violence. I’ve been playing Saint’s Row the Third this weekend and I’ve enjoyed it incredibly. I don’t find myself desiring to hurt anyone.

    (On a side note: Saint’s Row does the sexism thing better than GTA. Not counting your (infinitely configurable) main character who can be a bad-ass woman if you want, the main women characters are all much more molded than any I’ve ever seen in GTA)

  7. says

    Why the jumping to conclusions and inferences of something that was not thought of, never mind said?

    I was pointing out the irony of someone buying a game and then suffering the sort of violence contained within the game.

  8. dysomniak, darwinian socialist says

    Oh, I guess it was someone else who typed “GTA may not make people rape, but it might lead to other things” and then linked to an inflammatory daily mail headline. My mistake.

  9. Sheesh says

    People that play games likes this have the power to make moral choices. There is no compelling reason to kill sex workers in GTA V. When guns — in game — cost thousands and property millions there is no reasonable reason for doing it there’s essentially zero incentive. There’s even less incentive in this iteration of the game (and less than the one before and before, etc.), e.g., in V your health grows back *in the middle of firefights* if you stay in cover long enough. Health is not a resource you need to seek. (Money, guns and experience are.)

    Sex workers don’t provide resources in any amount greater than any other bystander. Killing bystanders for their pocket money is largely a trap — since most player deaths (and thus loss of resources) result from unintended police response, which escalates quickly. Killing bystanders is not a thing in this version or the last, it’s a player choice, and as mentioned is nearly almost punished. In most cases the game goes to some lengths to indicate that anyone that must be killed to progress “has it coming” in terms of their narative. Rockstar seems to have grown on this issue even, since you have the choice to execute million dollar heists without killing anyone. (I recall some stealth take-downs in the prep work.)

    That’s all a long way of agreeing with Tauriq — this game makes progress on portrayals of sex workers, and has made progress on offering moral choices, and has made progress in depicting people of all body types and ethnicities (although not without problems), but isn’t any better on the wider issue of misogyny.

    The misogyny on the other hand — that’s been well discussed. Picking up essentially innocent women and delivering them to cannibals is incentivized (at players’ choice, it’s not coerced), non-stop objectification and damseling, feminism is mocked on talk radio and the mock-internet and parodied by NPCs, etc. No progress on that front. And fwiw, I don’t see any barrier to fixing that (outside of Rockstar’s management culture). It would be entirely possible to create a GTA game with identical gameplay and the same level of ascerbic satire and parody while also including women as player characters and depicting women as people with the full range of abilities and motivations. An interesting choice would be Michael as a women, while retaining everything else with nearly no re-writes outside of gender, even the mentor relationship with a man.

    Trevor could have been a woman.

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