It is hardly surprising to anyone that Grand Theft Auto V has released to near universal praise in the games media, as well as some scrutiny in the mainstream.
The series has always been divisive, mostly drumming up a reactionary response from Fox News or CNN highlighting the graphic and frequent violence, drug use, and wanton disregard for universal, socially-recognised values, the message of which inevitably reflects something you would expect to hear from Springfield’s self-appointed moral compass Helen Lovejoy.
While you can’t help but expect this brand of moral hysteria from the mainstream press, a number of well respected and highly regarded games media writers have also levelled quite a bit of criticism towards Rockstar North’s latest release; particularly concerning its depiction of women in Los Santos. As a disclaimer for the rest of the discussion, I’ll address the fact that I haven’t actually played the game yet, so yes, I understand that my soapbox may be resting on a bed of sand, and not concrete. Nevertheless, this article isn’t about whether I think the game is misogynistic or not, it’s the context of the game and its relation to the issues, and the response from the wider gaming public to this criticism that I’ve found most interesting.
The there were a few things that saved GTA IV from the same level of criticism (although arguments can be made about sexism in Liberty City too). The tone of the two games are what really set them apart; its tone is in fact one of the things that makes GTA V feel like such a breath of fresh air. In GTA IV, instead of the rich, vibrant, sun-drenched beaches of Los Santos, Liberty City is coated with a layer of grime over every inch of its concrete lined streets. The three protagonists in GTA V are all career criminals looking for bigger and better ways to, as my boy Fiddy once put it, get rich or die trying. Niko Bellic, in contrast, is contextualised narratively as a reluctant criminal, forced back into a life of crime after escaping his home country in search of the Serbian war criminals who betrayed him.
GTA IV at its core wanted you to believe that Niko was a good dude, just doing what he had to to survive. This contextualised much of the violence, as from the outset we were made to empathise with his story and the depth of his character, saying to ourselves “Its okay Niko, kill that entire squad of police officers, I understand”. GTA V contextualises its violence and vulgarity by presenting its protagonists as bad guys, which is also a fair way to approach it, but it’s harder to defend. That’s not to say that there wasn’t an element of personal control when it came to actually playing as Niko in GTA IV, because lets face it, no matter how gripping his internal struggle with PTSD-like symptoms and his toxic feelings of fear and guilt, nobody’s going to stop you from paying hookers for sex, then beating them to death with your bare hands to recoup your losses. You still gotta have a bit of fun.
The importance placed on sexuality in Los Santos was noticeable from the first trailers for the game, not to mention the marketing material (seriously, is it really necessary to put that Kate Upton look-alike poster on every bare wall in Melbourne?). Sexuality and the sexualisation of young people is brought to the fore in the game, and is obviously a key theme of its satire. The biting honesty of the commentary from its main characters and the faux-Californian setting that GTA V uses allows it to make a number of both subtle and not-so-subtle arguments about the shallowness of consumer culture and the over-sexualisation of women and teenagers. However, in doing so they are choosing to tread a fine line between presenting a satire on these recognisable contemporary issues and inadvertently amplifying them. In the end, context is what separates well executed satire with a message about its content from cheap referential humour not interested in commentary.
Both styles are of course acceptable in different circumstances, the latter can work wonders for a game series like Saint’s Row. But if you try to present a realistic and believable game-world like Rockstar has done, then allow people to think that you have simply filled it with female characters whose only function is to service the male characters (sexually or otherwise), you have to question whether you are producing a satire on contemporary society’s obsession with sex, or whether you are just out to make 17 year olds giggle. I have heard the argument from many fans that the fact that the sexism in GTA is so outwardly noticeable is actually a brilliant satire of the contemporary sexualised society, but believe me, as someone with a friend who has assured me that he only says “YOLO” ironically, sometimes satire can end up losing its efficacy if you make it sound like you might mean it.
Josh Olek from Radio Respawn, a friend of mine whose work you should definitely check out, brought up this issue on his gaming-centric radio show. In a game where a majority of your objectives involve illegal activity of some form or another, whether you are stealing, using prohibited drugs, causing utter mayhem, and otherwise mass murdering your way through a fictionalised Los Angeles, why is misogyny a sticking point for some people? The fact is, while objectively, you can say murdering hundreds of police officers, hookers, or innocent bystanders is profoundly more damaging than a bit of good old-fashioned sexism, the reality is that half of our society is actually being affected by the latter, and thats something that everyone should be aware of.
This is the point at which I tentatively pin on my feminist badge, and make the argument that while the murder and theft in GTA is a criminal fantasy played out on our TV screens, and our TV screens alone, the elements of sexism that exist in GTA can, and do, actually permeate into real life. There are countless researchers and social theorists suggesting that the pornographic nature of sexuality in modern culture is linked to low self-esteem, increasing accounts of sexual violence, and the objectification of women purely in terms of their sexual potential. I’m not saying that GTA is implicit in any of this, or even that the above should be taken as gospel, like all texts the justification and understanding must lie in the eyes of the reader, or in this case the gamer.
However I feel that it is necessary to acknowledge that a real-life social issue like sexism’s portrayal in a game with the platform as big and wide-reaching as GTA’s is hugely influential. We know the target audience for this game is made up of the same people that spend nights on end thinking up new and exciting sexual imagery to apply to your mother on Xbox Live, so I can’t help but think that Rockstar should have taken more care to portray women in a more positive light than they possibly have. Plus, it seems to me that it’s in their best interest not to compound the criticism you know will endure due to the criminality of their game, by making it able to be criticised for sexist content. If you are the leader in your profession like Rockstar is, held as a pinnacle for your industry, an argument can be made that you should look for ways to push the medium forward, making other developers and even other industries look shallow in comparison. And while from all accounts it actually does this in a number of other areas, it seems like maybe in this instance they may have dropped the ball. Because as we all know, well, you tell ‘em Uncle Ben.