Point-Counterpoint: Grand Theft Auto 5 and Misogyny

This is a response to Colin Campbell’s opinion piece on Polygon about the alleged misogyny in GTA 5.  I will highlight quotes from the article, and then respond to them. Quotes from Campbell’s piece will be in bold.

In the interests of full disclosure: I have not played GTA 5, but I have seen multiple videos of the game in action and am aware of certain plot points. I have played prior games in the series (GTA 4 and San Andreas) and I assume that not much has changed besides the scope of the franchise’s available activities and the whole “swap between three characters” deal.

“The doctrine of ‘if you don’t like it, just don’t buy it‘ is a useful defense for cynical purveyors of shoddy products. They would prefer that you move along and keep your opinions to yourself.

When used in video games, 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.”

Campbell’s criticism of the “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” defense would be true if we were talking about malfunctioning shavers or toasters – things which obviously don’t fulfill their function.  But we’re talking about the consumption of art and entertainment, not machinery; art and entertainment is fundamentally a “if you don’t like it, don’t buy it” deal.

Moreover, Take-Two is not suggesting that critics shut up: they’re saying that people should be allowed to choose what art they want to support without having the whims of a small group of individuals forced on them, as you can clearly see by the full context of the quote:

“It’s one thing for a person to not want to buy a piece of content, which is completely understandable. And that’s really the solution. If you don’t like it; if it’s offensive to you, then you don’t buy it,” he said. “But for a person or a group of people to try to make that decision for millions of people … we have 34 million people who have bought Grand Theft Auto V. If these folks had their way, none of those people would be able to buy Grand Theft Auto.”

And yes, GTA 5 lacks context for those who haven’t consumed it, including me.  If you haven’t actually played a game, how can you possibly criticize it? You need to have consumed GTA 5 in order to be able to criticize GTA 5, just like any other art/entertainment product – or is Campbell arguing that people can now criticize movies without even having seen them?

“Take-Two and publishing sub-brand Rockstar want to be able to say whatever they like about whomever they like, without consequence. At the same time as 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.”

This is dishonest. Take-Two isn’t saying that they should be able to say anything without consequence – they’re saying “Let the consumer decide what art to consume, rather than let special interest groups dictate what art can and cannot be sold.”

Being able to say whatever you like about whoever you like is a fundamental of both free speech and art.  If people did not like Take-Two’s products, then they would not buy them, and Take-Two would naturally suffer the consequences.  That’s what Take-Two wants: for that choice to be in the hands of the greater public.  If millions of people have bought GTA 5 in Australia (the overwhelming majority of which appear to have enjoyed the game) and only 40,000 people can place arbitrary limiters on their ability to purchase further games in the franchise – yeah, the game is being stifled by a mob of censors.

“Look, let’s get one thing straight. We live in a free society. GTA 5 should be available for any adult who wants to buy it, though any retailer who wants to sell it. But that doesn’t mean its makers ought to be allowed to feel comfortable dismissing its critics in the most derisory fashion imaginable.”

What Campbell is omitting here is that Take-Two’s response was due to those “critics” successfully removing copies of the game from store shelves. Take-Two’s response is an argument against censors and morality police groups, not against critics.  They’re not stepping on the throats of reviewers, column writers, or people who gave them a bad Metacritic score: they’re fighting against censors trying to put them out of business for publishing something “morally objectionable.”

“What I personally find repulsive about this game is the pleasure it offers in portraying the savaging of a class of people who are already victims, in real life. This is where GTA 5 shows a lack of judgment. I take issue with the portrayal of sex workers being abused and murdered, because sex workers are already victims, and it’s just not right to take your fun in abusing victims.

I know a lot of people desperately want to believe that killing a prostitute in GTA 5 is the same as killing any other character, but it’s really not. Unlike gangsters or cops or business dudes or hot dog vendors, prostitutes, as a class, are despised, marginalized and abused in real life, all the time. This means that GTA 5 takes its pleasure in humiliating and abusing victims of humiliation and abuse.

Yeah, I know these aren’t real people. They are just cartoon characters. My point is not that the on-screen sex workers being murdered are real, nor that the game will prompt people to go out and murder prostitutes. My point is that this portrayal of them reinforces hard ideas about the worthlessness of prostitutes, in ways that are unique to this class of characters in the game. My point is that it is deeply distasteful to gleefully portray victims being shat upon by privilege.”

Police are killed every day in the line of duty trying to maintain civil order in society.  How is the killing of prostitutes somehow more reprehensible/insensitive than killing police officers?

Gangsters are despised by society – indeed, isn’t the popular social theory for the existence of gangs that their members were marginalized and rejected by society, and sought comfort where they could?  How is killing these victims of society less reprehensible?

Hot dog vendors (and food service industry people in general) are not despised as a group, but are certainly abused and marginalized – you constantly see stories online where members of the food service industry complain about abusive behavior from customers and how they’re treated as if they don’t exist.  How is killing them “less bad” than killing prostitutes?

The list goes on.  The fact of the matter is that killing human beings IRL is reprehensible regardless of the victim’s social position. Trying to label one group of people as being “especially bad to kill” in a videogame because of how they’re treated in real life is ridiculous, especially in a game where murdering crowds of gun-toting hippies is treated as a sidequest.

The NPCs in GTA are a crowd of cardboard cut-outs. If you want to, you can run around killing nothing but black cut-outs.  Or white cut-outs.  Or male cut-outs.  Or female cut-outs.  Or you can gun down cut-outs wantonly, roleplaying a psychopath with unlimited access to RPGs.  Or you can choose to kill no one and simply go parachuting, or bowling, or whatever.  There’s a reason the series is called a sandbox: you decide what you want to do, and what limits you want to set.  And while you can do bad things to people who don’t deserve it, there are consequences to doing anything wrong: the police will shortly show up to murder you, bringing increasing levels of manpower depending on the extent of your crimes.

You will magically resurrect afterwards sans guns and a fee, but still – you did something bad and were punished for it.  That isn’t “encouraging violence” or “gleefully portraying victims”.  If there were some sort of special reward for killing prostitutes, or if you had to mow down a crowd of stereotypical sex workers to complete the game, Campbell might have a leg to stand on: but he’s got nothing.

“I suspect that Take-Two is secretly terrified that the world might wake up tomorrow and figure out that, yes, this aspect of the game is in very poor taste and perhaps we should be having a bigger conversation about how this company portrays women in games that are overwhelmingly consumed by young men.”

As a man, I find the portrayal of men in Lifetime movies/yaoi manga/romance novels to be completely offensive: men are either hot, rapists, or hot rapists!  When are we going to talk about this horrific and unrealistic portrayal of males being consumed by women!?

Oh wait, it’s almost as if art and entertainment sometimes involves over-simplified caricatures.  I forgot about that.  Moral panic over, carry on everyone.

Being serious though, what info does Campbell have to back up his claim that GTA is “overwhelmingly consumed by young men”, and what examples does he have of women in GTA 5 being portrayed worse than the men?  Because he doesn’t put forth any of them.  The most he’s got in his piece is a Gamespot review which claims that the satire of women in the game feels mean.  Forgive me, but I’m unimpressed.

“This game has made choices about what is acceptable and what is not; poor ones, in my opinion. Of course, the line of acceptability is always on the move. As a boy, I watched musicals in which white men blacked up and sang songs about the good ol’ South. I watched comedies in which particular races and nations were portrayed as dishonest, cowardly or shiftless. I watched dramas in which women were repeatedly presented as deranged or simpletons or both. In the intervening years, the line has moved. It’s not cool to make entertainments like that any more.”

Oh my god, are you seriously comparing GTA to minstrel shows?

You are.

Good lord.

“If you did make entertainments that mocked minorities and women, would it be fine and dandy to just say ‘if you don’t like it, don’t buy it.’ I don’t think so. This is the sort of line we hear from entitled sophomores, peering up from their heartless philosophies. We understand now that ‘punching down’ is what bullies do; that the jokes that mock people for being what they are, just aren’t funny.”

Cool, so then maybe we should stop making jokes about rich people for being rich, white people for being white, nerds for being nerds, jocks for being jocks… gosh, we’re gonna run out of jokes at this rate.

Oh wait, I forgot.  When Campbell says “mocking people for being what they are isn’t funny” he means only means specific groups that have to be protected as if they were endangered animals being threatened by poachers.  Putting aside how very “white man’s burden” this sounds (AS THE NOBLE, IMPORTANT WHITE MEN, WE HAVE A SACRED DUTY TO PROTECT THE WOMEN AND MINORITIES), nobody is immune from jokes or criticism, and pretending that people should be is to infantilize them.  It also calls into question the fact that jokes are made by black people/women about black people/women all the time – see Chris Rock’s “How not to get your ass beat by the police” skit for a prime example.

“(I wonder, by the by, why there are no male prostitutes in the game.)”

The only thought of merit in the whole piece.  Even if players can’t utilize them (AFAIK the three playable characters are all straight), they should still be there, because they do exist.  Saint’s Row’s got GTA 5 beat there.

“You can draw your own arbitrary moral line to illustrate that Take-Two’s choices are by no means unchangeable, that through a different lens, they look pretty weird. So, for example, why can you not murder children in GTA 5? I am certain that there are plenty of people who would love to do that. I am certain that were it a reality in the game, its continued inclusion would be defended vigorously by hordes of brave libertarians. If Take-Two is so concerned about free speech, why isn’t it railing against the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to allow more freedoms to depict atrocities against the defenseless?”

Perhaps because Take-Two just doesn’t feel like putting kids in their games?  Perhaps because they decided that they didn’t think it was worth the hassle and outrage that would emerge from private interest groups?  Perhaps because doing so could risk the game getting an AO rating and effectively banned from sale in America?  Perhaps because they think the public would reject such a feature? Perhaps you could have actually asked Take-Two this question (since you’re a games journalist) instead of posing it as a nebulous accusation?

Oh wait, I forgot: that would require actual effort.  Never mind then.

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