Last week, Target Australia removed Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV) from its stores, due to an online petition decrying the sexual elements of GTAV, which forced Target’s hand in the matter. People took to the internet and further petitioned Target to remove other so-called offensive material from its stores, with suggestions such as Fifty Shades of Grey, and even The Bible. So the question should be raised, are gamers missing the point?
The gaming community can be a bit precious at times. It promotes a culture that doesn’t like people messing with their video games – they don’t like censorship. I am not a fan of censorship either; however, in some cases it’s acceptable. Take the removal of GTAV from Target, for example – I feel that’s acceptable. I would even argue that the title should be removed from other family-friendly stores including K-Mart and Big W (note: K-Mart has already followed suit and removed the title from its shelves). Why? Well, before we get to that, let’s discuss what the problem is to begin with.
The Grand Theft Auto series has been one of the major entertainment movements in the past twenty years. Ever since the original top-down shooter hit the PlayStation, it has spawned imitators. At its core though, Grand Theft Auto has always been an open-world game, wherein players can essentially do anything. Want to race around a city at top speed with no consequence when you hit a building? Sure! Want to enter a cheat code to spawn a tank and go on a rampage? Of course, go for it. Want to hire a hooker, have sex with her and then shoot her to get your money back? Ah… ok? Do I have to?
Well, no, you don’t have to. The benefit of Grand Theft Auto is in all the great elements that are available to play around with. It’s a giant adult sandbox, full of mayhem and fun. The downside to this is that Rockstar has created an adult sandbox full of adult elements. Yes, you can kill and slaughter people, but you can also do other adult things, including the opportunity to have sex.
Keep in mind, though, that Grand Theft Auto isn’t the first game to include sex in it. You’ll have to go back to Leisure Suit Larry (and even earlier) to see that. Yet the inclusion of both violence and sex makes Grand Theft Auto unique. I personally have nothing against the inclusion of sex in games. Just like sex in film or literature, its inclusion requires a purpose. It can’t be there ‘just because’. Sexual violence, however, is even more of a sensitive subject, and GTAV does not handle the subject sensitively.
Sexual violence is still a major problem in our modern society. Articles covering sexual violence need to have trigger warnings on them. It’s come so far that men feel the need to publicly pledge that they will never commit an act of violence against a woman. GTAV has no trigger warning on it. In fact, it doesn’t even mention sexual violence in its rating.
So why is Target only just now removing GTAV from its stores? The release of GTAV on the new round of consoles has also heralded the arrival of a new mode in the game – first-person perspective. This is a first for the Grand Theft Auto series and it changes up the style of play in an interesting way. I’ve personally played a few hours of GTAV on PS4 and have found that it handles a lot better in first person. What I haven’t encountered, though, are the city of Los Santos’ many prostitutes.
I haven’t sought them out at all, but they’re there. They’re available for a short, fun time and that’s it. After your time, you can shoot them down and collect the money they’ve dropped. The fact that any other person in the city of Los Santos can be killed and has money to be collected is negligible – it’s the fact that your character has just had sex with a prostitute and you’ve then killed them to get your cash back. It’s an element that perhaps takes the idea of ‘you can do anything!’ a little too far, and I would argue should never have been included in the first place. Sure, games have elements that are there ‘just because’ – you don’t have to pick flowers and hunt wildlife in Skyrim to progress the story, but it’s there if you like – however, I feel that for GTAV to have this other element is pointless and offensive.
You can quite easily play through Grand Theft Auto without ever having to encounter this, which supports the argument that it shouldn’t even be there to begin with. Let’s get back to the core question though – should Target have removed GTAV from its stores?
Yes! Without a doubt. Sure, it’s slightly hypocritical when there are other games that are rated R on their shelves, but this is a special case. GTAV is one of the major game releases of the year and is a title that teens and kids younger than 18 will be wanting for Christmas. Unfortunately, regardless of the rating system, there are still parents who will buy their kids these sorts of games without really assessing the content that’s in them.
Add the problem that a store like Target is predominantly staffed by teenagers under the age of eighteen. Legislation also states that any game or film that is rated R18+ cannot be sold by anyone under eighteen years old. So realistically, it’s counterproductive for a store like Target to have to have someone who is over eighteen come and sell the game every single time. Target hasn’t removed other R18+ games (such as Watch Dogs or Wolfenstein) from their shelves – it’s blacklisting a specific game for a specific reason. Realistically, though, they should be taking all R18+ games off the shelf.
Target is doing the right thing by addressing an issue that has been around for a while. Sure, it’s taken them a year to address this problem, but they’re addressing it and that helps create discussion about sexual violence in video games. It also helps create discussion around the kinds of entertainment available to consumers in family-friendly stores. Unfortunately, the backlash from gamers in Australia has been childish and is missing the point of the removal. There is a long way to go before sexual violence can be taken seriously by gamers and game developers, at least in my opinion.
Interestingly enough, one of the other controversial moments in the game hasn’t even been raised – the torture sequence. Later on in the game, there is a moment where one of the playable characters tortures another character. I haven’t reached this part in the game so I’m unable to outline my feelings about that moment, but as far as I understand it’s an uncomfortable moment that’s likely made even harder to watch in first person. It calls to mind memories of another Rockstar game – Manhunt.
Where this will go from here – who knows? As a gamer, I’ve found myself straying towards games that question violence, or don’t feature violence heavily. Whether they are platformers or strategy games, I’m drawn towards games that aren’t about shooting all the time. I no longer have the patience for those sorts of nihilistic games that don’t question what they’re doing. I also believe that, as a form of entertainment, video games should not be exploring certain topics – sexual violence being a prime example. It is such a major issue that I simply do not think that gaming will be able to adequately address it in its current form.
I don’t entirely believe that there is a link between video game violence and violence in the real world; however, I also don’t believe that the far-reaching consequences of this activity have been realised yet. We live in a world where children are exposed to violence earlier than previous generations. It’s also far more accessible and, whilst we can sit around and say that “real-world violence and video games aren’t connected,” I don’t honestly believe that we can say that is the case right now – at least not until this current generation grows up. It could be similar to film and literature, where people previously thought that minds would rot and violent content would encourage children to lead to a life of crime and violence – and yet time showed that this was not the case.
The next year or so will be interesting. We live in a culture where the quality of games is so high that we shouldn’t accept the slaughter of countless amounts of red-shirted foes ‘just because’ – I’m looking at you Far Cry 4. We need context as to why we’re doing this. I look at a game like Dishonoured, which came out a few years ago and provided the player with the option of completing the game without killing anyone. On the flipside – one player tried to play Grand Theft Auto Online (the online component of GTAV) as a pacifist. You can read here how that went.
I hope that the culture can move past this and reach a point where women are treated equally and with respect. Where sexual violence is not an activity that players are involved in. It will surely be a long path to that end – and one that I’m afraid we may never actually reach. If that is the case, then I’m not sure where I see myself as a gamer. I’m not sure I want to be part of that kind of culture.