Controversy: GTA V again

Posted on December 4, 2014

Controversy breeds angry words, but let’s stop to think about things a bit.

Big news at the moment is the fact that Target (and now Kmart) have removed Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves following a petition calling for Target to recall the sale of Grand Theft Auto V. The main reason given is that the game ‘encourages players to commit sexual violence and kill women’, and it is written from the perspective of survivors of sexual violence.

The front page of the petition

The front page of the petition

It is very difficult to engage in meaningful debate on this issue without seeming to be an apologist for violence in games, or ignoring the prevalence of violence against women and its horrific effects on individuals. Let me say without reservation that violence against women is a huge problem in our society. I have said earlier that Grand Theft Auto V is absolutely not appropriate for children to play; I have openly supported the decision of the Classification Board to refuse classification to a game that featured a sex toy as a weapon; and on social media I have fully supported a colleague in fighting sexist threats against her. However, we need more nuanced and thoughtful discussion of these issues, and less moral panic and knee-jerk reaction, on both sides. (See ‘further reading’ below for some great examples.)

To begin with, Grand Theft Auto V is classified as an R18+ game: it is therefore completely restricted to players over 18 years of age. In my view it is not only the levels of sex and violence, but its generally dubious social views that make it suitable only to well-adjusted adults. Therefore, the petition’s claim that ‘Games like this are grooming another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women’ is misinformed, unless these boys have already been ‘groomed’ prior to becoming adults. (Indeed, many parents do let their children play R18+ games, but that is clearly another issue.)

In the words of my sister (who has a 9-year-old son), ‘I figure there are a long line of violent games that I do not purchase or allow him to play and so won’t be signing the petition’. It really can be that simple.

GTA V: It's not for kids, you know?

GTA V: It’s not for kids, you know?

Secondly, the acts referred to in the petition (namely sex acts followed by violence against women to get money returned) is hardly a core gameplay mechanic in the game. It is true that these actions are possible, but in an ‘open world’ game doing things like this is only one option amongst a very wide variety of behaviours, some of them criminal, and some of them violent. The fact that some players are choosing to record these sequences and publish them on YouTube is disturbing, but the game itself does not have missions or specific reward structures that encourage these acts. I have played this game through to completion and I have never once engaged in the options presented here – frankly, I can’t see how it would be fun.

It must be acknowledged that the alleged connection between video game violence and violence in real life has not been supported by research. It is part of a widespread moral panic that interactive narratives are somehow more damaging or influential than more ‘passive’ media such as films. Indeed, recent recent suggests that an increase in video game violence is actually related to a decrease in rep-world youth violence (Ferguson 2014).

Figure 3. Societal videogame violence consumption and societal youth violence, 1996–2011. (Ferguson 2014)

Figure 3. Societal videogame violence consumption and societal youth violence, 1996–2011. (Ferguson 2014)

Finally, the core argument of the petition – that Target should recall GTA V from its shelves – is perhaps sound. If Target truly is a family-oriented company and if, for example, they refuse to stock R18+ films or games of any type, that is a sound business decision and one they are within their rights to make. The problem is that this will not stop children having access to this game: their parents will buy it for them, or they will access it digitally, and the worm will turn. So while I might technically support the main aim of this petition, we need much more nuanced discussion about these issues and more sophisticated ways of dealing with social problems.

In the meantime: for god’s sake, let’s not allow young children to play this game.

Further reading

Carolyn Petit, City of Angels and Demons (Grand Theft Auto V Review)

Mark Serrels, Target’s Grand Theft Auto V Ban Leaves Us With No-one to Blame

Mary Hamilton, Games aren’t just for kids anymore. By pulling Grand Theft Auto from stores Target has set the medium back.



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