My Uncertainty About Banning Grand Theft Auto

grandtheftautoWarning: This post discusses rape and assault.

I’ve long advocated against censorship on this blog. I’ve stood up for the idea that “I may not agree with what you say, but I’ll defend your right to say it” many times. I have to take this stance because I make porn, something that many people would like to see censored and banned. It doesn’t matter that my porn is relatively “tame” – in some people’s eyes it is offensive and obscene and they think no-one else should be allowed to see it. So I’m naturally pro-freedom of speech.

Yet I’m currently finding myself uncertain and uncomfortable after the game Grand Theft Auto 5 was removed from Australian Target and KMart stores after a popular petition called for its banning. The November 14 release of the game features an ability to engage in first-person sex with sex workers (all female). The gamer then has the ability to beat or kill the woman to get his money back. This is on top of a popular hack that allows the gamer to rape people within the game.

I’ve watched a few Youtube videos that show a typical sex scene and then the subsequent murder of the sex worker. The gamer can kill using their car or weapons like an axe. My initial thought was the sex looked clunky and that it was all typically sexist (where are the male sex workers?) but then when it gets violent I felt disgusted. As, no doubt, did all those people who signed the petition. And I found myself thinking that banning that game might be a good idea after all. Because, really, how horrible, right?

The problem is that this thinking goes against all my pre-existing principles. So I found myself having an internal argument about which side I wanted to be on here. And I’ll admit, I’m still not sure.

Here’s some background. I’m not a gamer. I have RSI so I tend to keep my existing ability for work. Also, I’m crap at games and find them uninteresting and frustrating. So I’m not qualified to make a decision on the credibility or worthiness of a game.

The closest I’ve come to playing Grand Theft Auto was watching my 5-year-old nephew play it. Yep, that’s right, members of my family had no problem with letting a small child play a game where part of the fun is blithely running people over, stealing cars, setting fire to things, shooting stuff etc. I hated that they let him do that but… what are you gonna do? He’s not my kid, I don’t get a say.


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So I watched as my cute nephew did all of the above and I will admit that playing the game requires you to not take it seriously. Even as I winced when he ran over pedestrians, I could see that the game encourages a strong awareness that this isn’t reality. Nobody really gets hurt; it’s cartoon violence like Itchy and Scratchy. There’s almost a vague catharsis in the violence; it may be fun to do it on screen but you know you’d never do it in real life.

At least, I hope that. And I will say I viewed it with a lingering feeling of distaste. I’m pretty squeamish so violence and gore is not my idea of a good time.

And the thought that my little nephew would be able to simulate sex with – and kill – a virtual sex worker, makes me ill.

I found myself wondering what the difference is? Why is it OK to blithely run down people as part of gameplay but sexual violence is wrong?

In theory, there’s no difference. These are virtual avatars, they’re not real people. Nobody gets hurt. It’s not real, right?

And yet I feel like a line has been crossed simply because sexual violence remains so prevalent and so ignored in real life. If some jerk was to take up running down pedestrians, shooting, looting and setting fire to things, you can bet the police will be all over it and that person will go to jail. But when a woman is raped or a sex worker is killed the victim is blamed, prosecutions are rare and offenders often go on to repeat the offence. “Real life” in this case isn’t so clearly cut. And entrenched societal attitudes help to maintain stigma and encourage violence against sex workers, as well as to excuse or ignore rape.

So when a game depicts the abuse of women (and only women), when it associates sex with violence and when it encourages a “she deserved it” attitude to sex workers… that’s something to be very concerned about. Especially in the light of the ongoing bullshit that is Gamergate, where women within the games industry have been threatened with rape, violence and death for daring to speak out about sexism within games.

Clearly, there are a lot of misognyist attitudes amongst gamers and it’s not good that a game would be happily perpetuating that.

But… does this mean it should be banned? I don’t know. When I read the opinion of the ex-sex worker who started the petition, I can really see her point of view. And yet I know that a casual attitude towards violence against women is the fault of patriarchy at large. Our entire culture encourages it. Grand Theft Auto may be a symptom, rather than a cause.

The question of whether media has a direct affect on us remains an ongoing topic of research. Conclusions vary, depending on who you ask. And this is perhaps why I am uncertain about where I stand on the topic: I like to rely on evidence and my knowledge of the research isn’t extensive.

For example, I did a brief search for “research games influence behaviour” and the first thing that came up was a large meta-analysis of dozens of earlier papers called
Effects of Violent Video Games on Aggressive Behavior, Aggressive Cognition, Aggressive Affect, Physiological Arousal, and Prosocial Behavior“. That study found that:

Research on exposure to television and movie violence suggests that playing violent video games will increase aggressive behavior. A meta-analytic review of the video-game research literature reveals that violent video games increase aggressive behavior in children and young adults.

In theory, that’s a big strike to gamers. And yet that’s only one article. I don’t have the time to find alternative viewpoints but I’m sure you can discover them with a bit of googling.

When it comes to porn, I typically advocate that it doesn’t cause rape, simply because I think that case has been made. I’d also argue that the vast majority of porn out there depicts consensual activity, even if the overall context is sexist or degrading or negative.  At the same time, I don’t think I could argue that viewers are immune to behavioural changes after watching it simply because there’s a lot of research I haven’t read. I’m aware of studies that say many porn viewers approach it with a balanced perspective; they know it’s fantasy, they know it’s not real and they don’t replicate it in the bedroom or in their lives. But that’s not everyone.

What I do know is that the solution to bad porn isn’t censorship. The solution is education, feminism and better porn. I’m part of a movement to encourage awareness of ethics, of feminist principles, of non-violence (unless its consensual, of course!). When you change people’s way of thinking, when you raise awareness, they will make changes to their lives and how they treat other people.

So flip over to gaming which does depict violence. I think the same applies. Sure, I may think it’s atrocious that people would willingly want to rape or kill women in a gaming context but maybe it really is just a game. What’s important is that gamers don’t bring that attitude to real life. And the solution to that is making sure people are educated and aware that yes, women are people. That sex workers deserve respect. That violence is never justified.

How do we make that happen? I think that speaking up about the depiction of women in games is vital. I do think GTA5 needs to be condemned because it has crossed a line in what it’s depicting. We need to be loud about the fact that criminals blithely killing sex workers is not just something that happens in a game.

People need to really think about whether what they’re seeing in a game is encouraging them to think a certain way. They need to critically engage with the product and come to their own conclusions. And I feel like banning things takes away that option.

Yet even writing that… I’m still uncertain where I stand.

Which comes first, the chicken or the egg, the game or the misogny? How do we educate and get the word out when sexist media is having a huge counter-effect and undermining the message? How do we fight a sexist culture when so many aspects of our media culture want to maintain the status quo?

I’m going to end this blog post on that uncertainty because I’ve run out of things to say. And no doubt both sides will continue their argument regardless of what I think. Still, just putting it out there…

A few of the articles I read before writing this:

Target Australia pulls Grand Theft Auto from shelves

Grand Theft Auto and the problem with banning ‘violent’ video games and media

Why taking Grand Theft Auto off the shelf is like banning a Martin Scorcese movie

Virtual rape in Grand Theft Auto 5: Learning the limits of the game

One Reply to “My Uncertainty About Banning Grand Theft Auto”

  1. The government did an extensive literature review in the lead up to introducing an R18+ rating for video games:
    And David Gauntlett’s essay on the Media Effects Model is still good at dispelling ‘intuitive’ ideas about media effects on people, even two decades later:

    I am someone who has played games since the 90s. The particular targeting of GTA V seems misguided to me. Street sex workers have been present in the series since GTA 3 (and there have been 5 major releases since then). As a sandbox game, you can choose to beat and kill anyone, so there is nothing special about the ability to target sex workers. Beating or killing anyone does attract the attention of the in-game police if it’s witnessed (and half the fun comes from seeing how long you can last causing destruction while increasing levels of law enforcement comes to take you down). I therefore find it difficult to see as ‘sexual violence’ rather than an artefact of the game’s core mechanics, that some people, including players, are bringing their own biases to.

    This does seem to be the next phase in a culture war. Perhaps a civil war, as it seems the left has fractured and is fighting itself. It’s been coming for a number of years now, as parts of the left have become increasingly authoritarian. As someone who is left leaning, I find myself increasingly put off by much of comes under the banner of ‘social justice’ these days. A similar example from earlier this year was when the Sydney Opera House fired Tamar Iveri. It certainly isn’t that I agree with her views, but we rapidly seem to be getting to the point where you can’t voice or hold opinions that a critical mass of social media users disagree with. All nuance will be lost, you’ll be branded a terrible person, and hounded until your life is destroyed. (This is, incidentally, why I’m mildly pro-gamergate. I see it as the first major backlash against this kind of authoritarian behaviour that has been gaining ground for years.)

    I also see it, for instance, in the way the Greens approached the gender toy debate, and I hate being on the same side of an argument as Cori Bernardi. While I’ll certainly agree that the way toy stores have become increasingly gender divided is unnecessary, and there should be nothing preventing boys playing with dolls or girls with trucks, attempting to link this to domestic violence is just emotional manipulation. It’s also intellectually vacuous. Why not, for example, look to the increasing number of single parent families if you believe violence is getting ‘worse’. (Assault is, everything else has been relatively stable: ) But surely, the family structure has a far greater impact on a child than a toy that is played with for a couple of years. There is strong evidence that there are behavioural differences betweens boys and girls from birth. There was a recent 7-part Norwegian documentary that is very informative on the underlying divide in academia that I think is the root cause of this culture clash. The first part is called the Gender Equality Paradox:

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