What Everyone Has Gotten Wrong in the Grand Theft Auto 5 Prostitute Controversy

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By now, everyone has heard that Australian iterations of Target and Kmart — unaffiliated with the American versions of the companies — have decided to remove all copies of Grand Theft Auto V from their store shelves. The decision was made after an online petition from Change.org with 40,000 plus signatures was effective at prompting the retail stores’ directors to comply with the wishes of the petitioners.

Gamers heard the news and took the internet by storm, with most of them disparaging retailers’ decision and decrying the move as censorship, sexism, and just plain ignorance. In fact, one can look directly underneath the petition to see commenters using their Facebook identities to insult and berate not just the intention of the petition, but anyone involved.

This sort of hyper-reactionary response has unfortunately begun to characterize a great deal of the gaming community, both in media portrayals and in the vast majority of visible opinions online. While all internet comments should be taken with a grain of salt, the ones clearly visible on multiple stories covering the issue reflect a common narrative held by people prone to aggressively defending the content of video games.

The fact is that while the Grand Theft Auto series may seem like an unfair target of frequent controversy, the particulars of this case are worth discussing rather than jumping to outright conclusions or worn out thought-terminating cliches.

 

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Our Story So Far

First off, many people act as if the stores’ decision is part of a new movement to take all objectionable games off the shelves. Those that think this story represents a new trend should take a look at this lengthy list of games officially banned by the Australian government’s rating system. They’ll see titles like Marc Eckō’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure, which was banned for “glorifying graffiti.”

Also on the list are games that were initially banned, but were re-released after removing the offending content. There you will see pretty much every single Grand Theft Auto game since III came out. After GTAIII’s release, the Australian government — not just a few retailers — decided to ban the game after it came to light that you could have sex with prostitutes, giving you health, and then kill them to get your money back. Sound familiar?

This exact same issue repeated with every single Grand Theft Auto title from 2001-2007. The reasons were always the same, and Rockstar usually responded by removing the ability to solicit prostitutes from the game’s code.

GTA’s repetitive history makes it feel like a miracle that GTAV was released unedited at all. The fact that the government declined to step in and that the decision to pull the game was made by privately-owned retailers based on an online petition is actually quite unusual.

People who do not live in Australia should thus quell their concerns that the discussion of GTAV will lead to sweeping changes in video game censorship around the world. The decisions of a few retailers — that are owned by a somewhat politically conservative holding company known as the Wesfarmers Group — does not reflect a worldwide movement that will gain any sort of traction from history veritably repeating itself.

 

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“Players Make Their Own Choices”

Just because the threat of worldwide GTA bans is greatly exaggerated does not mean that the issue isn’t worth discussing. Many other gaming writers including one living in Australia have already done an excellent job of covering the key talking points. Yet, many of the typical counter arguments to the ban have largely not been addressed.

One of the most prominent counterarguments is the fact that at no point in the game are players required to kill prostitutes. I can confirm this since I didn’t even see prostitutes until late in the game and have hardly seen them since.

The petitioners acknowledge that the acts are optional, but that the options are presented and encouraged. Players receiving most of their money from prostitutes after killing them would be an obvious example of encouragement. Even though every random pedestrian in the game carries money on them, prostitutes carry more than the average NPC making them a more tempting target for violence.

Players can do all sorts of things in GTAV and not all of them are violent. Some are impressive ways of exploring the artistically crafted landscape. One instance of a minor incentive does not automatically mean that the game is leading you towards singling out a particular NPC type.

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Yet, when it comes to pedestrians, you can’t really interact with most of them. Some have random events attached to them. Most ignore you unless you do something that scares them away or makes them angry. The only way to truly interact with them is to kill them whether by accident or as a form of “sport” by utilizing the many combat options and weapons you have at your disposal. Creating havoc in general might seem like sick behavior, but chaotic violence is one of the hallmarks of the series. Most of the time, it feels quite sanitized and even “cartoony,” especially when sticky bombs are involved. It’s only when the player makes a point of doing things that are frankly weird and are extensions of a perverted imagination that these actions can look particularly offensive.

For example, a player could find a jumbo jet and crash it into the tallest building in the game. This action in-game means that you just suck at flying or wanted to end your flight in a fantastic explosion. However, the obvious symbolism of this act because of cultural context could cause offense. But it won’t earn the player money and the game is not coded to “reward” this act with special damage to the building, an achievement, etc.

Going back to the petition’s concerns, prostitutes are one of the few NPCs that you actually can interact with, albeit in a limited way. You can solicit them for sex, kill them like every other pedestrian NPC, or both. Spending money on sex may lead to a player wanting their money back, making it more likely to have sex with a prostitute and then killing her. As was stated in the petition, this can be seen as an act that “links sexual arousal and violence.”

While I highly doubt that this connection was Rockstar’s intention, the nature of having limited interactions with NPCs in general could easily lead someone to this conclusion. In earlier games like GTAIII, health pickups were less common and prostitutes were more frequently seen in wider ranges of the map. Sex workers presented an easy opportunity for health that could end up costing you nothing. Treating a specific sect of women as essentially a video game item in this way could easily offend people, especially if they have a traumatic history of working in the sex industry. GTAV’s much more realistic depiction of the sex acts, coupled with the newly-hyped first-person view is undoubtedly what struck a fresh chord in this issue.

 

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“But You Kill Men, Too!”

People trying to point out supposed double standards have proven how well thought out this argument usually isn’t by insincerely asking Target to ban another “offensive” product that they don’t even carry.

No one making this particular argument is actually trying to stand up for murdered men in the game. They have the opportunity to do so and are instead trying to detract from the argument that someone else is making. Rather than the complaint being an “and” to the conversation it is being used as a “but.” Essentially, the message being sent is “I don’t care if my gender or occupation is one of the many targets in the game, so you shouldn’t either.”

Not everyone is going to react to something the same way someone else does. There are good reasons that certain groups would be more objectionable towards certain materials than others. For instance, people writing the GTAV petition state: “we have firsthand experience of this kind of sexual violence. It haunts us, and we’ve been trying to rebuild our lives ever since.”

Their pain does not mean that triggering depictions should automatically be banned, but it does mean that no one should presume to tell them how to feel. They are also allowed to object to some parts of some games without having an exhaustive list of every single thing that someone would possibly find offensive. Also, anyone who challenges petitioners with “have you even played the game?” should receive the retort “have you ever tried being a sex worker?” in response.

 

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“Banning Games Limits Freedom of Expression”

This is actually a fair argument, but it is not a blanket excuse. First, Wesfarmers Group is not obligated to honor freedom of expression for every single piece of media. They can choose which products they wish to carry based on what they feel their customers want.

Likewise, console companies and content providers like Steam can choose what they want to make available to their customers. Governments restricting certain items from existing at all is a completely different matter.

Second, someone objecting to the banning of something they like does not suddenly make them a champion of artistic expression. What about things they unequivocally do not like? Would they be okay with a game centered around realistic and non-satirical animal abuse, or one where you create child pornography? These games might have messages to communicate, after all.

Most people living in modern societies have an ingrained sense of morality or ethics. We all have a line that can be crossed. One person’s may be far distant from another’s, but at some point certain depictions are likely to cross almost everyone’s line. Implying that these lines shouldn’t exist at all is a philosophical argument worth making in many senses, but I sincerely doubt that is what most people believe.

 

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“It’s Satire/Part of the Setting”

GTA has a lot of silly potty humor, and it also has hilariously razor-sharp satire. Often, the two are combined with mixed effects. The series’ excellent use of satire can largely excuse depictions of kidnapping “illegal” immigrants and torturing state detainees with little purpose.

However, I fail to see what GTA is satirizing with its depiction of prostitutes. There is no commentary on their presence or their role in that society. Outside of some funny dialogue, they behave largely as AI versions of sex workers that can be seen the world over.

Others justify the presence of sex workers as being part of  “a criminal setting,” as Take Two CEO Strauss Zelnick put it himself. If that is the case then why not depict more criminals? You smoke marijuana in your house, so where are the pot dealers you can call up to bring you more? How can I commit check fraud to increase my bank balance?

The answer is that the creators did not want to include every last thing under the sun that made the game gritty or realistic. They had to make deliberate choices for what to cut and what to keep. Reddit users even found evidence that aspects like gambling and trading drugs as commodities exist partially in the game’s code but were scrapped. These features would have worked within the setting and had more relevance to the actual game content than hiring sex workers. Yet, Rockstar cut them out but still took the effort to animate someone giving fellatio in a car.

 

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“Video Games Don’t Lead to Violence in Sane People”

There have been many studies on this without enough compelling conclusions to affect the industry. Some have found that there is a correlation, some found little to no correlation and at least one said that the effect is actually the opposite.

Personally, I disagree with the notion that video game content or any media can cause violence on their own. However, I do think that repeating the same depictions of sex workers as has been seen thousands of times in other media does nothing to work against negative connotations. Actually, it probably reinforces them.

At the very least, the sickening displays of violence against GTAV’s sex workers on Youtube reflect a society that holds little value for them. This attitude does not color Rockstar’s intentions, but again they had the opportunity to do something different with their depictions and they didn’t bother.

 

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“The Game Isn’t for Kids, so Saying It’s ‘Grooming’ Boys is Irrelevant”

I actually stand behind this argument 100 percent. Everyone brings up “We must think of the children!” as if copies of GTA are being handed out on street corners. Parents must also be held accountable for their role in allowing children to have games that exceed the recommended age level.

Retailers are also obligated to uphold the game’s 18+ rating in Australia when selling to customers. The fact that the retailers choose to market video games along with toys speaks to the backwards treatment that video games have been receiving, especially in Australia. In order to change the conversations about video games, we must begin to recognize some of them as a legitimate art form for mature adults.

Rockstar clearly understands this when they build masterpieces with deliberately mature themes, but they are clearly not infallible based on the current situation. Instead of handling the issue diplomatically, the developers and publisher of GTAV reacted much in the same way as their defenders. Here’s what I think they should have done instead:

 

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Rockstar Should Have Apologized

Rockstar and Take Two representatives speaking on behalf of the issue made no efforts to apologize for the distress their products caused. Instead, they said that they were “disappointed” in the retailers’ decisions. They also voiced their lack of concern by saying “It’s not impactful to our business, frankly. Australia is relatively small. Two retailers are relatively small in the context of Australia. There’s other places for folks to buy Grand Theft Auto in Australia.”

While this fact may very well be true, it displays a complete lack of empathy or regard for public relations. They should have issued a statement along the lines of: “We are sorry that the content of our game has caused people significant emotional distress. The creators of GTAV never intended to malign or encourage violence towards a specific group of people. We want to emphasize that the actions of a few players do not reveal the design aspects of the game as it was meant to be played… etc. etc.”

They would not have to admit fault in any way, just acknowledge that people’s feelings matter. Take Two’s representative instead echoed the line “if you don’t like it then don’t buy it,” effectively ignoring the entire line of discussion at hand. This line also alienates thousands of potential players from enjoying the hard work of the artists and programmers because of one objectionable feature. Obviously, to Take Two these players are just a drop in the bucket and don’t matter because they won’t affect the company’s bottom line.

 

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They Could Release an Updated Version of the Game

Rockstar does not have to address every single offensive thing in their games. In this particular instance, though, I think the problems people had were not too unreasonable.

Patching out the option to sleep with prostitutes or the possibility of them dropping money would have pretty much made the whole issue go away. These features add almost nothing at all to the GTAV experience and they would not be missed.

Yes, it would be moderately expensive and it’s not necessary since the entire Australian market is not closed off yet, but it would be a gesture of kindness and caring. Rockstar has also complied with more ridiculous requests in the past, such as removing the “Hot Coffee” code from games even though it was completely inaccessible without extensive hacks. Instead of trying to make a change, though, Rockstar and Take Two said that the people who object to that portion of content are the ones who must either change their attitudes or somehow pretend that the game doesn’t exist.

 

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They Can Focus on More Gender Equality in Writing

Part of the whole issue is that the depiction of women in general for GTAV is objectively not egalitarian. There are no women protagonists in the story mode. Women aren’t allowed to be cops but they can be strippers and sex workers. Men don’t have to subject themselves to the sex industry.

Games like Skyrim prove that you can pepper women in leadership positions without hurting the narrative. Even though some people still objected to the gender roles seen in Skyrim, I think that Bethesda has made huge strides in ignoring gender when it picks roles like jarls and faction leaders. There are as many examples of admirable, courageous women as there are underhanded ones who stand shoulder to shoulder with the average morally ambiguous male NPC. In other words, gender does not dictate character  in any strict sense.

Rockstar should follow Bethesda’s lead and try to focus more on this aspect in future games. Red Dead Redemption already received praise for the Bonnie MacFarlane character, and several female heist members in GTAV were fairly compelling only to disappear after two or so missions. I get that most GTA characters are not likable on purpose, but more prominent women characters does not mean they all have to be perfect angels or “strong” in the literal sense, just visible.

None of these changes are asking much, but unless a country-wide ban forces Take Two’s hand they aren’t going to bother. This apathy and cynicism towards others is the real issue at hand, not just a few offending pixels. Belligerent people online are seeing their attitudes and petty talking points repeated by the company that could have demonstrated compromise and set examples for these issues into the future. Instead, it looks like it’s going to be business as usual from here on out.

 

Jarrod Lipshy is a UGA English alumnus and freelance content writer. He collects old video games and wishes that we could all just get along.

 

9 Comments

  1. Avi December 11, 2014
    • Jarrod Lipshy December 11, 2014
  2. goseebananafish December 11, 2014
    • Jarrod Lipshy December 11, 2014
  3. Shaun December 11, 2014
    • Jarrod Lipshy December 11, 2014
  4. Jsnforce December 13, 2014
    • Jarrod Lipshy December 13, 2014
  5. Bz September 26, 2015

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