Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA), is an, “action-adventure video game developed by Rockstar North,” (Wikipedia). It follows three criminals of which the player takes control of one, as the male character navigates the streets of San Andreas in a fictional town called Los Santos (based on Los Angeles), leading a life of crime with missions of killings and acquiring vehicles. The game allows for even more sinister actions though, as players can walk into strip clubs, and take part in employing sex workers and committing mass killings not unlike the killings that seem to pop up in the news almost every week in our current days.
“Within 24 hours of its release, Grand Theft Auto V generated more than US$800 million in worldwide revenue,”(Wikipedia), and looking into the r/truegaming reddit thread, many players state that the reason the game has been one of their favourites is due to the realism of its world building, and the freedom that players have to commit any actions they may want to partake in. One player said, “I feel like the realism is a major factor. Killing a bunch of civilians, running people over and evading cops is a lot more fun and realistic in GTA than it is in other games,” (Reddit).
According to PRI, “Countries from Australia to Saudi Arabia have banned games in the “Grand Theft Auto” series for their violent content and glorification of criminal lifestyles.” As freedom of speech becomes more and more of a heated issue, as citizens from both camps look out for their rights of creating their own cultures, wether those favour autonomy and democracy, or cultures that seek to eradicate violence in its entertainment.
To even begin speaking about censorship of video games, or any form of entertainment for that matter, we must first inspect the powers that these media hold over shaping societal attitudes. According to Canagey, Anderson, and Bushman (2007), participants in their studies that played violent video games, “demonstrat[ed] a physiological desensitization to violence.” This was tested through the heart rate and GSR of rates of players exposed to real-life violence following playing violent games for as little as 20 minutes (Canagey, Anderson, & Bushman, 2007). Furthermore, Greitemeyer (2018) found that levels of aggression in violent video game players were not only heightened, but those of players’ friends were heightened as well.
When we inspect GTA more specifically, we must address the neutrally awe-inspiring work that was done by game designers in world building, be it through the cites of the game or the physicality of the characters. This realism and its effect on players’ aggressive behaviours and idealisation was studied by Zendle, Kudenko, and Cairns (2017). The researchers found that the more “real” on-screen violence is, the more aggressive that people witnessing it became, and this effect directly correlates to the levels of realism in a game, specifically in a role play game that so brilliantly mimics the real world (Zendle, Kudenko, & Cairns, 2017).
Thus, a huge responsibility befalls game producers and designers, and there is an argument to be made for the extension of a country’s censorship laws that apply to film and television unto the realm of video games. Adding in the direct participation of players in violence and sexism in GTA, shouldn’t these laws be even stricter, in light of studies that prove its long-lasting and very real effects?
Moreover, the GTA franchise is widely popular, and culture thus witnesses an effect in its rhetoric on sex work and violence due to its widespread popularity, as has arguably been the case with action role play shooter games and the footage that mass terrorists have been broadcasting of their crimes (National Post Online, 2019). In the case of the New Zealand shooter, the crime was transmitted through a go-pro type camera attached to his head that shot the mass shooting in a similar manner to first person shooter games, so much so that algorithms failed to differentiate between the real-life violence in the video and the usual footage from video games (Perrigo, 2019).
On the other hand, what power can be granted to governments to censor any media, be it participatory or not, without hindering the main ethical ideals that hold modern democracies? What’s to protect media and media creators from autocratic censorship laws that silence creators of media that is subversive?
The key factor in this debate, I argue, lies within our definition of subversion and–to a high level, propaganda. Looking at what we have established to be the lesser manipulative form of visual media such as film and television, there is a strict line drawn between films that feature violence, sexism, and racism, and those that promote it. Depiction is not automatically a subscription to the depicted, just as many films that further conversations on racism and sexism heavily feature scenes of the very acts they condemn, be it films such as 12 Years a Slave or television series such as The Handmaid’s Tale.
Where is this line drawn in the case of GTA? One key point is the fact that these choices are even given to players, that players can hire a sex worker, murder her, and take their money back, the fact that players are always male, and women are only strippers, wives and girlfriends, or citizens that can be murdered or hurt in the game. Thus, the game doesn’t depict these events as happening or part of the narrative of the game, but rather create an option for players to participate in the problem itself. In the life of crime, these events are arguably prominent, but what GTA doesn’t do is establish a distinction between its presence and the glamour of it happening. It doesn’t condemn these actions, it doesn’t include them in the narrative, these violent and shocking actions are an added feature of sorts that developers left the door open for players to explore.
This intrinsically implies that there is a sort of demand and supply for an escape for these experiences, and game developers have capitalised on this demand with no regard to the real-life implications of this supply.
GTA players enjoy the game, according to Reddit threads, precisely because of this freedom to commit crime and let loose, to take part in actions that they are prevented to commit by common law. Is this preventative to it happening in the real world, such as some supporters of violent porn argue, or does it help grow a fascination with actions that are now bleeding into the real world?
While comparing violence is not a realm into which we can step lightly, it is important that we inspect the fact that violence against women, and specifically sex workers, is even debatably okay to depict in video games. If we were to replace violence against women with sexual violence against children for instance, GTA would be condemned for providing an outlet for pedophiles. However, in a patriarchal culture that normalises violence against women in general and sex workers in particular, a discussion surrounding the “okay”-ness of the allowed violence in the game becomes somewhat valid.
Age-restrictions and censorship laws fail time and time again to limit the spread of nefarious media, rather, it plausibly has the opposite effect. The issue lies within society’s discourse on video games, and the glamourisation and normalisation of violence against women, and change cannot be brought on by a government that is far removed from pop culture, but must begin and end in communities and their fascination with violence, namely violence against women. Wether this role befalls parents, educators, or–to a limited extent, citizen-elected representatives must be decided on a national scale, if not on the scale of communities.
“Grand Theft Auto V.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 23 Mar. 2019, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grand_Theft_Auto_V.
“r/Truegaming — Explain to Me Why GTA Series Is More Popular than Other Similar, Bigger Games.” Reddit, www.reddit.com/r/truegaming/comments/81dl5l/explain_to_me_why_gta_series_is_more_popular_than/.
“Blacklisted: the World’s Banned Video Games.” Public Radio International, www.pri.org/stories/2010-12-29/blacklisted-worlds-banned-video-games.
“New Zealand shooter steeped attack in dark internet culture.” Postmedia Network Inc. Mar 15 2019.
Zendle, David, et al. “Behavioural Realism and the Activation of Aggressive Concepts in Violent Video Games.” Entertainment Computing, vol. 24, 2018, pp. 21–29., doi:10.1016/j.entcom.2017.10.003.
Greitemeyer, Tobias. “The Spreading Impact of Playing Violent Video Games on Aggression.” Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 80, 2018, pp. 216–219., doi:10.1016/j.chb.2017.11.022.
Carnagey, Nicholas L., et al. “The Effect of Video Game Violence on Physiological Desensitization to Real-Life Violence.” Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, vol. 43, no. 3, 2007, pp. 489–496., doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2006.05.003.
Perrigo, B. “Facebook, YouTube Struggle to Remove New Zealand Shooting.” Time, Time, 15 Mar. 2019, time.com/5552367/new-zealand-shooting-video-facebook-youtube-twitter/.