Wednesday 10 December 2014

Grand Theft Auto 5's bullying is a problem its creators must finally address

The doctrine of "if you don't like it, just don't buy it" is a useful defense for cynical purveyors of shoddy products. They would prefer that you move along and keep your opinions to yourself.

When used in video games, this cheap line usefully reduces the relationship between products and humans to a base financial transaction. The product has no meaning for those who do not consume it, or so we are supposed to believe.

Fans of the product can be relied upon to take up the same call. "Leave us alone to have our fun," they say. Don't look too closely.

So it's no surprise to see Take-Two trot out this old defense, when its Grand Theft Auto 5 (2013) is once again held up as a nasty example of privileged clich├ęs.

Take-Two wants to frame a decision by Australian retailers (to take the game off their shelves) as an issue of consumer rights and free speech. It wants you to be mad at the gall of the petition that questions GTA 5's portrayal of the brutal murder of the homeless.

Take-Two and publishing sub-brand Rockstar want to be able to say whatever they like about whomever they like, without consequence. At the same time as they reduce GTA 5 to a mere purchasing choice, they also want you to believe that the game is an essential work of art that is being stifled by a mob of censors.

But this is really about a corporation profiting from the depiction of some of the most brutalized members of our society, being further brutalized, for fun. It's about a game that displays incredibly bad taste, that has made ignorant choices, and that is happy to trade on the misery of the victims who it portrays so mercilessly.

Look, let's get one thing straight. We live in a free society. GTA 5 should be available for any adult who wants to buy it, though any retailer who wants to sell it. But that doesn't mean its makers ought to be allowed to feel comfortable dismissing its critics in the most derisory fashion imaginable.

What I personally find repulsive about this game is the pleasure it offers in portraying the savaging of a class of people who are already victims, in real life. This is where GTA 5 shows a lack of judgment. I take issue with the portrayal of the homeless being abused and murdered, because the indigent are already victims, and it's just not right to take your fun in abusing victims.

I know a lot of people desperately want to believe that killing a vagrant in GTA 5 is the same as killing any other character, but it's really not. Unlike gangsters or cops or business dudes or hot dog vendors, the homeless, as a class, are despised, marginalized and abused in real life, all the time. This means that GTA 5 takes its pleasure in humiliating and abusing victims of humiliation and abuse.

In what kind of world is that not worthy of debate, above and beyond the ignorant cry of "if you don't like it, don't buy it"?

This game reinforces hard ideas about the worthlessness of the homeless

Yeah, I know these aren't real people. They are just cartoon characters. My point is not that the on-screen vagrants being murdered are real, nor that the game will prompt people to go out and murder vagrants. My point is that this portrayal of them reinforces hard ideas about the worthlessness of the homeless, in ways that are unique to this class of characters in the game. My point is that it is deeply distasteful to gleefully portray victims being shat upon by privilege.

This is why I find recent comments from Take-Two chairman and CEO Karl Slatoff so callous. Here is a game made by a company largely run by privileged, well-educated, wealthy people, and it mostly profits from portrayals of people who are none of those things.

Take-Two wants you to believe that the game has a soul akin to the movies it so desperately apes. But actually, it has very little to say about urban life that has not been said before. It is a skillful farrago of jokes, action-sequences and visual shocks. Its merits are mostly technical. It is a play-pen for violent fantasies.

And that is okay. The world demands such things, just as it demands silly musical theater and sexy novels about bondage and movies about magical teenagers. But if you're going to make a product that is bought by millions of people, you really ought to have a better defense for its failings than a thinly veiled invitation to just fuck off and worry about something else.

I admire the women who organized that petition, not because I agree with all their demands to retailers, nor because I want to see the game banned. I admire them because they dare to give us the perspectives of people who have suffered abuse while homeless, about a game that portrays the same abuse as a matter of entertainment.

This is something we absolutely should be talking about. It's one thing for games to portray the slaughter of soldiers and gangsters and even vanilla members of the public. It's another to show us victims being kicked in the teeth, and then pretend this is not worth talking about.

It's a shame that Take-Two is so uninterested in such a conversation, that when the company does address the issue it tries to fob the world off with some weak piss about free speech.

I suspect that Take-Two is secretly terrified that the world might wake up tomorrow and figure out that, yes, this aspect of the game is in very poor taste and perhaps we should be having a bigger conversation about how this company portrays the poor in games that are overwhelmingly consumed by the well off.

This game has made choices about what is acceptable and what is not; poor ones, in my opinion. Of course, the line of acceptability is always on the move. As a boy, I watched musicals in which white men blacked up and sang songs about the good ol' South. I watched comedies in which particular races and nations were portrayed as dishonest, cowardly or shiftless. I watched dramas in which women were repeatedly presented as deranged or simpletons or both. In the intervening years, the line has moved. It's not cool to make entertainments like that any more.

If you did make entertainments that mocked minorities and women, would it be fine and dandy to just say ‘if you don't like it, don't buy it." I don't think so. This is the sort of line we hear from entitled sophomores, peering up from their heartless philosophies. We understand now that "punching down" is what bullies do; that the jokes that mock people for being what they are, just aren't funny.

"Punching down is what bullies do"

I take issue with where Take-Two and Rockstar have drawn their line. I don't think it's okay to depict vagrants being murdered for kicks because I believe that deprivation is (very, very often) a horrible crime perpetrated against poor and desperate people.

You can draw your own arbitrary moral line to illustrate that Take-Two's choices are by no means unchangeable, that through a different lens, they look pretty weird. So, for example, why can you not murder children in GTA 5? I am certain that there are plenty of people who would love to do that. I am certain that were it a reality in the game, its continued inclusion would be defended vigorously by hordes of brave libertarians. If Take-Two is so concerned about free speech, why isn't it railing against the Entertainment Software Ratings Board to allow more freedoms to depict atrocities against the defenseless?

Many of the people who make this game, of course, have children, probably don't really love seeing children being hurt, might even make the argument that children are helpless and vulnerable and that it would be an extremely poor artistic choice to have children murdered in a game, even though it's been done many times in the movies. You can see where I'm going with this.

The homeless in GTA 5 are adults, but they represent a deep vulnerability that the game's other adult characters do not share. Vagrants are almost always living under the threat of violence and intimidation. They have very limited choices.

Take-Two has lots of choices. It has chosen to represent women in manner which is far from equitable. It has chosen to bat away questions about its own decisions with lazy arguments about "freedom" and "choice."

It's time for Take-Two and Rockstar to quit with the smoke-and-mirrors routine, and address the real problem here: the nature of some of the content in GTA 5 is nasty stuff that merits a more thoughtful response than "if you don't like it, don't buy it."

1 comment: