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Grand Theft Auto and Feminism

I’m on a mailing list where there is currently a debate about Grand Theft Auto 3. This is a group that is devoted to women’s issues in games, and they are incensed that GTA3 won the IGDA industry award for Game of the Year this year, calling it a ‘slap in the face’ that other developers would vote a game that was so misogynistic to be the GotY. The specific complaint: the fact that you can get sex from a prostitute, and then kill the prostitute to get your cash back, is an insult to all of womankind, and all mankind should be ashamed of themselves.

Anyone who knows me knows I disagree violently with this. My first complaint is the notion that prostitutes are a special or protected class, and my second complaint is that the industry should stop making games with sex and/or violence. I’m a big believer in the first amendment, and I’m also a big believer that we need to limit our political correctness in general. I didn’t post these responses to the mailing list, as I am very much in the minority there and I usually lurk, but I thought I’d post my thoughts here.

“Grand Theft Auto has no redeeming value.”
It’s redeeming value is its escapism and it’s freedom of possibilities. That is also why it is a marvelous and interesting game. It is also one of the few actually innovative titles of the year last year. If you complain about anything, complain about the overall lack of originality in game design nowadays.

“You would never see anything like GTA in the movies.”
Bad guys as good guys is one of the most common themes in movies today. The Usual Suspects and Heat are two movies where the protagonists of the film kill without thought, and yet they are two of the finest films in the last 10 years. Fight Club is an excellent movie, and yet it has strong themes that many disagree with.

“People who belittle concerns about violence, sex have never had to deal with it.”
Or perhaps we would rather not continually make games so whitebread that they don’t offend anyone. As mentioned elsewhere, if we worried about offending every possible group, there would be no Harry Potter game (witchcraft), no Quake (violence), no Deer Hunter (hunting) and no Sims (homosexuality).

“What’s offensive is this game depicts prostitution, which is a victimization of women!”
Is Baldur’s Gate offensive as well? How about Pretty Woman? Depiction of prostitution is common, especially in RPGs in gaming and Westerns in film. In fact, if you want attitudes towards prostitution to change, you are unlikely to see that happen without more visibility of the problems they face.

“What’s really offensive is killing prostitutes. No one cares when prostitutes die.”
Killing prostitutes is somehow worse than random pedestrians? Little old grandmothers? Cops? (Incidentally, in some RPGs, you can also kill prostitutes and cops. I’ve yet to hear anyone complain about that).

“You get bonuses for using and killing prostitutes!”
No. You get bonuses for using prostitutes. You get cash just like killing any other person for killing prostitutes. The difference between prostitutes is that you can have sex with them, not that you can kill them.

“It’s just like if you could chain a gay guy to a fence and get bonus points for it!”
No. If you could kill a prostitute and reenact a Jack the Ripper-like atrocity, maybe there’d be a point. But killing a prostitute is really not very different than killing any other individual in the game. Thanks, though, for trying to create a ludicrous straw-man analogy.

“It’s violence without consequences!”
Unlike, say, Quake?

“Our game industry should be enlightened and awakened!”
No. Our game industry should recognize that different people like different things. Not every game has to be enlightening. How utterly boring that would be.

“In GTA, the goal is violence… unlike Baldur’s Gate.”
GTA has a definite plot and definite goals, much like RPGs. Those goals can only be achieved by violence, much like RPGs. The primary difference is that you must work afoul of the law in order to succeed. This is, in fact, an option in many RPGs.

“We shouldn’t celebrate GTA, as it’s the reason congress/parents/the media is against us.”
The minute we cave in on this, we give upon the freedom of art that the genre of computer gaming demands and deserves. Until we have the ability to make the equivalent of Heat and Fight Club, we will not have the freedom of speech that our genre deserves. The correct tactic is to find ways to keep games like GTA out of the hands of children, and to insure there is a wealth of content across the spectrum.

“If a hooker is murdered, there tends to be a strong sense that in some way she deserved it or at least in some way contributed to her own death – the infamous ‘contributory negligence’.”
It’s very difficult to get a bead on prostitution, as half the time the feminist line appears to be that the fact that prostitution exists is a shame, and a blight on society, and the other half of the time they are defending noble sex workers who are abused and maligned while serving a useful and important role in society. The truth of the matter: (a) prostitution will never go away, as there will always be those who are willing to pay for and/or give sex for cash (b) many prostitutes, particularly those of the sort depicted in this game, are there by choice, albeit often that choice is led by bad circumstances, such as poverty, drug abuse, and dating an abusive, manipulative guy. In most instances, there are alternatives (cases of kidnappee slavery/prostitution excluded of course) (c) this choice is a bad and dangerous choice, and depicting prostitution as a bad and dangerous choice is a far better deterrant than, say, letting the world think its Pretty Woman. (d) Prostitution is not unique to women (and while this game only shows female prostitution, it is unlikely the target audience of this game would have cottoned to male homosexual prostitution) and it is somewhat disingenious to claim that the depiction of prostitution as dangerous is demeaning to women as a whole (e) A life of street crime being dangerous is not limited to just women (examples: drug runners, gang members, etc), and this is also clearly demonstrated in the game space (In fact, you can win the game without killing a single prostitute, but you have to kill many rival criminals in order to win the game). Given the world that is being depicted, the depiction of prostitution is highly consistent.

My opinion: prostitution should be legalized, as the evidence gathered from observation of brothels in Nevada have shown that legal, licensed whorehouses result in safer women, less visible street blight, and vastly lower instances of STD spread. I will likely never need or want to partake in the use of one, thankfully. Anyone who is interested in knowing more should read a book called Brothel, which discusses the infamous Mustang Ranch and the women who worked it in Nevada (the ranch has since closed due to its owner really, really ticking off the IRS). Doing so will help to gain greater empathy on the issue of prostitution than working from ideals divorced from reality.

“The developer shouldn’t have flaunted the game’s special features, boasting about the prostitution feature!”
Technically, that’s what marketing departments are SUPPOSED to do. Besides, it’s better to know about the offensiveness of a game before you buy it, isn’t it?

“It’s not clear that the game is not aimed at children.”
If the MA rating doesn’t tell you that it is, certainly the frequent, highly visible press should. The Supreme Court, incidentally, has ruled frequently in the past that it is against the law to come up with any censorship system that prevents content from reaching the hands of adults in favor of children. The answer is simple: the industry needs to step up and self-police itself more stridently, much the way that the movie industry currently does with their rating system. And, of course, parents need to get more involved.

“The game is morally wrong!”
No. The game depicts a lifestyle that is morally wrong. Big difference.

Anyway, my thoughts. Your mileage may vary.

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One Response to “Grand Theft Auto and Feminism”

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