Life Outside the Sandbox: Why I Won’t Be Playing GTAV

grand-theft-auto-5By Kristin Bezio

By all accounts, Grand Theft Auto V (GTAV) is an excellent game. Critically acclaimed, highly rated, and over 15 million copies sold by the end of September, GTAV should be high on my list of things to play, right?

Wrong.

I have no intention of ever playing GTAV. In fact, I’ve never played any GTA game, nor do I have the intention of ever doing so. I have watched large portions of gameplay in GTA4, and that’s as close to the game as I ever want to get.

So then why am I writing about GTAV on a fangirl blog? Quite simply, because I think it’s important to explain why I have no intention of playing it – especially given the continued problems faced in the gaming industry among developers and fans alike concerning open and un-criticized misogyny.

Gamespot’s Carolyn Petit provides an insightful and ultimately positive review of the game that points out both its strengths as a game and its weaknesses as a cultural artifact that fundamentally promotes misogynistic attitudes and actions. Ironically, Petit’s review garnered a particularly special response from the gaming community (see end of review for the scoop on that debacle**). But back to GTAV for now.

I wrote a post on my own blog a few weeks ago about masculinity and GTAV before the game was released entitled “On the Concept of Being Masculine” that addressed a statement made by GTAV lead developer Dan Houser that “The concept of being masculine was so key to this story” that GTAV couldn’t support playable female protagonists.

Houser’s statement gave the only circumstance in which I see the lack of playable female characters as justifiable: namely, that the content of the story dictated that it was about masculinity, and therefore the three playable characters needed to be cis-male.

It was pointed out to me that the core story of GTAV – indeed, of all GTA games – is sexist in its supposed “masculinity,” and that women can be criminals and thugs, too, but also that all men are not criminals and thugs, and that to suggest that violence and crime are inherently masculine traits is as harmful to men as the exclusion of women from that narrative is to women. All this is true, but that wasn’t the point I was trying to make. The point I wanted to make was that Houser and his team were telling a specific story about the intersection of crime and masculinity, and therefore they had artistic justification for using only male playable characters. I didn’t say I agreed with their assessment, only that they had a valid reason for making the decision to focus on male characters.

But that isn’t why I won’t play GTA games. After all, 90% of the time I play a character in a videogame and am allowed to choose my avatar’s gender, I play as a male character. For me, if the story calls for a male, then the player-character should be male; if it calls for a female, then the player-character should be female. If the point of GTAV is to explore masculinity, then by all means make your three player-characters male.

The fantasy I’m uninterested in is the fantasy of criminal recklessness, of the abandonment of order in favor of functional anarchy, of the deliberate vilification (I’ll explain more) of those people seeking to maintain a peaceful society. The core fantasy of GTAV (and other GTA games) is that of the anti-hero, but the “anti” is writ small to the “hero’s” very large and bold-face type. Michael, Franklin, and Trevor – as I understand it – are not “good” people, but they are “you,” the gamer. And as “you,” their actions receive a certain amount of legitimacy, no matter how distasteful and illegal. And I have no interest in that kind of gameplay.

I do not suggest that said gameplay makes GTAV “bad.” In fact, it was given a 97 on Metacritic, suggesting that if you don’t have the same hang-ups that I do about lawfulness and shooting innocents and police officers, you might enjoy GTAV. Even Petit says that it is an “astounding game that has great characters and an innovative and exciting narrative structure.” So if you have an interest, you should go play it. I won’t.

What concerns me most about GTAV, and the whole GTA series, is the dismissive attitude it has not only about violence, but about violence that has a specifically misogynistic overtone, undertone, and through-tone. Petit says that the game is “hobbled” by “rampant misogyny,” and Helen Lewis at The Guardian says that “The world’s most successful video game has, once again, pushed women to the margins. It’s time that it faced proper critical scrutiny.” Both reviewers, however, also say that they enjoyed playing GTAV, even as women and feminists.

Lewis says that the prevalence of misogyny in games like GTAV has made her “bored, more than anything, as well as irritated that another generation of young players isn’t being offered something more exciting than this.” And that’s another big problem I have with the series. It isn’t doing anything new. It’s more crime, more misogyny, more rewarding players for being “bad boys” in the most stereotypical sense of the phrase. And it seems to me that it’s about time that games instead did something new, which the GTA series simply isn’t.

And it doesn’t just stop at the lack of playable female characters. As Forbes writer Paul Tassi suggests, there is a problem with the way “GTA 5 portrays women, or rather, doesn’t portray them.” I include the following extensive quotation to illustrate his point:

As errand boy gangster Franklin you quickly meet Tonya, a crackhead who offers you sexual services to cover for her boyfriend by towing cars (services which you don’t accept). There’s also Franklin’s aunt who goes on powerwalks with other middle-aged women where they run and chant “I am woman, hear me roar!” The implication seems to be for the player to think “Hah, look how silly women are when they think they’re empowered!”

The ladies in the life of Michael, the retired bank robber, aren’t much better. There’s his wife, an ex-stripper who does literally nothing but scream at him every time she’s onscreen, and cheats on him frequently off-screen. And there’s his daughter, tramp-stamped and permanently in a revealing one-piece, obsessed with nothing but making it big on the reality show “Shame or Fame.”

As time goes on you continue meeting psychotic women, like Mary-Ann, the fitness-addicted side-quest giver who you race as all three characters while she laments being 39 and childless. And of course there’s the funhouse full of strippers you can ogle as any of the three male leads, and if you’re charming enough, you can actually take them home.

Honestly, with 67 out of 69 missions complete, the only “normal” women I’ve met in the game so far have been the extremely nice wife of a Mexican cartel leader who I had to meet when I kidnapped her as Trevor, or a random Indian woman whose purse I retrieved from a mugger as Franklin, who wrote me a nice email a week later and delivered a suit from her family’s clothing company to my house.

And that’s one of the main reasons I have no interest in playing GTAV. If Fable 3 had me spitting mad about the portrayal of women, then GTAV would cause me to do massive damage to both my Xbox 360 and the nearest window.

Does that make GTAV a bad game? No. But it is a misogynist game, and one that glorifies violence against both men and women. And that’s just not something I’m interested in playing.

This brings me to one more problem I have not so much with GTAV itself, but with the attitude it perpetuates and inspires.

**The story behind Petit’s review is that despite giving the game 9/10, Petit argues, in part, that GTAV is ragingly – not satirically – anti-women: “GTA V has little room for women except to portray them as strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humorless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists we’re meant to laugh at.” Furthermore, she explains,

Characters constantly spout lines that glorify male sexuality while demeaning women, and the billboards and radio stations of the world reinforce this misogyny, with ads that equate manhood with sleek sports cars while encouraging women to purchase a fragrance that will make them “smell like a bitch.” Yes, these are exaggerations of misogynistic undercurrents in our own society, but not satirical ones. With nothing in the narrative to underscore how insane and wrong this is, all the game does is reinforce and celebrate sexism. The beauty of cruising in the sun-kissed Los Santos hills while listening to “Higher Love” by Steve Winwood turns sour really quick when a voice comes on the radio that talks about using a woman as a urinal.

But the worst is yet to come, as Petit was attacked not simply for “trying to censor” the gaming industry and GTAV by criticizing it (yes, I know they aren’t the same thing, but the rabid commenters apparently do not), but a petition was started online to have her fired from her position at Gamespot.

Why? Because she’s a trans*woman.

One commenter writes:

“I have no problem with the reviewer personally, but I dont want to see what is obviously a man, trying to look like a woman, its just too weird and I find it offensive, I dont want to be bombarded with gay/lesbian/transgender stuff on a gaming website, just have a regular guy or woman reviewing the games.” – airwalker2000 in Gamespot comments

The petition was taken down by the site within hours. Thankfully. Petit was not fired from her job. In fact, even other gaming sites, like Kotaku, gave her props for doing her job and doing it well.

But that, ladies and gentlemen, is one of the reasons why I have a problem with GTAV, but the gaming industry in general. Because it helps to perpetuate the stereotypical idea of what women “should be,” and that doesn’t include women outside the misogynist boundaries of “prostitute,” “bitch,” and “barefoot-and-pregnant.” Because it encourages the kind of hate-filled spew directed at Petit for giving a game 9/10 and yet daring to suggest that it had problems with its depiction of women.

I won’t play GTAV because I want to play something that doesn’t make me feel disgusted to be female or cause me to give up hope for the future of humanity. Honestly, I would rather play a worse game (from a mechanics standpoint) that tries to change culture for the better than to play a brilliant game with the kind of theme featured in GTAV.

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