PIXEL BURN – GTA V, Censorship and Double-Standards

In which Matt gets a tad angry at moral scaremongering and censorship from the left-end of the political spectrum
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[TRANSCRIPT]

Hello my name’s Matt and this is one of those episodes of Pixel Burn where I look at one big topic instead of the week’s gaming news. And the topic for this episode is the attempt to censor GTA V in Australia.

Yes I said the C-word there, for reasons that should hopefully be clear to you by the end of this video. Assuming you have at least half a brain.

As you probably already know, at the beginning of December the Australian retail chain Target publicly announced they would no longer be stocking Grand Theft Auto 5, citing “extensive community and customer concern about the game.” Specifically around the game’s copious amounts of violence.

A perfectly legitimate point of critique for the record. GTA V does allow for players to inflict all manner of heinous violence against little computer people, with one mission in particular requiring the use of actual physical torture. Or “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” as the CIA call them.

[GTA TORTURE SCENE CLIP]

But then GTA V is rated R18+ under Australia’s unique ratings system. An adults-only game that is only meant to be sold to adults. Not exactly the sort of thing you’d advertise in the toy section of a store flyer alongside, say, Peppa Pig for example. Not unless you’re Target that is. Yep, you kinda fucked-up there a bit didn’t you Target?

Then again I personally consider Peppa Pig far more horrifying than anything in GTA. It’s that weird slack-jawed, dead-eyed stare thing she does! It fucking freaks me out.

[STARE INTO THE GAPING VOID-MAW OF PEPPA PIG AND KNOW TRUE DESPAIR!]

But I digress. If Target decided they didn’t want to sell GTA V anymore then it’s certainly their right as a retailer to do so. Just as bakers aren’t legally required to sell dildoes, or why there’s no law saying you can only buy pornography at the Build-a-Bear Workshop. Nevertheless the circumstances that prompted Target to do this are somewhat eyebrow-raising.

Target’s decision was in response to this petition on Change.org, currently at over 48,000 signatures, called “Target: Withdraw Grand Theft Auto 5 – this sickening game encourages players to commit sexual violence and kill women.”

Blimey, that’s a bit of a mouthful.

Started by three anonymous women claiming to be former sex industry workers.

Well, don’t I just look like a right fucking arsehole now.

While I would never seek to diminish or demean any horrible experiences endured by women in the sex industry, I do take issue with how this petition resorts to flagrant misinformation speckled with outright lies.

For example statements like “It’s a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment” and “after various sex acts, players are given options to kill women by punching her unconscious, killing with a machete, bat or guns to get their money returned.” The characters in GTA V certainly can have virtual sex with a virtual prostitute, then kill her in all manner of horrible virtual ways. As demonstrated in this video, linked to on the petition itself, in which the player runs her over, sets her on fire and shoots her.

While needless to say not very pleasant, yet the game never requires or encourages you to do any of that. Minus the sex part you can do everything in this video to almost any other character in the game, man or woman. Including the police who arrive to arrest you for doing such things in the first place.

Another innacuracy this petition peddles is the game’s supposed incentive “to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points.” While you can indeed regain health from having virtual sex with virtual prostitutes, you can also regain health by going back to your safehouse and having a nap or buying a drink from a vending machine. In fact it’s both quicker and cheaper to do either of those than it is to spend ten minutes kerb-crawling.

Incidentally, that correlation between prostitutes and vending machines makes a far more substantial case for misogyny in GTA V than torching NPCs does. But the petition creators don’t mention that for some reason. Almost as though they never actually played the game or anything…

Anyway, at no point does killing anybody give your character health and the game does not portray sexual violence or sexual assualt. If it did then it would have been refused classification under Australian law and never released there in the first place. Then there’re statements like: “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women.”

Oh won’t somebody PLEASE think of the CHILDREN!? Even though GTA V is an adult game intended for sale only to people over the age of 18. If a kid below that age gets their hand on it then it’s a failure on the part of Target for selling it to them, or the kid’s parents for buying it for them. In Australia the exhibition or sale of an R18 rated game to people below that age is a criminal offence, carrying a maximum fine of $5,500 Australian dollars. Or your regional equivalent.

The most interesting quote in the petition however is this one: “This game spreads the idea that certain women exist as scapegoats for male violence. It shows hatred and contempt for women in the sex industry and puts them at greater risk.”

Whoah, deja vu! Major deja vu! Where have I heard that argument before?

[BELLOWING HUMANOID WATER FEATURE GLENN BECK SPOUTS SOME NONSENSE]

Yep, damn-near exactly the same call for censorship that bellowing humanoid water feature Glenn Beck here, as well as Jack Thompson and others, have been hurling at GTA for years now. Only this time it’s coming not from some old red-faced right-wing dingbat but from people who claim to be progressive.

Now I’m not going to spend any more of this video ripping into this sensationalist petition. These women have the right to make their opinions heard and I’m sure their intentions are pure. Similarly Target has the right to not stock the game, and Australian customers have the right to buy GTA V at JB Hi-Fi or EB Games instead. Besides, I doubt Target removing GTA from their shelves was entirely a matter of ethics for them. They’ve probably already sold the most copies they ever will of the new current-gen console version, as well as versions for last-generation consoles. Plus they’ll want to clear shelf space for the Christmas rush anyway and they get some positive PR out of the whole thing. So it’s really no skin off their nose to do this. Instead I’m going to concentrate on the censorship angle in this whole thing. Because that’s exactly what this petition attempted to do, albeit on a very narrow scale, by trying to prevent adults buying an adult-only game

And before you tell me that GTA V hasn’t been censored because you can still buy it at other stores, or that only governments can censor stuff, here’s what the American Civil Liberties Union has to say regarding the definition of censorship.

“Censorship, the suppression of words, images, or ideas that are ‘offensive,’ happens whenever some people succeed in imposing their personal political or moral values on others. Censorship can be carried out by the government as well as private pressure groups.”

So yes, this is censorship. Not the big scary legal government book-burning kind of censorship, just the small-scale annoying kind. It’s like if Target or K-Mart, who have also stopped stocking GTA V for the same reason, chose not to stock Dragon Age Inquisition because of its homosexual content. You’d still be able to buy Dragon Age: Inquisition at JB Hi-Fi or EB Games [OTHER AUSTRALIAN GAMES OUTLETS ARE AVAILABLE], but I guarantee the same people brushing-off the GTA V withdrawal as “not-censorship” would be screaming the absolute blue-bloody-opposite if it were Dragon Age: Inquisition.

And I would be right there with them. Even though I’ve yet to find a character in Dragon Age Inquisition I actually want to romance.

Except Dorian of course, because he’s an amazing magical blend of Freddie Mercury and Errol Flynn. But noooooo, I can’t romance him because I MADE MY INQUISITOR A WOMAN!

In case anyone out there misunderstands me, I’m not laying down my life for Rockstar games or anysuch toss. They have teams of top PR people to do that for them. What I’m defending here is the basic right to artistic expression.

Whereas the gaming press, who were happy to cry censorship during the glory days of Jack Thompson, now seem oddly reluctant to do so. Oh sure they’ve called out Apple for censoring the iOS version of Paper’s Please, even though Apple technically has the right to do so. They were also more than keen to stick the boot into India for “banning” Dragon Age Inquisition despite the fact it wasn’t actually bloody banned. EA just decided not to release it there citing local laws as a convenient excuse.

As I explain in this video what I done previously. Shameless plug.

Regarding Target and GTA V however, while the mainstream games media has certainly criticised it – like in this excellent piece by Luke Reilly at IGN – there’s been nary a mention of the C-Word. Some journalists have even celebrated the petition’s success with delirious glee.

Like Colin Campbell of Polygon, whose recent opinion piece praising Target’s decision was the written equivalent of sporting a throbbing erection at a book burning. According to Colin anyone who might reasonably object to adults being prevented buying an adult game…are unwitting pawns of a diabolical scheme by Take 2 Interactive, to crush any and all opposition to their Whore-Murdering Jollies simulator. He also utterly disregards the possibility of a player’s agency to…NOT do horrible things in a GTA game, and dismisses Take 2 ‘s reasonable statement of “if you don’t like it don’t buy it,” as, and I quote, “weak piss about free speech.”

Well Colin I’m sorry you find artistic freedom, however crass or distasteful the result, so repugnant. And how could I possibly forget that free speech only counts when it meshes precisely with your particular world view.

People like Colin, along with media critics like Anita “Harbinger of the Videogame Apocalypse” Sarkeesian, frequently argue that they don’t want to take people’s games away. That all they want is to critically dissect videogames the same as any work in any other artistic medium, like films or books. And that’s great! I love the idea! Videogames ARE an artistic medium worthy of discussion, debate and criticism.

That said however while critique isn’t censorship, and not all censorship is automatically bad anyway, censorship is never critique. Calling a game a load of sexist garbage is a gajillion miles away from getting it removed from store shelves because it offends your sensibilities. And this is where we get into the craven hypocisy of the whole shebang.

Because like I’ve said countless fucking times before, if you sincerely believe videogames are an artistic medium then you must apply that standard to all of them. From the tiniest indie titles about bread or lesbians all the way up to globalmegasuperblockbusters like Call of Duty and GTA V. Sure there are varying degrees of artistic merit, like Warhol’s soup cans or Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, but they are still considered art.

And yes even something as malevolent as Candy Crush is still technically art. I may find it lacking in artistic merit and despise everything it represents yet I still accept it is art. It has the right to exist and people have the right to play it if they want to.

And the artistic merit of a piece of work does not diminish the artistry of its medium. The movies of Michael Bay do not stop Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai being a magnificent example of cinema as an artform. 50 Shades of Grey hasn’t magically transformed the complete works of Shakespeare into trash. Nor does the Mona Lisa make a child’s best drawing of a pig any less artistic or sincere.

Nobody gets to arbitrarily decide that one game is art but another is just a soulless corporate product worthy only of scorn and censorship. Especially not some jumped-up trust-fund dickhead who likes to break GTA discs to look all edgy and shit.

This isn’t the fucking pick’n’mix aisle at Woolworths. Either videogames are an artistic medium and therefore all games are artistic works to varying degrees, equally deserving of critique and protection, or all videogames are a commercial product. If videogames are art then you can’t say Gone Home is a “poignant coming of age story” but GTA V is just a “Soulless corporate whore-murdering jollies simulator” and therefore worthy of censoring. If you think that then someone else is just entitled as to call GTA V a “Sadistic hyperviolent satire on western society” and your beloved indie darling a “Boring not-game walking simulator” and not worth bothering with.

Not me by the way. I actually really liked Gone Home.

If you want to videogames to be accepted as an artistic medium then that means accepting and defending games you might not like, even games that deliberately offend everything you stand for. Hatred for example is a disturbing game that nihilistically strips away any and all pretence for GTA-style mass-murder, and is possibly being made by actual fucking neo-Nazis. And yet I will still defend its right to exist and the right of adults to buy it if they want to. I will also defend wholeheartedly the rights of Gone Home, Depression Quest, Dear Esther and other such games to exist, be played and enjoyed by people. All of these games can co-exist within the medium of videogames as an artform. THIS IS NOT FUCKING ROCKET SURGERY!

If you cannot see that, and you’re still determined to dictate what is and isn’t worthy of being considered art within videogames, then that’s your prerogative. Although I might suggest your unique talents are better suited elsewhere, like a North Korean labour camp or an office in The Kremlin.

And yes, I’m very much aware that might seem like an attempt at censorship on my part. But you know what? At least I’m fucking honest about it.

In closing I would like to leave you with this quote from games journalist Cara Ellison, which serves as a simple yet beautiful capstone for this entire farce.

“CREATORS OF ART SHOULD BE ABLE TO MAKE ART IN A WAY THAT IS AN EXPRESSION OF WHO THEY ARE. WHETHER OR NOT THAT IS WORTHY IS SOMETHING THAT BOTH CRITICS AND PLAYERS OF GAMES HAVE TO DECIDE THROUGH BEING INVOLVED IN A CRITICAL CONVERSATION WITH THE ACTUAL WORK. I DON’T THINK ACKNOWLEDGING A GAME’S PROBLEMS IS ANNULLING ITS WORTH, NEITHER IS BUYING THE GAME AN ENDORSEMENT OF ITS MISOGYNY.”

That’s all for this one-track episode of Pixel Burn. If you liked it then please do let me know, and let your friends, family and your local branch of Target know as well. At the very least I hope you found it tolerable. And if you didn’t like it, then you can always start a petition to have it cast into Peppa Pig’s gaping hell-maw of annihilation.

[PEPPA PIG KNOWS ALL! PEPPA PIG WILL CONSUME ALL! YOU ARE POWERLESS BEFORE THE TERRIBLE DESTRUCTIVE COSMIC POWER OF PEPPA PIG!]

Matt

About Matt

Matt is the irresponsible degenerate behind bitscreed.com and the sarcastic writer, editor, director, presenter and tea boy of Pixel Burn.