This week, I had planned on writing an article about sex and sexuality commodification, after a comment in my last post about the phenomenon. I indeed wrote the piece, but got frustrated with the fact that some one the points I was trying to make could not be reinforced to my satisfaction –a bunch of video and image clips I had seen before in previous research went up in smoke, so I will have to postpone finishing the article until I find my evidence again.
Until that time, I have something I really want to write about that has been bothering me for a few years. I’m sure that many of my readers know that I tend to write about moderate to liberal issues that are typically feminist in nature, so this post may seem a bit on the uncharacteristic side. But, please bear with me on this.
What I’d like to discuss is the controversial video game Grand Theft Auto. Yeah, that GTA. The game that puts feminist groups, parents, and dozens others into orbit with its “glorification of violence” and sexist themes. I mean, yeah! GTA is clearly the antithesis of progressivism, right? It has to be; it has violence in it and women dressed or posed provocatively on the game promotion materials…well, some of them.
Ok, this is where it gets weird. I actually happen to believe that GTA is one of the most sophisticated and socially complex games existing in the contemporary market.
I said it. Yes, one more time: I enjoy and support GTA, especially the ones released in recent years, like the 2008’s GTA IV. Oh, and I’m still a moderate-liberal feminist who is proud of her socio-anthropological toolkit for understanding culture and social institutions. I also can’t wait for GTA V to be released.
So, for the readers that haven’t left yet, let me tell you why I am thrilled with GTA.
Reason 1: Despite what many think, the more recent GTA games are chock-full of multifaceted, nuanced, realistic characters that run the ethnic gamut from Eastern European to Latino to urban American. Take Johnny Klebitz from the GTA IV side story called “Lost and the Damned” that was released in 2009. Johnny is an aging American biker with (among other things) a fascinating and grey moral code. While he tolerates some violence and even murder between rival biker gangs, when talking with his ultra-junkie ex-girlfriend, he laments her drug use (which has also influenced her into prostitution) and begs her throughout the game to seek professional help. Johnny is engaged in a power struggle within his biker group with another member of his gang who was recently released from prison –a real sociopath that sees drugs and bloodshed as the way to enrich the gang. Throughout the game, you see how the both Johnny and his rival’s non-standard morality and personal code clash, forcing the player to see just how grey the area is between criminal behavior and real, unforgiving criminals. I thoroughly enjoyed having my to question my own character and moral code within the framework of normalized criminality. Additionally, this particular game add-on didn’t shy away from the realities that these men faced in the way of disability (one member was confined to a wheelchair due to a motorcycle accident), their personal identity as they aged and competed with younger males, and how their older, devil-may-care attitudes of youth were beginning to clash with their more experienced, adult mentalities. GTA never devalues their characters just because they practice criminal behavior, instead, the writers work hard to show the very deeply human aspects of each person…or the lack thereof for some true psychopaths.
I choose to discuss Johnny from “Lost and the Damned”, but I could just as easily discuss Luis Lopez from the provocatively titled “Ballad of Gay Tony”, also a side story to GTA IV released in 2009. A Hispanic protagonist acting as the main character, Luis Lopez is a fine example of how difficult it is for a person with very limited resources, like a minority, to escape the call of fast, easy money in crime…and the reality that many industries he find himself in -that claim to be legitimate- are actually intrinsically connected to criminal acts. Luis is a complex person dealing with a significant social problem: how to take care of his traditional mother –a person who is undereducated and easily taken advantage of in America- and be the man she wants him to be while surrounded by easy crime and less-scrupulous family members. All while being a minority with a thick accent. Luis struggles with multiple identities within his extra-social context and his family, and battles with himself daily to mitigate these paradoxes. On one hand, he seeks to be legitimate and well-respected, but his family struggles daily with poverty and lack of resources which demand attention constantly –more constantly than the paycheck of the working world. The fact that he was in prison for two years prior to the game’s opening makes his struggle for legitimacy even more difficult. As the player, watching Luis go through exhausting day after day, it is easy to see the dilemma he faces and observe the vast grey area he navigates: a difficult, confusing, social spider web riddled with walls of discrimination, lack of education and social assumption and expectation. Luis knows and admits everything he does to himself, but in many ways, he is confined by social institutions that influence him to keep walking that dangerous grey line. Despite how much he wants to live a “normal American life”, the realities behind discrimination prevent anything from coming to fruition. Anything but crime, that is.
Not to mention, I could write an entire article about the eponymous “Gay Tony” himself: an aging homosexual on the brink of social obsolescence, epitomizing the desperation of an unstable identity linked to drug abuse and poor judgment. It is ironic that “gay” is so important in his identity that it has become inextricably linked to his given name, and yet his sexuality is the least of his concerns. I could go on, but I can’t write about everything!
Reason 2: A common misconception in GTA is that the game deliberately glorifies violence and hate. I can’t disagree more with this idea. I have personally played the most recent, sandbox-style GTA games, and I have never, not once felt that the violence that is present in the game was not horrific, brutal, and full of suffering. A great example of this is in the main GTA IV game, with the Eastern European protagonist Niko Bellic and his cousin Roman Bellic. Niko left the “grey area of Eastern Europe” after fighting for his country in the terrible Yugoslav wars to pursue the so-called American Dream and escape the life of militaristic violence he grew up with. Inadvertently, Niko’s cousin Roman -a hammy, popular culture-emulating, larger-than-life fellow- dragged Niko back into a life of criminal behavior when he admitted to racking up huge gambling debts with shady people. After relying on Niko to get him out of a few tight spots with dangerous loan sharks, eventually a feud is started between the loan sharks, their much more connected and dangerous Russian connections, and Niko and Roman. Over time as the feud intensifies, on the day of his wedding to an American girl he loved, Roman is shot dead on the steps of the chapel heading to the reception. It is horrible and senseless –an act of revenge. Nothing about the scene, with a newly wedded wife screaming, covered in blood and a numbly impotent Niko watching his cousin murdered, was glorious. It was gut-wrenching and unfair.
Even the final scenes in which the protagonist Niko hunts down the real perpetrator(s) behind the murder are not made to be acts of resounding justice, in the spirit of some Quinton Tarantino films. In the end, the player is left feeling empty, unsatisfied, and wondering how Niko will ever again find peace –both psychologically and socially. The ordeals the protagonists endure -the amount of loss and pain- leaves the player exhausted and affected. In the end, the routine, plot-moving violence in GTA, is contrasted by the high-impact, high-suffering of the deaths of main and sub characters which are full of grief and loss.
Reason 3: The final, biggest reason I am going to give in this article for my support and enjoyment of the GTA series is the incredible satire that the GTA universe as a whole makes of our contemporary social world. It is entirely satisfying –and even recommended, if you haven’t done this- to just hop in a car in the GTA world or sit back and look at a television and listen to the game’s radio stations. GTA’s media, like the very best of comedians throughout human history, is a super-magnified lens into the parts of culture that people generally take for granted, injected with some very smart (utterly hilarious) and relevant humor. Every commercial, television and radio show, right down to the billboards to view as you go about your way in the GTA sandbox world are full of sharp, social commentary; commentary about gender roles and expectations, racism, consumerism, and even medicalization. Much like The Onion brings some very real social issues to light by magnifying what is taken for granted, GTA makes apparent the quiet, under-the-radar aspects of culture. For example, a commercial for the “Gender Role Doll” in GTA IV. In the commercial, some conservative GTA politician is exposing the virtues of the doll to girls everywhere, which voices gender-relevant statements programmed into it like (for the female doll), “I’m sorry your team lost… would you like a blow job?” and (for the male doll) “I’m going to repeat the same pattern of abusive behavior as my father.” What an awesome way to magnify and problematize traditional girls’ dolls and the way they are marketed. This is also a great way to bring this issue to the mass audience and make it an easy topic to discuss and contemplate. GTA’s built in media, with its outstanding writing and extremely sharp humor, is a beautiful tool of critical thinking. And we all really, really like thinking critically. Especially about the media. YES.
So, I’ve given just a few examples of why I like GTA, now I’d like to say a few things I hope to see coming out of the games in the future (this generally is what I think about all games, anyway). While I think GTA is a forerunner in the kinds of social issues it eagerly addresses in the game plots, I really would like to see more female main characters with all the wonderful nuances of the male characters they write. While there are some really wonderful and diverse women in the games, like GTA IV’s Elizabeta Torres, a minority, lesbian, drug-dealer who is the paranoid leader of her all-male gang, these women tend to be support characters. I would like to see women or even other genders in lead roles facilitated by the great writing of Dan and Sam Houser…or maybe with an equally talented woman writer on the team. If there is anything that GTA suffers from, it is the female-stigma that haunts all gaming companies and publishers: how difficult it is to get the mass audience (deeply imbedded in patriarchal vales) to buy or want games with females or other genders in the lead role. This really needs to change. Gaming can be better than this.
Also, while I don’t buy into the violent-games-make-violent-people ideology one bit (not one bit), I would like to see more games like GTA, with its exceptional writing and critical analysis of culture, find other means of moving along game plots other than violence. I understand that violence is incredibly universal; that’s one reason it is such a sure bet for something that needs to sell. This is seen all the time in mainstream media and action movies. When any culture sees someone’s head blown off, the point is made. This is much harder with other behaviors that are culturally contexted and may be misunderstood for a global audience. But hey, some great games that were less about violence as a plot device -like Heavy Rain for example- were not only successful, they demonstrated that there is a gaming demographic that desires this kind of change. It can be done; its just really difficult (and risky, given the expense of making and marketing games) and takes real out-of-the-box thinking. But the market is out there, gaming just needs to keep working on this and make other plot devices a priority. Violence is compelling, but it isn’t all there is to human existence.
So finally, I wanted to say a few things about why I wanted to write this. Years ago while in university, I was young in understanding academia and the academic culture. I was naive and I didn’t understand that academia was far from a charitable group of warm researchers, but a competitive, often close-minded community rife with academic fraud and intolerance for intellectual deviation from the standard. During this time, I was heavily influenced by feminism and gender research, and like most young scholars, my mental, ethical and intellectual pendulum swung mightily over to the side of extremism. I also jumped on a lot of politically and agenda-charged bandwagons, one of which was a feministic assault on all things GTA…even before I had actually played any for myself. I fervently embraced the culture and ideology of anti-GTA (and many video games) and even promoted this sentiment at a large-scale public annual festival at university. Looking back at what I was told to believe about GTA (among other things), I realize now that the “research” supporting the beliefs I eagerly embraced were shamelessly cherry-picked from the games, removed from meaningful context. I mean, this is something you could never do at an archaeological dig, but here we all were, doing it for this piece of media. At this point, I can fully admit I was on a political bandwagon and acting as an uninformed loudmouth, but I also know that if I was still on the road of academia, I would have never been able to admit this or write what I really think today. That bandwagon would be my career. Especially writing about a game hated by many feminists –and being a woman- even parts of my personal and social identity would be compromised. I am writing this instead in my own, real opinion, for better or worse, and I’m not sorry.
So there it is. I bet, for those of you who were at least unoffended enough to finish my article, that you may have a few things to say. Please feel free but please keep this in mind: I’m writing this today to face up to a part of academia that I think is unhealthy and undermining; the above is entirely my opinion and intends to fly-in-the-face of what I was told to believe about GTA, both linguistically and socially, though implication. I’m sure there are a lot of counters to how I view GTA…this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive study in GTA research. That being said, have at it.