Relax, It’s Only a Game!?

A few weeks ago I read a Gamespot review of Grand Theft Auto V that somewhat confused me. Carolyn Petit’s review raved about the game calling it ‘astounding’, ‘fascinating’, ‘exhilarating.’ She even awarded it an impressive 9/10. The main thing, however, that she felt lets the game down is its depiction of women. She claimed that the game, ‘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.’ She continued on to say:

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.

gta imageNow, I know that GTA has a very dedicated fan base, so please don’t misunderstand me, I am not saying anything about GTAV itself. I have not played it so any discussion I enter on the game itself will inevitably have huge short-comings as I can only go by what I’ve read, not what I’ve personally experienced. In the ‘is GTAV sexist debate?’ I can see that there are arguments on either side and, although I do have a personal opinion on it, I recognise that that opinion is influenced entirely by clips, trailers and reviews. So instead of discussing the game itself what I want to discuss is the review of the game.

Let me explain.

The main thought that struck me when I read the review was not ‘wow, GTAV is so sexist!’ The main thought that I had was, ‘if the reviewer believes that GTAV is as sexist as she says it is, then why has she given it 9/10’? To me there seems something incredibly inconsistent here. As I said, I haven’t played the game myself so I have no idea what I would score it, but I’m pretty sure that if I found any game to be morally offensive then I would be very hesitant to score it so highly even if the gameplay is as amazing as she claims.

I’m certainly not the only one that has an opinion on Petit’s review. By the time I decided to write a blog about this review I discovered that it has caused a considerable stir among the gaming community. Despite giving the game such a high score it seems that the reviewer has been targeted and accused of making unfair, biased criticisms. Maybe her criticisms are unfair, I don’t know, but it seems crazy to me that no one seems to be saying, ‘well hang on, if you really think that’s true, why give it as high as a 9?’ If she really felt as upset about it as her language communicates, why recommend it at all?

At this point maybe you’re thinking, ‘but it’s a game, it’s just a bit of fun, you shouldn’t take it that seriously.’ Maybe you’re right. But to me here’s the question that is important and crucial. Before we even get to the question of ‘is GTAV sexist?’ we have to ask ourselves ‘does it matter if it’s sexist?’

I’m not so interested in talking about GTAV specifically. I’m interested in a more general discussion about our view of games and the extent to which the way they present worldviews is important. Carolyn Petit’s review of GTAV, in my mind at least, implies a view that the way games portray life is of little importance, i.e. they can be horrific or immoral but so long as the gameplay is fun enough to balance that out it still gets a high score. In her conclusion she writes, ‘GTA V is an imperfect yet astounding game that has great characters and an innovative and exciting narrative structure, even if the story it uses that structure to tell is hobbled at times by inconsistent character behaviour, muddled political messages and rampant misogyny.’ – basically saying, ‘great game, shame about the misogyny.’ Am I the only one that seems to think that doesn’t quite add up?

But I suppose that I have my own bias. I’m not talking about my opinion on misogyny (although of course that plays into it) but my opinion on games as being a valid form of artistic expression. To me there would be a severe contradiction in terms to say, on the one hand, that a game cougta1ld ever be considered as valid artistic expression but yet, on the other hand, claim that the way a game demonstrates a worldview is of little to no importance. A film or play could be expertly directed and acted, but if its message is morally offensive then it is unlikely to receive positive reviews. But yet if a game is ethically questionable but has good gameplay, then we seem to be much more forgiving.

The way gaming is developing it feels like more games are placing an emphasis on having engaging characters and thought-provoking stories, but this progress will be stunted, or at the least become an inconsistency, if we ever maintain that the way a game represents ideas is unimportant.

So say what you want about GTAV, whether you think it’s sexist or not. But don’t say that it doesn’t matter, because if you say that then you are simultaneously saying that modern gaming could never be anything more than a bit of fun, a harmless distraction from life that could never have any impact on the way we think or feel or act. I just simply cannot buy into that.

Post by Dan Thompson


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