‘GTA 5′ And The Ethics Of Mass Murder

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There’s been renewed interest in Grand Theft Auto 5 in the wake of its re-release on PS4 and Xbox One that’s more than just an HD remaster. Rather, with it comes the addition of first person mode, a perspective which sheds new light on an old series and the fundamental concepts behind it. Namely, killing lots of people, and if you choose to do so, lots of innocent, unarmed people.

GTA 5 has done the unthinkable and reignited a firestorm about its content even with just a re-release. I think first person is to blame, but I wanted to discuss what appears to be the central issue of everyone’s problem with GTA 5, and really Grand Theft Auto as a series for the last three or four installments, the issue of violence against sex workers.

Polygon recently came out with an opinion piece taking Rockstar to task for their dismissive attitude toward those who say GTA 5 promotes violence against women. That sentiment got the game removed from store shelves in Australian Target and Kmart, and gamers pushed back saying it was akin to censorship. Rockstar’s response to it all? “If you don’t like it, don’t buy it.”

I agree with the piece that this is a rather simplistic and unwise response that could literally be applied to anything under “free speech protection.” You could say the same about a KKK themed shooter than has you hunting down minorities. “Don’t like, don’t buy it,” the gamemakers could say, and though they’d technically be right, so would everyone who would fight vehemently against the game’s worldview, and stores would be within their rights not to sell it.

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Polygon’s piece goes on to say that Rockstar is in the wrong about how they treat women in their games, especially so in GTA 5 now that it’s a more realistic-feeling world than ever. Particularly, the issue that everyone keeps coming back to with each new GTA installment, the player’s ability to hire, use and execute a prostitute, which is something many believe should be removed from the game.

“I know a lot of people desperately want to believe that killing a prostitute in GTA 5 is the same as killing any other character, but it’s really not.” says Polygon’s Colin Campbell. “Unlike gangsters or cops or business dudes or hot dog vendors, prostitutes, as a class, are despised, marginalized and abused in real life, all the time. This means that GTA 5 takes its pleasure in humiliating and abusing victims of humiliation and abuse.”

To me this is a curious place to draw the line, given the extreme content found elsewhere in the game. I won’t argue with the assertion that sex workers aren’t routinely abused and humiliated in real life, but I don’t think they’re the only “bullied” group GTA lets you commit acts of violence against. This is a game where you can run over a grandma with your car, or do a driveby shooting in a poor ghetto and execute a dozen random civilians. Both the elderly and the poor as also groups that endure abuse and humiliation frequently, yet you’re allowed to kill them all the same. And even with a recent real-life push-back against a few select overly violent cops, I don’t think killing police officers by the truckload in these games has ever been free from its own set of moral issues.

I think one difference people see here are the “incentives” to kill prostitutes in GTA, which though minor, do exist in the form of health gains and extra cash dropped upon death. But if those were taken away, I think the issue would still be present. I played GTA 5 for no less than fifty hours and never once actually purchased the services of a prostitute, and if I had, I wouldn’t really have had the desire to beat her to death and get my money back afterward. That may have been something I would done years ago, perhaps finding it darkly humorous as a young teen, but I feel like I’ve mostly grown out of mass murder sprees of innocents in games like these. Only rarely throughout GTA 5 was I ever shooting at people who weren’t shooting back at me. With a game that has a specific narrative structure and well developed characters, going on a killing spree seemed…wrong. But I think now with first person mode, that barrier has been largely removed. The violent acts are now easier to commit, and unquestionably more brutal now that you’re behind the eyes of the mass murderer rather than detached by watching some other guy commit crimes as you simply pull his strings.

Really, I think Rockstar’s game tells you more about the player than about them as a company. This is a game that allows you to kill innocent people, sex workers, the elderly and the poor included, yet those are never encouraged aspects of the game. Even for as vicious as the game seems, I don’t remember a single mission that tells you to kill something that wasn’t shooting back at you (or at least would be if they weren’t unaware in the sights of your rifle scope). In the case of the sex worker conundrum, the “sandbox” aspect allows players to choose to take branching paths of A) driving past prostitutes doing nothing the whole game B) hiring them and letting them walk away unscathed or C) brutally murdering them. But the issue is that the choice exists at all, it seems. This is a game that you could play through killing only other criminals, or you could amass a body count of innocents to make Jack the Ripper blush. But the latter aspect is not a required or even encouraged part of the game. Start shooting unarmed people, and the game makes it its mission to see you dead as quickly as possible by hurling the police at you, which is the same thing that would happen in real life.

What I think all these sex worker-specific allegations fail to consider is that Grand Theft Auto exists in what’s simply just an awful, horrible universe where the player is allowed to do terrible things to any number of different character archetypes, and interact with generally terrible people of all genders. Many of the misogyny allegations leveled against the game also cite a slate of female NPCs that range from slutty celebrities to nagging wives and vain daughters. These are accurate descriptions of women in the game, and yet the opposite side of the gender coin has equally awful characters from leering paparazzi to slovenly, lazy sons to emotionally dead, cheating fathers to someone like Trevor who may literally be the Antichrist. The only person that doesn’t immediately want you to loathe them might be Franklin, but even he’s a murderous gangster, as is the nature of the game.

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To me GTA 5′s gender problem was never how women were portrayed, either as voiced characters or nameless victims, but rather that there wasn’t an awful anti-hero of a woman that got to be one of the playable leads alongside the guys. The women in the game are all terrible because everyone in the game terrible. The problem is more that there isn’t a terrible woman given her own guns and allowed her own player-controlled misadventures.

If prostitutes were simply removed from Grand Theft Auto, I don’t think the world would suffer for it as it’s certainly not an even remotely substantive part of the game. And yet I think it’s focusing on a very specific issue while ignoring the larger whole, the fact that the universe of Grand Theft Auto is just a hellhole of existence where everything is awful and anyone, innocent or guilty, can be killed on a whim by the player. This isn’t to say this unprecedented level of freedom granted to players by Rockstar makes for a bad game no one should play, but let’s just say GTA’s worldview isn’t anything that’s going to brighten your day after a given play session.

Violence and abuse directed toward sex workers is a serious, real world issue that isn’t going to be influenced by its portrayal in video games. You can’t be part of the group that argues that killing sprees in GTA don’t make people commit murder or become numb to violence, then also say that the treatment of sex workers in the game will lead to real life violence against women, or cause people to believe the real-world issue isn’t an important one. In this case I don’t think there’s a way to win. Making prostitutes “immune” from violence makes little sense within the game world and their ability to be hired in the first place is still a pretty touchy moral issue. But remove them entirely and suddenly you’re ignoring their plight altogether by pretending they don’t exist, which also isn’t sending a great message.

Drunk driving is a serious real-life issue, yet you can slam drinks and drive through a sidewalk of pedestrians in GTA 5. The roots of inner city gang violence is a serious-real life issue, yet the game gives you specific missions to head to the ghetto and mow down the poor and disenfranchised with an Uzi. Domestic violence is a serious real-life issue, yet the game allows you to go on a date and end the evening by taking a baseball bat to her head if you so choose.

These are all terrible, awful things, which is why it seems so weird to focus on one issue instead of all of them. This is what I mean when I talk about the ”ethics of mass murder,” where it seems like if you want to go down that path, you have to condemn GTA as a whole, rather than single out specific aspects tied to specific issues like the Polygon piece does. If committing violent crimes against innocent people is the main issue, there are a million ways to do that in GTA. And yet all the reviews I’ve read of the game rarely mention that at all, and the news media seems to only ever get wind of the prostitute problem. But get rid of that, and a world where you’re free to do any number of also-unspeakable things still exists.

I wrote a whole article recently about how games like GTA may push the bounds of mental health if they end up offering an immersive, first person view of crimes against innocents in a coming age of VR. I think that’s an issue that’s going to have to be seriously considered as the game continues to evolve, but right now I’m not clear on why Grand Theft Auto is being held to a weird moral standard as if it’s supposed to be some kind of ethical force for good in the industry. It very clearly isn’t, and has the freedom not to be, but it’s an issue I don’t think stems from misogyny, but rather the desire to build a world where everything and everyone is terrible, and there are no real consequences for your actions.

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