Late last week Wesfarmers retail chains Target Australia, and then later K-Mart, made the decision to remove copies of Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves in response to a petition started by concerned survivors of violence against women. The response has understandably been immense, but it highlights problems that the gaming industry and community must overcome if they’re to be taken seriously.
You would really have to look hard to find any other game in history which has has generated such a level of hysteria as the Grand Theft Auto series. Some consider it not far removed from a hooker killing simulator, and the petition further reinforces this view. To quote from the petition: ‘It’s a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment. The incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points’. With a description like that, there’s little wonder that the petition raised over 40,000 signatures and climbing. It does however conveniently ignore one basic fact. Under Classification Rules, no game is permitted to feature sexual violence – you have to look no further than Saints Row IV’s ‘Rectifier’, or the anal probe scenes in South Park: The Stick of Truth, to see how they have enforced this in the past. To argue that the game requires you to undertake such actions to progress the game or score ‘health points’ does nothing except further expose your ignorance of your subject matter. Sure there are problems with how women are depicted in GTAV, big problems, but to suggest that they are specifically targets for violence is off the mark. The game allows you to be violent to all NPCs, be they male, female, or animal, and doesn’t push you to do so in one direction or the other.
Not that I can blame Target Australia for their response, especially when you consider their strong ties to White Ribbon Day. It would be foolish for them to ignore such a large submission, especially when they’ve positioned themselves as a family-friendly franchise. Video games constitute such a small percentage of their business, that the loss of income from one title would barely be measurable. A more tangible threat howeverwould be the backlash to their brand had Target Australia relegated the petition to the rubbish bin, without the appearance of considering it fully. Weighing the consequences of both decisions, it’s no wonder they went for the path of least resistance – even if it was based on a grossly ill-informed premise.
What this does highlight is that video games are still a misunderstood medium, especially when it comes to ratings and content. I’ve written about this very issue 12 months ago (Blog: Rated R for a Reason), amongst the initial outcry of GTAV’s release, and it’s disappointing to see nothing has changed since. An intelligent person would argue that if Target were so concerned about the well being of it’s consumers, then it would endeavour to remove all such media from it’s shelves. Still, other similarly rated media remain, especially music artists who attempt to glorify the acts that Target are taking a stand against. For some reason, video games are included in a category of their own as the root of all of society’s ills. Parents who would baulk at their children watching a hyper-violent movie such as Hostel, or a sexually driven Wolf of Wall Street, think nothing of allowing them access to R18+ Rated games because ‘he really wants to play it’ or ‘all of his friends are playing it’. The game is not the problem. If a properly rated game falls into the hands of those it is unsuitable for, it is the retailers and parents who must bear the majority of the blame. It’s a shame the end users aren’t better educated on these issues, but seeing the Classification Board’s lacklustre stand at PAX Australia this year it’s no wonder. What we need is a voice coming from authority taking the time to spread the word. I’m yet to see a member of the Australian Government come out in the media and explain exactly what the ratings for video games entails. Instead when the media require someone to speak on the issue they need to rely on ‘pop-culture experts’ and video game journalists to spread the word.
Don’t think the gaming community gets off scott free on this issue though. Their response to this has been less than stellar, with reports of the organisers of the petition being the target of abuse and threatening messages. This isn’t surprising considering the perpetuated hysteria associated with GamerGate, but it is disappointing. A store has made a commercial decision to not stock a product you care about. So what? Get it elsewhere: that is if you haven’t got it already, in which case your outrage is invalid. You can’t jump up and down, demanding to be treated like adults, then throw a tantrum when things don’t go your way. If you disagree with the decision, make your feelings known in a reasoned and grown up manner. However, face facts, the decision has been made and it won’t be reversed, regardless of how many change.org petitions are generated. Retaliatory petitions demanding Target remove copies of 50 Shades of Grey serves no purpose besides reducing a potentially mature debate into nothing more than a childish game of ‘I know you are, but what am I’.
Perhaps a more suitable response by Target Australia would have been to assure those concerned they their staff adhere to the Classification Rules and point out the errors in the original petition. Maybe a compromise in not promoting the game as a gift idea for Christmas could have been achieved. But that horse has bolted. All we can do is continue to spread the word and try to educate those who don’t appreciate that the gaming industry is no longer a bunch of kids feeding 20 cent pieces into a Space Invaders game. Video games have matured throughout the years, and so too have their consumers – we’re still those same people who fed coins in the machine 30 years ago, albeit a lot older and a little bit wiser.