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To hit, or not to hit – how problematic is violence against women in video games?

April 20, 2015

Thanks in part to the resurgence of feminism, Grand Theft Auto (herein, GTA) has in recent years received bad press for being misogynistic, on top of the already well-established claims that it is the spawn of the devil that turns straight-A pupils into meth-taking, gun-toting delinquents. The incarnation that most attracted the sexism attention is GTA V, confusingly named since it is well beyond the fifth in the series.

Its predecessor, GTA IV, was considerably less problematic for women; it had female allies, friends and useful contacts, as well as drug dealers and gangsters. They developed as characters, rather than sat around whinging and needing protection or sex or whatever it is women supposedly want in the world of video games. Not to say they were always shown in the best light – perhaps a bit dependent, or manipulative, but on balance far better than GTA V in which no significant character was female; they were all just annoying wives, girlfriends, shag buddies and prostitutes, or the unfortunate but no less annoying daughter of a criminally incorrigible patriarch. These women were generally ill-treated and either slapped around or shot in the face.

In addition to that, the nature of the game allows you to go around doing this at the least provocation, because it is a sandbox: you are free to do what you like, and you are expected to be a criminal rather than go around painting fences and watering plants. That said, you can play golf and buy shares in the stock market.

The idea of sandbox games, and the motto of Rockstar (the developers of GTA), is that you can be as ethical or unethical as you like. It’s all on you. They don’t force you to pick up that giant great machine gun which is clearly meant as a reward and shoot all those people lounging around on the beach in Speedos like sitting ducks. It’s obviously a coincidence that you can get a golf club only by paying through the nose for a round of golf then pitching out midway through to run amok through the streets. Also a coincidence is the fact that the golf club is by far the best melee weapon in the game. Coincidence.

Of course, if you do make violent games for a living and your customers have a go at you for introducing a moral choice system which rewards or punishes the psychotic and saintly whims of the average sandbox player, you have no option but to make no suggestions at all as to how to play the game. No suggestions at all. Except to put that golf cart on the edge of the water hazard, or that explosive gas station opposite the police station.

The point I’m trying to make with all this is that the GTA franchise is silly, frantic and violent. What people new to it don’t necessarily realise is how little it has changed, and how unrelated to misogyny the general unpleasantness of GTA V is. There are torture scenes which you can’t skip, and actually get a reward for if you complete it thoroughly. This is a new low, or high depending on your view, but the victim is a man. There is no real change in the franchise’s treatment of women. It has been slightly worse, slightly better and mostly much the same across all the games. The reason for this is that women aren’t really in the main story, and thus aren’t subject to the same level of nauseating mistreatment. Not even if you tried could you treat a female NPC as badly as the male NPCs are treated in the main storyline.

GTA V represents an impossible dichotomy for current theories on gender equality in video games. The problem is simple; is it better to feature women and treat them as violently as you would anyone else in a violent game, or is it better to leave them out? Remember, GTA V got criticised for its violence against women, after someone decided to pick up a sex worker in their car and beat her to death rather than pay her for services rendered. But the game is still considerably less violent to women than to men. I mentioned a slapping around of a woman, but that was in a cut scene – there is never any call for a player to harm female NPCs when playing GTA V‘s single player storyline.

There are no female police officers. No female bad guys. No females in the SWAT team. No female body guards or other obstacles. If you have to get around a woman, be assured she’ll duck and cover at the wave of a fingernail and run for the hills. Literally, in the case of GTA V, which for all its ethical faults has beautiful scenery. This makes women no threat, no help, completely unimportant sideshows in a man’s world of violence and crime. That seems unfair, since presumably if we all enjoy being criminals in our living rooms, they do to.

Compare this to GTA‘s competing franchise, the wackier Saints Row. Row is far more egalitarian in this respect – gender variation abound and manipulatable for your amusement. SR3 allowed you to change your sex characteristics on a sliding scale, look a different sex to the one you technically are, and pick from a range of male or female voices quite regardless of all of this, not to mention freedom to cross dress like a pro. Sex workers are always female and pimps always male, but customers are frequently ancient and middle aged women. Police are 50-50 male female, as are bad guys, and they are equal in strength. And yes, you must kill them if you don’t want to die. There is no mercy for women who are your enemy and no special protection for women on your side. Chivalry is deader than the NPC in the hotdog suit.

Undoubtedly then, it is a game more violent towards women than GTA. Yet, it feels less so, because the violence is for survival and is not gender dependent in its effect or presentation. A woman could play that game freely, without feeling as though whenever she takes a swing at half the people in the game, she is acting as a man picking on women, whether she wants to or not. Bear in mind, GTA has never been big on giving players the option of female characters, and despite being able to switch between three playable characters in GTA V, not one of them is female. That tells you a lot about the target audience.

If you attack someone in Row, you can expect to have your arse handed to you. Most women in GTA V will run away. This rather encourages you to chase them – video games tap into that chasing instinct, so when people start running away, they actually become bigger targets than if they don’t. This, I’m sure, is not intentional, but rather an attempt to show “realism”; always an odd concept in video games where you can get blown sky high by a gas explosion and be up on your feet in a few seconds, inexplicably sporting a few bullet wounds. And where sleeping in a bed perfectly dry-cleans all the blood off your clothes. Because the really important thing to observe is, women run away. With the wind whipping through their glossy hair.

I don’t like it, but I find myself targeting women a lot more in GTA V than in Row. Their reactions are funnier than men’s. This isn’t the case in Row, where most everyone takes violence in their stride a bit – they all come at you in waves with stun guns and pepper spray. Despite yearning to chase them down, when I inevitably attack women in GTA, I feel guilty because they don’t fight back. It’s distinctly uncomfortable to be attacking someone who is defenceless, yet Rockstar doesn’t typically discourage you from it – the exception is Bully, where you get in more trouble for hitting girls at your school, and small children, too. Of course, this has the opposite effect – once again, you are encouraged to attack them, because the difficulty in getting away with it makes it more fun. Thankfully, attacking authority figures is even harder to get away with, so one tends to gravitate towards picking on prefects instead.

Rockstar must know that there are moral problems with their games. Why were there no planes in the post 9/11 GTA IV, when the planes where so popular in the pre 9/11 GTA games? Why are there no children in GTA games? Because they don’t want to be the developers that make it possible for you to kill children or relive terrorist attacks. When people say Rockstar don’t care about these ethical problems, they are quite wrong – Rockstar care too much, and it makes them put efforts in place to stop too much violence against women in their games. The problem is, their attempts are misguided. It’s the double standard in chivalry that firmly says no one should ever hit women – but you don’t need to respect them, and it stands to reason that you’ll never like them, so why even try to make them likeable?

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