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Grand Theft Auto 5, Australian culture, and how the American press misses the point

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The decision to remove Grand Theft Auto 5 from the shelves of Target and K-Mart stores in Australia caused quite the reaction, especially in the American gaming press.

The move was discussed, argued over and written about, but the act itself took place in Australia, and reflects Australian culture and history. It's worth keeping that context in mind as we discuss the situation.

Australia has a national, government-funded body called the Classification Board that classifies films and video games. The Grand Theft Auto series itself has a long history in Australia, and with that board in particular.

This body refused classification to Grand Theft Auto 3 in 2001, effectively banning it from sale. In Australia it's illegal to sell, distribute or show unclassified films or video games — with a handful of exceptions — which is a stark difference from the American system of retailer-enforced ratings that have no backing in actual legal authority.

The game is still very much available to most Australians

I opposed the Classification Board's decision, as did many other Australian players, on the basis that citizens and outlets should be able to make up their own minds. But that included being able to make up their minds against carrying the content as well.

We fought to give outlets the right to both stock, or not stock, the games they wanted to, rather than have the Classification Board decide for them. We've won greater liberalization of classification toward video games, including the introduction of an R18+ category, similar to your NC-17, making more extreme games available to adults. It's not about making sure everyone can buy every game, it's about giving that decision to retailers and customers, not the government. It's an important distinction.

Take-Two chairman & CEO Karl Slatoff's suggestion that this is Target trying to "make that decision for millions of people" is ridiculous. K-Mart & Target are not Walmart. This kind of retail doesn't occupy the central importance in many Australians' lives that it does in American life.

These two stores not stocking the game isn't the same as, say, a sole pharmacy in a country town refusing to stock basic medication like the morning-after pill. The game is still very much available to most Australians, and I'm not afraid that this will lead to a situation where it won't be; I've witnessed my fellow Australians take action against actual censorship and ensure that controversial works are available to those who want them.

Australians look at these situations differently

To me, as an Australian, American cultures seem to have a very black-and-white view of freedoms, where any level of restriction on freedom is considered as bad as a total ban. This attitude is exemplified by this Penny Arcade comic, which seems hyperbolic at best and intentionally ignorant at worst.

It may be due to the fact Australia doesn't have an ongoing culture war with a strong conservative arm trying to ban sexually progressive pieces of art, but we're less likely to freak out over one company having an opinion. We still have a strong history of debates about art and speech, even if the protection of speech and pride in free speech isn't core to our national identity the way it is in America. It's only inferred from the constitution, not explicitly outlined. Even then, only political speech is protected from government censure, not all kinds of speech.

Private citizens and organizations are welcome to evaluate all kinds of speech on its content, from petitioning for or against legislative measures such as the hotly debated 18c laws, which ban racial vilification, to simply rejecting speech they feel is harmful. The very idea that some speech can be harmful and should be discouraged is more accepted here.

For instance, the Anti-Hate campaign was designed to encourage citizens to fight back against racist speech and put stickers over racist graffiti. I don't think most Australians would call this censorship, even though racist graffiti is still technically art, albeit really shitty art. Removing the racist language from public spaces is seen as a good thing.

By the same token, we're also empowered to defend speech we feel is important, even if technically illegal, such as the photography of Bill Henson. In 2008, his photographs focusing on nude portrayals of prepubescent and pubescent children were seized by police.

The idea that some speech can be harmful is more accepted here

A large public debate ensued before the national classification board rated his work "mild and justified," which legalized it. I've seen his work in person. It's chilling, warming and very fragile. It's the opposite of objectifying. These children don't exist for the viewer; the viewer is challenged to consider their mind and interior experiences, including the apprehension of early adolescence and the lingering sense of magic meeting increased independence. It's humanizing.

The system worked as intended, protecting children while allowing debate so that the work could be shown.

This is, in part, an education issue

Australia has a less polarized view toward speech and art than America and many internet commentators. We're more likely to participate in public debates about it, more likely to feel heard and have more faith in judging it.

Part of that is the way media literacy is taught in schools. In my state, for our university exams, we were taught a unit on how TV, books, poems, ads and films use techniques to reinforce implicit meanings, and one on how different viewpoints read texts differently.

We had to be able to compare and contrast our own interpretations of a text with how other ideologies might interpret it, such as feminist, Marxist, capitalist or classical works. We were required to form our own personal judgments about the values of the text and how well they were expressed. You could have any interpretation you wanted as long as you could cite the bit of the text that led you to those conclusions and lucidly explain why.

We bake cultural awareness and critical thinking into our education. This helps Australians feel empowered to judge media, but also to tolerate when other citizens or companies act on their judgments and reject some media. As such, I think Australia usually strikes a good balance between ensuring citizens can speak truth to power, and giving them the skills to do so, and ensuring that certain kinds of speech don't harm the less powerful.

I feel confident that if it went beyond individual stores making decisions to cater to their customers, Australians would step up and have a moderate, reasonable debate with good outcomes, as we have had in the past. There is definitely a slope here, but we're not nearly as scared about how slippery it may become.

So yes, this explains somewhat why Australians have been relatively relaxed about Target's choice. It might also be something to do with having excellent beaches at which to relax.

But what about the choice itself? Even if Australians do feel empowered to judge, why Grand Theft Auto in particular? A local spate of car thefts, perhaps?

We bake cultural awareness and critical thinking into our education

One thing Australians tend to judge harshly is American cultural imperialism. This is mostly because American mass culture has wielded the money and power to overwhelm ours for decades. It's nearly impossible for local Australian music, art and film to compete, and they struggle.

Thus, there's a large amount of hostility toward American culture, even as most Australians frequently consume it. While we have the same prejudice against games as mindless entertainment that exists in the states, this is combined with the belief that American cultural artifacts are particularly inane and violent.

There is, at least on the Australian left, widespread worry that the saturation of American movies, music, TV, games, art, podcasts and ads has influenced Australian values, politics and perceptions of the world.

Games aren't exempt from that as they often present American values like individualism, pragmatism, meritocracy and consumerism over traditional Australian values like mateship, larrikinism, a fair go and egalitarianism. Games like Grand Theft Auto aren't just seen as games; they're seen as American games, out of touch with Australian values — including Australian attitudes toward sex work.

The Australian approach to sex work is very different from the United States' view. Sex work is legal in all six states and two territories. Brothels are legal in three states, and street walking is legal in one. It's certainly more visible here. In my state, it's really not hard to find a brothel; they have signs outside, like any other business. As a result, our responsibility to ensure sex workers feel safe and welcome in our society is more pressing. That's true particularly recently, as more attention has been drawn to the cultural biases against sex workers still present in our society.

The high-profile case of the disappearance and murder of Jill Meagher became a national conversation two years ago, for instance. Meagher was raped and murdered by Adrian Bayley, who was on parole after being released from jail for aggravated rapes against sex workers upon serving just half the maximum sentence for those crimes.

The case highlighted the differences between how seriously we take violence against sex workers versus violence against other citizens. While governments have recently strengthened legislation against public violence, including the One Punch laws, which tends to affect young men, we're still struggling with more casual attitudes toward domestic violence, racially motivated violence, aboriginal deaths in custody and violence against sex workers.

You can kill anyone in Grand Theft Auto 5, but not all assaults and murders in Australia seem to be treated the same. GTA might "trivialize all deaths equally," but this is like saying a $200 fine affects the rich and the poor equally. Sex workers can least afford to have their deaths trivialized in a context like Australia that already devalues their lives compared to other citizens.

This is an Australian issue, guided by Australian thinking

The way internet commentators have found it so easy to weigh in on this issue without doing the least bit of background research into local context reflects a misunderstanding of Australian thinking about content.

There's a tendency to treat us like we're an unincorporated territory of the United States, with exactly the same preoccupations and mores, but we're not.

Our distinct cultural context means we have different reactions to media than you, and that is normal. I'm proud of my fellow citizens for being willing to step up and take responsibility for the culture we live in, to be able to examine difficult questions of what is good or bad speech, even when I don't agree with them.

Of course, I will continue to both fight for speech I think is being unnecessarily restricted, and speak up against speech I feel is harmful. This is an example of the system working well, not anything to fear.