Both Target and K-Mart in Australia have pulled Grand Theft Auto 5 from their shelves in reaction to a petition that, as of this writing, includes 45,948 signatures.
"Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women," the petition states. "It is fueling the epidemic of violence experienced by so many girls and women in Australia — and globally."
Pulling the game from retail shelves was likely an easy call for these retailers. They have already made the majority of the money they’re going to make from Grand Theft Auto sales during the game’s original launch on last-gen consoles, and the game has been available on current-generation consoles long enough that the first rush of interest has come and gone.
The economic impact of this decision is minimal, and it could have come down to a rather cold cost-benefit analysis: Are the future sales of this one game worth passing up an easy PR win where the retail could position themselves as a family-friendly store? The answer was no. The game was pulled.
Why this is stupid, but not a big deal
The decision was also deeply silly. There is likely all sorts of material that treat women just as poorly, if not worse, than the Grand Theft Auto series for sale in these retailers. This petition makes the common mistake of assuming that video games are still mostly a child’s pastime, and that players are all male. It also seems to say that games have an impact on that young, male mind that isn't shared with movies, music or books.
This decision also does next to nothing to hinder the availability of the game itself. You can always go to another store to buy Grand Theft Auto, or purchase the game online and download it directly to your console. The game hasn’t been banned, it won’t be that hard to track down and, if anything, the wave of publicity from this decision will increase demand for an already-popular game.
Now we’re in the silly situation of dueling petitions, as players argue that retailers shouldn’t be able to decide what games they should or shouldn’t sell. Having a game pulled from availability in this way won't have the positive impact fans of the decision would hope, but fighting to make sure every store has to stock every game we demand is just as silly.
When a game is removed from the shelves by a retailer it kicks us in that lizard part of our brains that becomes convinced that someone out they will come to take away our games. It seems silly that one can go into a store and buy Goodfellas but not Grand Theft Auto 5, but the solution to that problem is to go down the street to another retail or to purchase the game online, not to give yourself control over what each retailer is or isn't allowed to sell.
These situations also put us in the uncomfortable situation of having to defend sexist and violent content to real-world victims of sexual assault. "It's a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment," the petition states "The incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get 'health' points – and now Target are stocking it and promoting it for your Xmas stocking."
This wording doesn't seem to match up with the reality of the game, nor its incentive structure. The content is often uncomfortable, and sometimes hard to defend, but the incentive structure doesn't focus on these areas.
It’s the same tension one feels when watching trashy television or reading seedy true-crime books, however: The game attempts to balance the positive aspects of these character’s lives, including the freedom to do whatever they want and the monetary rewards of a life of crime, with the downsides of that same lifestyle. They live in a world of violence and uncertainty, and very little of that existence is glamorized in the game.
"You work hard, you screw over everybody that you love, hurt, rob, and kill indiscriminately and maybe, just maybe if you’re lucky, you’ll become a three-bit gangster," Michael says to Franklin during an early scene in the game, before telling him to go to college.
Michael got out of a life of crime with his cash and without his body being dumped in the river, and his reward is an existence in which nothing brings him any happiness. He has everything and loves nothing. The game looks down on these characters, even while it tries to make their adventures look romantic and exciting. These aren't subtle lessons, very little about these people or their acts are ever seen as aspirational.
This is troubling, but not for the obvious reasons
These situations show that video games are still seen as an art form that stands apart from books, movies and television shows. I do think that children playing Grand Theft Auto could get some twisted ideas about life and how to treat people, but they could learn those same lessons from watching the Sopranos, and there’s no petition to get DVDs of that show pulled from store shelves.
Stores that make sure no one can buy something to protect against children playing a game are counter-productive; anyone who has worked a week of retail in electronics knows that the person most likely to buy violent and explicit games for a child are the parents themselves.
Being aware of the power of this content to change how we think, or impact our worldview, is very different from saying games are more harmful than other forms of media. It’s likewise a long way from arguing that the choice of whether or not to play this or that game doesn’t belong to the adult who wants to buy it, or to allow their children to play it.
But there is little to be scared of in this situation. Just go to another store and purchase the game if you’d like to play it. As time goes on and more people grow up playing video games the sort of media bias that has games being singled out while other art forms are giving a pass will die out on its own.
This latest Grand Theft Auto controversy is frustrating for a number of reasons, but it's important to keep our responses calm and reasonable. If we want to prove that adults play these games we mustn't act like children who have had their favorite toy taken away.
My advice? Just walk down the street.