Video games have long been controversial for a variety of reasons – one of the most prevalent is the violent content featured in many titles aimed at adults. Numerous games have come under fire by consumers for their depictions of violence, but the Grand Theft Auto franchise has arguably been the most infamous poster-child for the ongoing controversy. The latest title in the series, "Grand Theft Auto 5," was released for the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on September 17th of 2013. At the time, it was lauded as another successful launch for the publisher, Rockstar Games, and received little controversial press.
However, "Grand Theft Auto 5" was recently re-released for the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, both next-generation consoles. On the heels of the November 2014 release, a full year after it was launched on previous-gen consoles, a petition began on Change.org to have the game pulled from all Target outlets in Australia. The petition states that "Grand Theft Auto 5" is "a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment." The petition's authors, Nicole, Claire, and Kat, claim to be former sex workers who have experienced sexual violence similar to what they believe "Grand Theft Auto 5" depicts. For this reason, they asked Target to "put ethics before profits and make a strong statement that [they] do not condone sexual violence, sexual exploitation or the abuse of women as 'entertainment'."
At the time of this writing, the petition has received 47,363 supporters, and as of December 4th both Target and Kmart have banned the game from their stores in Australia. Target wrote in its official press release that they "feel the decision to stop selling GTA5 is in line with the majority view of [their] customers."
While the ban most likely will not become a source of financial hardship for Rockstar North, the game's developer, or Rockstar Games, it has been met with strong, mixed reactions. While the petition backers are celebrating their success as a step towards ending sexual violence against women, others argue that the decision is a step in the wrong direction.
Australia has a tenuous relationship with violent video games. Before January 2013, games not deemed suitable for individuals over the age of 15 were banned from the country. Developers have traditionally altered overseas versions of their games for Australian markets to fit the MA 15+ rating. Despite a new R 18+ rating introduced last year, some games still require content revisions to be considered acceptable for sale.
The idea that video games cause violence, or that depictions of sexual violence against women may inspire men to commit similar acts against women in real life, is nothing new to the gaming world. In the early 2000's, a lawyer based in Florida named Jack Thompson began a long-term fight against violent video games with the Grand Theft Auto franchise one of his primary targets. Thompson's legal actions never resulted in new legislation, but he consistently maintained that violent video games were purposefully aimed at young boys and were detrimental to their emotional and moral development.
In March 2008, the Florida Bar officially declared that Thompson "abused the legal system by submitting numerous, frivolous and inappropriate filings," and disbarred him.
At the time, Thompson's campaign against violent video games was not taken seriously due to the outrageous nature of many of his claims, among them that the Florida Bar itself was unconstitutional. But the recent petition originates from a clearly disenfranchised group who are directly and severely impacted by sexual violence.
IGN's Luke Reilly points out that despite the ban, the situation is more complex and nuanced than what the games industry has previously faced. Rather than stemming from a political party or lobbyists, the petition appears to be a simple interaction between consumers and retailers. While many might disparage the motivations of a politician, no one can reasonably discredit the serious struggles many sex workers face and their desire to be free of violence in their profession or private lives.
"Australia's statistics concerning violence against women are as startling as they are abhorrent," Reilly said. "With Over 12 months, on average, one woman is killed every week in Australia as a result of intimate partner violence and one in three women have suffered physical and/or sexual violence at the hands of someone known to them."
While the impetus for the petition is completely reasonable, the claims it makes are problematic. The crux of their argument is that "Grand Theft Auto 5" encourages players to violently kill women by rewarding them for doing so -- specifically, that players can "abuse or kill [women] to proceed or get 'health' points."
According to Reilly, the claims are "of course, all false. Games in Australia are forbidden to feature sexual violence, nor are they permitted to feature implied sexual violence that is related to incentives or rewards. The Classification Board classified GTA V R18+ and has obviously not found the violent acts players are at liberty to choose to perform sexual in nature."
At no point in "Grand Theft Auto 5" does the game's plot involve killing sex workers, nor do players receive "health points" for doing so. While it is possible for money to drop from civilians who are killed in the game, criminal acts are punished by the game's police department, including murder. As Reilly notes, "the law enforcement response for violent acts a player chooses to perform in GTA V is the same regardless of the sex, ethnicity, or weight of any non-player character a player takes it upon his- or herself to harm."
As one writer has pointed out, the option to commit violent acts against women is no more encouraged in "Grand Theft Auto 5" than it is in the Sims franchise. In a satirical article written prior to the original petition, Destructoid author TheKodu points out that titles in the Sims franchise allow players to burn, suffocate, and drown women to death but are not encouraged to do so. According to TheKodu, each title "let[s] you dress up female characters in Skimpy outfits and then control them like puppets."
The reaction from the gaming community has been swift, and many are claiming that Target and Kmart's decision is an act of censorship. Jerry Holkins, a writer for the popular webcomic Penny Arcade, wrote in opposition to the ban. Holkins claims that while "Grand Theft Auto 5" is widely available through multiple other venues, the principle of the decision is dubious.
"People like to say that it's only censorship when an agent of the state kicks down your door and burns your printing press or whatever," Holkins wrote. "That bit about 'agents of the state' isn't anywhere in the definition of censorship, it's just something censors reflexively say whenever you make the clear-eyed, wholly observable assertion that they are fundamentally opposed to art."
Other professionals in the gaming industry claim that calling the ban an act censorship is a mislabeling of the issue. Mark Serrels, a writer for Kotaku Australia, argues that "we have to accept that Target's decision to remove the game is not censorship. Hypocrisy? Yes. Absolutely. Censorship? Not even close." He argues that the petition was misguided but well-intentioned, and while consumers have the right to make informed purchases, a retailer should be allowed to choose what they sell "for any reason it sees fit."
"This is not the same as the R18+ issue," writes Serrels. "In that situation government legislation was literally stopping stores like Target from selling video games rated R18+. In this case an individual retail group has made a decision. A decision it has every right to make."
To protest the decision, many communities have begun their own Change.org petitions. The petition to bring "Grand Theft Auto 5" back to Target and Kmart in Australia has reached over 16,000 supporters at the time of this writing. A few others have taken on a more satirical tone such as the petition to remove "Fifty Shades of Grey" from all Target outlets which currently has over 5,500 supporters. Another petition asks that the Bible be removed from Target because the "book means that after various sex acts, readers are given options to kill women by stoning her unconscious, setting them on fire, cutting off their hands, and killing their children!" It currently has over 25,000 supporters.
Target and Kmart have not reversed their decision, and it has cast a very complicated light on the gaming industry. While rehashing many old arguments about violence in video games, the issue has never been as divisive or controversial within the games industry itself.