I initially took the easy out and just dismissed it as glorifying violence and misogyny. Then, a friend at EA managed to convince me that it was actually satire. Once I knew it wasn’t just morally reprehensible garbage, that started a years-long cycle of masochism: I’d dismiss the latest release, get sucked into the hype around it, buy a copy, play around 5-10 hours of it, and be disappointed once again that the series promises much more than it actually delivers.
The huge game world inevitably turns out to be filled with facades. The people of the city are just automata, and the playable characters are paper-thin cliches taken directly from an early 90s C-tier action movie. The open world of activities turns out to be just a series of races and shallow mini-games. All the technology behind the game (not to mention the music!) is genuinely astounding, and the first hour or so of being able to drive around a real place is exhilarating. But a shallow narrative soon asserts itself over the “open-world gameplay.” The whole experience feels like having to spend dozens of hours in a beautiful world with the kind of people you wouldn’t want to be caught two minutes in an elevator with.
At this point, the whole notion of being outraged over GTA‘s amoral quagmire seems laughably quaint. It’s like holding a vigil after walking down the sidewalk and seeing the word “penis” scrawled into the concrete. The GTA series has been lapped by all the imitators it spawned, if not in scope, then in ridiculous over-the top gameplay and drummed-up controversy.
It’s “satire” only in the same way that people say simple-minded crap and then proudly call themselves “politically incorrect.” It’s a way to still revel in stereotypes and then get away with it by claiming it’s skewering American culture. The new game’s launch page shows a bunch of the most stale and shallow “Isn’t LA phony?” gags. Walking through Liberty City and seeing an internet cafe called “Tw@” doesn’t deserve a scandalized “Well, I never!” so much as a disappointed, “Come on. Really?“
GTA V: Sausage Party
Of course, there’s got to be controversy when hundreds of millions of dollars in marketing budget are involved. (And of course, I’m as complicit as anyone else by leaping into the conversation with my opinion). In the case of GTA 5, the controversy is over the fact that for the first time, the game now has three protagonists, but still not one of them is female.
The complaints actually started a while back, when the format of the game was first announced. I saw an essay online — I can’t remember where it was, and I’m not that inclined to dig up a link since the essay itself was frankly pretty dumb — where the writer said she really wanted to play GTA 5, but was refusing since Rockstar had once again refused to include a female protagonist. In 2013!
To be clear, I’m entirely behind the call for more female representation in games. Everyone should be; it’s trivially true, not even a question of debate. To the ridiculously over-defensive boys, man-children, and lazy women who act as if something that’s not a problem for them couldn’t possibly be a problem for anyone else: please, remove yourselves from the conversation, and let the grown-ups talk. Previously on Spectre Collie, I pointed to an article that showed why diverse representation isn’t just “The Right Thing To Do,” but it makes pragmatic sense: it’s not some arbitrary quota imposed on creative types; more diverse representation means better characters because there are fewer tokens having to represent their entire race/gender/orientation.
Still: saying that you won’t buy the game because there isn’t a female main character seems less like a statement and more like a tantrum. For better or worse, GTA 5 already exists, so a protest isn’t going to change that game any more than it’s going to insert a female protagonist in Drive or The French Connection or Grendel. If you really want to play the game, then just play it. I’m typically in support of boycotts as a personal statement, but I’ve always assumed that statements were reserved for when actual malice was involved. I don’t believe that the lack of a female protagonist in GTA 5 is malicious. It’s just kind of dense and lazy.
The Softer Side of Hooker Killing
It’s all based on the assumption, this is just how these kinds of stories work. It’s the “institutionalized” part of “institutionalized sexism.”
As I’ve admitted before, I can be just as dense as anyone else about this kind of thing. When I first heard the complaints, I couldn’t get all worked up about it. Of course I’d like to see better female characters in games, but are we really looking to the Grand Theft Auto series for those characters? Of course a woman can be every bit as awful and maladjusted and violent as a man. But so what? As long as we’re choosing our battles, do we really want to make our battle cry, “I can kill hookers just as well as any man!”
I’ve changed my mind. Most obviously, I was getting sucked into the same line of thinking that creates Strong Female Characters. It’s relegating the question of diversity to the ghetto of “you ladies are much too classy for this shit.” But the problem is actually even more subtle than that, and I didn’t realize what exactly was going on until I read a series of Twitter messages by Rhianna Pratchett.
To start with, she made it absolutely clear that it wasn’t a demand for a female character, so much as lamenting a missed opportunity. (And since she’s committed the double crimes of being a woman and being the daughter of someone famous, of course there was no shortage of morons trying to be dismissive, or making her comment out to be the exact opposite of what she was actually saying. Seriously, guys: grow the hell up). By introducing three separate protagonists, GTA 5 is ostensibly about seeing the world through different perspectives. So wouldn’t it have simply been more interesting to include a perspective different from what the games have shown us before?
And there’s even more to it than that: even before the introduction of three protagonists, the series has always been about dropping the player into a world that should be completely alien to them. A lot of talk is made about the open world playground of the GTA games, but really, your freedom is within very narrow parameters. You’re never presented with a choice of whether you’ll be an antisocial murderer; the only choice is how you’ll do it.
So the question isn’t, “Why would women want to be doing all this awful stuff?” like I’d originally assumed. The real question is, “Why would anyone?” Not in the sense of being prudishly dismissive of the games, but in the sense of actually analyzing the appeal of them. That appeal is the opportunity to be transgressive: it’s not an outlet for our inherent desire to murder people and crash into stuff; it’s an explicitly fictional playground where the rules are completely different from our real lives.
Which means that if you’re claiming that the game is in any way aspirational, or that the nature of it demands male characters, or that players wouldn’t be able to identify with a female character, what you’re actually saying is this: male players have an easier time identifying with rapists and murderers than they do identifying with women.
Which is gross.
Are You Not Entertained?!
The most recent round of complaints about Grand Theft Auto 5 were encouraged by this interview with Dan Houser in The Guardian. Houser voluntarily acknowledges the complaint that there are no female protagonists — and seriously, give him credit for not just trying to act like the question is dismissible and doesn’t need to be addressed — but he answers by saying:
Houser is very direct and has strong views on […] the lack of playable female characters (“The concept of being masculine was so key to this story”)
And that’s a huge cop-out.
It’d only make sense to say that “hyper-masculine” action stories are incompatible with female protagonists if we were all living in some bizarre alternate universe where Kill Bill didn’t exist. It’s not even some obscure counter-example; if you’re trying to make some claim about action stories, or trying to pass it off as a pragmatic argument that male audience just won’t accept female leads, then Kill Bill is the elephant in the room.
It’s even harder to swallow when you look at the character descriptions for GTA 5. One of the leads is a low-poly Michael Madsen-as-Tony Soprano who’s having to adjust to domestic life after a lifetime as a career criminal. So, pretty much like Vivica Fox’s character. And a suburban mom fending off attacks with a box of her kid’s cereal sounds a hell of a lot more interesting to play than the old stereotype of a gangster with a shrewish, over-privileged wife. (Every description of “Michael’s” character that I’ve read mentions his wife yelling at him. Which sounds… fun?)
Or there’s “the volatile individual that’s prone to destructive outbursts and violent rampages”, but who, I can’t help but notice, is a schlub in a T-shirt and not an eyepatch-wearing psychopath wearing a nurse’s uniform.
Sure, having playable characters in games that represent the actual diversity of the audience of the game simply makes sense. But the more compelling argument is that it’s simply more interesting.
I’m kind of baffled by this Polygon article about GTA 5 that takes all of Houser’s claims about innovation at face value. It kind of reads like the millennial mass-market newspaper columns with titles that had puns on “Cyber” or “Byte”, that wrote about Second Life and breathlessly described it as a “virtual world” in which your “avatar” could do anything that human imagination allowed. While in reality, those of us who actually played video games could see that none of this stuff was all that novel or transgressive.
Instead, everything that I’ve seen and read about Grand Theft Auto 5 makes it look like the textbook example of a franchise that’s been the victim of its own success. When you’ve got hundreds of millions of dollars poured into a project, you become risk-averse. You market towards this imaginary audience comprised entirely of Beavis and/or Butthead. Of course those guys exist, and as we’ve seen, they’re extremely vocal. But that’s exactly the opposite of what you should be doing with such a huge franchise: including more diversity in the story doesn’t limit the audience; it expands it.
And being risk-averse, sticking with the expected, is absolutely deadly to satire. The casual, Flintstones-era misogyny isn’t actually shocking; it’s tired. Taking pot-shots at new-age types and liberals isn’t challenging; it’s more like an old MAD Magazine parody of a comedy movie, a cartoon of a cartoon. Putting a cup of Hot Coffee in the hand of the Statue of Liberty isn’t insightful commentary on the video game industry, and giving it the face of Hilary Clinton isn’t political satire.
If anybody knows about snickering, self-satisfied, juvenile humor in video games, it’s me. But the trick, I believe, is acknowledging it as gleeful idiocy, and not trying to pass it off as multi-layered commentary.
So I’m skeptical that the people at Rockstar are actually trying to make satire with the Grand Theft Auto games; I think it’s more just a disclaimer. It’s to acknowledge that they’re not taking any of this seriously. And I don’t think that the proper reaction to the lack of a female protagonist should be condemnation but disappointment. The game looks cool (and to be clear: based on the screenshots alone, I’m still likely to buy it, and likely to be disappointed at the story), so it’s a drag that all this time and effort was put into something that doesn’t try to show us anything new or surprising.
It’s not a demand or a protest, but just a question: you’ve got a huge blockbuster that’s inevitably going to reach an audience of millions of people. Shouldn’t you be taking it more seriously?