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Grand Theft Auto: Sacrificing social issues for gameplay

Editor's Note from Jay Henningsen:
Justin posits some uncomfortable questions. Are we sacrificing our social standards in the interest of playing the next blockbuster game? What do you think?
This post has been edited by the GamesBeat staff. Opinions by GamesBeat community writers do not necessarily reflect those of the staff.

Grand Theft Auto V hit shelves on Sept. 17 and is easily the biggest game left in this generation before we see the new consoles. As is usual for a new Rockstar release, everyone is talking about it. The general opinion seems to be that Grand Theft Auto V is another well-crafted game in the series, with the expected array of improvements ranging from minor tweaks to smart new mechanics and systems. Reviews have been, for the most part, unsurprisingly positive.

However, there has been one common complaint that I’ve seen brought up several times from game sites like Kotaku and Gamespot: Some people take issue with Rockstar’s continuing focus on misogynistic or racist themes in the Grand Theft Auto series. These games writers are uncomfortable with the severity of the themes in Grand Theft Auto V (ironically, they aren’t as concerned with the ever-present gratuitous violence, but that’s a topic for another day). Having not played the game myself, I can’t speak directly to how bad it is. The few moments I have heard about are hard to relate to without direct context, but they do sound potentially troublesome.

While I do have issues with the sexist/racist caricatures that often plague this series, that’s not what worries me the most. My main concern lies with the fact that we are so quick to dismiss the offensive nature of these themes just because they have always been a part of Grand Theft Auto in the past. It’s shocking to see the number of commenters on both Kotaku and Gamespot’s reviews who don’t think there’s a problem and believe that this tone is part of what makes the Grand Theft Auto series compelling. While it may only speak to the current distaste of sexism discussion in gaming culture, I feel like there is a bigger problem here: how unwilling we are to talk about these issues.

gta_v-wide

Maybe the cultural backlash is partly to blame. Those of us that have been with the series since Grand Theft Auto III are no strangers to the various controversies that have arisen over the games’ content: Jack Thompson’s vendetta against Rockstar, the whole Hot Coffee fiasco, and a dozen other things that we roll our eyes at and wave off when they pop up on Fox News. It’s possible that we’ve gotten complacent in our criticism of these games due to our desire to placate those uninformed masses that think gaming creates serial killers by the truckload. Any mention of offensive material is quickly silenced to avoid enticing the general media into yet another anti-game frenzy.

It’s also a little disconcerting how Rockstar keeps focusing on these worlds that are often sexist, racist, and offensive in a multitude of other ways. Sure, these themes are always portrayed in a playful, nudging way. But satire only goes so far; at a point, offensive material, no matter if it was meant for humor, is just offensive. I’m not saying Rockstar shouldn’t make Grand Theft Auto games the way they want to. Rockstar, like any other game developer, is free to create the stories and worlds they wish to. Few other developers are so willing to do things the way they want without any concerns for how the rest of the world sees them. Rockstar presents their ideas and crafts their worlds with such unflinching determination and impeccable detail that we have to experience them; it’s just disappointing that we have to deal with such off-putting characters and events to do so.

Of course, the gaming masses have spoken with their wallets in such an overwhelming manner that Rockstar knows it doesn’t have to change a thing. We’ve come to know Grand Theft Auto games as abrasive and satirical, something that Rockstar pushes even farther with each new release. There may be an expectation now where we can’t imagine one of these games being any other way, even though we tend to be repulsed and taken aback at times. Rockstar, a developer that does what it wants with very little regard towards others’ opinions, will continue to do what it wants, and the Grand Theft Auto games will continue to sell very well.

Gaming culture expects everything to be more when it comes to game sequels: more levels, more modes, more everything. This is also the case with the Grand Theft Auto series. We’ve fallen into this horrific cycle where we expect each new Grand Theft Auto to surpass the last in offensiveness without thinking about what exactly it is we’re asking for. As the level of repugnance increases, so does our tolerance and delight for this distasteful style of storytelling. Is there an eventual inflection point, where the cycle breaks and we’re all just offended? Or are we too willing to accept whatever is necessary for the next great game from Rockstar?


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