Blind Man with a Pistol

Grand Theft Reality

Rockstar Games’ Grand Theft Auto IV raked in more than $500 million its first week—and was linked to a real-life stabbing and mugging. The game is praised for its innovative, realistic and complex gameplay—and vilified for its simulated violence and misogyny. Make no mistake: the game is misogynist. Any attempt to excuse the game’s misogyny is revealing. There is something barbaric about the phrase “You don’t have to kill prostitutes to beat the game.”

But what makes me suspicious of such criticism is that video games seem to bear a disproportionate level of ire compared to the much more graphic violence depicted in television shows like CSI or torture-porn film like Saw or Hostel. In fact, much of the female objectification that occurs in the game is no different than what you’d see during a prime-time commercial break on NBC.

The difference, we claim, lies in the virtual participation such games enable. Simulation, the argument goes, is a small step away from reality. In fact, there is little evidence that first-person simulation offer any more of a connection with violence than watching film or television. So why does the virtual murder of a woman attract more media attention than a real one?

The war in Iraq, which has killed more people in real life than GTA4 will ever kill virtually, was a “clean war.” A war with precision weapons that, we were assured, didn’t kill anyone who didn’t deserve to die. Indeed, didn’t President Bush, five years ago almost to the day smiling in his jumpsuit in front of a banner declaring “Mission Accomplished,” assure us that the war is over? Jean Baudrillard, as he argued for the first Gulf War in The Gulf War: Did it Really Take Place?, would likely have said that it never really occurred in the first. “We are all hostages of media intoxication,” he writes, “induced to believe.” It occurs only in heavily mediated images on CNN with only cursory relevance to whatever is taking place on the ground.

Likewise Canada’s war in Afghanistan. Our government wages an imperialist act of aggression upon an unarmed nation for an act of terrorism that was neither directed at us, nor committed by those we attack; and we do it in the name of “defence.” Our military strategy, our Foreign Affairs Ministry informs us, is based on rhetoric, not substance. We are strengthening Canada’s role in the world by effecting American foreign policy. Our enemy is not an opposing army, but ethereal “insurgents.” And we are not allowed to see the bodies of our dead soldiers return home. There are no corpses, no weapons, no armies. “Just as wealth is no longer measured in the ostentation of wealth but by the secret circulation of speculative capital,” Baudrillard writes, “so war is not measured by being waged but by its speculative unfolding in an abstract electronic and informational space, the same space in which capital moves.”

The real violence our society inflicts has become simulated, and we combat this shift by criticizing virtuality as if it were real. Violence against sex workers is all but absent from the pages of our newspapers (unless it fits into our spectacular fantasies like the Pickton murders, effacing the individuals who lost their lives over a period of thirty years). Yet GTA4 comes out with attendant social outrage. It is as if the protests against the game are as simulated as the violence it represents: virtual protest for virtual violence while the real deal continues apace.

Games like GTA4 certainly provoke a visceral reaction, a watermark of the tragic misogynist violence that infects our society. But there is something altogether more tragic about a society that condemns sex-worker violence in a game yet does nothing about it in real life, for real sex workers and for real women. I suppose, when real violence becomes a simulation of itself, when the terror in which we are complicit is so overwhelming, so imposing, and so atrocious, what other recourse do we have? No wonder virtual games like GTA4 are so popular.

6 Comments so far
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Well put, excellent rebuff of the hypocracy of our society. I have a flip-side outlook of how GTA is making society better in the long run.

Comment by borealdreams

A man in Ontario just got a 30 month sentence (well, one day actually, the 30 months was time already served) for murdering a woman. But yanno, she was a prostitute so it’s okay. Yeesh. I’d put money on more people being vocally upset about GTA IV than this case.

Comment by Prole

People in Winnipeg get more upset over teenagers stealing cars for joy rides than the countless women who go missing and turn up dead. Most are sex workers and many are Aboriginal women. Double whammy of misogyny and racism.

Comment by Beijing York

Wow, really great point and perspective. My roommate and bf play this game a lot and I often (passive aggressively) criticise them while they play. I should try focusing my energy on more useful (and unvirtual) efforts to end violence against women.

I wonder if part of how we criticise GTA is similar to the way we criticise misogyny in “gangsta rap” much more than we might criticise it romantic comedies or rock & roll music (where it certainly exists). We’re generally quicker to villify misogyny when it comes attached to subcultures of colour (in particular black subculture). I think GTA with its inner city emphasis, hip hop soundtrack and immigrant protagonist make it a much more likely candidate for our ire than say, Stephen Harper.

Comment by Thea

Thea: thanks, and I definitely agree with you in our tendency to attack “easier” targets of misogyny in order to purchase our general malaise and hypocrisy when it comes to making a real difference. Part of my thinking on this came from the way I react to this game: I played the first GTA3 for a bit and enjoyed it, but when it came up in conversation, I would self-righteously tut-tut certain aspects of the game. Not only is such behaviour cringingly moralizing, it’s like I was making up for my own deep-seated prejudices by jumping on the “outrage” bandwagon. And I definitely see a correlation between suburban teenage male misogyny (i.e. eminem, etc.) and the kind of response GTA provokes.

Comment by catchfire

I’m at the too-cool-for-school dvd place and listening to the employee and a customer discuss the GTA franchise:

Customer- So yeah, I mean, shit it’s like probabably the wickedest thing I’ve ever played.
Employee- Oh yeah?
C- Yeah, like, you’re shootin’ shit and crashin’ cars and the chicks… shit. Hot.
E- I heard it’s pretty violent towards women.

Me (leaping out from behind the foreign release shelf)- What the FUCK, dudes? You are such a douchebag.

/stomps out.

Comment by emilie

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