This week Target and Kmart, two of Australia's largest retailers, took the decision to remove the controversial video game Grand Theft Auto 5 from their stores because of its graphic scenes of violence against women.
Grant Theft Auto 5 is the latest title in the successful gaming series and was released a year ago. It is set in the fictional American city of Los Santos and gamers control criminals as they rampage through the town committing a series of crimes to rise to the top of the gangster underworld by any grotesque means necessary. It has been criticised for its levels of violence, particularly for its depictions of torture and the way it often portrays women as strippers and prostitutes. The Guinness Book of Records has named the series as the most controversial video game in history
Explaining its decision, a spokesman for Target said it had “been speaking to many customers over recent days about the game, and there is a significant level of concern about the game's content. We feel the decision to stop selling GTA5 is in line with the majority view of our customers.”
Clearly the chain’s decision was business focused rather than part of a wider moral crusade but it was prompted by a petition calling for its removal from stores because of the levels of violence against women. It is worth noting that Grand Theft Auto allows players to be violent not just towards women but men too. However GTA’s depiction of female characters is broadly one dimensional with women portrayed in the main as prostitutes, nags or powerless damsels in distress; hardly a healthy role model for the 21st century.
GTA is no stranger to controversy and it has come to be seen as the nadir of violent gaming. However, there are equally concerning games such as the updated version of 90s bête noire Mortal Kombat which allows players to kill their opponents in numerous stomach churning ways and Call of Duty is infamous for the episode in which players are invited to slaughter bystanders in an airport.
There are lots of games which are not violet and misogynistic but it’s the nature of promotion today that, in order to secure media coverage, developers need to provide a product that will be talked about and sometimes pushing the boundaries is an easy way to do this. We’ve seen the same in other forms of media including music videos.
There has been a backlash from gamers against Target’s decision but so often the level of debate has descended to ‘I play GTA and I don’t run down prostitutes’ - but this is missing the point. Research from Canada published earlier this year looked at far more subtle, but equally concerning, links between the types of games played and gamers’ moral reasoning and ability to take the perspective of others into account.
Hours spent playing violent video games was found to be effectively stunting emotional growth. Interestingly, there was no correlation between the amount of time reported playing non-violent video games and moral reasoning levels.
Following the ban in Australia there has the predictable outpouring of threats and abuse against those who initiated and signed the petition. Perhaps this toxic behaviour is itself an illustration of the possible effect of these violent games.
If you are thinking of buying a console such as Xbox One or PlayStation 4 this Christmas it’s worth bearing in mind that there is nothing wrong with gaming per se – as long as players don’t spend too long doing it. The key is keeping abreast of the content of the games being played on the device. Grand Theft Auto 5 is rated 18 and this rating is not an indication of skill but of content. In the same way most responsible parents would not be happy with their children watching an 18 rated DVD they need to keep a similar eye on the games which are being played and make sure that they use the parental controls available on these platforms to protect their children – not just from age inappropriate games but, as these consoles can be used to access the internet, from potentially harmful online content too. You can find out how to do this here for Xbox products and here for PS4.