Controversies surrounding Grand Theft Auto V
Grand Theft Auto V is an open world, action-adventure video game developed by Rockstar North and published by Rockstar Games. Upon its release for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 on 17 September 2013, the game generated controversies related to its violence and depiction of women. A mission that requires players to use torture equipment in a hostage interrogation polarised reviewers, who noted its political commentary but felt that the torture sequence was in poor taste. The mission also received criticism from politicians and anti-torture charity groups. The game became subject to widespread online debate over its portrayal of women, particularly in the wake of backlash against GameSpot journalist Carolyn Petit after she claimed the game was misogynistic in her review. After Petit's review webpage received more than 20,000 largely negative comments, many journalists defended her right to an opinion and lamented the gaming community's hostility towards criticism. Television personality Karen Gravano and actress Lindsay Lohan both filed lawsuits against Rockstar in allegation that characters in the game were based on their likenesses. Target's Australian division pulled the game from their 300 stores following a Change.org petition that claimed the game "encourages players to commit sexual violence and kill women", despite the petition being criticised as misleading and portrayals of sexual violence in games already being illegal in Australia.
Depiction of torture
The mission "By the Book" generated controversy from reviewers and commentators for its depiction of torture. In the mission, protagonist Trevor Philips interrogates a man, Ferdinand "Mr. K" Kerimov, to extract information about an Azerbaijani individual who is believed to have links with terrorists poses a threat to the FIB (Federal Investigation Bureau, the game's version of the FBI). Trevor uses torture methods such as electrocution, removing teeth using pliers, hitting him with a monkey wrench, and waterboarding on the restrained man. Once Mr. K provides the FIB with the information, Trevor is asked to kill him, but instead drives him to the airport, providing him an opportunity to escape. While driving Mr. K, Trevor monologues about the ineffectiveness of torture, pointing out Mr. K's readiness to supply the FIB with the information without being tortured, and expressing that torture is used as a power play "to assert ourselves".
Reviewers echoed that while the mission served as political commentary on the use of torture by the United States government, its use of torture was in poor taste. IGN's Keza MacDonald felt the torture sequence "pushed the boundaries of taste" and Polygon's Chris Plante commented: "The script plays it for laughs. I felt nauseated". Carolyn Petit of GameSpot felt that placing the torture scene in context with the monologue created a hypocrisy in the mission's function as a commentary device. In an editorial, Tom Bramwell of Eurogamer discussed whether the political commentary was overshadowed by the violent content and compared the mission to Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2's "No Russian" controversy. He said that the close-up camera and quick time events accentuated the sequence's impact beyond the violence depicted in previous Grand Theft Auto games. Summarising its function as "flawed", he considered the sequence lacking enough context to justify its violence.
Keith Best of Freedom from Torture said that developer Rockstar North "crossed a line" by forcing players into the role of torturer. British Labour Party MP Keith Vaz said he was "astonished" by the mission's violence, and Alison Sherratt of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers said that parents should be aware of children being exposed to the game because of its realistic graphics and violence. Independent journalist Tom Chick defended the torture sequence, and wrote that unlike the "No Russian" mission or the 2012 film Zero Dark Thirty, the underlying political commentary on torture in "By the Book" necessitated the violent content. Asked about performing the torture sequence, Trevor's actor Steven Ogg said that he treated it like "just another day at the office", and was focused more on not making mistakes during filming than the scene's ethics. In Japanese versions of the game, the torture sequence is censored.
Portrayal of women
Dan Houser, Rockstar head writer and VP for creative, The New York Times, 9 November 2012
Some reviewers claim that the game's portrayal of women is misogynistic. Chris Plante of Polygon felt that the supporting female characters were constructed on stereotypes, and wrote that the game's "treatment of women is a relic from the current generation". Todd Martens of the Los Angeles Times considered the satirical portrayals of women uncreative, and added that violent and sexist themes hurt the game experience. Edge noted that while "every female in the game exists solely to be sneered, leered or laughed at", it treated its all-male lead characters in a similar vein through their stereotyped tendencies towards violence. Dave Cook of VG247 reinforced the sentiment that the female characters were constructed on stereotypes in an editorial: "They're either there to be rescued, shouted at, fucked, to be seen fucking, put up with, killed, heard prattling away like dullards on their mobile phones or shopping". Sam Houser, Rockstar Games co-founder, felt that the development team sometimes overlooked their portrayal of women in Grand Theft Auto games, but that the weight towards male characters "fit with the story we wanted to tell".
In her review, Petit of GameSpot felt there were misogynistic aspects to the treatment of women as "strippers, prostitutes, long-suffering wives, humourless girlfriends and goofy, new-age feminists", and disputed its satirical intention that many had accepted. Her review was met with backlash as users responded with 20,000 largely negative comments on the webpage and a Change.org petition for her firing. Petit's comments and the backlash against them prompted a wider discussion about the role of women in Grand Theft Auto V and the gaming community's hostility towards criticism. Helen Lewis of The Guardian noted that Petit's observations were valid, but were stigmatised by gamers who have become "hyper-sensitive to criticism". Tom Hoggins of The Telegraph wrote that the misogynistic backlash against Petit was predicated on an audience that has become accustomed to women being "shallow and sidelined" in the game. Rob Fahey of GamesIndustry.biz wrote that debate about games' thematic concerns would become stigmatised if unpleasant gamers opposed criticism, writing, "This isn't just about women—it's robbing every single one of us of the opportunity to have intelligent, interesting discussions about how our medium deals with..... complex topics..... It's frustrating, it's stupid, and it's downright boring—and it risks making our games stupid and boring too". Journalist Tom Bissell noted Petit's "defensible position", and wrote that gamers respond to game criticism more aggressively than fans of other entertainment mediums. Over a year after her review's publication, Petit stated in her personal blog that the "average straight male player" would likely oppose sociopolitical criticism of video games because Grand Theft Auto V's “so-called satire” would reinforce his own worldview. She stated that the prominence of "straight white men" in online forums marginalises women, different ethnic groups and the LGBT community, and that those who attack the former, along with “social justice warriors” and the notion of similar criticism cannot "put themselves in the shoes of people different from themselves".
In December 2014, Australian department store Target removed the game from their 300 stores after customers complained about "depictions of violence against women" and a Change.org petition amassed more than 40,000 signatures. In a public statement, Target corporate affairs manager Jim Cooper said that the decision was reached following "extensive community and customer concern about the game". The same week, another division of Wesfarmers, Kmart Australia, also pulled the game off shelves. Take-Two Interactive CEO Strauss Zelnick publicly expressed the company's disappointment that the game had been pulled from the retailers, and affirmed that he "stand[s] behind our products, the people who create them, and the consumers who play them". IGN's Luke Reilly called the Change.org petition "misinformed", stating that its complaints about incentives for committing sexual violence in the game are untrue; sexual violence in games is forbidden by the Australian Classification Board, and thus the game would have been refused classification. Kotaku's Mark Serrels said that the depiction of women is inherently problematic, and that Target were within their rights to refuse to stock the game and were obligated to respond to the petition's wide support. David Keogh of ABC News' The Drum felt that Rockstar depends on controversy and were "burned by the fire they voluntarily decided to play with" since the gaming industry is no longer on the margins of popular culture.
In October 2013, hip-hop artist Daz Dillinger issued a cease and desist letter to Rockstar Games and Take Two Interactive for allegedly using two of his songs without authorisation.[a] American television personality Karen Gravano of the reality television programme Mob Wives filed suit against Rockstar Games in February 2014 in allegation that a character in the game is based on her likeness and story and was depicted without her consent.[b] Rockstar filed to dismiss Gravano's lawsuit in April, and stated that the allegations are foreclosed by the First Amendment. In July, actress Lindsay Lohan also filed a lawsuit, claiming elements in the game, including the Lacey Jonas character, were influenced by her image, voice and clothing line without permission. Rockstar responded in court papers that sought a dismissal of the case, saying that the case was frivolous and filed for publicity purposes. In 2016, both lawsuits were dismissed.
- The songs are "C-Walk" by Kurupt and "Nothin' But the Cavi Hit" by Mack 10 and Tha Dogg Pound, which were both produced by Dillinger and included in the West Coast Classics station.
- Gravano is the daughter of former Gambino crime family underboss Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano and she featured in the first three seasons of Mob Wives, which follows women whose husbands or fathers have been arrested and imprisoned for Mafia-related crimes.
- Rockstar North (17 September 2013). Grand Theft Auto V. PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360. Rockstar Games. Level/area: By the Book.
Trevor: The media and the government would have us believe that torture is some necessary thing. We need it to get information, to assert ourselves. Did we get any information out of you? / Mr. K: I would have told you everything. / Trevor: Exactly. Torture's for the torturer. Or the guy giving the orders to the torturer. You torture for the good times – we should admit that. It's useless as a means of getting information!
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- Edge 2013, p. 88.
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