First of all, a personal message to my mum, if you’re reading this: I’m sorry. I know you think video games are the devil, so I’m real sorry. There. Ground set.
Now, I would like to introduce you to a man named Jack Thompson. No, not legendary Australian actor Jack Thompson, but American activist and disbarred attorney Jack Thompson. Old mate Jack has spent decades thumping his chest and bellowing against what he sees as immoral behaviour throughout popular culture. Sex and violence are his two principles Du Jour, and he will stop at nothing to make sure you realize that, yes, things like music, films and video games do contain sex and violence. Just like real life.
Thompson has become both the harbinger of the “moral” activists who regularly picket the launches of Grand Theft Auto games, and a thorn in the side of pretty much everyone involved in the video game industry. But before all that, he’d been instrumental in trying to ban various rap albums, pop songs, novelty songs, and Howard Stern. He’s known as a moral crusader this supporters – which at times have included people as powerful as Hillary Clinton – and an ignorant, puritanical and dangerous dinosaur to the people who look at his campaigns, and wonder, “What century are we in?”
I bring up Jack Thompson, because he’s probably the most visible person involved in the age-old past-time of trying to ban things. Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm and fuck, even the Bible are just some examples of books that have been banned in the last century thanks to misguided attempts to protect people. That doesn’t include the mire of banned films that have gone along with the growth of pop culture. Video games are just another stage in the technology and development of creative entertainment, and as such face the same ignorant, idiotically justified opposition as the forms of entertainment that preceded it. Whether or not you view video games as a form of art is beyond the point; the people who make video games deserve freedom of creative expression, the same as an author or director. Coupled with that is the basic right that they should feel comfortable to portray what they want to portray, without the scorn of religious fanatics, misinformed parents or crazy ex-lawyers.
If you’re yet to grasp what I’m rambling about, Target Australia have decided to remove all copies of GTA V from their shelves, sighting “the majority view of our customers” as a major reason behind the move. Per Target’s “General Manager of Corporate Affairs” (ugh) Jim Cooper:
“While these products often contain imagery that some customers find offensive, in the vast majority of cases, we believe they are appropriate products for us to sell to adult customers,” he said.
“However, in the case of GTA5, we have listened to the strong feedback from customers that this is not a product they want us to sell.”
Now, the fact that they’ve pulled the game from their shelves is not incredibly surprising. Target is a business, after all, and businesses have to accommodate their market, lest they go bust. What I don’t really understand is how they’ve reached this decision based on what the “majority” of Target customers think. I wasn’t aware that the majority of Target customers think anything about the cheap, vanilla products they were buying, let alone whether they think sex and violence are credible aspects of video games.
But that’s just the clear sheen over what is really a very deep and complex argument. You’ll notice the above article goes on for a while, as it tries to cover all sides; misogyny, morality, realism, technology. There’s even a mention of Gamergate, the giant steaming pile of shit that has almost done as much damage to the gaming community as that giant wasteland full of E.T cartridges.
The article, in general, is non-constructive towards any resolution, apart from banning video games that contain sex and violence altogether. Take Two’s CEO, Strauss Zelnick, comes across as a hand-wringing Mr Burns character, his succinct statements making him sound like he doesn’t understand or care about the way the sex and violence in GTA V may be encountered. That’s pretty wrong to assume. Looking at a company like Take Two – one of the largest video game production companies – and saying they don’t care about the effect they’re products might be having is incorrect. It’s like assuming Tarantino doesn’t understand that violence is bad, just because he puts it in his movies.
Inherent in this argument is the fact that video games are a virtual medium. To be a person like Jack Thompson, you have to suspend your belief that the majority of people have the faculties to tell the difference between real and virtual worlds. Yes, we are steadily working towards a point where that line may be blurred – if the Oculus Rift can make people vomit, we might be closer than I hope – but we’re not there yet. For me, the act of picking up a controller and entering a virtual world has always been an escape from the stress or boredom of the real world. Whether or not I’m shooting people in the game I’m playing, to me, really doesn’t matter. What’s happening on the screen in front of me is a virtual story, not a reflection of my own personality.
“But, the children! WON’T SOMEONE PLEASE THINK OF THE CHILDREN!” You might be saying. First of all, let me congratulate you on your spot-on Helen Lovejoy impression. Secondly, if you use the argument that games like GTA V are having an adverse reaction on children, you’re seriously misunderstanding the purpose and marketing of these games. Not long ago, Australia passed legislation allowing for an R 18+ classification for video games. The law was almost unanimously supported by those who responded to the government’s discussion paper. And who would those people be? Yes, concerned parents and such, but also gamers themselves. It may or may not surprise you to know that the average age of gamers in Australia is 32 years old. Organisations like Electronic Frontiers and Digital Australia had been fighting for the classification for years, because mature, thinking adults understand that kids should not be exposed to over-the-top sex and violence in any medium. Video games have just become the latest inclusion in that list. If you are arguing that kids shouldn’t be playing these games, everyone agrees with you. It’s what gamers and the video game industry alike want as well.
Of course, the argument against GTA is not without merit. The whole recent shitstorm started because of a bunch of YouTube videos showing players having first-person sex with prostitutes. One of the biggest quotes in the news.com.au article is from Nicole, a victim of sexual assault herself. Now, this is a topic I’ve been trying to avoid, because I am vastly unqualified to talk about sexual violence and misogyny. I can, in no way, speak on behalf of people who are offended by GTA V existing. I can understand the distress caused by knowing it exists. But having something offend you and having something be a personal attack on your being are two different things. I feel sick that an argument about a video game has taken on the shadow and stigma of sexual assault, even when it contains images of such. That might seem like a pretty hypocritical view, but again, it’s also simplifying the issue to assume that people can’t tell the difference between what they see on the screen and what they see in real life. There’s the scary notion that people who play these kind of games are being generalised as misogynists, which is about as unfair as claiming all Muslims are terrorists. There’s always going to be a bunch of arseholes who give the rest a bad name – just look at the example of Gamergate – but I take umbrage in knowing there are people out there that don’t think I’m capable of being a normal, caring person in real life, even though I might play violent video games.
The whole Target fiasco is done now. Whether or not Target have made the right choice, I don’t know. They don’t seem to have suffered too much because of it. But I’d like to put forward a very simple argument, one that can be applied as far back as the days when we threw books into bonfires; if it offends you, I’m ok with that. There’s always going to be things in the world that offend you, real or imaginary. We live in a society that provides for freedom of expression. If you don’t think GTA V classifies as freedom of expression, that’s your decision. But there will always be forms of entertainment and art that involve sex and violence, because those are things that happen in real life. Despite how high or low you may hold video games as expressions of this, they are just expressions.