WORDS: HAZEM FAHMY
Commonly criticized for their violence, vulgarity or sexism, blockbuster action video games appear to many as the slime to be scraped from the rusting bottom of the cultural barrel. While this applies to many classic and contemporary titles, *cough* Dead or Alive *cough*, there is one that remains exceptionally controversial, that I firmly believe is being analyzed mistakenly; Grand Theft Auto V.
The Grand Theft Auto series represents the apex of modern gaming. Every major title aggressively dominates the charts and scores countless perfect 10’s across a wide range of reviews. Having revolutionized the open world dynamic over and over again, the franchise has consistently pushed the bar higher for the industry and, in my firmest conviction, significantly contributed to the cementing of the notion that mainstream blockbuster video games can indeed be sophisticated works of art.
A problem then arises upon scrutinizing the contents and characters of Grand Theft Auto V. The game is flooded with blood, a sizeable percentage of the dialogue is cuss-ridden and the depiction of women is downright terrible. In fact, at face value, it is quite easy to argue that the game is nothing more than a hyper-masculine wet dream brought to life in pretty graphics and stellar shooter mechanics.
Such claims are not my issue for the sleazy world of Los Santos is riddled with a plethora of evidence to support them. My issue is with the discourse that arises, both within and outside of the gamer community. I am not trying to argue that Grand Theft Auto V is not a severely problematic game. I am trying to argue that that is precisely what makes it such an achievement, especially artistically.
The controversial tropes of Grand Theft Auto V, primarily elaborate violence and atrocious depictions of women, are by no means uncommon in the video game industry. They have been recurring since the very medium’s inception and continue to be the sole defining factors or selling points of multiple titles. However, there lies a different story in the Grand Theft Auto series. The truth is, I do not hail it as a landmark of video game progress because of the way it has overhauled the open world sandbox genre, but because of its pioneering approach to blending chaotic entertaining action with extremely serious narrative and commentary.
Since Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, every major title in the franchise has tackled a set of sociopolitical and philosophical conundrums of contemporary America. Every entry has brought characters, setting and circumstances that serve as hyperbolic lenses of recurring American disasters and the mature content of each of them has been presented as extensions of major issues. Grand Theft Auto IV, for instance, tackled the death of the American Dream and did so through the eyes of an immigrant struggling to find his way through the crime-ridden streets of a reimagined New York City. Thus, the offensive archetypes that appear in the immigrant communities he interacts with are not excused by the game’s core critique; they are its pillars.
The same logic applies to Grand Theft Auto V. Fundamentally, its narrative is a biting satire of post-depression America and the influx of disillusionment, hyper-materialism and selfishness that has ensued. The game’s world is laden with corrupt federal agents, corporate greed, broken families and, of course, patriarchy. By exaggerating these elements and satirically glorifying their proponents, the game presents an ostensibly comic, but fundamentally dark, analysis of contemporary American missteps. Thus, the often atrocious acts the characters commit are an essential component of the game’s artistic mechanic. For example, one of the most controversial scenes in the videogame, in which you brutally torture a foreign man for information under the instructions of a mock FBI agent, was one of my most artistically powerful experiences with videogames. This was not just because it pushed and challenged all my preconceived notions of torture and anti-terrorism tactics, but because it brilliantly played with symbolism having Trevor, the single most manic character in the cast, carry it out while a government agent calmly walked him through it.
In that same sense, the sexism of Grand Theft Auto V is not a matter of shock value nor entertaining objectification, but another method through which the title explores the complex and problematic role sociopolitical juggernauts, such as the patriarchy, hold in society. Every female trope, such as Michael’s nagging wife or his incessantly narcissistic daughter, who are both highly promiscuous, as well as every instance in which a female character is pushed aside or abused by a male one, contributes to grander critique the game attempts to convey.
Furthermore, the men themselves are tortured by emasculation, especially from women, throughout the game in various ways. Franklin’s aunt laments him for his lack of ambition. Michael’s wife consistently attacks him for his inability to be the ‘man of the house’. Trevor even has severe mother issues that cause him to burst into tears for his ‘mommy’. While this in no way balances out the horrendous experiences of women, it highlights the diversely oppressive effects of the patriarchal structure, and how even the American manly-man suffers because of it.
The last issue that then arises is the question of influence: what about the children, specifically the little boys, who will play Grand Theft Auto and, through its highly stylized world, begin legitimately believing that women are inferior? Thankfully, the Entertainment Software Rating Board has been providing us with the answer for twenty years now. While many videogame ratings are questionable in general, given the discrepancies in psychological research on the effects of videogames on real-world violence and the arbitrary manner in which games of extremely differing levels of mature content get clamped in the exact same categories, there is no doubt that their Mature 17+ stamp is more than aptly fit for the Grand Theft Auto series. This is not because of the violence, language or sexuality, but because it requires a mature and somewhat developed mind to distinguish legitimate sexism from caricature and realistic representation from critique.
Just like Gone Girl is a terrible film for children given its grim deconstruction of the modern marital institution using a melodramatic tale, Grand Theft Auto V is an immensely mature work of video game art that uses an over-the-top world to mimic the issues of modern America. Thus, its most controversial and uncomfortable components, especially its sexism, are not meant to be excusable tools of entertainment. They are gateways for discussion, analysis and exploration of this society we inhabit and the various forces, both abstract and literal, that push it, and our very selves, wherever they want.