During the era of Grand Theft Auto IV, which takes place in a fictional representation of New York City, I moved to the real New York City. Fellow-blogger Jeff and I had fun driving through pixellated Times Square and lobbing grenades at innocent people. It was fascinating how much locations looked like the real-life counterparts I was seeing in person even when they weren’t labeled, like the Court Square Diner. I would order in from Court Square on weekend mornings, and had a good turkey club there with Jeff and our friend Shawn before exploring the fine wares at a nearby dildo purveyor. I never lobbed grenades at Court Square Diner, nor attacked it in the game either.
Today is the release date for Grand Theft Auto V, which takes place in Southern California, and I am a few months away from moving to Southern California. My life, it seems, follows the trajectory of Grand Theft Auto. The series, though, is marred by a controversial history: anti-video-game politicians have consistently used it as an example of poor-morals entertainment due to its violence, and one nugget that never fails to come up in alarmist detractors’ accusations of gross misogyny is the fact that prostitutes can be hired in-game, and also killed.
Today I have the dubious honor of defending that game element from misogynistic charges.
One of the things that bothers me about some religious speakers’ rhetoric – from any religion – is the idea that fear of a higher power is the only thing keeping humans from horrific, disgusting behavior. If it were not for the threat of hellfire hanging above our heads (or below our feet), their speeches say, everyone in the whole world would be murdering and raping and burning babies down. Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve never had the desire to destroy and hurt others, and that has nothing to do with a higher power. I just think it’s bad. The concept that fear should be the motivating factor in good, responsible behavior is maybe the most cynical concept in the world, also psychologically flawed (look it up), and maybe reveals something about these particular religious speakers: they’re the ones who are afraid they’d be out pillaging and killing. Of course I know it’s only some people that hold this particularly awful view of higher power fear and of mankind, but I bring it up for a reason.
There is no requirement in any Grand Theft Auto to hire or to kill a hooker. The option is presented as a game activity. Other game activities that are presented as options including riding a roller-coaster, going for a beach-pier bike ride, and watching several channels of satirical TV on your couch. And these aren’t little pointless afterthoughts, either: each one actually has well-developed mechanics and is executed in a funny, entertaining way. The really interesting thing about an open-world game is that the game world is presented to you to do as you will. You can stop at every stoplight. You can run around buying clothes at different shops. You can ride a motorcycle into the sunset. Or you can shoot and kill everyone in sight, inciting a citywide manhunt that ends in a hail of rocket launcher fire and flaming helicopter wreckage. What occurs is a result of your choices.
Of course, the fact that something is included does make a difference, since activities cannot literally be infinite in number. But at least as far as the violence goes, the ability to kill prostitutes isn’t unique: everyone in this game is mortal. A player can choose to kill police, cab drivers, street food vendors, baseball mascots, anyone. That doesn’t mean it’s required or that it’s even impelled. The game isn’t doing these things, you are. You could, in real life, choose to do these things, because our world is an open-world reality.
Without a doubt, doing something like enacting violence on women is inherently misogynistic, as is condoning it – the same way violence against any innocent people is sociopathic, and all of it is evil. Anyone who commits terrible actions should be condemned. But having the option does not make a game guilty for your sins as a player.
To remove the ability would not indicate that the game is more upright, only that it contains less options. The restriction of player agency within game mechanics does not make a game moral. Inability does not equal righteousness. Options do not support or undermine one morality over another. Options merely exist. Your agency as a player places the agency to be a misogynist, a violent psychopath, an ordinary person, a damn good bicycler, or a million other things, squarely on you.
The option to kill prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto V, then, is not misogynistic. The rest of the game, though, well… I guess that probably is.