You know, I miss Jack Thompson. A ‘lawyer’ who made his name in the Columbine-era witch hunt against violent video games, now rightly disbarred for displaying a truly spectacular degree of idiocy, Thompson hated Grand Theft Auto with a burning Christian passion. A lot of the uninformed media agreed with him. GTA taught kids to be murdering, carjacking sociopaths with no respect for the Ten Commandments; America didn’t like that. That kind of stupidity was at least overt. These days, we have to deal with something more insidious.
In 2013, the gaming media will tell you GTA is a satire. Ding-dingding! We’re getting somewhere. Unfortunately, said gaming media (on no account call it ‘games journalism’, because there’s not a shred of journalistic quality or integrity in any one of those corrupt, incompetent hacks) doesn’t quite seem to understand satire. There are two major points of contention surrounding the latest iteration, GTA V: its undeniable sexism, and the already infamous player-controlled torture sequence. The reaction to both has spectacularly missed the point.
The torture sequence in particular is so nakedly critical of the practice and the government which uses it that it beggars belief that people could think otherwise. Honestly, this one isn’t even worth discussing. These are the same people who think Starship Troopers (the film) advocates fascism, or that Jonathan Swift loves him some other other white meat. The sexism makes for a much more interesting conversation.
Is it there? Yes. Is it obvious? Yes. Is there a more nuanced discussion to be had about internalised patriarchal mindsets and ingrained institutional sexism? Absolutely. But is GTA V’s sexism a straightforward reflection of its designers’ views? Not in a million years. The gaming press, drunk on its white-knight wannabeintellectualism and the medium’s recent (and breathtakingly ham-handed) feminist turn, queues up to condemn such grotesque misogyny, without stopping to think about what GTA really is.
Its women are marginalised. They’re shrews or sluts; bitches or victims. None of this is up for debate. The question is why it depicts women like that, and the answer to that is the key to understanding GTA’s satirical angle.
The truth is that GTA V’s satire is so broad, so cynical, so nihilistic that it almost isn’t satire at all. It is quite simply a funhouse mirror held up to America, which proceeds to get very very angry at its own exaggerated reflection. It’s a brilliant conceit: when you criticise GTA V (from a nontechnical standpoint), all you’re doing is criticising America – and America hates itself. GTA V completely lacks originality by design; in fact, it’s as close to politically neutral as possible, purely so that its ruthlessly accurate cartoon of America can take centre stage. Castigating it is like blaming the mirror for how ugly you are. All the sexism, racism, homophobia, oppression, corruption, greed, insanity and hatred – the American Dream, in other words – is on display, and people can’t handle it. It’s easier to blame a specific violent video game for Columbine than it is to blame a national culture of violence, and it’s easier to splutter that GTA V is awful than it is to acknowledge that it’s just a reflection of something worse still.
So don’t shoot the messenger because he’ll shoot you right back.