Opinion: Target's GTA V ban: Knee-jerk reaction, or sensible business?

Target has caved to community pressure and taken GTA V off its shelves, citing “feedback from customers” — to be specific, an online petition that gathered over 40,000 signatures. Naturally the Internet erupted with both sides taking up arms. Is anyone in the “right” here?
On the one side, you’ve got a group of highly concerned women who have firsthand experience of sexual violence, concerned about the darker themes prevalent in Grand Theft Auto V.
On the other hand, you’ve got gamers who have (for the most part) been playing the game for more than a year now and who point out that it passed Australian classification guidelines and should therefore be available for sale; they’re concerned about the potential chilling effect of a large retailer pulling a game from store shelves and the knock-on effects that could have for game availability.
But to rewind for a moment, the entire issue kicks off with a Change.Org petition, which you can read here.
That’ll give you the background to the complaint — sort of, because I’ll get to that in a minute — which led to a News.com.au article, and then to Target deciding to remove the game from store shelves. Here’s Target’s full, and presumably heavily PR-vetted release regarding the issue.

Target Australia will stop selling the R-rated video game Grand Theft Auto 5 (GTA5) following feedback
from customers about the game’s depictions of violence against women.
Target General Manager Corporate Affairs Jim Cooper said the decision was made following extensive
community and customer concern about the game.
“We’ve been speaking to many customers over recent days about the game, and there is a significant
level of concern about the game’s content,” Mr Cooper said.
“We’ve also had customer feedback in support of us selling the game, and we respect their perspective
on the issue.
“However, we feel the decision to stop selling GTA5 is in line with the majority view of our customers.”
Mr Cooper said Target would continue to sell other R-rated DVDs and games.
“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.
“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.”

I’m somewhat — and this may surprise some — a little torn on this particular issue.

On the “pro” removal side

Should consumers have the ability and right to complain about business dealings from companies that they support with their money that they’re not comfortable with?
Absolutely. There’s nothing more powerful than voting with your dollars and your voice, and in the Internet age consumers as a whole have a lot of ability to make their voices heard.
Equally, as a society, there are considerable and non-trivial issues with violence against women that are all too often brushed over or ignored. That’s not right. That’s never right, and raising it as a wider awareness issue cannot be a bad thing.
I have little problem with telling people that GTA V is an adult game that explores a wide variety of adult themes and concepts, including sexual relationships between adults. There’s a lot of dark material in there handled, as GTA does, with a strong satirical edge that may not catch with casual observers, so it’s easy to see how it can appear to simply be a game glorifying sexual violence.
Ultimately, Target’s a business, and by and large, it’s up to them to decide whether to put games on their shelves or inflatable Santas. To a certain extent, I’m surprised that Target is still selling games of any type at all, as the store as a chain seems to be rapidly heading down the same path that sister store K-Mart has already shifted to, stocking primarily very cheap single brands of items sourced from overseas factories.
That’s not an indictment of the model, but the reality is that games is one of those areas where you can’t replace the goods with a $5 toaster, and as such there seems to be a gradual lessening of stock in those kinds of areas, especially as games distribution shifts increasingly to digital only formats. I can see, from a retail level, where giving a lot of space over to games products — especially games products that, like it or not, do court a considerable amount of controversy — might not be as desirable as selling a few hundred thousand easily shifted toasters. They’re free to stock whatever they want to stock, and consumers are free to make purchasing decisions with regards to their stores in exactly the same way.

On the “anti” removal side

There’s the language of the petition itself, which rests on a rather old and largely inaccurate sawhorse oft-levelled at the GTA series, in that it’s a game where there are distinct “incentives” to perpetrate violence against women.
I’ve been playing through GTA V — not in front of my kids, I should note — and so far that hasn’t been a theme at all. It wasn’t a theme previously, however, and some of the emotive language used in the petition goes way over the top in my estimation. From the petition:
It’s a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment. The incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points – and now Target are stocking it and promoting it for your Xmas stocking.
This is Grand Theft Auto 5. This game means that after various sex acts, players are given options to kill women by punching her unconscious, killing with a machete, bat or guns to get their money returned.

That’s a complaint that was levelled against GTA III — and that’s going back some way now — which ignores the fact that while bystanders can be attacked, money dropped is quite randomised. You’re not “getting your money back”. You may get nothing, in fact, because that’s not a gameplay element per se. But really, that’s a side diversion to the larger problem with this particular proposition.
“Encourages” is entirely the wrong word here, I think. GTA V is an open world title, and within that open world there’s a lot of scope for player agency to do whatever they feel like doing. Does that mean that it can and has been used by misogynistic types? Yeah, I have little doubt in that area that it has. But then so can a pencil and a piece of paper. In this aspect, it’s a tool that can be used or abused, and while there are aspects of the game that can be abused, that’s not the fault of the title itself.
Then there’s the issue of tone. GTA V is a dark, mature title with some very serious themes present in the form of an interactive game. What’s easily overlooked, however, is that many of these themes are presented in challenging (to the player’s perception, let alone gaming skill) ways in order to highlight them. Slipping into spoiler territory, there’s a torture scene with interactive elements partway through the game which closes with a long and completely unskippable section where a major character espouses about the genuine utility (or lack thereof) of torture as a means to an interrogative end. It’s a mature analysis presented in a way to highlight some real world issues within a game setting and removing any potential for glorification from that setting. Satire is also used in the same way; a series of missions where you act as a paparazzi’s assistant (more or less) has some strong messages about celebrity culture — especially as it relates to women.
Next there’s the content issue. As I noted in my review, I’m playing through the game right at the moment for the first time, and there are aspects of it that I do find personally confronting, such as that previously mentioned torture scene with interactive elements. That’s undeniably by design, however. Rockstar’s been doing that kind of thing for ages, and there is an argument to be had about the artistic merit of confronting an audience, but moving beyond that, there’s the issue that this is a game that’s largely marketed for, and designed for adults.
In that respect, the petition that kicked this whole thing off also seems to rest on the idea that this is a title that will indoctrinate “boys”. Again, to quote from the petition:
Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women.
The bolding is their emphasis, not mine. The thing there is that if you’re letting “boys” play this game, then you’re doing one of the essential jobs of parenting quite, quite wrong.
To give a personal example, I have on my shelves a very wide selection of video games, and all of my kids play video games of one sort or another. Not everything is rated, because the ratings system simply didn’t exist back in the days of the Atari 2600, but my kids tend to gravitate towards titles from this century anyway.
They all know — because I have, without exception, drilled it into them — that they’re fine to play anything G or PG rated — but that anything MA15+ or R rated is strictly forbidden because, and I’ve explained this to them at depth, it contains material that isn’t suitable for them.
There are certain M rated games that they can ask to play, because the classification board has been a bit rubbery when it comes to deciding appropriate levels there, I find. As an example, Marvel Ultimate Alliance and Marvel Ultimate Alliance 2 are both M-rated, and I have boys who are rather superhero obsessed. By and large, I don’t object to them playing that particular game, but to keep the point of ratings clear to them, they know they’ve got to ask before playing.
To put it more simply, if you’re buying GTA V for your kids, you’re being negligent as a parent. The same as if you bought them a copy of Evil Dead, or for that matter 50 Shades Of Grey.
So where do I ultimately sit? Has Target caved to consumer pressure from a single noisy group misrepresenting the game, or has it taken a sensible business decision right before Christmas where presumably its cash forecasts rest on the idea that it might sell quite a few toys to impressionable youngsters?
I’m somewhere in the middle, leaning towards the game’s side, but that’s largely because I do think that the language of the petition does take some rather large logical leaps in order to present its case, and I suspect — I most certainly don’t know — that many of those signing it have little understanding or appreciation for the title itself or what R18+ ratings are meant to signify.
Which is funny, in a funny-peculiar sense, because when the R18+ rating was first being mooted, I wrote a piece for Kotaku Australia, where I was doing a guest editing stint, talking about the need to talk to, and educate parents buying R18+ rated games for their kids. You can read it here.
The game, which was not yet out that I used to illustrate my at-that-point-theoretical examples? Grand Theft Auto V.
Further reading:
Mark Serrels at Kotaku argues that one of the worst parts of the affair is that it highlights society’s attitude to games and gamers, but that we can’t rage against it.
Brendan Keogh strongly advocates towards everyone calming down around the issue.
Kevin Cheung relates a story about a giant purple dildo that’s quite informative around issues of publisher disclosure, an angle I hadn’t considered previously.

3 thoughts on “Opinion: Target's GTA V ban: Knee-jerk reaction, or sensible business?”

  1. Pingback: Day 278: Grand Theft Auto and the Giant Purple Dildo | idiot.with.camera

  2. Scott McLauchlan

    One interesting theory I heard about this petition – it’s actually a tactic to get GTA V pulled from the shelves only at Target, thus increasing the sales of GTA V at Target’s competitors in the games market. Otherwise why not direct the petition at places like EB Games?

  3. Pingback: Stilgherrian · Talking Targetgate on ABC 936 Hobart

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.