May 3, 2008
Just as the discussion over the Resident Evil 5 trailer was winding down, Grand Theft Auto IV has helpfully provided us with a new controversy to froth over. While the GTA series has long been a lightning rod for video game critics, this time the controversy is coming from an unexpected source: IGN.
According to MTV Multiplayer’s Stephen Totilo, a video montage posted to the popular gaming site this week “exclusively featured clips of the game’s lead character having sex and shooting the women he had sex with.” After receiving a number of complaints, IGN decided they had “crossed a line” and removed the video.
Not everyone was upset at IGN. Much of the mainstream media, like the Boston Globe, was happy taking the game to task on its own merits; some bloggers, like Man Bytes Blog’s Corvus Elrod and Feministing’s Samhita Mukhopadhyay were more concerned with why something like Grand Theft Auto IV is popular at all. Susannah Breslin at The Reverse Cowgirl actually thought the video was funny.
On the gaming blogs I follow, though, the most common reaction was unbridled fury. Here’s Michael Abbott of The Brainy Gamer:
Removing the video and saying you “crossed a line” is a woefully inadequate response. You need to issue a formal public apology, and the people responsible for creating and posting this video must be held accountable. Jack Thompson is the least of your worries. You need to answer to us, the gamer community, many of whom resent the self-inflicted black eye you just gave us.
And here’s a more colorful response from Leigh Alexander of Sexy Videogameland:
What the fuck were you guys thinking? Do you really think so little of your audience? Worse, do you really think so little of the industry?
Lots of us really, really care about treating games and gamers with respect, and it’s like you just spit in our face. Are you really as stupid as this makes you look, or do you just totally not give a shit? Are you that desperate for traffic, or were you just angling to set up a new “horrors of GTA” story for your Fox parent? I completely cannot understand this.
Me either, to be honest. It was one thing for random commenters to spew ignorance and stupidity during the Resident Evil 5 trailer controversy, but having a community nexus like IGN reinforce negative gamer stereotypes seems almost like an act of betrayal. It helps undo the intelligent critical discussion that we foster on our blogs, and it cripples the public discourse about games. So yes, I can certainly sympathize, and I’m personally quite disappointed in IGN.
At the same time, though, I’m not convinced that they did anything “wrong,” in a moral or ethical sense.
The underlying assumption of these arguments is that IGN’s video montage somehow misrepresented the game. Here’s Michael again, elaborating in a later post:
Of course it’s possible to do all the things the video depicts while playing GTA4. It’s possible to do all sorts of ugly things in all sorts of media, as well as in real life. The fact that it’s possible doesn’t make it acceptable to do what IGN did. If you want to play GTA4 at home and kill as many prostitutes as you can, that’s your decision. It’s another thing entirely to make a compilation video featuring one killing after another, set to music, and post it on your website that receives over 20 million unique visitors per month.
While I share some of Michael’s outrage, I don’t think the “it’s possible to do all sorts of ugly things” argument holds up because of the nature of the video game medium.
Even in the most open-ended titles, you can never do “anything” you want; the game designers make the rules, and they get to determine which actions your character is capable of. In Oblivion you can wield a sword and be a great warrior, but you can’t wield a lute and be a great troubadour. In Shenmue you can go to the Suzuki dojo and practice martial arts, but you can’t go to Nozomi’s shop and practice floral arrangement. Infinite choice is not just unfeasible for the designer but paralyzing for the player; in a way, video games are defined by what you can’t do in them.
Let’s revisit Corvus’s post, which posits a list of questions about sex in GTA IV:
Do i have the option of using a condom?
Do they, or you, run the risk of contracting a venereal diseases?
Could I take a prostitute out to dinner at a nice restaurant?
Or pay for her to go to school?
Could I help her kick her drug habit? [And so on.]
I haven’t played GTA IV yet, but I have a pretty good idea about the answers to those questions.
The fact is, Rockstar specifically chose to include the option to have sex with prostitutes and kill them, as opposed to the infinite other mechanics they could have chosen instead (and the “balancing” mechanics that Corvus is suggesting). Whether it’s the whole game, or even a major or necessary part of it, is irrelevant — the inclusion itself reveals what sort of game they were trying to create. (I’m sure I don’t need to point out that you couldn’t hire prostitutes in Oblivion and Shenmue.)
So although Michael is right that the player ultimately decides to, say, kill as many prostitutes as she can, that choice is directly enabled by the game’s design. IGN’s video may have been sensationalist nonsense, but I’m having a hard time seeing it as misrepresentative, disingenuous, or unethical.