Sunday, 13 October 2013

Gamespot & the "High" Grand Theft Auto V Score

IMPORTANT: This blog post contains spoilers for Grand Theft Auto V. Read at your own risk.

I know for a fact this blog is going to be posted later than I wanted. College work is now getting on top of me in a huge way. Doing homework has turned into a constant level grind, without the satisfying rewards when I level up.

It's been almost a month since the release of Grand Theft Auto V and when it was released, Gamespot's Carolyn Petit faced a lot of criticism for giving the game a 9.0 score. That's right, a 9.0 out of 10. As high a score as that might seem, there is a good reason why Carolyn faced a backlash; she seemingly deducted points from her score based on the claim that GTAV is "politically muddled and profoundly misogynistic".

I should say that I don't think GTAV is a ten-out-of-ten game. However, if I was deducting points from the game, I would do so based on the inability to map "accelerate" to the X button on the PS3 version and because I think the gameplay can feel a bit flat and aimless after the story is over. There are also a bunch of online issues but online play wasn't available at the time of the review. I feel like these are sensible reasons to deduct points from the game but, other than those issues, it's a phenomenal game. I compare the game's tone to a description of The Social Network I once read on TV Tropes; it "captures the spirit of the time it was made". Everything from reality television to politics is perfectly parodied. I feel like it couldn't have been made at any other time in gaming history, nor could it have been done as a medium other than video games. Although, as I say, it's not perfect.

So what's the big deal about Carolyn claiming that the game is "profoundly misogynistic" if I don't think it's perfect either? Well there's a difference between the game having flaws that could be improved and the game having content that offends you personally. People read mainstream reviews because they want impartiality, not ideologically-driven arguments.

Here's an example; I've sometimes come across Christian review sites that award games a score based on how highly they promote Christian values. This site, for example, gives two scores; a "game score" and a "morality score". That's fine for a niche site but not a mainstream one. The problem is that if I was a reviewer who said "Grand Theft Auto V is a good game but it doesn't promote Christian values. 9/10", I'd face criticism for that review. Not because the critics necessarily had anything against Christianity but because the reviewer is judging a game using personally-held beliefs and not professional impartiality.

There's also the fact that Grand Theft Auto V makes a point about not singling out any group for parody. Men, women, liberals, conservatives, religious people, atheists and others are all equally satirised. It'd be one thing to say "contains content that may offend" and deduct points for that but to single out only offense to only one group as a negative point for a review just reeks of personal bias. I might've used this quote before but in the words of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, creators of South Park, on offensive humour, "either it's all okay, or none of it is".

Carolyn's supporters -- or those who agree that GTAV is misogynist -- have created a strawman argument by making out like her critics are actually complaining about the 9.0 score and not the reasons behind the score. It's easy to persuade people that the critics are crazy when the score is so high (and then there are the typical claims that the backlash is because Carolyn is a woman and because she's transgender). In actual fact, the critics have two problems with Carolyn's review scores; the first is that this isn't the first time Carolyn's personal beliefs have influenced review scores.

A month before GTAV was released, a PC game was released called Gone Home. Personally, I thought it was quite bad. The gameplay involved walking around a big house, examining items to determine what happened to your character's parents and sister. I thought the environment interactivity was well-done but apart from that, it had nothing to offer except a very schmaltzy, romanticised view of an immature teenage lesbian love story. Personally, I felt like the story was meant to come across this way, since it was narrated by the main character's younger sister, reading from excerpts in her own diary about falling in love with a girl, but it also made it hard to care about this romance in the slightest. Plus, the ending was about as anticlimactic as it can get.

The lesbian angle also played no role in the story whatsoever; one of the lesbian characters wanted to join the military and Don't Ask, Don't Tell was mentioned ... but also quickly ignored. I imagine this would be the case for gay people who wanted to join the military when DADT was still in effect, so there must be some truth to it, but it seemed like an odd thing to shrug off. There was a mention of the parents disapproving of their daughter's girlfriend but their reaction to this rebellious young woman didn't seem any different from a reaction they'd have if she was dating a rebellious young man instead.

So in spite of the fact that this game's storyline revolved around a lesbian romance, it didn't seem to have any relevance in-and-of itself ... except when it came to review scores, including Carolyn's. It scored a 9.5 out of 10, which is only 0.1 below the highest score Gamespot has ever given (for the original Diablo) and a full 0.5 points ahead of GTAV. Did I mention that Gone Home is only two hours long at the most and costs twenty dollars to buy? That means Gone Home earns ten dollars an hour, which is more than minimum wage in the US.

The second problem that the critics have with Carolyn's review scores is that they don't want one rule for women and another for everyone else, which is what Carolyn is promoting by listing "profoundly misogynistic" as a negative point.

Case in point, would you like to know a few ways men are negatively portrayed in GTAV? Well, there's the basic stuff about their portrayals; men are stupid, perverted, short-tempered, drug addicts, drug dealers, murderers, thieves and doormats. The radio commercials aimed at men try to appeal to masculinity by promoting domestic violence.

Those are just the basics. That's the kind of general parody that all demographics face in GTAV and that's the kind of parody that Carolyn is complaining about in regards to women. When we get into more complicated territory, consider this; we're forced to see a brutal torture of a clearly innocent man and, shortly after, we're forced to torture him ourselves. As usual, the victim of torture in a game is male. In typical video game fashion, absolutely every enemy you kill in the main storyline is male. Oh, and there's a threat of rape against a male character when we first meet Trevor, there's the implied rape of Floyd if you switch back to Trevor while staying at his hideout (although it isn't certain) and you can see a billboard for this television show in downtown Los Santos:

Prison Bitches: Break Out Before They Break You In

Incidentally, of the few blogs I've read criticising GTAV for misogyny and transphobia, I haven't read the words "rape culture" once. Because who cares when men are the victims, right?

In contrast to all of this, the only female villain I can think of is a woman working for the government who threatens to anally-violate the torture victim from earlier with a flashlight. Even though our heroes "rescue" the victim (to torture him themselves later), this woman escapes ... while about a dozen of her male colleagues get shot by Michael and Franklin. The only other unpleasant female character worth mentioning is Debra, the girlfriend of Wade's cousing Floyd. She appears for all of one cutscene to insult Floyd and mockingly tell him she's been cheating on him. She and Floyd are both killed off-screen by Trevor. Oh, and then there's Molly Schultz, who works with one of the villains but doesn't seem to be evil herself. In fact, Michael genuinely seems to regret her death, insisting that he just wanted to talk to her.

None of this is likely to be covered by Carolyn Petit or anyone else complaining about GTAV. I've seen complaints about GTAV having misogynist content and being transphobic but when men are the ones who are the victims of negative portrayals, violence and rape jokes, it isn't misandry; it's just typical video game content.

The thing is, I don't really care about how GTAV portrays men. The billboard made me cringe but it seems that I realise what Carolyn and other critics don't (thanks to Anita Sarkeesian for that link, by the way. Nothing like posting a link to a Tumblr called "Fuck NO Video Games" to show how much you love the medium); complaining about the comedy in Grand Theft Auto V is completely pointless because playing with the boundaries of bad taste is the entire point of the humour.

For goodness' sake, we're adults, or we're supposed to be. If people can't handle the mature themes in GTA -- handled in a sometimes-hilariously immature fashion -- then why are they playing the game? What did they expect? Buying a Grand Theft Auto game and complaining that it contains controversial content is like whining that a Metal Gear Solid game has a sexualised female character. Oh, wait ...

As far as I can see, buying Grand Theft Auto and then complaining about how morally bankrupt it is places us firmly in Jack Thompson territory. In fact, it's a textbook example of the way he used to campaign against video games. Yet we still see site after site falling back on Jack's arguments, without even reappropriating them for a different purpose; these arguments are still being made because people object to the content of a game and want them to change.

Although the more cynical part of me thinks that maybe they wanted to take advantage of the hits that they would get from creating clickbait articles about a game that made a billion dollars in three days. No, that's not why I wrote this blog. Shush.

As much as I don't want to give this guy video views, you can watch this video if you want to hear a basic defence of Carolyn's review, complete with strawman defence. However, he spends the majority of the video comparing Anita Sarkeesian to Rosa Parks, if you can believe it. It's hard to believe, considering Twitter was embroiled in the "#SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen" controversy about a month ago -- a movement all about how non-white women have been underrepresented or mistreated by the feminist movement, which made for interesting reading if you've ever been lectured on intersectionality by white feminists -- but this is the stage we've come to when it comes to defending Anita. Perhaps I should've written about that video instead but, if you watch it, I'm sure you'll understand why I didn't.

Feel free to leave a comment or send me an e-mail at themalesofgames@gmail.com. When I checked my e-mails at the beginning of October, I realised I hadn't checked for a month, so forgive me if I don't get back to you for a while (and I apologise to the few people who sent me e-mails who it took me a while to respond to).

12 comments:

  1. "Carolyn's supporters -- or those who agree that GTAV is misogynist -- have created a strawman argument by making out like her critics are actually complaining about the 9.0 score and not the reasons behind the score. It's easy to persuade people that the critics are crazy when the score is so high (and then there are the typical claims that the backlash is because Carolyn is a woman and because she's transgender). In actual fact, the critics have two problems with Carolyn's review scores; the first is that this isn't the first time Carolyn's personal beliefs have influenced review scores."

    I dunno about that. I think their supporters acknowledged the reasons behind the score as much as they did the score itself. At least, the Feedbackula on this subject by Gamespot gave me that impression.

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  2. Also, have you ever considered that maybe people dislike the moral bankruptness of the game because they feel that Rockstar's satire isn't strong enough to counteract it? I mean, I can see your problems with how some male portrayals are made, but those are usually counteracted with male characters that are flawed yet still have the decency to be developed in the first place. What's there in the female and transsexual front? Females have Taliana and Patricia to balance out characters like Michael's wife and all the hookers you encounter, but those two only have a few lines and aren't really major characters. Transsexuals have...no one, really, as far as I can tell. And the humor about the transsexuals and cisgenders either insult them for being transsexual or don't really say anything about the cisgenders in terms of insults.

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  3. One last thing: I at least agree with you that Gone Home is a game that gets far more praise than it deserves. Just because it covers a topic that's rarely touched upon in gaming (high school lesbian romance) does not automatically mean it deserves all the high scores in the world, especially if the execution of said romance was just decent at best.

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  4. If GTA V has one problem with women, it's that they're underwritten compared to men. Rockstar lead Dan Houser said “the concept of being masculine was so key to this story” which strikes me as a cop-out, as they already wrote a female main villain (GTA 3) and I see a hundred ways an interesting woman character could be written into the story for an extended period of time, including playable characters. I would definitely like to see nastier, more extensively-written women in future expansions.

    As for the game being misogynistic well... yeah. That's part of the point. It's misogynist, misandrist and in fact all-out misanthropist: it's a narrative device to convey satire of modern society. As I wrote in the comments section of RPS, this is a game where patriarchy (as in gender binary) is in full effect to the worst of its abilities, exaggerating gender roles to their extreme. All characters exhibit society-caused psychological imbalance, everyone is awful and pathetic except maybe for Tanisha, Franklin’s ex-girlfriend who’s calm, strong, resolute, wants out of the ghetto while still caring for her friends — kinda ironic considering the complaint that women are treated badly by the game. Get to know a character for long enough (tragedy plus time equals what again?) and they’ll end up endearing: not so much as redeeming qualities, but endearment indeed. An argument that I've seen multiple times that male characters had redeeming qualities while women didn't falls completely flat.

    Anyway, as you pointed out, there are several ways to complain about GTA V (either for its general offensiveness or for a missed opportunity to have interesting women characters) but the way Carolyn Petit chose comes of as morally unacceptable to me.

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  5. Is it just me or is anyone else getting a little bit exasperated with the apparently ever-growing tide of agenda-pushing that has permeated into so much of gaming journalism? Usually I feel that having [largely intellectual] conversations about issues brought up in any artform are helpful but it's increasingly seeming like these ever-repeating discussions is making it harder to find good websites that focus on decent writers talking about gameplay. I'm not saying we shouldn't have writers who talk about social issues but too often if feels like it's blown way out of proportion and making games out to be things they are not.

    The current 'newscycle' seems to repeat the same point that there aren't that many 'good female protagonists' every month with a new example of victimising or exclusionary sexism be it a fighting game with 'exploding clothes' or just some developer making a rather tactless quote. You're absolutely right that it's generally mostly to do with what gets the most hits and there is no problem with that- the real problem is, as you recognised, the undue [dis]crediting of videogames as pieces of art that can fight the good fight against inequality and prejudice, if only we want it hard enough.

    The fact is- that's not what gameplay [as it currently stands] is best at, in the same way action movies don't tend to win Oscars. The problem that I don't think certain game critics are all that self-aware of is that becoming 'shills' [at least of a sort] for social progressiveness over unbiased objective is actually more likely to lead to the industry pandering to them with superficial 'tokens' rather than better writing and characterisation.

    And THIS is what the rest of us gamers backlash against- it's somewhat ridiculous but review scores are the one place that we hope for unbiased objectivity and clarity. Shifting the bar to make things easier for games that tick the right diversity boxes is almost as bad as doing it to please companies that are handing out ad revenue and freebies.

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    1. To paraphrase something Squirrel Girl once said, I remember when videogames were a place you wanted to escape to, not from.

      And they still are, to a large degree. But the amount of bullshit clustering around them lately is souring me. Perhaps I should just stop reading news stories about videogames at all.

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    2. I'm guessing you're one of those people who looked to video games as a form of escapism and never, not even for a minute, wanted games to be revered as an art form?

      Not that there's anything wrong with that. There are many reasons for us to play video games, and all of them are valid.

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    3. The problem with bringing art into the gender issues in games debate is that the two aren't really related; as awoolston mentioned, there's an idea that games can be pieces of art that fight against inequality and prejudice. However, in spite of the people who hold up screenshots of Dead Or Alive and say, "this is why games are not taken seriously as an art form!" art doesn't work that way.

      Art can be cruel. Art can be shocking. Politically-incorrect. An expression of the artist's thoughts and feelings. Those things don't stop a piece of art from being art just because a journalist dislikes them.

      If game journalists want to campaign for women's issues and against negative portrayals, they're welcome to, but also shouldn't act like they're doing gaming itself a service. Somehow, I doubt something like, say, Jason Schreier's petty insults towards George Kamitani over female portrayals is working wonders for the games industry. Again, as awoolston pointed out, these kind of attitudes are more likely to lead to "token" characters and portrayals, placed in the game for the sake of positive responses from journalists.

      Sorry about changing the subject to games as art but I think awoolston's criticism of modern video game journalism was better than anything I could've written on the subject.

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    4. @nettacki: I think there's a difference between analyzing gender roles in video games and 'analyzing' gender roles so we can be insulted by it, and the latter is what video game journalists tend to fall into. To give an analogy, it would be absurd for someone to say that Botticelli's "Birth of Venus" is insulting to women because the subject of the painting is a voluptuous nude woman. Sure, there's might be some "objectification" going on, but to say that people should be insulted by the painting is silly and plus it's a really shallow analysis.

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  6. Nettacki, were you replying to me or degraine? Personally, as someone who likes to think about and discuss videogaming and, subsequently, the criticism surrounding it, I would love to see a selection of games to become more and more artistic. I fully expect that to happen too and with it the external recognition of the breadth and depth of gaming experiences will follow. What I am wary of are pundits adopting overly combative perspectives for the sake of grabbing attention and provoking argument in the community.

    It's one thing to get people talking about the lack of non-white male protagonists and getting [almost] everyone to agree that it would be nice to see some new types of stories. It's quite another for journalists to go into a piece of art giving the appearance that they are looking for good or bad representations to pounce on. That might well be one way to play a game [though it's hardly that reasonable] but it's not a decent way for anyone who writes for a non-politicized game outlet [do we have any that are?] to review a game.... unless of course that game is more educational than entertaining.

    After all, if too many of our critics jump on the 'our games are being too sexist' bandwagon too often it's not surprising that the outside world will assume that videogames are generally exclusionary and regressive experiences that don't have much to say of value. What's even more worrying are the times when critics like Anita Sarkeesian slide towards the 'Jack Thompson' POV and exaggerate the effect that having so many violent games with generic stories have on the minds and attitudes of gamers. A major reason why Anita is being dogpiled on too much is the fact she takes the treatment of women out of its context most of the time and suggests it's bound to have some effect on gamers much like all the violence does too.

    In the end, I'd argue they're skipping over the primary general issues about the art of videogames which are about what we feel while playing a game and how the mechanics engage us with a story better than another medium might in order to get into a more specific discussion about what the representations of gender might say about society [which should come afterwards]. I mean, to go back to GTA V's 'profound misogyny'- I could argue along similar lines that Breaking Bad was the same: compared to the men of the story we were never made to feel near the same level of sympathy, admiration or loathing at the female characters [though I did find Skyler rather annoying]. The point is- if Carolyn had settled on just criticising the writing [let's face it, it wasn't the best] rather than lament we're supposed to laugh at the women there wouldn't be such a backlash from people arguing it's not misogynistic not to have a female protagonist or anyone who's not ridiculed in a GTA world.

    Anyway, I'd like to end this far too long digression with the reminder that there ARE many games that are legitimate pieces of art with more being produced every month and some actually have female protagonists to boot. This one actually looks pretty interesting on that count:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYiq3bOulNY

    So, is there really a need to tear out our hair because the AAA companies making games that are often just fancy new reskins on top of formulaic mechanics employ blandly generic blockbuster-style storytelling?

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    1. I was replying to degraine, but thanks for writing a long reply to me, even though I didn't really need it.

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  7. To be fair maybe they didn't see the billboard. I played through the story and I've never seen it before. There's no cut scene that points to it.

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