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 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).