The launch of a Grand Theft Auto game is inevitably attended by controversy. Ever since the very first game was propelled into the public consciousness thanks to a cynically orchestrated PR campaign to generate tabloid outrage (endlessly punchable PR 'guru' Max Clifford specifically targeted politicians and newspapers who would be outraged by the game in order to generate free publicity), the series' masters have seemingly felt that a GTA outing needed to be accompanied by a moral panic if it was to retain its commercial crown. Tabloid newspapers and rolling news channels, desperately reliant on manufactured controversy to justify their execrable existences, have been only too happy to oblige; dumb politicians and even dumber lawyers have always been on tap to throw fuel on the fire.
"GTA may be cheapened by the controversy, but it's such an extraordinary artistic and entertainment achievement that it can easily weather a little cheapening"
It's to the enormous credit of the immensely talented creative team that works on GTA that the series manages to stand head and shoulders above the mire of its PR campaigns. If GTA was just a game about controversy - a high-budget Postal, throwing as much offensiveness in the box as possible in the hope that someone, somewhere will be angry enough to try and ban it - then it would have run out of steam years ago. Controversy never lasts as a selling tactic. The teenagers who found you controversial grow up to be adults who think you're cute and nostalgic. Madonna used to be able to draw shock and condemnation; now she's just a bit embarrassing to everyone involved. Marilyn Manson was the Antichrist for a good few years, the terror of middle America - better years, one feels, than his present incarnation as an obese middle-aged goth with 'fuck' written on his face. Eminem had mothers clutching their pearls across the English-speaking world; now your dad quite likes that one song he did with the girl with the nice voice, and thinks the one about the letter from his fan is funny.
GTA has escaped that fate, so far - not because its controversy is so intense that it defies the slow fading into cute nostalgia that attends every 'shocking' form of entertainment, but because it's consistently a fantastic game. It may not be to your specific tastes (the series and I parted ways at GTA IV, and I'm not sure we'll ever be on the same wavelength again), but it's impossible to deny the sheer scale and intensity of the creativity and artistry which goes into crafting the game's dark version of America, its dreams and its nightmares. GTA may be cheapened by the controversy, but it's such an extraordinary artistic and entertainment achievement that it can easily weather a little cheapening.
When you read a story about how GTA V - barely out the door - is already inspiring copy-cat violent crimes, you are perfectly justified in rolling your eyes. It's utterly daft stuff, and quite possibly manufactured daftness at that. The launch has, however, been attended by another controversy - one which Rockstar had no hand in creating, and probably doesn't want anything to do with. You see, GTA isn't very nice to its female characters, from the infamous 'sleep with a prostitute then run her over to get your money back' escapades of GTA 3 (which was actually emergent player behaviour, if you think about it, so it's you that's a depraved homicidal pervert, not Rockstar's designers) onwards. One reviewer of GTA V dared to mention that the game's casual misogyny could be a bit uncomfortable. Worse still, this reviewer dared to mention being uncomfortable with the misogyny while also being a woman herself.
"GTA V is worthy of a nuanced discussion about its treatment of women - but the response to any attempt at that so far has been unequivocally misogynist"
I don't know if I think GTA V is misogynist, because I haven't played it. I know people, both male and female, who have played it and find the misogyny a bit distressing. I know people who have played it and say the misogyny fits in the game, because it's also relentlessly misandrist and treats all humans, regardless of gender, in a pretty terrible manner. It fits with the 'dark mirror of society' that GTA builds as its world, say some. It singles out women in a fairly sexist manner even within that context, say others.
This is a really interesting discussion. It's an important one, too. Nobody having this discussion in a serious way is saying 'BAN GTA' or 'ALL GAMERS HATE WOMEN' or whatever. It's much more complex than that - it starts from the absolutely basic standpoint that a reviewer's task is to express their feelings about a game (not to write an 'objective review', an oxymoron in which the pronunciation stress should be on the syllables 'mor' and 'on'), continues through a comparison of the different feelings which GTA V evoked in different reviewers from different standpoints and backgrounds, and should lead us into a nuanced discussion around notions of misogyny, misandry, satire and social reflection. This could and should be a great conversation to have, none of which means 'GTA is bad' and all of which means 'GTA is interesting and we should talk about it'.
Except, no. Instead, the author of the review and most others participating in the discussion have endured near-constant abuse from the howling morons whom game site operators inexplicably allow to spew their hate-filled moronic dribblings all over the bottom of every article and image (then they call this cesspit their 'community', which only makes sense if you were brought up in a village full of lobotomised psychopaths whose diet consisted largely of crystal meth). GTA V itself is worthy of a nuanced discussion about its treatment of women - but the response to any attempt at that discussion so far has been absolutely, unequivocally misogynist. The game may or may not have a problem with women. Its ardent defenders absolutely hate women.
This outpouring of anti-woman hatred isn't the first. It's not even the first in the past month - you may be aware of the utterly depressing and nasty campaign to Stop Anita Sarkeesian. Sarkeesian's academic work on the depiction of women in games is imperfect but that's not the problem these aggressive man-children have with it; the crime of which their court convicts her isn't imperfect critical work, it's stating an opinion while female.
"This isn't just about women - it's robbing every single one of us of the opportunity to have intelligent, interesting discussions about the medium"
Why do I raise this, again (and again)? Because it's incredibly important - not the specific question of whether GTA V is misogynist, or whether Sarkeesian's work is academically rigorous, but the broader context, in which we are all being robbed of the ability to have nuanced, interesting discussions about games by a culture that shouts down criticism from any quarter, and shouts it down twice as viciously if a woman is involved. Complex subjects are reduced to meaningless soundbites, a sin of which the supposedly thoughtful corners of the media are often guilty as well. There's no room for a spectrum of opinion, especially for women, who are regularly, idiotically, asked to act as representatives of their entire gender in discussions, while the existence of any woman who doesn't think something is misogynist is held up as incontrovertible proof that every other woman is automatically wrong. This isn't just about women - it's robbing every single one of us of the opportunity to have intelligent, interesting discussions about how our medium deals with gender, sexuality, race, class or any one of a host of other fascinating, complex topics. We're reduced to shouting and throwing rocks. It's frustrating, it's stupid, and it's downright boring - and it risks making our games stupid and boring too.
What's the solution? "Don't feed the trolls" is the usually cited adage, and it's true to an extent - but it only works up to a certain point. "Don't read the comments" is bloody good advice for the most part, although it still raises the point that most consumer sites' justifications for having comment sections at all are deeply flimsy. There is an extent to which the internet is just hostile and unpleasant because it exposes us to a grimy underbelly of humanity in which people, granted anonymity, are hostile and unpleasant, especially to women and minorities, and we just have to get used to that and build a thicker skin until such time as we can build a better society.
We can, though, help to cut off the oxygen that the trolls breathe. Speak up. Carry on intelligent discussions without fear of the backlash, recalling when you flinch that the backlash comes from people to whom you wouldn't grant the time of day in any case. Support people who say interesting things even when you don't agree with the things they're saying. Seek to create environments that are safe and welcoming, if you have a hand in such a thing, and always remember that freedom of speech doesn't mean freedom to publish whatever you want, wherever you want - comment threads, forums and so on are private publishing spaces and nobody has a right to spew hatred in them, nor is it censorship to clean up and moderate those spaces, any more than it's censorship to stop a child tearaway from graffitiing a sexual slur on the bonnet of your car.
Most of all, don't be part of the problem. You may disagree - vehemently! - with the notion that GTA V is misogynist, or that Resident Evil 5 was racist, or that Killer Is Dead is unpleasantly sexist, but respect those who put forward opinions you disagree with in an intelligent and reasonable way, and respond in kind. It's easy to be tempted to just tell someone to shut up online. Don't. The whole world of talking about, criticising and debating games and their culture has become hostile and nasty in recent years, a turn for the worse which threatens to damage the entire medium in subtle yet profound ways. If being polite and reasonable when your brain mutters at you to type obscenities instead is all it takes to be part of the solution, then not one of us has an excuse for being part of the problem.