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Rockstar's latest mob story | This Week in Business

A look at the possible motives for edits to transphobic content in the latest Grand Theft Auto 5 re-release

This Week in Business is our weekly recap column, a collection of stats and quotes from recent stories presented with a dash of opinion (sometimes more than a dash) and intended to shed light on various trends. Check back every Friday for a new entry.

This week we received an answer to whether or not Rockstar would remove transphobic elements from the next-gen versions of Grand Theft Auto 5, something it was called on to do last year by Kotaku writer Carolyn Petit, a call that was then echoed by the LGBTQ+ game developer group Out Making Games.

The answer, as pointed out by an admin of a GTA fan community this week, was to remove a number of trans caricatures from the game, some tasteless NPC barks, and at least one background trans joke. It wasn't much. So little, in fact, that the game was out for three weeks before people started noticing the changes.

"As slight as the edits were, what they say is a little more meaningful"

But as slight as the edits were, what they say is a little more meaningful. They say that Rockstar, a company that has prided itself on being a thumb in the eye of pretty much everyone, has decided that there are limits.

Of course, there have always been limits. There are no children in GTA, for example. And as much as this has always been a pragmatic decision to avoid the incredibly predictable outrage over in-game violence to spark back up, this choice also tells us something about Rockstar. Clearly, Rockstar either believes allowing players to playact murdering children would be wrong, or it's afraid of crossing the politicians and industry ratings boards. Either explanation undermines any argument that Rockstar is an equal opportunity offender, that it impartially and dispassionately treats everyone and everything with the same lack of respect.

And lest you think I'm building a strawman there, you can check out the quote retweets on that original GTA community admin's post pointing out the changes. Suffice it to say, some people are very angry about Rockstar "giving in to the woke mob."

So which motivation can we ascribe to Rockstar's removal of transphobic elements from GTA 5?

It's probably not a matter of crossing ratings boards. The exact same content already received the commercially viable M for Mature rating several times over when it released on previous systems.

It's also unlikely that a fear of politicians that prompted the removal of transphobic elements. If anything, the political climate now is more amenable to transphobia than at any point since the original game's release. Hate crime around gender identity has increased every year since GTA 5 first debuted in 2013, according to FBI statistics. The Human Rights Campaign has also been tracking murders of transgender and gender non-conforming people since 2013, and the past two years set records on that front.

And in the midst of this, Republicans in the US have proposed a wave of anti-trans legislation across numerous states, banned books acknowledging trans people from schools and increasingly slandered anyone expressing support for LGBTQIA people as groomers and pedophiles.

(As for the Democrats, President Biden vowed to pass the Equality Act protecting LGBTQ rights in his first 100 days in office. A year after that deadline, we're still waiting. But it's OK, I'm sure voters will be eager to turn out for mid-terms and support a Democrat party that hasn't been able to deliver on its promises despite controlling the White House, Senate, and House of Representatives.)

It's not much better in Rockstar's homeland of the UK, where the NHS and a slew of professional organizations all agreed that conversion therapy is an "unethical and harmful" practice and the government's response was to ban it except when used on transgender people.

So are they giving in to the woke mob? We have a journalist and a professional group of developers writing public statements to Rockstar explaining how its portrayals of trans people hurt and dehumanize them. I don't really see that as a mob.

But if I look at the quote tweets of the GTA community admin's tweet, I see a wall of anger. I see a small group of proudly hateful people crossing any reasonable line of decency and a larger group of people making common cause with them, more upset about Rockstar making minor edits out of consideration for people than they are about the indefensible sewage spewers next to them, all working together toward the same ends. And that looks a lot more mob-like to me.

The sad truth of the matter is that these days, where some see Rockstar's removal of transphobic content as an edgy creator toning down its rough humor to appeal to the masses, it's just as easy to see it as an entirely on-brand decision for a developer that has for decades presented itself as proudly subversive and anti-authoritarian.

The rest of the week in review

QUOTE | "Among other concerns, Ms. Sandberg's legal and public-relations advisers, both inside and outside Facebook, worried that a story would reflect negatively on her reputation as an advocate for women." - A line from The Wall Street Journal's report on Facebook/Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg twice pressuring The Daily Mail to not publish a story about a temporary restraining order that had been obtained against her former boyfriend, Activision Blizzard CEO Bobby Kotick.

It's unclear if the concern was that people would discover she was dating a man accused of harassing an ex, or that she was dating Bobby Kotick.

QUOTE | "It is a privilege to join Activision Blizzard's Board at such a crucial juncture in the company's history, as big opportunities lie ahead and the mission to connect people around the world is more important than ever." - Lulu Cheng Meservey, in a statement about her appointment to the Activision Blizzard board of directors this week, finally bringing the company into compliance with a California law requiring boards of Activision Blizzard's size to have at least three women.

It's sort of meaningless given the Activision Blizzard board stops mattering if the Microsoft acquisition is finalized, but appointing someone who would refuse to hire principled people who want responsible platform moderation doesn't give me a lot of hope that this company is acting in good faith in its attempts to address workplace culture problems.

QUOTE | "It does take more effort and time to find a diverse group of people. But I have seen that once you do build it, it does pay off because this diverse group of people are more likely to be open and inclusive to each other and cooperate and collaborate well, and ultimately, that's better for the team." - Superbloom co-founder Emily Yim says it's worth prioritizing diversity when building a new studio.

QUOTE | "If Japanese developers try to imitate Western games, they cannot make good ones. The designs of the monsters, and the visual and audio effects, are all still somewhat Japanese." - Square Enix president and CEO Yosuke Matsuda lays out the not-so-shocking truth that it's difficult to effectively make a thing tailored to the tastes of a group to which you do not belong. (This would be another one of those reasons why hiring a diverse team pays off.)

QUOTE | "Animal Crossing became the fastest-selling game in Nintendo's history. Wii Remotes were spotted in the Amazon charts. And Ring Fit Adventure, essentially this generation's Wii Fit, sold out instantly. It's now approaching 14 million sales. And it wasn't just Nintendo's games. Just Dance is now a multi-million seller once again." - Our own Chris Dring makes the argument that a resurgent casual console market means this month's Nintendo Switch Sports could be more important to Nintendo's success than the highly anticipated Breath of the Wild sequel.

STAT | 3.2 million - Lego Star Wars: The Skywalker Saga's two-week sales total, the most WB Games has seen from a Lego game to date.

QUOTE | "Things like travel, ownership, creativity, notions of presence, and even social status and finances and employment could see a lot of change. This is a new opportunity that is so vast, it's almost harder to imagine what won't be affected." - MultiMetaverse CEO Alex Xu has big expectations for the potential of the metaverse.

QUOTE | "Building a metaverse is a vey ambitious undertaking. It's a very loaded term, and the vast bulk of people pursuing that and putting big money toward it are probably never going to accomplish their goals because you've got a massive chicken-and-egg problem. You won't get the creators unless you've got the players, and you won't get the players unless you've got the creators. Overcoming that through attempting to buy it? I don't believe that's achievable." - CEO Scott Reismanis is a big believer in user-generated content, but less so in the idea of the metaverse.

QUOTE | "No one is doing NFTs." - Blizzard president Mike Ybarra, in response to reports that Blizzard was surveying players' interest on NFTs. He doesn't say anything about whether Blizzard was planning NFTs in the past, or would start doing NFTs in the future, but there's no reason to nitpick and think he would be shady about phrasing stuff like that, right?

QUOTE | "The first time both Jen and I were offered a new contract, it was the same across both of us for the new co-leader of Blizzard roles, so our compensation was going to be the same." - Ybarra in November, implying to Activision Blizzard employees in an internal Slack channel that pay disparity was not an issue for he and his former co-president Jen Oneal. Oneal would then post that the company rejected multiple requests to bring their salaries into parity, and did not offer equal compensation until after she had tendered her resignation.

STAT | 33% - The cut of revenues Paradox Interactive will take from anyone who decides to build games using the Vampire: The Masquerade IP. Oh, and Paradox will forever have a royalty-free license to anything they make, and will actually own it outright if it decides it's not "obviously distinguishable" from the licensed property. (Personally I'm hoping this clause leads to a ton of super-cute Vampire: The Masquerade cozy indie games dripping with pastels and kindness.)

QUOTE | "Never tell me the odds." - Amy Hennig on Twitter, announcing her new Star Wars project at Skydance New Media. Hennig previously worked on a Star Wars game at EA Visceral for several years before the publisher shelved the project and shut down the studio.

STAT | $17 billion - The size of the mobile anime gaming market -- which I confess I had never before thought of as a distinct market -- according to the State of Anime Gaming 2022 report from (formerly App Annie). Led by Genshin Impact and Pokémon Go, anime games -- described as those "with 'anime art style' as a feature" -- accounted for about 20% of the mobile gaming market last year.

QUOTE | "She was a light in countless lives and she is missed terribly" - Streamer Booklyn remembers fellow streamer and voice actor Undrea Leach, who we found out this week passed away in February.

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Brendan Sinclair avatar
Brendan Sinclair: Brendan joined in 2012. Based in Toronto, Ontario, he was previously senior news editor at GameSpot.
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