How do you parse the news that Target has decided to give in to pressure, to a 41,000 strong petition, and removed Grand Theft Auto V from shelves. How do you react to it?
I've been wrestling with this from the second I heard the news.
The base instinct in me, in all of us I suspect, is to rush to battle stations. To man the video game cannons and blast mercilessly at the hypocrisy of it all, to blindly vomit chunks of rage at the moral panic brigade.
Because as a culture, Australian gamers are so used to this debate. We're used to being under attack. Crucially, we're used to video games being treated differently compared to other art forms. We've heard and seen it all. We know the counter-arguments by rote.
But here's the problem: in this particular situation those arguments are all but useless. They're simply not applicable. News that Target has removed Grand Theft Auto V from stores puts people who like video games in a weird, untenable position. Making a huge unruly noise will get us nowhere. It will move us backwards.
To begin with, we have to accept a few hard truths.
Firstly, Grand Theft Auto's depiction of women is problematic. Put aside the fact that the video game allows players to be violent — in equal measure — to both men and women. Place that aside for a second. That's a given. Female characters in Grand Theft Auto are poorly drawn; they're either 'prostitutes' or wailing, nagging buffoons. The handful that remain inevitably become damsels in distress. There are very few women in the world of Grand Theft Auto that exist outside this spectrum. That doesn't mean we shouldn't play Grand Theft Auto, that doesn't mean it's worthless as a cultural artefact — it simply means that we have to accept that the game has problems, specifically with its depiction of women. We have to accept this.
Secondly, we have to accept that Target's decision to remove the game is not censorship. Hypocrisy? Yes. Absolutely. Censorship? Not even close.
Target is perfectly within its rights to sell or not sell any product it sees fit for any reason it sees fit. Target doesn't sell a lot of things. It doesn't sell pornography, it doesn't sell the Metroid Prime Trilogy on Wii. It doesn't sell Irn Bru. It doesn't sell Jenga as I recently discovered to my distaste after spending a whole day trawling through Westfield trying to find a box of the stuff.
Point being: this is not the same as the R18+ issue. In that situation government legislation was literally stopping stores like Target from selling video games rated R18+. In this case an individual retail group has made a decision. A decision it has every right to make.
As a consumer you also have the right to stop shopping at Target as a result of this decision. Crucially, you also have the right to buy the game at a number of other stores. I suspect many will choose to exercise those rights. This is fine.
Thirdly, we can't even blame Target for making this decision. You can accuse it of hypocrisy. You can point to the dozens of other R18+-rated products being sold in Target stores. You can complain about 50 Shades Of Grey, but to date no-one has produced a 41,000-signatures-strong petition demanding its removal. When a statement that powerful and grand in scale lands on your virtual desk, some sort of response is necessary. You might disagree with that response, but consider the tangibles.
Target is essentially a chain store which markets and sells to an older section of consumers who are, more often than not, parents. Much of Target's advertising is catered specifically to that demographic. It has to protect that segment of its revenue. Ask yourself how often you buy video games from Target. Ask yourself who normally shops at Target and what they buy. Target has made a strategic decision based solely on damage control and perception management. That's what businesses do.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, we cannot blame the women behind the petition or any of the men and women who signed the petition.
Think their concerns are misguided? Absolutely. Believe that the concerns are the result of broad moral panic? Worried that their success could set some sort of precedent? Sure.
But it's of paramount importance to understand and accept that this petition was the work of women with serious, sincere concerns. Important concerns about the portrayal of women and the impact it would have on young men's attitudes to violence against women. These are ex-sex workers who have experienced sexual violence from men. Their concerns are more than valid.
And their concerns deserve to be heard. It's important to take those concerns seriously. It's important to take them on board. Verbally abusing or threatening these women — or any of the men and women who signed the petition — is toxic behaviour and only serves to make the situation worse. It only serves to prove their point. Above all, it's wrong.
Essentially, what we should be fighting against here is the mainstream belief that video games are exclusively for children. More importantly we should be fighting against the idea that interactive media has a stronger impact on players compared to movies, television or music. These are the misconceptions that inform these petitions. These are the misconceptions that are constantly re-reported in mainstream media outlets as fact. These are the misconceptions media outlets routinely exploit for traffic and manufactured outrage.
With the introduction of an R18+ rating in Australia, part of me had hoped that those attitudes were a decaying, dying thing. That widespread education and the growth of gaming in across widespread demographics might change those attitudes. I had hoped that mainstream media would have gotten the message, but it appears I was wrong.
And nothing — absolutely nothing — will change until those attitudes are dead and gone.