I’m a bit late to the draw on this one. It’s been a funky couple of months for me and damn it, after TWO whole posts I think I deserved some kind of break…
For reasons justified or otherwise, the ugly topic of ‘Censorship’ has once again graced the vernacular of the everyday internet going ‘gamer’, thanks to some controversial bear prodding from the likes of Target Australia and Valve. Two similar and uncannily timed business decisions have left a lot of people in a bit of a huff.
For those unawares; Australian sex workers filed a change.org petition urging retail chain Target AU to remove Grand Theft Auto V from shelves, because they claim the game to be inherently misogynistic. You can find it here. Among many would-be-funny-if-not-so-successful accusations, the party claims the game gives incentive “to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ point”, and that “This misogynistic GTA 5 literally makes a game of bashing, killing and horrific violence against women. It also links sexual arousal and violence.” But my absolute favourite has to be, “Games like this are grooming yet another generation of boys to tolerate violence against women.” Target and Sister Company K mart have since obliged the demands of petitioners, and have pulled the game from shelves
Similarly, a few weeks later, Valve was caught in the firing line for removing a successfully up voted indie title by the name of Hatred from their publishing platform, Greenlight. Judging from the trailer (because its pre-alpha and there’s fuck all else to go on), the game entails a lone un-named ‘protagonist’ armed to the teeth, on a spree killing vendetta, racking up kills via an assortment of pre scripted death animations. Valves Doug Lombardi only stated that “Based on what we’ve seen on Greenlight we would not publish Hatred on Steam,” and “As such we’ll be taking it down.” After a mass of consumer backlash, Gabe Newell made the follow up statement; “Yesterday I heard that we were taking Hatred down from Greenlight. Since I wasn’t up to speed, I asked around internally to find out why we had done that. It turns out that it wasn’t a good decision, and we’ll be putting Hatred back up…Steam is about creating tools for content creators and customers.” So this case was the good one right? Either way, on both occasions the internet understandably exploded with barks of censorship and anti-consumerism.
Now before we continue, let’s get this straight. GTAV is not inherently misogynistic and doesn’t ENCOURAGE violence against women, it ALLOWS violence against everyone. There has also never been an accurate or conclusive study linking violence in videogames to real world crime. Furthermore, Neither GTAV nor Hatred were censored by the very definition of the word. Nothing was banned and no change to the product was forced upon them by a governing body. But here’s the thing; though Target removing GTAV due to social justice bullying may strike closer to the bone and seem like the biggest injustice, I can guarantee you the hatred debacle is something potentially far more dangerous to worry about.
Target Australia, independent of its American counterpart, identifies as a forward thinking, family friendly company. Receiving a 45,000 person strong petition urging you to remove a product from your shelves because of a hot topic buzzword being flown in your face, like in this case, ‘Misogyny’, could only provide positive PR for your company if you oblige. Even better for Target, they got to sell the game for over a year before humbly accepting their white knighthood for removing it post profit. Furthermore, the reason GTAV was targeted was not because it was the worst offender, but because it’s a popular game in everyday mainstream consciousness. It’s one of the few games to burst into mainstream news media, and has only ever done so due to its surrounding controversy. A similar situation happened not too long ago with Toys ‘R’ Us, whereby angry parents started a petition that strongly encouraged the chain to remove figurines of Breaking Bad characters, Walter White and Jesse Pinkman from sale, because of a tiny gun and bag of blue meth included as accessories. As game critic Jim Sterling pointed out, you can still walk into a Toys ‘R’ Us and buy a figurine of CHILD MURDERER Freddy Krueger, because nobody’s talking about Freddy Krueger anymore. Toys ‘R’ Us took the obvious PR positive decision, and so has Target. They weren’t going to stand by a product because this isn’t a company with a lot of power in the gaming industry, bowing to social justice/injustice to the detriment of the freedom of gamers everywhere. This is simply yet another display of wolfish cynicism hiding under an earnest sheep’s clothing.
And then we have Valve.
Though never explicitly stated, the exclusion of hated from Steam was obviously down to the mature content of the game. Though the Jack Thompson crisis feels like a long distant dream by today, examples like the one above prove that gaming as a form of media is still very much in the firing line of accusations of encouraging or conditioning certain violent or sexual behaviours in consumers, regardless of how little evidence there is to back up the assertion. Maybe Valve thought that by removing a potential PR train wreck from their platform, they could dodge a bullet. But of course there was the backlash, with every games journo and their Nan reporting the ‘censorship’ of the little unknown indie title by mega corporation Valve. Once the fight was in the games favour, of course the good lord Gaben would descend from his throne to bless us all with his shiny, pro-consumer golden cock of glory. He had already provided all the free marketing for the game, so might as well cash in on the profits!
So why do I think this one is bad news?
Like I said, Target is a family friendly company. It’s the place to go to buy your Transformers figures and Skylanders. Anybody who was going to buy the last gen version of GTAV would have done so already. Target aren’t a major player in the games retail market, and even if they were, a store choosing not to stock physical copies of a game is well within their right, no different form you or I choosing not to buy a game for ourselves. Regardless of the mindlessly harmful accusations that were levelled at the game, Target no longer stocking the game is nowhere near censorship. It just means you’re going to have to go to a different store to buy a copy, or join the rest of us in the 21st century and download it. Bear in mind that it was only as of January last year that the Australian government actually allowed an R-18 rating to even exist. Prior to that, games like Postal and Manhunt were either heavily censored or refused classification, essentially banning the game from the country. See the Australian versions of South Park: the stick of truth for a hilarious example. If you bear in mind that every instalment of GTA up to this point was originally banned or censored until years after release, then this incident is a fairly small bump in the road for a country finally on its way to progress.
Valve on the other hand, is a slightly different story. Not unlike Target, Valve have demonstrated the breaking bad figurine double standard I talked about earlier. For example, you can still buy the postal games and manhunt on Steam. The difference here is that you couldn’t even officially SUPPORT hatred after Valve deleted the game from the service, let alone buy it. And yes, although Valve has the same right as Target to stock whatever they want, it’s not really ‘stocking’ a game when referring to digital media. They don’t have to order copies in with expected sales projections over launch week for example. This wouldn’t really be an issue, but when Valve have a monopoly of the digital games space, an indie team not having their game on Steam is a dead in the water before it’s even released. Unless it’s Minecraft. Why hatred and not postal? Why care so much about curating the store when so much of the front page is taken up by YouTube-fodder Pewdie-bait? Despite the game being back on the service, the issue is now centre stage, and I get this horrible feeling that if Valve are willing to pull a game from Steam unprovoked…
… What’s going to happen when there’s a petition obliging them to do so?