Grand Theft Auto V: a giant, targeted missile of satire

This game has such market power that it can defy all media attacks and laugh at itself, knowing that millions of us get the joke, says Tom Watson.

The latest edition of Grand Theft Auto shows that the maturing video-game industry is making huge leaps in creativity and technological innovation. Yet there is no games franchise more misunderstood than Grand Theft Auto. “If the Devil had his own bible, it would probably take the form of a computer game,” wrote Peter Hitchens on 22 September, in a quintessentially Daily Mail critique of GTA V.
 
That an MP can write a column admitting playing the game shows how far video-game culture has permeated the mainstream since GTA was launched in 1996, in the heady days of New Labour. Back then, playing GTA felt like a wholly rebellious act, to be confined to the privacy of your own home. The cars were almost impossible to drive but they had great radio stations, which seemed really cool then. In the latest version, I couldn’t find how to flip between stations, so I kept breaking into cars in order to change the music.
 
When GTA emerged, the Mail described it as “criminal computer game that glorifies hit-and-run thugs”. It set off a moral panic so great that virtually no commentator said anything positive about the game that is now an integral part of innovative gaming history and culture around the globe. But Hitchens and the outraged political classes have been duped, like one of the weak-willed minor characters designed to add colour to the lives of Michael, Franklin and Trevor in GTA5.
 
GTA came to the notice of the public as a result of a public relations campaign masterminded by the streetwise Max Clifford and the game’s maker Sam Houser, a former classmate of George Osborne. They deliberately promoted its violence to grab headlines. The media elite have been inadvertently collaborating with the GTA PR people for the decade and a half since. To quote the paparazzo character who features in the game, “It’s a beautifully abusive relationship.”
 
GTA wrote the golden rule of games PR: always include a scene that pushes the boundaries of taste and decency, such that Keith Vaz MP will condemn it in the pages of the Daily Mail. GTA V is no different. This time there is a completely unnecessary torture scene where a victim is electrocuted and waterboarded and has a tooth extracted to force him to talk. Last time I checked, the scene had been viewed nearly a million times on YouTube. Many gamers don’t feel comfortable with gratuitous violence of this kind and there has been legitimate criticism that there wasn’t even an opportunity for players to opt out of this particular section.
 
Sam Houser’s games franchise has already netted $1bn for GTA V: surely he can afford to make a departure from the shock-and-awe PR formula to talk in a more mature way about the developments in the new game, which are vast – from the hundreds of options a character can take and the extraordinary animated detail in missions to the muchimproved user experience as you drive vehicles around the city.
 
His response would probably be that, with the tabloid media so willing to write about it, why should he change tack? Just this past week, the Daily Mirror, historically more supportive of our video-game industry than most tabloids, splashed on its front page a story that the Washington Navy Yard gunman Aaron Alexis had heard “voices in his head” after playing violent video games.
 
None of these sensational stories helps consumers choose good material to buy; at up to £40 a go, many agonise over their purchases. Make the wrong choice and you can end up with a game you discard after a few hours. With GTA V, the investment is worth it. You can, if you want, spend hundreds of hours at it. I don’t think I’m exaggerating to say that, when the online world gets switched on, some will spend thousands of hours.
 
Thankfully – despite what Peter Hitchens might think – gamers understand satire. And Grand Theft Auto Five is one giant targeted missile of satire locked on to the superficiality of media, commerce, celebrity and politics. Early on in the game Michael, an unhappily married ex-con, bemoans his good-for-nothing son who “sits on his arse all day, smoking dope and jerking off while he plays that f***ing video game”. This game has such market power that it can defy all media attacks and laugh at itself, knowing that millions of us get the joke.
 
That’s not to say GTA hasn’t missed a few tricks. Helen Lewis has written about the lack of strong female characters, surely a mistake in a growing global market? Yet the producer, Rockstar Games, is defiant, mocking the political classes from inside GTA. “Democracy can suck my fatty,” says one of the many eccentric characters, sending Michael into an ethereal world where he is attacked by aliens as they attempt to abduct him.
 
As I write this, I realise how hard it is to describe the game to you. You just have to play it in order to understand the comedic depth of the world you enter when you switch on your console – a world so layered in detail that even the most dedicated players will not get to see most of Los Santos and Blaine County, the world created by Rockstar North for you to adventure in. Every feature, from the flickering streetlights and unique advertising hoardings to ambient noise and radio station playlists, has been painstakingly woven into the experience. How could poor Hitchens have a clue?
 
There is room for legitimate criticism of GTA V, but politicians and commentators will have to work much harder to understand this creative medium before they can be taken seriously by gamers.
 
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East (Labour)
A screenshot from Grand Theft Auto.
Tom Watson is the MP for West Bromwich East, and Deputy Chair of the Labour Party. He is also an avid gamer and campaigner for media integrity.

This article first appeared in the 30 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory Game of Thrones

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA