Let’s get one thing straight – the effects of sexualised women in media will always be a relevant debate. From scantily clad characters in video games to highly sexualised women in advertising campaigns – we’ve seen it all. And we’re probably extremely de-sensitised to it.
When Grand Theft Auto V was released in 2013, the game’s creators received strong backlash. Many complained the game over-sexualised women and promoted violence against women. Target and Kmart even pulled the game from their shelves in Australia.
The game was released in 2013 by Rockstar Games. It is the United States’ best-selling video game since 1995, and earned US$800 million in its first day of sale, making it the world’s fastest-selling video game.
But does the way women are sexualised and the way violence is romanticised in video games have any effect on the way we behave?
Watch: Grand Theft Auto V Trailer
The game lacks strong female leads, and only features women as sexual, vulnerable objects to buy and use. The most criticised aspect of the game is a feature where players could pick up prostitutes, use them for sexual favours, and then violently murder them when they didn’t want to pay.
Hyper-Masculinity is ever-present
It’s not just women who are misrepresented.
Fans of the game have argued that Grand Theft Auto V misrepresents both genders, as males are only shown as aggressive, masculine and violent. This creates gender ideals that limit both sexes, especially young gamers who may be influenced by this.
The game’s main characters Michael, Franklin and Trevor, aren’t “good” characters. They commit murders, robberies, carry weapons and engage in drug-fuelled violence. It’s then possible to suggest that the game, in general, is unrealistic and over-exaggerated and that these stereotypes are not correlated with real-life violence.
Hyper-Sexualisation of Women
We still can’t ignore the way women are represented as submissive and objects for self-gratification.
Violence towards women is a political and social issue in the real world, which is encouraged in the game.
For those who are already characteristically aggressive, these violent acts towards women can translate into real-world violence. Games like Grand Theft Auto V normalise violent behaviour, and at times, even romanticise aggressive acts.
Grand Theft Auto V was the first game of the series to feature three main characters, yet all of them were men. The game lacks a strong female protagonist, thus reinforcing traditional gender roles and desensitising players to violent behaviour.
Even though the main characters are still flawed and dangerous, why wasn’t a main female character in the same vein created?
Watch: Picking up a Prostitute in GTA V
Video Games are Conditioning Us
Games are formatted to evoke specific reactions in certain situations. It’s possible that the longer you play a game, the more likely you’re conditioned to respond to certain cues and make decisions without actually thinking about it.
For example, a video posted by YouTube user JoblessGarret in November 2014 shows his character picking up a prostitute, engaging in hyper-realistic sexual acts, then proceeding to hit her with his car, set her on fire and fire multiple gunshots at her.
This video has 2.2 million views, and the general consensus among commenters is that media outlets are over-exaggerating the game’s impact and that acts like this are “just for fun”. These kinds of comments only feed the narrative that gamers are highly desensitised to violence.
When gamers are continually encouraged to participate in in-game violence against women for rewards, it’s possible that this aggressive and violent behaviour towards women can translate into reality.
Real-Life Violence vs Video Game Violence
Despite this, little research has been done to actually explore the effects of violent videos games on real-life crime. In the six years that Grand Theft Auto V has been available for purchase, only two crimes have been linked to the game.
The first occurred in 2014, where Eldon Samuel III, aged 14, killed his dad and brother. He reportedly confessed to pre-planning the murder based on Grand Theft Auto V’s character Trevor, who he idolised.
The second occurred in 2016, where teens in Melbourne stole cars and said they were inspired by Grand Theft Auto. However, it is difficult to determine whether or not Grand Theft Auto V was a direct influence, or if journalists have simply deemed each crime to be “similar” to missions in the game.
Even then, these two crimes don’t involve any direct violence against women.
On the contrary, some researchers have argued that rather than contributing to crime, violent video games have reduced crime. The theory is supported by evidence that shows that in the weeks following popular video game releases, crime rates decrease.
Games like Grand Theft Auto can be used as a release for aggression and frustration so that actual expressions of aggressive and violent behaviour are reduced.
Watch: Do Video Games Cause Aggression?
The Future of Violent Video Games
In a world where the feminist movement is on the rise and women are continually being represented in political, social and cultural media contexts, it’s in the best interest of video game creators to represent this.
Since Grand Theft Auto V’s release in 2013, many other violent video games that are not misogynistic and feature women as protagonists have become popular.
An example of this is The Last of Us, also released in 2013. This game is set in a post-apocalyptic world and the main protagonist is a teenage girl named Ellie. Although the game is violent, it does not display any signs of misogyny, sexism or hyper-sexualisation of women. The creators were also praised on their depiction of strong women.
Rockstar Games have announced they are working on the sixth edition of Grand Theft Auto. This game is rumoured for release in 2020, and many speculate this version will feature a female protagonist. When questioned about the possible inclusion of a female protagonist by IGN, company co-founder, Dan Houser said:
In the future, could we do a game with a lead female character? Of course. We just haven’t found the right game for it yet, but it’s one of the things that we always think about. It didn’t feel natural for this game [Grand Theft Auto V] but definitely for the right game in the future…it could be fantastic
I have a few questions. When is the ‘right game’ going to come? Thinking about something is not the same as doing it – and since when did it not feel natural to not include women as main characters?
Watch: Mission #7: Daddy’s Little Girl (GTA V)
It’s pretty difficult to determine whether or not the sexualisation of women in video games like Grand Theft Auto V has a real-life effect on gamers and violence against women.
Studies have shown that video games which depict violence against women are more likely to desensitise gamers and make them less empathetic to female violence victims.
On the contrary, research also suggests that violent video games are cathartic. Gamers with aggressive tendencies are able to release stress and frustration through the game, rather than doing so in reality.
As for the future of violent video games, a female protagonist in Grand Theft Auto is important to stop the normalisation of violence against women.