On Problematic Art

Helen Lewis at the New Statesman asked me what I thought of her liking GTA V. This is my answer. For the record, I worked on GTA IV, and I am a fan of the series, and my favourite one is Vice. I withhold any opinion on V as I haven’t played any of it yet. My opinion of the series has been compromised by my involvement in it and the colleagues I feel affectionate towards, so I talk in general terms about how I feel towards problematic games.

All art deserves an audience; that audience just doesn’t have to be everyone. Art’s worth is not measured by how big its audience is. It is measured by an audience’s response to it.

The internet was angry with me recently. In PC Gamer I wrote about how playing the beginning of a prototype build of Hotline Miami 2, in which there is a simulated rape, made me feel uncomfortable. There were no warnings that the game would have this content, though it had informed me that it was a hyperviolent game set in the 80s. I was prepared for 80s neon hyperviolence. I could have done with an indicator that I would lose control of my character and then my character would simulate raping a woman.

I suggested no deletion; I made no outcry. I simply informed my readers, many of whom may be women who have been raped (the figure is staggeringly high), that there might be a part in this piece of art that could make them uncomfortable or upset. Like a warning at the beginning of a film or on the front of a DVD cover.

That’s my job as a critic, to inform my readers, and to talk about art as if it matters. I warn them if there is something that might upset them, and I try not to tell them what they will or will not like. I tell them what I like and why. They can choose to trust my judgement or not.

Creators of art should be able to make art in a way that is an expression of who they are. Whether or not that is worthy is something that both critics and players of games have to decide through being involved in a critical conversation with the actual work. I don’t think acknowledging a game’s problems is annulling its worth, neither is buying the game an endorsement of its misogyny. We all have different tolerances. What we should be doing, however, (if we feel this way) is telling the makers of the game that we want something more interesting than the gross misogyny that happens to us every day in real life. These microaggressions do make life hard for us, and putting them in a game is not empowering or fun for me personally. Often game mechanics are about power differentials, and it’s so rare to have a woman character given any kind of release of power, made a conduit of the feeling of the letting go of a real-life shackle.

If it is about money, if it is about commercialism, then the art should strive to please us in as many ways as it can. If AAA game creators are really smart, they will try to make their work more appealing to 50% of the game-buying public, women, which has loudly, if not repeatedly, made its voice heard in the past year. And it will continue to do so if games continue to ignore them.


  1. real_butt 09/19/2013 / 3:29 pm

    Hey cool, someone is outlining the completely reasonable position so many of us hold, and not shoving strawmen into our mouths. Cool.

    • MrBlooDeck 09/20/2013 / 4:08 pm

      A rare thing indeed.

      Thumbs up to this post though, kinda makes me want to see an alternate universe version where it did have a more pointed focus on GTA V.

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