Brick-and-mortar discount retailers Target and K-Mart have withdrawn Grand Theft Auto V from their shelves following a campaign run by sex workers concerned over the level of violence in the open-world game, particularly the violence that can be directed at prostitutes. So why does everyone win when a ban like this happens?
The campaign was largely mounted through an online petition hosted at change.org, which was titled “this sickening game encourages players to commit sexual violence and kill women”. “It’s a game that encourages players to murder women for entertainment,” Nicole Survivor, creator of the petition, argues.
“The incentive is to commit sexual violence against women, then abuse or kill them to proceed or get ‘health’ points – and now Target are stocking it and promoting it for your Xmas stocking.”
Jim Cooper, general manager of corporate affairs for Target Australia, said in a statement that was posted late Wednesday night that “the decision to stop selling GTA5 (sic) is in line with the majority view of our customers” although Target would continue to sell other R-rated games and DVDs.
Kmart Australia followed Target’s lead, telling Kotaku’s local editor Mark Serrels over the phone that they would “remove this product immediately” from their shelves. ”Kmart apologises for not being closer to the content of this game,” the company said.
Kmart’s decision is less surprising; both Kmart and Target’s Australian operations are owned by Wesfarmers, owner of the mega-chain Coles, and it would be unusual to pull GTA V in one store and not another.
But the decision does highlight how unaware major companies and corporations can be with their customers. GTA V, after all, has been available for a year, albeit on Xbox 360 and the PlayStation 3. The last-gen version also lacks the first-person mode available in the newer consoles (and on the PC port, which is due out early next year).
That said, players were more than capable of murdering prostitutes – or any other character in the game’s massive open-world – in precisely the same fashion. GTA V has always been a gritty world, something Strauss Zelnick, chief executive of GTA V’s publisher, Take-Two Interactive, accepted in an interview with Bloomberg TV.
“This is a criminal setting, it’s a gritty underworld, it is art,” he said when directly quizzed about the content. “This is a tough universe because it’s a criminal universe.” That sentiment was echoed in a statement released by Take-Two after Target’s decision, with Zelnick saying the game “explores mature themes and content similar to those found in many other popular and groundbreaking entertainment properties.”
The recent furore comes after The Warehouse Group in New Zealand pulled GTA V, along with all R-rated DVDs and computer games, from its shelves in late November. “The Warehouse never traditionally sold R18 products and it was part of our brand position and it crept in in the 2000s,” chief executive Mark Powell told Stuff.co.nz.
Powell added that the decision to pull R18 products would cost approximately NZ$500,000 to NZ$750,000. His statement was welcomed by representatives from the games industry, with Stephen Knightly, president of the New Zealand Game Developers Association, saying fewer R-rated games are produced today and such titles make up less than one-fifth of the profits from the overall industry.
Ron Curry, chief executive of the Interactive Games and Entertainment Association, reflected by saying “in the past when products aren’t available, [consumers] will seek them elsewhere”. That certainly has been the case for Australian gamers in the past, with enterprising users paying for access to virtual private networks or reaching out on social media to receive uncensored versions of games, such as South Park: A Stick of Truth or Left 4 Dead 2, that have fallen afoul of the Australian Classification Board.
The IGEA added in a post on their website that “games should not be treated any differently than books, music, television, or movies that are rated R18+” although Curry insisted that businesses should be free to take a moral or social stand on content where they see fit.
Target and Kmart’s decision is purely pragmatic. According to the latest Wesfarmers annual report, falling sales of video games and DVDs offset Kmart’s improved performance in homewares and apparel, while games failed to rate a mention in Target’s statement at all.
For many gamers, Kmart and Target only become a prospective location for price-matching the occasional new release. It has never been a reliable stockist or provider of discounts and the decision to pull GTA V will affect very few consumers.
The move will placate shoppers in other areas who, reasonably or otherwise, may be offended by the presence of GTA V on the shelves. Given that one of Target’s core strategies relies on “re-building customer trust” for 2014-15 and the change.org petition has their name squarely in the headline, it’s really only surprising that it took Target so long to act.
As bizarre as it sounds, this is the kind of scenario where everybody wins. Budding GTA V fans still have their choice of brick-and-mortar stores – such as the increasingly competitive Dick Smith, which has been offering a lot of sub-$70 deals for brand new console titles this year – and online retailers prepared to do a good deal. You can always buy directly through Xbox Live or the PlayStation Network too, provided you don’t mind the hefty download that follows.
Mum-and-dad shoppers unaware of the existence of GTA V can feel satisfied that “justice” has been done and the risk-averse management within Wesfarmers has quelled the latest round of awkward press. Take-Two, meanwhile, gets to bask in even more publicity for GTA V, again, which only ever results in higher sales and a higher stock price.
It seems awfully rosy view to take, especially from a life-long gamer.
But my access, and the access of every other gamer who was fully attuned to the nature of GTA, to Los Santos has not been diminished.
In fact, the only gamer whose ability to traverse Rockstar North’s creation has been curbed is the underage child or teenager whose parent might have absent-mindedly purchased GTA V while grabbing some cheap linen and underwear.
Perhaps even in this isolated example, conversations will begin between and steps will be taken by parents to have more of an active, rather than a passive, role in the entertainment of their underage sons and daughters. And if that happens, we all should be proud – because only in video games would you normally see a scenario where everyone walks away a winner.