The Grand Theft Auto franchise is one of the most notorious examples of video games that give the hobby a bad reputation. It has a lot of what people find problematic with gaming; Violence against women, overly sexual themes, drug use, and the modern problem of children (both actual and adults who act like children) shrieking obscenities over their mics.
Video games will rightfully remain a belittled hobby instead of an art form in the eyes of society due to cultural issues within the software and the toxic communities that many online multiplayer games have spawned.
Historically, there have been countless examples of video games that perpetuate harmful stereotypes whether on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender or sexuality. One of the earliest instances of gaming software with a distasteful reputation is the 1982 Atari 2600 game Custer’s Revenge. The objective of this game is to guide a cowboy across a desert to forcefully have sex with an indigenous woman tied to a post.
Mystique, the developer responsible for this game, produced other pornographic games like Beat ‘Em & Eat ‘Em, also released in 1982. This time around, the game tasks players with controlling two women, mouths agape and pointing skyward, to catch a masturbating man’s falling semen. There is nothing artistic about helping a virtual character have nonconsensual sex with another; nor is there anything redeeming about catching raining semen.
The late 90s saw the release of the original Grand Theft Auto in 1997, where players can live out their most heinous lawbreaking fantasies they have. Decades later, the series is still thriving off its initial success and built upon it with the seventh mainline title, 2013’s Grand Theft Auto V.
Set in a fictionalized city based off Los Angeles, the game gives players nearly unlimited choices in what they can do. Want to get cross faded and cause the biggest traffic accident imaginable? Go for it. Visit a strip club and proceed to murder everyone in the building? You can do that too.
Surely video games have evolved as a medium since then right? Yes and no. There are definitely games that evoke a more cinematic approach, like 2018’s PlayStation 4 release Detroit: Become Human, which is presented as an interactive movie that players can influence the events of. Typically, these events question the player’s morality regarding humanity’s injustices and discrimination towards emotionally sentient androids in the year 2038.
Another instance of video games mimicking other media types is found in the visual novel genre of software. Here, games like the Zero Escape series from 2009 have very little actual gameplay and their plots unfold like those found in drama novels. Morality is also tested in this series as the plot for each of the three games follows escape room challenges for people where their fates are determined by their mutual trust in life threatening situations.
So shouldn’t the existence of these types of games disprove the notion that video games aren’t art? Well, they should, but poor examples of video games are still produced no matter the year and only work against the industry’s image in society. To refrain from bloating this article, Feminist Frequency published a video series in 2015 on harmful tropes video games use against women, and more recently, a 2019 series in a similar fashion about the treatment of queer characters in gaming.
It’s difficult to justify something as art when there are numerous facets that discriminate and alienate people based on their existence. This issue isn’t limited to video games; most if not all forms of media have this issue as well, but since video games are a much younger industry compared to television, movies and music, they still have to prove its purpose as a serious form of entertainment.
Then there are the entitled gamers who feel video games should be treated as art but get upset at critical perspectives or deem any sort of inclusivity as political pandering. The community’s vocal digital complaining is so apparent on social media that a Twitter account is dedicated to preserving the hateful and oftentimes absurd comments that gamers make.
Immaturity also factors into why people shun games as art. A common in-game interaction commonly referred to as “tea-bagging,” where a player aligns their character’s crotch over a corpse’s mouth and repeatedly crouches, simulating the real world’s sexual counterpart. This serves no real purpose besides irritating the other player. Is this really the best use of anyone’s time when they’re just trying to enjoy a digital competition? Hardly. If video games are to be seriously considered as art, the industry, and its players, still have a lot of growing up to do.
This article has been edited to better expand on examples provided.