The gamers amongst us probably don’t need reminding that Rockstar Games’ latest release, Grand Theft Auto V, hit the stores this week. One of the most successful games franchises ever, GTA is the biggest earner for the very successful Rockstar Games. Extremely positive reviews suggest it’s business as usual – a massive open world, modelled after Los Angeles this time, wherein players basically create whatever sort of mayhem they want. (Here’s a list of some stuff you can do. Play tennis, steal a dog, beat a guy to death with a sign, become a stock dealer or watch TV, for example. Yes, you can play a game where you watch yourself watching TV on your TV. Very postmodern.)
This is the most expensive game in history. By all accounts Rockstar spent $115 million on developing the game and $150 million on marketing (note, GCSE students – marketing takes the lion’s share of the budget.) And amazingly, it will be obsolete in a few weeks since the current crop of consoles – the XBox 360 and the Playstation 3 – are about to be replaced with completely new models which will not play older games. So, who’s going to be dumb enough to buy a game on a console which is onthe way out?
Lots and lots of people, it turns out. Reassuringly for Rockstar, the game has made $800 million dollars in its first week of sale. (Yes, that is an extremely big number. Gaming is very, very big business. Tell your parents that when they ask you why you study Media.) Why is it so successful? Well, Rockstar are fantastic at marketing. The game has, of course, its own website. There are spin-off websites based on different factions and groups in the game (a mockery of the Scientology religion, which is bound to stir up a little controversy. Controversy, of course, is very good marketing.) It has its facebook community (a fantastic example of Benedict Anderson’s ‘imagined communities‘ – a group of people brought together by some completely made-up ‘similarity.’) Accidentally-on-purpose ‘leaks’ of game info (the map, for example, was leaked on Reddit. This gave Rockstar a convenient opportunity to point out that the world of this game is bigger than their last three games combined. Deliberate leak or not, that also helps with their marketing.) Obviously, more usual methods of marketing, like sending advance copies out to be reviewed, have also been employed, so the game makes an appearance on the big review aggregation sites like Metacritic. (In fact, it’s managed to become the joint best-ever reviewed game on Metacritic. The game it is tied with? GTA IV.)
More generally, the game is marketed using the same methods all its previous iterations have used. They aren’t too hard to figure out when you look at some of the marketing materials. Sexualised representations of women, hyper-masculine representations of men, narratives which depend hugely on binary oppositions between law and criminality (and, of course, the player is on the side of criminality.) (And what looks like a nice bit of synergy with Apple – is that an iphone she’s holding?)The game has been criticised for what can be perceived as racist and sexist stereotyping – but it hasn’t been criticised very much and it does seem strange that representations that would never be tolerated in films or on TV are very much the norm in these types of games. Perhaps this is evidence that the game, despite its 18 rating, has a huge audience of younger males; the audience, presumably, most likely to respond to these types of representations. (Having said that, the average age of gamers is apparently 35.) The gaming world (indeed, the ‘geek’ world in general) is often criticised for sexism. Women are routinely represented according to the requirements of an apparent completely male gaze. Halo, another of the world’s most successful titles, might be an example. The male hero, Master Chief, looks like this:
Yep, he’s cool. He is active, fit, competent, seemingly undefeatable. A very dominant, and very complimentary, representation of masculinity.
The closest thing to a heroine in Halo is Cortana, the AI (Artificial Intelligence) hologram Master Chief carries around with him. She looks like this.
She is completely dependent upon Master Chief, although in many ways she is smarter and more powerful than him. She’s also deeply in love with him, which adds to the unevenness of the gender representations – she needs him in a way he doesn’t need her. And, of course, she doesn’t seem to be wearing very much. I don’t know about you, but if I was programming an AI to help out a super-soldier defend the world from the Elite, I’d probably put her in uniform, rather than what looks like a wispy blue cloud. Obviously, the intended audience here – the imagined community – is male. This – both the male and the female representations – are examples of Male Gaze in action.
So, GTA V is massively successful, thanks to a very clever marketing campaign that depends upon both traditional and more adventurous methods; but also, perhaps worryingly, on using its tendency towards (possibly) racist and (more clearly) sexist representations as a selling point. It seems to work for an audience of mainstreamers. A final point is that GTA V has three protagonists; none of them is female. When asked why, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser said, ‘The concept of being masculine was so key to this story.’ It would appear, then, that the biggest game ever is really just for the boys.