Imagine there’s a marquee game coming out next year from one of the coolest AAA video game studios in the world, and its first round of marketing has just gone live. You’re watching a Twitch streamer play through parts of the game in early access, showing off beautifully detailed real-world settings and NPCs living everyday lives in a bustling city.
It’s nighttime in the game and the streamer, playing as a middle-aged man, approaches a group of people standing outside of a club. They’re all broad-shouldered with cut biceps, and they’re wearing an assortment of wigs, crop tops, mini skirts, lace stockings and bikini bottoms. Chest hair pokes out from some of their shirts, and under layers of dramatic makeup, a few jawlines are dusted with stubble. The tight clothing highlights obvious crotch-level bulges.
The streamer’s character walks up to one of these NPCs and says, “Hello, sir. I mean, madam. I mean, whatever.” He turns to another and says, “Well, hello, mid-op.” And then a third: “Hey, you need to keep taking your hormones!” And then he pulls out a crowbar and beats one of them to death.
Now imagine the reaction of the Twitch chat. Picture the YouTube cut-downs of these scenes and subtitled screenshots making their way across Twitter, Facebook and Reddit.
The response wouldn’t be positive. In 2020, few video game fans would praise a title that includes blatant transphobia and surface-level stereotypes about transgender people. The developers of Cyberpunk 2077 discovered this last year when they had to defend an in-game image of a trans model who appeared alongside the words, “mix it up” in early marketing materials. The scene described above is exponentially more obvious and crude.
And it’s coming to PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X in 2021.
Grand Theft Auto V is due to hit its third console generation next year, complete with “technical improvements, visual upgrades and performance enhancements to take full advantage of the latest hardware,” according to developers at Rockstar Games. GTA V launched in 2013 on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, and since then it’s also come to Xbox One, PS4 and PC. GTA V is the home of Grand Theft Auto Online, a living world that’s kept the title at the top of monthly US video game sales charts for seven years running.
On June 11th, Sony opened its first PS5 summer showcase with the news that GTA V was heading to the next generation of video game consoles -- presumably with its scenes starring trans people unedited. Rockstar didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, but the studio released GTA V in 2013, 2014 and 2015 with all of its original scenes intact, and it hasn’t indicated plans to change anything in 2021.
Regardless, the conversation around transgender rights, visibility and violence has changed significantly in the past seven years.
“If GTA V were a game coming out in 2020 for the first time, and it contained those kinds of stereotypical or harmful representations, a lot of people would be criticizing it for those representations,” said Carolyn Petit, a former GameSpot editor and Feminist Frequency managing editor, who’s currently a freelance games writer.
Petit reviewed GTA V for GameSpot in 2013, and she’s been on the forefront of social conversations within the video game industry for just as long. Back when GTA V launched, a few critics called out its transphobic scenes, but the conversation didn’t gain mainstream traction. Nowadays, after years of political maneuvering around transgender rights, relentless activism campaigns and celebrity input, GTA V’s depiction of trans women would likely be a main topic of discussion.
“What I felt when I played the game in 2013 was a lot of internal conflict between my admiration for the game's scope and for its craft and for its systems, and my awareness that there were elements of it that would allow those who come to the game with a hatred of women or other marginalized people to really indulge in that hatred as a violent power fantasy,” she said. “That was a scary realization to have.”
Petit notes that today, there are dozens of videos featuring GTA V players happily hunting down and killing trans characters, because they are trans. This phenomenon mirrors a tragic reality: Transgender people, and particularly black transgender women, are disproprotionately the target of fatal violence and hate crimes in the real world. Since 2013, more than 173 transgender and gender nonconforming people have been killed, and of those, 114 were black trans women, according to the Human Rights Campaign. And these numbers are likely terribly low, considering that many cases are underreported or misrepresented to authorities. The American Medical Association in 2019 labeled the tide of deadly violence against transgender people an “epidemic.”
GTA V transforms a real-world violent epidemic into a joke, at best.
“I think there's a huge responsibility on all games, all types of media, to not rely on lazy stereotypes,” said Dr. Ben Colliver, a lecturer in criminology at Birmingham City University. “In the Grand Theft Auto series, a lot of the stereotypes to me seem to be there just for comedic effect. They're just there so that trans people and LGBT people more broadly are a joke.”
Dr. Colliver is the author of “Representation of LGBTQ Communities in the Grand Theft Auto Series,” which will be a chapter in Video Games, Crime and Next-gen Deviance: Reorienting the Debate, a free ebook that launches for Kindle on July 3rd. He’s tracked transphobic instances throughout the Grand Theft Auto series and has found a few recurring themes. Rockstar regularly presents trans women in particular as overtly masculine, with chest hair and deep voices. Their dialogue is focused on sex, surgery or deception.
“It just reinforces this idea that you can always tell who's trans and who's not, and that trans women will always be that slightly bit masculine,” Dr. Colliver said. “It has all of these stereotypes. They talk to real-life problems, but they don't do it in a way that tackles problems. They do it in a way that just reinforces that trans people are somehow less than everyone else.”
One scene that stands out in Dr. Colliver’s research is the Psycho storyline from 2002’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. The Psycho is the name of a male character who attempts to assassinate the members of a popular rock band, Love Fist, by dressing as a woman and bringing a pistol to their signing event.
“This backstory … perpetuates this idea that trans women are somehow deceitful in their attempts to seduce men, that they fall into that typical trap stereotype, that trans women trap men, they deceive them,” Dr. Colliver said. “That has real-life implications in terms of the amount of trans women who are murdered in the US and when they're legally defended by the trans panic defense, where you have this legal defense that it's okay to kill a trans woman if you believed that they were coming on to you.”
The LGBT Bar describes the trans or gay panic defense as “a legal strategy which asks a jury to find that a victim’s sexual orientation or gender identity is to blame for the defendant’s violent reaction, including murder.” It’s an active legal tool in 42 states and it’s been successfully used to lower the charges in a number of high-profile murder cases. California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, and New York have banned the use of this defense in court, and the American Bar Association this year called for its end nationwide.
“The murder of trans women is not funny,” Dr. Colliver said.
When faced with the idea that GTA games treat trans people like shit, some of Rockstar’s loudest fans will argue that the series presents everyone in their worst light, even the main, male characters. Dr. Colliver’s research disagrees. He said men in GTA remain largely unscathed, while the characters who experience real-world oppression are used as punchlines. It’s “punching down” on a few levels.
“I would say that largely it is LGBT people, sex workers and women who are portrayed in a bad way,” Dr. Colliver said. “Typically, men in the game conform to almost these traditional masculine stereotypes that we expect of men around violence and aggression. I don't know whether the people who create it are largely male.”
Spoiler: They are. The video game industry’s reputation for being run and staffed by straight, white men is so solidified that it’s comedic. The 2019 International Game Developers Association survey collected responses from more than 1,000 games-industry workers around the world, and found that 71 percent of respondents identified as male, while 24 percent marked female. In a separate question, 4 percent identified as transgender.
Rockstar North, the hub of GTA development, doesn’t voluntarily divulge its internal diversity stats, but it’s based in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is required to submit data regarding its gender pay gap to the UK government each year. This doesn’t cover transgender representation at the company, but it’s a lens into the homogenous, traditionally male-dominated nature of Rockstar North. In 2019, women at Rockstar North earned 29.3 percent less than men in similar roles -- that’s 71p for every £1 made by a man, when comparing median hourly wages. Compare average wages, and women at Rockstar North earned 53.3 less than men.
This disparity was largely due to the studio’s structure. Men held far more senior roles than women, occupying 91.2 percent of Rockstar North’s highest-paid jobs in 2019. Women were vastly outnumbered by men at every level of the company. All of these stats were an improvement over 2018 and 2017, the first year Rockstar North was required to report. There’s no data for 2013, the year GTA V launched.
The concept of masculinity was clearly a driving force for GTA V developers, and they thought about it in serious, layered terms. All three of the game’s protagonists are men, and in 2013, Rockstar co-founder Dan Houser told GamesIndustry.biz, "The concept of being masculine was so key to this story."
He added, "Having three protagonists allows us to create nuanced stories, not a set of archetypes."
GTA V’s content is a direct result of its developer pool. Its stories and themes were borne out of straight, cisgender, male-centric power fantasies, because those were the loudest, and sometimes only, voices in the room. Developers approached a subject like traditional masculinity from an academic, sympathetic and artistic lens, and didn’t think to extend the same thought processes to the women, sex workers and trans people they chose to include in the game’s world. For these stories, they relied on cheap jokes and stereotypes that were outdated even by 2013 standards.
Basically, it feels like there weren’t any trans people in the GTA V developer room.
“As conversations about representation have developed over the past seven-plus years, there's also been a greater awareness that we need a wider range of perspectives in writers' rooms on TV shows and games,” Petit said. “At every sort of juncture of creative decisions being made, we need to make sure that it's not just straight white dudes who are laughing at their own jokes and signing off on their own ideas, and making games and media based on that.”
Both Petit and Dr. Colliver were clear -- video games don’t directly cause violence or discrimination, but they do contribute to real-world social structures and thought processes.
“They don't cause hatred in and of themselves,” Dr. Colliver said. “What they do do is that, when we look at how particular characters or particular areas are portrayed in gaming, it contributes to a real-world culture where certain groups of people become legitimate targets for violence and discrimination. The power is massive.”
And few games have as much power as GTA V. One of them, however, is The Last of Us 2. The conversation around LGBTQ+ representation in games is currently bubbling amid the launch of Naughty Dog’s sequel, a massive AAA title anchored by two gay women and a cast of queer, transgender, gender nonconforming, and cis characters. Their stories are dramatic and fully human, and they’re crucial to the story.
This inclusion prompted backlash from conservative players who argued that Naughty Dog was forcing a liberal agenda into the game, or pandering to the demands of social justice activists. As Dr. Colliver points out, these are likely the same players who will defend Rockstar’s right to present trans people as subhuman in GTA V.
“When we see trans people included in gaming in a way that is not sensationalized, where it's just part of the game, you see much more backlash than when they're included and they're there to be made fun of,” Dr. Colliver said. “People don't seem to have so much of a problem. There's a huge amount of trans characters in Grand Theft Auto, and nobody seems to complain about having trans characters in Grand Theft Auto, because they're not there to be taken seriously.”
Much like other social topics, the conversation around trans rights and violence is caught between two extremes, particularly online. It’s often difficult to break through and discuss the things trans people actually deal with day-to-day, and what practical steps can be taken to better include this community in the mainstream, Dr. Colliver said. There is division among LGBTQ+ groups and feminist thought regarding the inclusion of trans people, and trans men are often left out of the conversation entirely, he said.
"Nobody seems to complain about having trans characters in Grand Theft Auto, because they're not there to be taken seriously."
There’s a long way to go, but the destination seems clear: inclusion. Trans people are striving for equality, and if the relentless journeys of marginalized groups before them are any indication, they’ll get there. Laws will change, social norms will expand and a majority of people -- but never all of them -- will operate with an understanding that trans lives are just as sacred as any other. In this future, GTA V’s presentation of trans characters isn’t just harmful -- it’s embarrassing.
“The actual reality that we live in is one in which trans people, and particularly black trans women, are targeted for violence at a truly alarming rate,” Petit said. “There's a way in which if Rockstar leaves these representations in the game, they are profiting off of transphobia.”
Just before the launch of Red Dead Redemption 2 in 2018, Dan Houser told GQ he was thankful he wasn’t working on GTA VI in an age of extreme rhetoric on all sides. He said he felt it would be difficult to satirize anything, considering how scary and strange the world was nowadays.
Houser said, “It would be out of date within two minutes, everything is changing so fast.”
Except, it seems, GTA V.