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Michael Kasumovic receives funding from the Australian Research Council for his research.

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A disturbing modification involving sexual assault in Grand Theft Auto 5 is swaying opinions on the influence of gaming, write Michael Kasumovic and Rob Brooks. Or are they just harmless fun in which nobody really gets hurt?

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This endless debate usually concerns violent games; so much so that many are now inured to the discussion. But a disturbing hack involving sexual assault in Grand Theft Auto 5 GTA5 threatens to achieve the impossible: swaying the opinion of gamers themselves. Often, when games lack some aspect players wish existed, hackers in the community create a modification or mod that allows them to add the desired feature. Mods can bestow aiming assistance, unlimited ammunition, or the ability to see through walls.

Developers respond by levelling the playing field, often virtual rape games placing all players using the same mod onto a single server so they only play against one another. Last year a father swapped Mario and Pauline in Donkey Kong so that his daughter could play as a female protagonist. Such mods are not uncommon and they can be a powerful tool in which to explore issues surrounding gender.

The fact that mods can, by shifting the possibilities for interaction, lead to powerful inferences about social living, makes the recent GTA5 mod interesting.

In the Grand Theft Auto games, protagonists navigate a criminal underworld. The virtual world is open, with players able to perform an almost endless variety of behaviours. Many of these are violent or sexual in nature, for which players earn rewards.

It seems, however, that too many options are barely enough for GTA5 gamers.

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After the release of GTA5 last September, there were discussions about whether players should be able to rape within the game. But hackers did.

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All players can equally fall victim, regardless of character or player gender. And there is no way to prevent or stop an attack. Players are recording the virtual rape on their computers, and ing it to YouTube, as well as other popular social media networks.

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Through these videos it is abundantly clear to see that virtual rape is indeed occurring in the game. But can the fact that this mod exists teach us anything new? More to the point, can it teach gamers anything at all? Discussions about rapists' motivations often polarise between sex and power. And yet the importance of power does not logically exclude a sexual dimension.

Gamers are now adding virtual rape crimes to their online computer games

From time to time, arguments surfaceusually to great controversythat rapists motivations are also, or even mostly, about sex. The new mod in GTA5 and similar developments in other games certainly underline the importance of power, and especially the powerlessness of those victimised.

Grand Theft Auto, as a game, was already all about both power and a violent, coercive view of sex. Players get all the power and control they might desire. The mod removes that power in a most humiliating way.

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The largely male gaming population playing GTA5 virtually experience a small taste of the helplessness of being sexually assaulted. The humiliation is amplified when videos of the assault get posted online.

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Many commenters on YouTube videos and Reddit thre appear to find the whole thing humorous. For others, the assaults, and the fact that they cannot be stopped, have destroyed their enjoyment of the game and caused much distress.

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It will be interesting to see how the responses of both male and female gamers unfold over the coming weeks. For now, Rockstar is not commenting on what cannot be anything other than a disturbing and unwelcome development.

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Kim Correa wrote of an even more harrowing experience she had playing DayZ. As a result, victims are forced to watch and endure what is being done to their characters.

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Here there are parallels to the harassment that women and girls receive in the gaming community both while gaming and in the game industry. Its hard to see how the mod in GTA5 could make the game anything but a more dangerous and undesirable space for female gamers, as well as for less aggressive and dominant male gamers to inhabit.

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Is this the point? Controversial, because many men and women disagree.

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Should society and developers set limits to what players experience to ensure positive experiences for all? Or will this be a continuous war of attrition where limits are there only to be challenged thus leading to a virtual world that mimics real-life experiences.

This opinion piece was first published in The Conversation. Virtual rape in Grand Theft Auto 5: learning the limits of the game. Twitter Facebook LinkedIn.

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What is a mod? When is a world open enough? As Lauren DiDonato put it at Viral Global News last week: Players are recording the virtual rape on their computers, and ing it to YouTube, as well as other popular social media networks. What can we learn? The dark side of gaming Here there are parallels to the harassment that women and girls receive in the gaming community both while gaming and in the game industry.