Yesterday, President Trump held the hardly anticipated video game summit he announced shortly after the shooting in Parkland, Florida.
Simply put, no one has been able to find a significant link between violence in video games and violence in real life. Personally, I don’t enjoy violent video games. But it’s a fact that millions of players do, and somehow the large majority of them manage to not be violent individuals.
Since I don’t enjoy violent video games, I wanted to discover what the appeal exactly was to young male gamers. In 2016, I did a qualitative case study involving a male participant and extensive research surrounding masculinity and video games. My goal was to discover how these wild, larger-than-life displays of masculinity in video games related to a male gamer. Originally titled,
“Dude, Do You Even Have a Penis?”: Affirmations of Masculinity in Grand Theft Auto V and How They Relate to Male Gamers
This critical/cultural study examines Rockstar Games’s 2013 release, Grand Theft Auto V, specifically focusing on its representations of masculinity and how they relate to one young-adult male gamer. Several main missions from the text were played by the researcher and analyzed under the lens of hegemonic masculinity. The researcher also conducted an in-depth individual interview that lasted less than an hour. The text exhibited many representations of hegemonic masculine behavior. The participant in the study reported his uses and experiences with the game. The text affirmed hegemonic masculine ideals through in game reward and punishment, however the interviewee was found to use the game to explore many different types of masculinities. The significance of these findings was that by exploring different masculinities, the participant used the game to gain power over hegemonic masculinity.
Keywords: Grand Theft Auto V, masculinity, video games, male socialization
At 56% of players, men and boys make up most of the people who play video games (ESA, 2015, p. 2). It is no wonder then why so many games target this audience using games that involve concepts of masculinity, such as the text analyzed in this paper, Grand Theft Auto V, which was released by Rockstar Games in 2013. My text-based research question is as follows: In what ways does Grand Theft Auto V promote hegemonic masculinity through in game reward and punishment within the narrative of the game? Within the game exist three themes surrounding hegemonic masculinity: Deviation from hegemonic masculinity as negative, hegemonic masculinity as positive, and deviation from hegemony as comedy. Through these themes the text affirms hegemonic masculinity. The audience analysis was informed by the research question: How do the hegemonic representations of men in Grand Theft Auto V relate to the men who play and their ideas of what masculinity is, and how it’s manifested during male socialization during gameplay? After speaking with an adult male who plays the Grand Theft Auto series, I concluded that he uses the game to explore some of the extreme ends of hegemonic masculinity as portrayed in the game in a way that is inconsequential to his real life, and yet also uses the game to explore and affirm more acceptable representations of masculinity. So although the game affirms hegemonic masculinity, players may create new use from it and explore representations of masculinities not offered in the game as a way to gain power over hegemonic masculinity.
The literature surrounding the topic of hegemonic masculinity and video games has mostly been focused on the audience reception of the media more than on a specific text. In an article by DeVane and Squire (2008) they studied three cohorts of young men and boys ages 9-18. They all had played the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas and talked to researchers about their experiences with the game. But the younger the cohort, the less likely the participants within it were to actually own a copy of the game, meaning that they could not get through as much of the storyline and did not have as extensive interpretations as the older participants. Despite this, the younger groups still had a lot to offer researchers, as they were primarily African American while the oldest group was White. All the boys interviewed were considered “at-risk” (p. 270).
The next article that focused primarily on the audience was “Resistance through Video Game Play: It’s a Boy Thing”. In this study, there were two groups. One comprised of six boys in middle school who voluntarily participated with the researchers. The observed them in school both in the classrooms as well as casual areas like hallways where learning was not taking place. The boys were interviewed twice over the span of a year. They also interviewed a much older set of participants, interviewing five young adult males, found through friends of the researchers, two or three times over the span of three months. Along with interviews, the adults were also observed playing video games (2006, p. 292).
Finally, the third study to focus more specifically on the audience was written in 2014 by Blanco and Robinett. The researchers picked 10 college-aged men in the mid-west for the study. The researchers conducted face-to-face interviews with them to discuss their leisure activities and their ideas about masculinity (p. 366). This study did not include a specific text, and instead relied on the media that the participants had already consumed. The first two studies mentioned do have specific texts, but it is either not extrapolated upon within the research, or it is not important to be specific in order to understand what is important about the audience.
The last two articles focus nearly entirely on their respective texts. They do acknowledge an existing audience, but no specific audience participated in the studies. Instead researchers cited audiences studied in other research on the same topic. The first of these articles was “White Thumbs, Black Bodies: Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” by Paul Barrett. He gives many examples from the text of the video game and offers an analysis through the lens of mostly race, although does get into how that intersects with hegemonic masculinity (2006). In “Sexy, Dangerous—and Ignored” Howard Fisher focuses on the text of video game magazines, and explores the hegemonic masculinity expressed by male writers. In this way, he is attempting to explore the audience of video games as well, but there are no actual participants in his study. He simply gives an analysis of the atmosphere of the gaming world using the lenses of masculinity and gender when he looks at how the gaming community views women and women characters (2015).
Reading Fischer’s article, one gets the sense of how toxic hegemonic masculinity can be not only for the men who play it, but for the women as well. He argues that the atmosphere of the gaming world and the comments that the community makes towards women clearly let both women and men know that the former does not have a place within the community (p. 557-558). The text embraces hegemonic masculinity, sometimes directly through rejecting femininity, many other times throughout the magazines as well in the texts from the other studies. The lead characters in these games are almost always male who are given violent tasks to accomplish, female characters are not praised for their in-game abilities and instead the focus in on their breasts or menstruation (p. 553-555). Not only are the women characters in the game degraded, but the real women gamers are as well in order to increase the masculine value of video games and also simply as a show of masculinity by the authors of these magazine articles. Some game reviewers have lamented about the major video game producers pandering to women because, in one reviewer’s opinion, the games women enjoy are silly, and are not to be taken seriously. He feels that if the biggest game titles in the industry try and appeal to women, it would absolutely ruin his personal gaming experience (p. 559).
The games also are able to embrace hegemonic masculinity without rejecting femininity. Young males have stated in the studies what masculinity means to them. Many expressed the idea that masculinity involves “getting the job done” (Blanco & Robinett, 2014, p. 369). Video games allow men to do this without the stress of real life situations. Also unlike real life, video games can give boys and men power that they would not ordinarily have (Sanford & Madil, 2006, p. 292). Achievement of this power serves as a way for gamers to embrace masculinity and strongly identify with it. Games also serve as a gateway to masculinity through accomplishment, especially for underprivileged young men who feel that they accomplish little elsewhere (DeVane & Squire, 2008, p. 271). In these examples, femininity has very little to no involvement in how men embrace the masculinity in the game.
Men also play video games as an escape and for leisure (p.280) (Sanford & Madil, 2006, p. 296). This is seen as another way to achieve masculinity for the players. According to the participants’ responses, an innate part of “getting the job done” is stress. Therefore, stress is a necessary part of masculinity. However, video games offer men a way to de-stress and relax, as well as recharge in order to deal with the impending stress of “getting the job done” in real life. Therefore a man’s leisure time is necessary for him to be masculine (Blanco & Robinett, 2014).
And lastly, video games were used as a mode of exploration by many of the young men in the studies. Firstly they were used to explore embracing masculinity, but it was also used as a tool to explore rejecting masculinity, even in front of peers. Some games, such as Everquest, involve traditionally non-masculine themes such as fantasy elements, but boys felt safe rejecting hegemonic masculinity within the safe space of the game (Sanford & Madil, 2006, p. 298). Safe exploration is also fostered when gamers are among peers (DeVane & Squire, 2008, p. 276). This allows boys to explore masculinity with their peers in a safe space, although in many of the articles, when men were interviewed or observed together, they actually embraced hegemonic masculinity even more than when they were alone (Sanford & Madil, 2006, p. 275).
The biggest way in which my study will be different is because my text, Grand Theft Auto V, has not been studied under a cultural critical lens. The articles in this literature review use San Andreas as their text or they simply use the entire medium of video games. GTA V is similar to San Andreas, but I would like to explore how audiences interact with hegemonic masculinity when the violence is more realistic, the missions in the game are bigger, the sexualization is magnified, and when the overall game is more explosive and entertaining. Also, all of the texts I’ve researched did not put anything near to equal emphasis on both the text and the audience, and instead chose to focus on just one. I plan to study both and intently and identify what specifically in the text my subjects can relate their own masculinities too.
Grand Theft Auto V has 69 main story missions and I decided to play through five of them. These five missions focus on the main narrative structure of the story from the character Michael De Santa’s point of view. I am using a narrative analysis because the ways in which the events unfold in the story give certain characters and actions power by reinforcing hegemonic masculinity. Therefore, I am also using masculinity as my critical lens.
After playing the game myself, I spoke with my interviewee, Daniel, a college student in his early twenties with upper middle class parents. I chose Daniel because he has played through all of Grand Theft Auto V and has many of his friends play the game with him as well. I chose to conduct an interview because it provides the individual’s account of how he interacts with the game. Further, it gives insight into his emotions and thoughts that I wouldn’t be able to observe through gameplay alone. When creating my protocol, I started with some easy to answer warm up questions that told me how often he played, what aspects did he enjoy, etc. I then asked about his interactions with other players in the game as well as his interactions with his real life friends. I wanted to get an idea of whether the game changed how they socialized as men due to the hegemonic themes within GTA V. I then asked Daniel about his feelings on the good qualities of the game, as well as the bad ones. I then finished up by asking directly about his feelings on some of the hegemonic representations in the game. I saved these questions for last so that the overt concept of hegemonic masculinity did not frame the rest of his answers. The interview was conducted on April 30, 2016. It lasted about 45 minutes and was recorded after receiving Daniel’s permission. I analyzed the data through the lens of hegemonic masculinity because my goal was to see how the affirmation of masculinity within the game affected his perceptions of masculinity and how it affected socialization with other men who play the game. Some codes I used in the analysis include “excitement”, “identification”, “anxiety/relief”, “anger”, “cooperation”, and “destruction”. In my audience analysis, I do not use my participant’s real name and instead I refer to him under his pseudonym “Daniel”. In quotes where Daniel talks about his friends, I also give them pseudonyms. Daniel is not part of an at-risk group, and I also informed him that he did not have to answer any questions he was not comfortable with and that we could end the interview at anytime for any reason. Finally I allowed him to ask me any questions about the study and the class, as well as any other general questions he might have had.
When characters in the story deviate from hegemonic masculinity, they are punished within the narrative. The story starts after the events of the prologue, Michael De Santa, an ex-criminal, has staged his own death and has gone into a witness protection program with his wife and two adult children. However, his life is far from satisfying. Now that Michael is “retired”, he has to face what his life is without crime. His children are vapid, unintelligent, and irresponsible as they get their sports cars repossessed and make fools of themselves on national television. Michael’s wife Amanda is cheating on him with their tennis instructor. Although subtle, the narrative is punishing Michael for retiring and leaving behind his hyper masculine ways as a criminal. This is further depicted later on when Michael resumes his criminal activities, and therefore his masculinity, and his circumstances in life seem to get better.
The closer that Michael gets to the hegemonic masculinity ideal, the more success he is brought within the narrative. At one point Michael catches Amanda and the tennis instructor in bed. In a fit of rage he chases the instructor out of his home and drives through the hills of Los Santos to hunt him down with the help of his friend, Franklin. The instructor enters a house and when Michael cannot coax him out, he attaches chains to the stilts of the house and uses his car to pull the structure to the ground. If the player would like to find a less violent way to resolve the situation, the game becomes stagnant. It will wait until the player drives the car away, therefore demolishing the house, before the game continues. Hyper masculine tasks like these are mandatory to continue the story (DeVane & Squire, 2008, p. 266). But it turns out that the house actually belongs to a drug lord named Madrazo. On his and Franklin’s way back, people who work for Madrazo find the pair and start shooting. Michael and Franklin shoot back and kill all of Madrazo’s men. The men are not fazed by their own actions, and are in fact almost amazed with themselves and their behavior. Franklin says, “You are wasting sitting by that fucking pool, man.” Franklin is praising Michael’s violent actions, and therefore his adherence to hegemonic masculinity. But it still seems as if the narrative has actually punished Michael’s fit of rage. This is not the case. Because Michael knocked down Madrazo’s house, he owes him $2.5 million. This allows Michael a reason to get back into a life of crime in order to pay back the debt. This benefits him because the incident disrupts Michael’s equilibrium. Michael is very unhappy with his life at the beginning of the story and the disruption provides him a way out.
This is most explicitly shown when Michael is able to pay back Madrazo, and he keeps committing crimes. He is now satisfied with his life and continues breaking the law simply because he enjoys it. Crime is one way that Michael is able to express his masculinity. Another way is in his role as a father. Firstly, Michael acts as a mentor towards Franklin. He teaches him how to be a better criminal. It is only when Michael returns to his hyper masculine ways that he is able to fulfill his role as a father. He is also able to make up and reunite with his daughter through hegemonic masculinity. In order to prevent her from once again embarrassing herself on television, he threatens and assaults one of the producers in order for him to make his daughter look good no matter what. Tracey exclaims, “This psycho-over-protective-dad routine is finally starting to pay dividends!” Michael’s daughter is clearly thankful.
The player is also encouraged to be more masculine simply through game mechanics. In the menu, you can view your character’s game statistics. These include strength, stamina, stealth, shooting, number of deaths, number of crimes, and combat. How much money you’ve accumulated throughout the game sits in the top right corner of the screen. There are no stats on intelligence, kindness, or honesty. The player literally keeps track of his or her masculinity points. In “White Thumbs, Black Bodies: Race, Violence, and Neoliberal Fantasies in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas” Paul Barrett analyzes this same feature in the game Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. He argues that these features reduce the character to his body and reaffirm the character to his masculine persona (2006, p. 96). The fact that these skills are even being kept track of reduces the characters to how masculine they are or are not.
In addition to deviation from hegemony being punished within GTA V, it is also ridiculed and meant as comedy. A character named Trevor, who runs a local meth business, regularly sleeps with a woman named Jessica, who is the girlfriend of Johnny. Johnny emotionally confronts Trevor. Trevor mockingly asks Johnny if he was the one Trevor should have been sleeping with implying that is the reason Johnny is so upset. Trevor then consoles Johnny as yet another joke before Trevor assaults and murders him. Johnny’s vulnerability and deviation from hegemonic masculinity are not only made fun of, but are what ultimately end up killing him. Furthermore, Trevor’s use of comedy can also be seen as an affirmation of masculinity. Robert Hanke writes that men’s use of comedy reflects the “use of joke-telling to secure the fraternity of heterosexual men” (1998, p. 83). Fraternity in this instance would not mean brotherhood; rather, it expresses a mutual understanding between Johnny and Trevor of their masculine identities. Taking it one step further, Trevor uses humor to also “peacock” his own masculine identity and intimidate Johnny. Again, affirmation of masculinity is rewarded as Trevor is still alive after the altercation.
Later in the game, one of Trevor’s employees named Wade refers to Jessica as a “bitch.” Surprisingly, Trevor is upset that Wade would use that kind of language to talk about a woman. Trevor asks Wade, “Don’t you have a mother?” suggesting people should treat women like they do their own mothers. Although Trevor is not being facetious in this instance, his deviation from masculinity is supposed to read as comedic to the player because Trevor caring about women’s rights is so ridiculous that it’s funny.
Another comedic instance in the game comes after a heart to heart conversation between Trevor and Michael. Trevor admits that he is alone in this world and that no one cares about him. Michael reassures Trevor that he does care. Trevor, initially believing Michael’s staged death, laments, “I mourned you,” and “I missed you.” Members of a rival gang, the Los Santos Triads, overhear this conversation. At one point they attempt to kidnap Michael because they misunderstand him to be Trevor’s boyfriend, and want leverage against Trevor. They refer to Michael as “lover” and during the kidnap attempt one member shouts to Michael, “we know you are weak and feminine!” This is an ongoing joke throughout the mission, and it also serves as an example of how deviation from hegemonic masculinity caused the attempted kidnapping in the first place since it is reasonable to believe that if Trevor and Michael were to have a less emotional conversation, the Triads would have never put Michael in danger.
In the end, it is clear to see how Grand Theft Auto V exists in relation to hegemonic masculinity through the story and game mechanics. Adherence to hegemony rewards the player with progression through the narrative. It also rewards the in-game characters with success and fulfillment, as exhibited by Michael De Santa’s storyline. In addition, deviation from hegemony punishes the player by disallowing him or her to progress through the game, as well as punishing the fictional characters by giving them lower quality of life, and in extreme circumstances, ending their lives and storylines. Although, players can be rewarded through humor when characters deviate from hegemonic masculinity. Through these methods, Grand Theft Auto V affirms hegemonic masculinity. In the next section, I explore how these affirmations affect the experiences of a real-life man who has played through these situations.
While Daniel thought the depictions of masculinity within the game were exaggerated, he still identified with two of the main characters, Michael and Franklin. For instance, during a tense scene in the game Daniel reports that he “identified with Michael’s anxiety.” Daniel explained that he is able to identify with Michael because he spent so much time playing as him. At the same time, Daniel believes the games offers a “limited view of overall masculinity” but that masculinity as a concept is important to the story because in his opinion, “the reality is that most, especially violent crimes, are committed by men.” Because Daniel identifies with the characters, he is able to explore hyper masculine personas involved in crime and other socially taboo activities. Daniel often plays in multiplayer mode, which he describes as, “a post-apocalypse, every man for himself” type of environment. His interactions with other players in this environment include, “both of us trying to get on a train together and pushing each other off, or like, just jumping out of a [stolen] plane.” He is on one hand resisting the stereotypes offered to him but on the other is agreeing with the game’s affirmation of hegemonic masculinity in his exploration during game play. In a study from 2006, this idea is affirmed when the researchers write, “Video game play… serves as a form of resistance… – video games are spaces where players can be successful in their endeavors” (Sanford & Madill). It’s hard for him resist the opportunity to explore masculinity in a safe, consequence free area if he reasonably believes he can succeed.
Excitement plays a large role in determining why Daniel plays GTA V, as it provides stress relief and therefore a way to express his masculinity. While I was asking Daniel about his demographics, he told me that he had a major back injury earlier in the year that made it hard for him to go to work or school and that had caused him a great deal of stress. He was able to play GTA V during this time, however. He stated, “When you’re in chronic pain, it can be really depressing and it’s just nice to sort of have something that can take your mind off of everything.” In a study by Rachel Wagner, her participants describe masculinity “to be physically fit” (2015, p.478). In addition, a 2003 study reports, “An extensive sociological literature describes the difficulty men have in living up to gender-role expectations and the internal conflicts these expectations create” (Fabiano, Perkins, Berkowitz, p. 106). The conclusion here is that because Daniel cannot live up to male gender-roles during his back injury, he goes into a depression and therefore seeks out masculine media to cope.
When he first bought the game, he reports that he played for at least two hours everyday, but usually more, for about two weeks. Even before he made his purchase, GTA V excited him. He told me that he “grew up” with the Grand Theft Auto franchise and that as soon as he learned the game was coming out he was already “excited.” And even now there are still parts of the game that “make [his] heart rate elevate and [his] hands sweaty.” Considering his stress levels and excitement that he receives from the game, I conclude that Daniel uses the game as a way to escape his real-life struggles. Joel Blanco affirms this idea as he writes, “College undergraduates often use leisure as a form of escapist coping rather than actively confronting stress” (2014). But GTA V is special in the way that its affirmations of hegemonic masculinity help Daniel, specifically as a man, cope with stress. He recalls, “There is a chance you might die… you have to like, not screw up, not fall off a mountain, not get shot, not crash a car,” when asked why he finds the game so thrilling and therefore stress relieving. Blanco continues, “Studies have demonstrated that men often engage in behaviors compliant with hegemonic understandings of masculinity to cope with mental health issues” (2014). Daniel’s exploration and rehearsal of masculinity through the characters within the game falls in line with this idea.
Seemingly contradictory to the previously mentioned idea, Daniel expressed many times during the interview that the game itself actually induced stress. But the end point of the game is not to make the player feel stressed; it is to make him feel relieved. It also doesn’t make sense that Daniel would seek out stress, until one considers the idea that seeking out stress in a controlled environment is a way to control feeling stressed itself. Referring back to the tense scene mentioned earlier, Daniel expressed that while he felt anxiety during the scene, he also felt “relief and gladness” when the scene finished with none of the characters dying. We also talked about the anxiety felt because of the “extra element of peer pressure” during multiplayer for not only Daniel himself but that there’s also always a “looming worry” that your teammates won’t succeed in their part, causing you to lose. Daniel again expressed that he feels “relief” when he and all his team members succeed in their goal. So while the game provokes anxious feelings within Daniel, it also allows him great agency over his feelings of relief, as they are the direct effect of his actions. Blanco reinforces this idea when he writes, “men are more likely to focus on the process of leisure while they ‘play hard’ and attempt to create a sense of control through their leisure coping” (2014). Daniel is therefore in control of his anxiety, which being in control is a masculine trait within itself (Wagner, 2015, p. 482).
During the interview it became evident that Daniel’s socialization with his male friends was influenced by the innate masculine mechanics of the multiplayer game. Daniel spoke about how the game facilitates “cooperation” with other players. He also talked about how his interactions were sometimes “serious” such as when Daniel and his friends worked tirelessly to complete a difficult mission. Daniel told of one specific story where his friend Eddie made an ignorant mistake that Daniel had to make up for during a very important heist. Daniel told me he was more “frustrated” and became “forthright” in giving Eddie commands and deciding their plan of action. Daniel and his friends use the game for the more pro-social side of masculinity. In the same vein as when Daniel used the game to explore hyper masculinity, here he explores masculinity through his leadership role in guiding Eddie on how to better play the game. This allows Daniel to affirm his masculinity.
But again in exploring the hyper masculine aspects of the game, Daniel and his friends adhere to these hegemonic masculine ideals by being destructive and antisocial, such as when they purposefully kill one another, but in a safe space with no consequences. However, this space is not completely devoid of its own problems. The agency and control a player has is circumscribed; one cannot always find relief from the game induced anxiety if they run into obstacles. This was the case when Eddie did not execute his part of the heist properly. Daniel reported that frustration from instances like this make him want to stop playing sometimes. However, it hasn’t stopped him. Blanco explains this in his own audience analysis: “Participants reported that, their understandings of masculinity involved stress as part of being action-oriented and getting the job done” (2014). Therefore, if GTA V weren’t sometimes frustrating, it wouldn’t be worth it to play.
Although my participant reported enjoying the game, he was also very critical of how different identities were portrayed in the game. He reported finding the representation of both men and women in the game to be problematic. In addition to this, he cited distaste for killing innocent characters, despite it being a large part of the game. These discrepancies show how the participant was limited in the ways in which he could explore different types of masculinities through the game. It is clear from the audience analysis that the participant does not wish to only explore hegemonic masculinity, but that is all that is offered to him in the game, and therefore he makes the best of what media is available. Also, the text, wherein masculinity is central to the plot (Parfitt, 2013), offers affirmations of only hegemonic masculinity. Based on my interview with Daniel, it appears that in order to regain power over hegemonic masculinity as the most culturally significant version of masculinity, he uses the video game to explore other forms of masculinities.
The game affirms hegemonic masculine ideals through the narrative, as well as functions of gameplay. However, the game ultimately acted as a way for Daniel to explore different types of masculinity, whether it was more prosocial versions or antisocial and hegemonic versions. So although the game may affirm toxic masculinity, Daniel doesn’t necessarily play by those affirmations and creates new use and meaning of the game to regain power over hegemonic masculinity.
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