Thursday, May 31, 2012

Quit Pretending There Isn't A Videogame Rape Culture

Images on this post aren't cropped.

[Trigger Warning: This post is going to talk about rape culture and violence against women, and will probably involve a few expletives because I'm pretty fucking angry. I want to note, too, that I am talking as a privileged (and ignorant) cis, straight, white, male. It is also important to note that, yes, men are often rape victims, too, but this post is explicitly talking about sexualised depictions of violence against women.]

"[T]he hot dead nuns are just a tiny glimpse of the weird, writhing sexual politics inside a lot of games. Why are they like this? My best guess is that they're the product of a hothoused, largely male creative team trying to second guess what a largely male audience wants, and coming up with a febrile funhouse mirror version of someone else's fantasy. Which, in these case, means smacking the crap out of nuns in latex." - Sarah Ditum  
"A rape culture is a complex of beliefs that encourages male sexual aggression and supports violence against women. It is a society where violence is seen as sexy and sexuality as violent. In a rape culture, women perceive a continuum of threatened violence that ranges from sexual remarks to sexual touching to rape itself. A rape culture condones physical and emotional terrorism against women as the norm." - Quoted by Melissa McEwan

I wasn't going to comment on the Hitman: Absolution trailer. Well, I was, but then I wasn't. For one, Mark Serrels at Kotaku Australia has already noted everything that is vile and disgusting and pathetic about it (to which Michelle Starr added some more excellent thoughts, as did Sarah Ditum which the above quote is from, as will many others before I post this in the morning, I'm sure). Then I got furious about it on Twitter, and Leigh Alexander rightfully noted that, even more than the videogame medium's typically poor treatment of women, this trailer is so contrived, so vile, so pathetic, that it should not even be worth commenting on. It's like (and this is my analogy, not Leigh's) getting angry at Westboro Baptist Church for being homophobic. Sure, they are. But they are so pathetic they deserve little more than pity. The same goes for Square Enix (and IO Interactive if the trailer accurately represents any part of the game) with this trailer: it is so pathetic, so vile, to not even be worthy of criticism. I pity the developers who have to put this filth on their CV. Leigh rightfully notes it is being 'controversial' and '(im)mature' purely to make us angry and get publicity.

So I was going to ignore it. Then I saw people on Twitter comment that they didn't really see the problem with it. Or that it was a single case and it was wrong to make broad accusations at the whole medium (as I certainly did with hyperbole flaire). I saw people say that the problem with the trailer wasn't "its sexuality" but moreso that it didn't truthfully represent the game's gameplay, as though depicting Agent 47 as gung-ho was more ghastly and shocking than depicting hypersexualised violence against women.

This blew my mind. My problem with this trailer is precisely its sexuality, more specifically its conflation of sexuality with violence. My problem with this whole fucking medium is that this isn't a single case. It's an extreme case, yes. But it isn't a single case. I was happy to not give this trailer the attention it is rolling in the digital filth trying to receive, but that so many people don't seem to understand what is so fucking wrong with it suggests that staying quiet isn't really a feasible option. Apparently the videogame rape culture is so ingrained that this actually needs to be spelled out. I think Rob Fahey (who also wrote a more level-headed and concise version of what I am saying now) said it in a tweet: "I think the trailer itself is a storm in a teacup, but the backlash to criticism has been really unhealthy."

It really upset me. Not just infuriated me, but upset me. I lost sleep over this last night. I'm embarrassed and ashamed and disgusted to have any part in a videogame culture that produces work like this. Although there are a number of intelligent people coming out against it and games that don't buy into the rape culture do indeed exist, it is almost moot to the fact that our culture has gotten to a point where this trailer exists. That upsets me because we all let it get to this. If the mainstream media were to pick this up as a reason games are terrible or should be regulated or any other reason, I won't be coming forward to disagree with them.

Yesterday, Patricia Hernandez wrote a strong, personal, and gut-wrenching piece for Kotaku about her own personal experience with rape and the rape culture implicit in gaming culture. IMPLICIT. This isn't just fourteen-year-olds (and twenty-four-year-olds and thirty-four-year-olds) saying "I'm going to rape you!" on Xbox live, Those gamers are as much a product of gaming's rape culture as they are one of its source. They are influenced by a broader culture and industry that has no problem with conflating the hypersexualisation of women with violence done against them. The message is repeated subliminally over and over again: it is sexually attractive to inflict violence on women. In one paragraph towards the end, Patricia so succinctly notes what purpose rape culture (that trash talking is a part of) serves:
Trash talk makes it obvious that the implicit understanding of the language of dominion isn’t just sexualised. It’s gendered. That power struggle is culturally understood to be a man versus woman thing, even though rape doesn’t just happen to women. Most of the slurs of choice point toward the same thing. Someone is a bitch, they’re a faggot — feminine — and if you beat someone, then you raped them. The imagery there for most of us will be the same: a man physically assaulting a woman, not the other way around."

Unsurprisingly, the comments on Patricia's article both completely miss this point while they quickly go off to remind Patricia that rape is, in fact, her problem. Not theirs. One commenter goes so far to ask "what [she] was doing wrong" to get raped so many times. WHAT THE FUCKING FUCK?

There is a line of thinking, an unconscious line of thinking, that is embedded in the way our society teaches men and women alike to think that it is a woman's fault for getting raped. That if they didn't want to get raped, they shouldn't have dressed how they did; they shouldn't have gone out at night; they shouldn't have done whatever it was that a man could have freely done without anyone batting an eyelid. You hear about it all the time in Those Crazy Other Countries where a woman gets stoned to death for being raped or a child is forced to marry her rapist. Make no mistake that the same mentality is alive and thriving in the mainstream of Western societies, too.

That is rape culture: the means by which our society keeps women subservient to men by constantly reminding them that if they step out of line, if they for a moment think that they have as much freedom or power as men, men will rape them  and put them back in their place. Rape isn't just forced sex. It's an act of exerting power. Of keeping woman (and other groups of people) subservient to hetereosexual male dominance. It is often used explicitly as such in wars. It's "We won and now we are in charge and this is what we can do to you." Make no mistake, it's as prolific in our 'peaceful' society as any other. It's an act on an individual by one or more individuals and its repeated over and over again across the world every single day so to keep one group of people subservient to another. It is a culture of individual, prolific crimes..

One commenter on Patricia's article says "Most women don't get raped." That commenter has no idea what the fuck they are talking about.

Let's not be bashful: videogame culture is complicit in the proliferation and continuing of rape culture. Perhaps not as much as some other cultures or industries, but implicit nonetheless. It reinforces rape culture  when male gamers on Gears of War tell Patricia they will rape her if she so much as thinks she can play as well as they play. Videogame culture reinforces rape culture when a developer thinks it is fine to say "your girlfriend will give you a blowjob" when (presumed male) gamers win a race in his game. Videogame culture reinforces rape culture when 99% of videogame protagonists are male. Videogame culture reinforces rape culture every time a developer or publisher or journalist assumes all gamers are male. Videogame culture reinforces rape culture every time a game conflates a women's sexuality with violence done against her for a (presumably male) audience.

So the Hitman Absolution trailer. Do I have a problem with the existence of female assassins? No. Do I have a problem with female assassins dressing up as nuns? No. Do I have a problem with Agent 47 killing females dressed up as nuns in self-defence? No. What I have a problem with, what you should have a problem with, is that these aren't just 'women assassins dressed as nuns'. These are women designed and dressed by the trailer's producer (probably a male) to look (a male version of) sexy while another male (Agent 47) bashes the shit out of them all while other males (the imagined gamer at home) watches on. It is pretty telling that the opening of the trailer is the manly man getting dressed for the encounter while the sexualised women get undressed for it. You, the viewer that the trailer's creator assumes is male, are meant to think these women are sexy, that their naughty-nun costumes and their giant bosoms and stripper heels are sexually appealing while Agent 47 exerts his male dominance over them, while he puts them in their place. Oh? You think you are powerful assassins? No. You are foolish little girls. Here, see how a real man assassin puts you in your place. No, he doesn't 'literally' rape them, but a male forced these (fictional) women to act in a way males would find them sexy while another male did violence to them. That is teaching women their place. That is fucked up. That is rape culture.

This is worth repeating. These are not sexually-empowered women killers. These are women forced to dress a certain way and to do certain things by a man in order for other men to watch as another man brutally kills them. They are meant for no other purpose.

But it's not just Hitman Absolution. Let's go back and look at Hitman: Blood Money. Dan Hindes drew my attention to four print adds that ran in gaming magazines for that game. You can find them here, but be warned they are explicit. Note that two of the ads depict male assassination victims and two of the ads depict female assassination victims. Awesome! Equal opportunity, right? IO Interactive sure is progressive! Wouldn't it be so sexist if they only depicted male murder victims? What? You think the female ones are problematic but the male ones aren't? OMG THAT'S SEXIST! HA! I BEAT YOU AT YOUR OWN GAME, BRENDAN!

Give me a fucking break.

Let's be clear: these ads were made by a man, for men to look to at. The women are hypersexualised; the men aren't. The men are both fully clothed; one of the women is naked and the other is scantily clad in sexy lingerie. The contexts of the kills are different. The men are in a freezer or on a concert stage; the women are sprawled out on satin sheets or in romantic baths surrounded by candles and flowers and wine. The message is pretty clear: the women get killed as part of sex. The acts of violence against them are integrated into the images as part of the sexual act. And, no, you can not argue that they are "just taking a rest" or "just taking a bath".

Further, the woman victim in lingerie is "beautifully" executed. The other three are "classically", "coldly" and "shockingly" executed. Those are clever puns on classical music, cold freezers, and electrical shocks. What is "beautiful" about the context of the woman with a bullet in the forehead? She is. It is beautiful that she was murdered and sexualised. Sexual violence is beautiful. That is the message of that ad. That is fucked up. That is rape culture.

Rape happens. Rape happens a lot. If you know six women, you probably know someone who has been raped. We live in a culture that doesn't tell men not to rape; it tells women not to get raped. If they do get raped, they are taught by our society, through the images and words our society produces, that it was there fault. Meanwhile, the same images and words encourage rapists to do what they do. Hitman Absolution and Blood Money both do it in their advertisement. Heavy Rain does it when practically every time Madison is confronted with violence it is coloured in hypersexual tension. Gears of War did it for two whole games when it gave the half-arsed excuse of "they are too busy breeding" for the lack of female soldiers--then it did it for a third game that only had female characters because they were infertile.  Primary goal of women: being forced to have babies. If they can't do this then, fine, we'll let them do men things, but they'll probably suck at it. Brian Ashcraft does it with his regular "Let's Oggle At Japanese Women Like Perverts" posts on KotakuPenny Arcade does it when they make a mockery of rape culture for their own cheap Dickwolves jokes and then rather than refuse to acknowledge there is anything wrong with that, they start selling t-shirts (edit: and then go on to publicly support tentacle rape games, what the fuck?). Yes, let's bring Penny Arcade up. Because that never went away; none of these ever go away. The all stick around and contributes to the same rape culture atmosphere of videogames that now produces trailers like this. So many of us do it day in and out when we tell someone we are going to rape them on a multiplayer game. Yes, even I have done it. Probably more times that I actually remember. These are all fucked up. That is rape culture.

So when I (yes, rashly) say on Twitter that this medium doesn't deserve the mainstream respect it craves as my response to the Hitman Absolution trailer, don't you fucking dare tell me this was a "one off" thing that doesn't represent the entire medium. Or that it is okay because the trailer "doesn't even depict the actual game". This trailer is just a particularly insulting and vile example of something that has been inherent in our culture for a particularly long time. Something each and every one of us is complicit in each time we call these games out and buy them anyway. What about books? What about movies? Yes it happens there too but right now I don't care about books and movies. I care about videogames, and regardless of what is or isn't happening in any other medium, our own medium has apparently reached a point where trailers like the Hitman Absolution's are allowed to exist. There is a videogame rape culture, and it is about time we admitted it.

So, what's the solution? Being educated is a good place to start. Acknowledge and appreciate just how many women are raped or face the risk of rape daily. Read at least some of this post about the actual, tangible effects of rape culture instead of brushing it off as this vague, abstract notion. Consciously note the many depictions of a woman's sexuality as clearly directed by males for males, and how often this plays into a rhetoric of victim blaming is also a good idea. Don't stay out of the argument by just flicking it off with a "well it's okay to like it and it's okay not to like it" bullshit kind of comment. No. It is not okay to like this. It simply isn't. It shouldn't be up to a few brave women to stick their necks out on male-safe websites at the whim of the commenting hive-mind to tell us what the problem is with our rape culture, putting their own online safety at risk. Rape shouldn't be a women's issue, it should be a men's issue because we are the ones that keep fucking doing it and keep perpetuating the culture. It's about time we took responsibility for that ourselves.

And, gentlemen, that really kind of angry defensive feeling you got in your gut while you read this post where you felt attacked? That was your privilege kicking. Every time you think something is sexist towards men, there is a pretty good chance the playing field is just being levelled out. Learn what that is all about, too.

Meanwhile, in the short term, not purchasing Hitman Absolution would be a pretty good place to start. Telling IO Interactive, Square Enix, and Eidos why you find this repulsive wouldn't hurt, either.

Thank you.

[A note on comments: I'm going to leave them enabled as there are more than a few people out there I would be happy to hear the opinions of, and as a cis straight white male I don't think it is my call to have the final word on this. That says, I aim to moderate the heck out of them and will be deleting the most minutely offensive stuff as swiftly as possible. Edit: And now I have disabled them. You can still contact me at @BRKeogh on Twitter if you want to discuss this. Or if you want to write your own response on your own blog, please let me know.]

[Update: Kill Screen posts this response piece, which is terrible, but the comments are great. My comment wouldn't post for some reason so I posted it here. Several days later, Kill Screen's editor Jamin Warren published an apology for the original post, so that is good. 
Beckles has written an excellent response to my post here, and inadvertently highlights everything wrong with the Kill Screen article. Namely, the complexity that arises when you start talking about 'censorship' (a conflation several of my commenters made) and the problem with the "but it's art" defence.
Less problematically, The Border House has weighed in with some further comments and also a link roundup of all the writing surrounding the Hitman Absolution trailer. Also interesting, Terrence Jarrad on his own personal blog writes through his own defensive reaction to this piece and working through his own privilege. It's problematic in parts, to be sure, but I think it is brave of him to publicly try to look inside of himself like that and it deserves engaging with.
Nate Barham has written out his own thoughts in a blog post here, which I think echoes many of the points I wished to make but in far clearer, less emotional language. So if my post bugged you for that, try his.
At Bitmob, Tristan Damen has written a piece about the trailer that doesn't look at all the outlets that called it out so much as all the outlets that let it pass as either something great or something not problematic. I think that is the best way to show precisely what is wrong here: showing how many outlets accepted this as nothing out of the ordinary. I don't want this to be ordinary.]

Sunday, May 27, 2012

An Obituary

I have been playing the ARMAII mod DayZ for the last few days. Lots of people have already written why this is a game to care about, and I have my own thoughts that I hope to flesh out on it in the near future, too. But for now, I need to write about a character of mine. About ten minutes ago, he (well, I) was crawling out of a grocery store in the northern town of Stary Sobor when a sniper put a bullet through his head, killing him instantly.

No character death has ever affected me the way his (well, mine) has just now. My hands are shaking as I type this. No, really, they are shaking.

So before I lose this sensation, before I get my breath back and my nerves calm, I want to write this all down and figure out just why it has affected me so, and I think the best way to do that would be to start from the beginning.

I started on the beach near Elektro, around M18 of this map (which I'll refer to a few times below). Elektro is very popular for new spawners, being one of the biggest costal cities. As such, most of the loot has already been stripped away, and bandits are always hiding out for the greedy. Instead, I skirted around the west of the town and headed up a road north and inland.

Just north, on the borders of L17 and M17, I found my first lake. I drank my water and refilled the bottle. This was undoubtedly the most fulfilling, uplifting experience I've had with the game so far. Taking a drink and refilling the waterbottle was the most I had ever done towards my own survival. It felt good.

I went off-road here, scared of meeting bandits, and about two hours later found myself outside Mogilevka, looking down at the town. Of course, I didn't know it was Mogilevka at the time. i didn't know the place I started was Elektro, either. I had no map. I had no idea where I was at all. But it was a town.

There was a long farm building (a cow shed) to the north. I skimmed around town, avoided some zombies and made my way to it. On the way, I filled my waterbottle at another small resevoir and, miraculously, had a glitch work in my favour, dumping eight full waterbottles in my inventory. I was stoked.

In the cow shed, I found a stack of bandages and ammunition. I couldn't carry it all (actually, I could, but at this stage I didn't know you actually had to open your backpack to put things in it). I dropped two of my eight full waterbottles, and took some bandages instead. On the global chat channel, I told people there was supplies there, if they wanted them. People wanted a town name. I risked my life crawling closer into the town, past zombies, to find a streetsign and describe the name to people. They said thank you.

I kept heading north and west until I was in Vyshnoe (H13). There I found zombies, a well, and a map. A map! I drank, filled my bottles at the well, crawled out of town, and tried to find out where I was.

This is making it all sound so... calm. So nothing. This will not do. Each moment of this game is terrifying. Each moment can bring death and each moment is spent trying to push that inevitable death just a little bit further into the distance. Each measly supply is priceless. Give me a can of beans over a vein of diamond or an orange-rare weapon any day.

Further north was a castle on a mountain. I crawled right up to the entrance, certain there would be loot inside, but I could hear a zombie within. I left without firing a shot. To fire a shot would be to die.

I left the castle on the north-west side and walked down the forested slopes. The world of DayZ is beautiful. A 225km-square (apparently) map of accurately cartographed (apparently) eastern Europe. Most games in their miniature way go from plains to forest to hill to town in a hastened, unnatural way. With all this space, the map of DayZ has time to naturally blend, like the world it is based on. I walked down that forested slope, the wind rustling the trees, for quite some time. I could've just stayed there, if I had more food than a single can of beans.

I had been playing maybe three and a half hours at this stage. From here, where I actually went is a bit unclear. I played for a while at night and got incredibly lost. The roads I was on weren't the roads I thought I was on. But anyway, let's say two hours later and several play sessions I was further northwest, around Lopatino (C7). Here I started heading south again, hoping to meet some friends I knew were at the coast. I ate my last can of beans as I went.

It's pretty easy to get lost at night. Guess why.

My only weapon was still my pistol. The only shot I had fired all game was to kill a goat, which I then found out I couldn't take meat from without a hunting knife. Really, I had done nothing but walk through meadows and forests and crawl through towns for hours.

This wasn't my first attempt at DayZ. I had lost maybe six or seven lives before hand, but this was the first time where I had made progress for my own survival, where death by starvation, thirst, lack of ammo was not imminent. I was well-stocked and well-fed. I had survived for about eight or nine hours of game time. I had survived for longer than all my other lives put together.

My friends were heading towards Mogilevka, where I had been the day before. I started heading east back that way, hoping to meet up with them, maybe trade some of my watterbottles for food. I hadn't found any for the entire game.

Heading east, I found myself on the outskirts of Pustoshka (C10) when I thought I was in Rogovo (E12). I had no idea how I go so far west. In the middle of town was a church. My hunger symbol was flashing red at this stage. All the water and bandages were useless if I starved. I headed into town.

Towns are the crux of DayZ. They are exactly where you are always heading and exactly where you never want to be. They are where you will find supplies and where you will find zombies. At first, they seem basic enough. You crawl in on your stomach, easy. But then you can hear them all around you. No matter which way you look are more buildings. There is no way out. Without exception, you will think "Fuck, why did I come into this town?" The answer, of course, is because you would die if you didn't.

In the church I found a shotgun, shells, a flashlight, and bandages. But no food. I considered going through the rest of the town but I'd lost my nerves. I crawled back out on my belly.
I thought I was clear of the town when I realised I was just crawling towards a zombie-infested farmhouse. I didn't move for minutes as they all walked past me in the grass. My hunger symbol was flashing furiously.

But I knew where I was now. When I could, I found the road east and I ran. I was going to die. I needed to get to my friends and eat some food. I would give them anything for it. Anything.

On my way there, my friends got lost on some hill. Then they died.

So I stopped in Rogovo (E12). Desperate for anything. In my third house, I lay on the floor eating pasta from a can. Digital food had never tasted so good. It was mana! Zombies were growling in the house's yard. I didn't care when I entered the house, but I cared now. Death wasn't imminent. I had something to live for, even if that 'something' was simply 'not starving'. I crawled back out and continued east. First cross country and then down the road back towards Vyshnoe.

One of my friends had figured out where he respawned. He was on the coast, directly south of my position. We decided on a new rendezvous, the town of  Nadezhdino (G15). I was nervous of heading so close to Cherno (the other costal town where many people spawn and start their voyage inland), but decided for it. My friend had promised me a can of beans in exchange for a waterbottle. It was worth the risk.

On the outskirts of Nadezhdino
I cut south and hit the road north of Nadezhdino. A while later, I was looking south over the town. My friend was still someway to the south, making his way there. There were too many zombies in the town itself, but to the south east was another cowshed. Inside I found a sniper rifle, another rifle, ammo for the shotgun, and other supplies. I took the sniper rifle, and retreated to the nearby forest and waited for my friend to arrive.

A short time later we were both heading back north, each with a rifle. We traded food for water, and drank at a small damn beside the road.

Our time together was short, though. The server crashed.

Later, I continued on the road north alone, somewhat directionless. I felt foolish for heading this far south. Instead of taking the road back to Rogovo, I decided to cross country back north, hit another road, and continue back north to Stary Sobo (G11). It looked like a big town. Surely something would be there.

I'm not sure how many hours all this really took. I do know the trip from Pustoshka to Nadezhdino took over two and a half hours alone. So Maybe I had been playing for seven hours at this stage? Eight by the time the houses of Stary Sobo appeared on the northern horizon among the mist and rain? It doesn't really matter. What matters is it was long enough for me to become invested in this man and his survival. It had been on a knife's edge more than once (sometimes a zombie getting too close, usually hunger). I wanted him to live. I'd committed too much for him not to die.

Coming into Stary Sobo.

Stary Sobo was infested, as is to be expected. In the first house I looked I found a crossbow bolt (but no crossbow) some soda and some more sniper ammo. In the next building, only tin cans. My nerves were done by this stage, and I was ready to leave town, when I saw the grocery store. A grocery store!

I crawled in the front door and could not believe what I saw. A sniper rifle. A crossbow. Ammo for each. Bandages. Flares. Water. And, most importantly, four cans of food. Four! My god!

I couldn't pick any of it up. The server was bugging out. I wanted to cry.

Reluctantly, I disconnected and connected to another server. The grocery store was utterly bare of loot.

I crawled out a door closest to the edge of town, planning to head over the hill and away. But then I realised: this was a new server: the buildings I had previously explored would have new loot in them. I still needed more food. It was worth checking again.

I went back in the grocery store and crawled out the door on the other side, onto the road.

The sniper bullet went through my head and killed me instantly.


That was it. It was over. The point of this long story about, technically, nothing? To hopefully hit home how effective my death was in its insignificance. The game didn't care about my journeys. The bandit didn't care. No one cared.

Except me.

I cared more than I've ever cared about a character in my life. I cared so much I am writing this blog post right now when I could have loaded up a new character. I didn't want a new character. I wanted him. I wanted my bandages and food and water and rifle and the hours of work I had put into surviving, into not being dead. But it was gone. Stolen by some other character with their own rifle, with their own stories and their own journeys.

Fuck that person.

See, the beauty of DayZ is not anything that has been programmed into it; it's what has been left out that players can't help but fill in. In any good zombie story, the real monsters are the humans. DayZ is perhaps the first videogame to realise this.

But more than that is the grimness, the stubbornness of surviving. There is no 'goal' or 'point' to surviving other than refusing to die. The best post-apocalyptic stories are about this, not about something restoring the world to the pre-apocalypse. DayZ is perhaps the first videogame to realise this.

You are going to die. I knew I was going to die when I washed up on the beach at Elektro. But not like this. Well then how? Well... I don't know. It had to be like this, didn't it? One crack shot in the head, over before I had a chance to wonder what that loud 'crack' was. Watching the screen go black as I think about how I was so close to leaving the store on the other side. What if I had? What if the other server didn't glitch?

There was nothing romantic or expressive or anything about my death, and it was all the more potent, all the more meaningful, all the more gut-wrenching because of it.