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.]


Anonymous said...

Please keep doing what you do.

Leigh Martin said...

I'm speaking as somebody who's not just seen the trailer, but as somebody who's never touched a Hitman game.

The Dead Island trailer last year showed marketers that we're low-hanging fruit, ripe and easy for picking. This will (sadly) be forgotten in a year's time unless people like yourself cry foul. The Dead Island trailer was only done because the Dev outsourced it to a marketing company, from memory. That shows the all-round level of respect towards the medium and its ardent fans.

I think I stuffed it up on Twitter but go to - I'm not just somebody who filled out the white-boxes.

I was approached several years ago by a friend and was asked to become an Ambassador, and still am one to this day. From where I am in the NT I've not been able to much in the 'games space' about this. Somebody from WR contact me over a month ago to talk shop and I mentioned this, but sadly they have never gotten back to me.

To you and others, I say (as I've said more than once) don't get angry, do something about it.

Nathan said...

Thanks for writing that, Brendan.

The thing that stood out to me regarding the Hitman : Absolution trailer was that there is absolutely no reason whatsoever for the female assassins to ditch the nun garb, aside from providing the viewer with some skin to look at.

Which means whoever was making the trailer made the conscious choice to have Agent 47 kill sexy nun assassins, instead of assassins that happened to be dressed as nuns.

Like a lot of sensible folk, I wouldn't have taken issue with the trailer if 47 was simply defending himself against some assassins posing as nuns. If anything it would have made the trailer better if the ladies had not dropped the habit.

Like you, I lost sleep last night. After reading the comments to Mark Serrels' and Patricia Hernandez's pieces, I got pretty wound up over the willful ignorance of some people. In the end I just had to walk away, lest my arguments devolved into name calling and expletives, which would have only served to devalue my point.

The fact of the matter is, that for a lot of people, rape culture isn't even a thing. They either don't understand it, or they think it doesn't exist. Or possibly, they do accept it as a thing, but just don't care.

Whichever way you look at it, its a sad state of affairs.

For further examples of rape culture, you might have a look at the taunts used against Catwoman in Arkham City.

Also, there was a small scene in Dead Island where it is implied that Jin is raped after offering aid to some criminals holed up in the police station.

Anonymous said...

I agree with pretty much everything you said, however I am somewhat annoyed at how you imply that most if not all males in western society, gamers especially, are complicit in this "rape culture". I have no doubt of the existence of said culture or it's damage but that does not mean everyone who has played Gears or Hitman or used the word "raped" instead of "owned" in multiplayer trash talk thinks violence towards women is ok.

Brendan Keogh said...

Anonymous (the second one),

Thank you for reading and for your kind words.

Not just males but everyoneis complicit in rape culture any time we don't explicitly call it out.

It's not about consciously thinking violence towards women is okay. It's about unconsciously thinking it. If you think it is okay to say "I'm going to rape you" to anyone online or offline, you are indeed saying you think violence towards women is okay, and you are implicit in the rape culture.

Anonymous said...

Great post Brendan.

I agree with the vast bulk of what you have to say. Just not sure about these two lines...

"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."

Hmm, I think they are both examples laziness and ignorance, but they don't "reinforce rape culture". They reinforce "games are for boys". And sure, there's a relationship between the two issues, but it's quite possible to think "games are for boys" without thinking "girls ask for it".

Now, let's move onto the "What can we do about it?" phase.

Here's 2 simple ideas - that require guts.

1. Major sites (you know who there are) could simply refuse to link to the trailer.
Starve 'that sort of trailer' of views, and it becomes less tempting to make another one like it.
Of course, that means sites risking their own traffic numbers, in case 'they' refuse to link to such clips, but their competitors have no such qualms. Well guess what? Any sort of decent moral stance/boycott actually requires some sort of personal sacrifice.
Still, there are those who'll say "Yes, but readers could just google the trailer themselves" and sure, that's true. But if major sites refuse to link to 'those' trailers, it *shows* they disapprove of them. And every time an influential site/person *demonstrates* their disapproval - rather than just talking about it - we move one little step closer to create an anti-rape culture in gaming.

2. Major sites should also refuse to promote the game in question. In this case, don't mention the phrase "Hitman Absolution" at all. Call it "That rape culture game". Call it "That tacky Squeenix game" or whatever. Starve the trailer of views, starve the game's name of promotion.

3. Here's the biggie. Refuse advertising $$$ for that game while it's being promoted in that way.

These things require principles to be backed up with genuine self-sacrifice. Is the gaming media willing to lose a few $$$ to change the world?

Anonymous 2 said...

In reply to Brendan:

I guess I would say that while the casual use of the word furthers this "rape culture" and people should be aware of that, it does not necessarily mean that the speaker is subconsciously approving of sexual violence.
Words such as this are often used simply because others in a social group use them and people just go along with it without considering the possible implications.
So yes people should be made aware of it and change their ways but effectively accusing someone of approving of rape, subconsciously or otherwise, just for the misuse of the word is going a bit far imo.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for speaking out. Before the Dickwolves, I had never heard of rape culture. More people need to speak up and raise awareness of this problem. We need more awareness, education and empathy.

Jenn said...

I had a long IM-talk with Patricia when she first thinking about writing that article, and I remember we got into a lot of the stuff in that blockquote you've cited.

I told her I couldn't believe the things that come out of my mouth -- even playing solo I tend to shriek "oh, fuck you in the ass!" or sometimes "fuck me in the ass!" without considering the implications -- and these demonstrate the weird, completely subconscious ways I sexualize the frustration I feel anytime the balance of power is tipped against me. Like, I don't say these things deliberately! They just come out of my mouth!

And then I always "gender" that power imbalance, too. Like, we girls slip into these aggressive, "masculine" poses when we are "dominating," which is to say, yeah, even I've internalized "rape culture." Even I use a sexualized language to describe another person's "taking it" from me, or to describe my frustration at being on the bad end. (Now I'm just reiterating what you and Patty have already said.) But that is so insidious, how the way I think about it uses that cultural framework, absolutely, and it creeps into my language as if playing any videogame turns into an awful game of word-association. Cognitively, it speaks to some very, very fucked-up wiring in here.

I almost mentioned this on Twitter to you, and then didn't, but when I first saw that "Beautifully Executed" Hitman ad -- I think way back in 2005, before the game was out -- I was in my early 20s. And I knew there was a problem with it, something that chafed me a little, but I couldn't figure out what it was. So I started to think it was an emulation/envy thing, where I wasn't as lovely as the woman in the picture, and that my own flicker of ire should be shrugged off, since it was all as simple as being irked by a fashion catalogue. That entire pattern of thought illustrates, like, these incredible concentric circles of internalized issues. "Oh, shut up, self; you're just mad you're not as beautiful as the woman bleeding from the bullet hole in her forehead."

So I've been on both sides of having a wrongheaded attitude (I make a lot of jokes about being a "bad feminist," and it's true I was totally tone-deaf to a lot of these cultural issues until I moved into mainstream videogames and discovered how absolutely horrendous we are, even to women we work with, even when we are also women).

But a couple years earlier, maybe in 2003, I was helping a then-boyfriend and his boss with ideas for bus posters. The Joffrey was doing 'Romeo and Juliet', and they already had the copy in place: "Love. Passion. Murder. Nightly." The goal of the ad was to appeal to people who never go to see ballet, and I started thinking about ways to give a particularly violent ballet a little bit of intrigue. That is how my suggestion -- of a photograph of a pair of toe shoes, spattered with blood, with a little pool of blood beneath -- ended up on the sides of buses all over Chicago. It was an allusion to Juliet's death specifically, even though a ton of bros die in the story, too (but bros don't wear toe shoes, and the image needs toe shoes!!!!!).

I was surprised, then, when my boyfriend told me he'd been told they needed an alternative design, that the photograph could not also go onto the Joffrey's postcards. I demanded to know what was so offensive about my really great bus poster, and he helplessly explained that you "can't mail a violent image like that" directly into ticket subscribers' homes. I really, really did not get it back then. And I am still trying to wring those attitudes out of myself.

TL;DR I used to be okay with rape culture and now I'm not, but I still catch myself being complicit with it because everything I say and do still uses this very very gendered iconography

Brendan Keogh said...

(Deleted a comment)

Anonymous said...

I'm amused that you deleted my comment. Is it that your personal policy is to delete anything that doesn't agree with your point of view? Do you not accept public criticism in a public forum? If your opinion has enough merit to stand against mine, then let it. I cannot delete your article because I disagree with it, nor would I. It's an opportunity for public discussion. Let others decide what they will. But don't remove it just so that no one else sees a differing view.

To reiterate... I don't condone rape. It's easily one of the worst things that can happen to a person. It's something people need to fight against and it's a serious subject that should be taken seriously, and you detract from that by projecting rape where there is none.

Brendan Keogh said...

(Deleted [Ir]Responsible Mongoose's comment because it started with "There is no rape culture.") Cool story, bro.)

Brendan Keogh said...


You can't delete my post because I'm the author and you're not. Suck it up and write your own post about how rape culture is imagined. I'll take disagreement, but I won't take denialism, I'm afraid.

Brendan Keogh said...

Jenn keeps trying to post another comment and it is not getting through because Blogger is terrible. This is what it said:


Jenn has left a new comment on your post "Quit Pretending There Isn't A Videogame Rape Cultu...":

Hi, Anonymous. You wrote: "[Rape is] a serious subject that should be taken seriously, and you detract from that by projecting rape where there is none."

I personally appreciate your great intentions here. Except that this is the point, friend: we all project rape where there is none. We do! We use the language and iconography of a very specific type of violence -- sexual, penetrative, gendered, nonconsensual -- as automatic shorthand to describe almost any sort of power struggle, whether in games or elsewhere. We tell our opponents to "take it, bitches." When we are especially dismal, we might describe it as getting "fucked" or "reamed." We are employing the language of nonconsensual sexual violence -- rape, if you will -- where there is none.

So when people use a go-to term like "rape culture," they mean an entire cultural framework of thinking where -- OK, if a sentence were actually a thought, and what I'm describing to you now is a field of study called "cognitive linguistics" -- one (active) noun always "verbs" another (passive) noun. And the verb? In this case, the verb is usually a type of fucking. This way of thinking is so culturally ingrained, it's in our sentences, in our syntax.

Most non-sociopaths can agree that sexual violence is a Bad Thing. It's quite another to turn around and, in the same breath, say that sexualizing violence all for the sake of a game's sale is Totally Fine. Oh, sure, I get that sexual violence can be titillating; I even understand all the kinked-out reasons why. But you don't put that in a trailer and you don't put it in a print ad, and you certainly don't defend it to anyone but your partner in your personal "safe space." Real Life, sadly, is not a safe space for a lot of people, and you'll find that, depending who you are, your odds of being "safe" depreciate, depending entirely on your social standing and the hour of day.

(Sorry, Brendan! I like your post and I just wanted to help. OK! Bye!)

Anonymous said...

For the record... Anonymous post above was not posted by any sort of mongoose.
And for what it's worth... By definition, the video game medium has no rape culture since sexual violence is not prevalent. There may be some sex, and some violence, but not together in that manner. And to link them together through objectification or misused terminology is more than misleading.

Rape culture is a term or concept used to describe a culture in which rape and sexual violence are common and in which prevalent attitudes, norms, practices, and media normalize, excuse, tolerate, or even condone sexual violence

Brendan Keogh said...

Hmm. Okay. I've had a change of mind and I'm going to stop censoring as harshly. I'll still be removing anything triggering so that this can be a safe place for everyone to join the conversation, though.

And I don't mind telling Anonymous (the latest one) that if you can't see the massive contradiction between the two paragraphs you just typed out, then I truly pity you.

Ambient Malice said...

I think you made some solid points. It's an unfortunate reality that videogame developers have shown time and time again that they, or at least their PR departments, live in an alternate version of reality where women exist to be ogled, violence is fun, and pretty women having violence committed against them is super duper fun. I honestly worry about the development team if it turns out NOBODY on the team piped up and said, "Hey... you know... Isn't this a bit gratitious and distasteful?"

On another note, I noticed a typo when you said about rape being "there fault". It should be "their".

Anonymous said...

Why not spell it out for him Brendan.

Anonymous said...


What seems strange to me is that you write for a website (Massively) that covers these MMOs in depth; games that are among the worst offenders of sexualizing violence against women. FYI I'm not calling you out for this, rather making a note. In fact, I find Massively to be a very respectable website. It just begs the question of why did Hitman Absolution stand out to you?

You obviously saw sexual connections to violence in this action sequence, whereas I simply saw a violent action sequence. Does this mean I am apathetic to crimes against women? No, I certainly recognize the need to protect women. But I also think young (and old) men will sexualize just about anything they can, whether it is intended for them to do so or not.

So yes, I guess the Hitman Absolution E3 trailer does combine sexuality with violence against women, but I think people are looking for something where there is nothing. The very nature of the game is violence against humans. I already explained that my initial impression to outfits in the trailer was first, combat usefulness and second, a visual device for the audience. Whether that was intended by IO, only they know. But it's a far cry from promoting rape culture in my opinion.

Good luck in future writing, Brendan!

Nicholas Fisher said...

Brilliant article - It certainly showed me some of the insidious issues present in (gasp) some of my favourite games, that I hadn't even noticed. As for the Hitman trailer itself - while it shows that there's a major issue with the culture that created it, the video itself was so goddamn pathetic I couldn't even be offended by it. By that I don't mean that it's not bad, I just mean that it's so crassly bad I just shake my head.

I also found this article also explained rape culture to me better than it has been before. Previously it's been used I think by people who wanted to make big statements and essentially accuse me of being a potential rapist even though I try to be respectful to women (and everyone in general) and would never do anything like that. I think your article shows it both as being less extreme than that (I don't feel offended and don't feel my privilege kicking up - this shit happens and it's awful and I can accept that about the straight-white-male while still doing my best to not be like that) but also showing that it's far more insidious and dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Oops, the last two are obviously out of order. They're both me.

Brendan Keogh said...


Sorry, Blogger is terrible and does terrible things to comments, but thanks for your input. Also, I don't write for a site called Massively. Perhaps you are thinking of a different Brendan? But no doubt I have worked for websites that are complicit in what I'm calling out here, and that is something I am starting to realise.

Ambient, thank you for spotting the typo. Will rectify!

Nicholas, thanks!

Anonymous said...

The reason I'd thought my comment was deleted, was I'd tried to post a comment, and immediately afterward your deletion appeared, so I apologize. I guess I had the same problem Jenn had.

Thank you Jenn, I think though, that what you are describing is an unintended consequence of having a large group of people of different ages participate in violent games. A few people use shocking terms to sound cool and then a whole lot of younger players start using terrible terms and have no idea of the meanings behind the words. That doesn't mean that they actually condone sexual violence when they say "fuck you". Which is a point you made earlier. And that's why I believe there is no rape culture in games. The vast majority of gamers, I'm assuming since I don't have a scientific study to reference, are not actually okay with rape nor any other sexual violence against women.

There is a culture of trash talking. Saying the words in the middle of a video game gun fight does not equal actually committing such crimes.
There is a culture of violence. No explanation needed.
There is a culture of objectification of women. And men, but not nearly as much. When game artists sketch up heroes, they're not going to be fat slobs. They're going to be chiseled. I think girl gamers can appreciate that, and I'd like to see Jenn's perspective on that.

There is no sexual violence in this video. In order for that to happen, you would need a non-consensual sex scene. Members of one sex shoot at member of the opposite sex does not count as sexual violence.
And your failure to understand how the paragraphs above work together does not mean that they are in contradiction.
Sexual violence in war torn African countries is a reality... Women get raped and mutilated everyday in those conditions. That's real.

Anonymous said...

To the anonymous above me - superhero characters are for male power fantasies - they're not designed to titillate the men who read comics, those men are expected to imagine themselves AS the hero - chiseled and handsome and irresistible to females. It's nothing, NOTHING AT ALL, like the gross objectification of female characters in comics and all other media where they are designed to be the objects of the fantasy.

You argue that there is no rape culture, but how can you ignore how so much of the usual trash talk is based on sexual and sexist terms? I don't want to repeat everything stated in the article but it's omnipresent - faggot, bitch, pussy, ETC, you got raped, these are terms that are so accepted that young people use them without a second thought! That's not because a few dimwits fail to understand the weight of what they're saying - that is because they are growing in a culture which ENCOURAGES that kind of thinking. If it didn't, people would SHUT THAT SHIT DOWN as soon as it came up, because it wouldn't be cool.

It's the "Dude, not cool" situation. If a group of friends are together, and one makes a nasty joke or remark, and no one says anything, they are encouraging that behavior by not speaking out whether they actually agree with it or not. The problem will continue or get worse, gradually becoming more accepted. But if they collectively tell him it isn't welcome or okay, it dies out over time.

Articles like this one which call out the bullshit rape culture we're allowing are absolutely necessary. This discussion is necessary. Telling people online to knock it off with the disgusting remarks is necessary. Reporting them to XBox Live or whatever powers that be is necessary when it can be done. Pretending there is no problem won't make it go away.

And also; this is not about Africa. Don't try to derail the discussion. This is about OUR rape culture.

Brendan Keogh said...

(Deleted Jack Monaghan's comment for being overly offensive. It started with "as a law student" and went on to claim there is no rape culture because rape is illegal. Nice once.)

Unknown said...
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Brendan Keogh said...

Okay, you can leave you comment there, as offensive as it is, unless someone else tells me they want it removed. Still, you have shown a pretty broad disregard for the subject matter and have made a laughable conflation of right/wrong and legal/illegal that isn't even worthy of engaging with.

Amie said...

To Jack Monaghan and all others who don't understand how rape culture works, here's the low down.

We don't think all men think rape is ok. We know most men don't think like that, but you know who does think most men think like that? Rapists do. So, when they see sexualised violence and other men saying it's totally ok they take that as confirmation that their actions are totally ok too. Whether you like it or not, that's what they think.

There's an excellent comment on a Shakesville post about the Penny Arcade thing that explains it far better than I have and I really encourage you to have a read of it:

And thank you so much Brendan for writing this.

Jenn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Helen said...

Yes. I am sure Brendan took down your comment because of the first 3 words. It definitely had nothing to do with the way your privilege blinds you so much you can't see that by making comments like that last paragraph you are entirely complicit in the rape culture. See Aime's amazing response below, and everything Jenn has contributed to this discussion also. Before you can decide who's supposedly shutting out your right to comment perhaps you should consider who you are silencing by your attitude and actions. Learn what rape culture and privilege are and then reconsider your comment.

Brendan. I personally am pretty offended. But in some ways I'd rather you leave this here so people can judge for themselves where the ignorance lies.

Jack said...

Okay, that guy makes some good points. Truly. I guess what I would say to his view, though, is where do we stop? Where do we stop censoring ourselves in order to influence how others behave? One of my favourite comedians is Jimmy Carr. He's extremely witty, and uses rape jokes on occasion. Following that article you linked, no one would makes jokes like that anymore. For some that may very well be a good thing, and I understand that. I'm overweight and sometimes 'fat jokes' can hurt my feelings - I can't even begin to understand how hearing a rape joke would make a rape victim feel.
That said, we shouldn't simply stop these kind of jokes or video game trailers from being made. For people to honestly believe that rape is condoned by the general male populace, something is very, very wrong inside their head.

Brendan Keogh said...

Apologies to everyone having trouble posting comments. Blogger is pretty terrible with this. I'm about to post another comment from Jenn over the next few comments that Blogger wouldn't let her post:


Hi, Anonymous. I appreciate what you're saying, and to a point, I think you're right: a culture's incoming generation will absolutely co-opt the language the old guard is still using. But I also think there's another unintended consequence of using that established style of "trash talk," even when no malice is intended: language doesn't just indicate how you think, it can even rewire the way you think.

To put it a different way, and follow me here: sure, at the outset, a sentence -- an idiomatic turn of phrase -- is not loaded. But what if a noun always "verbs" another noun, where the nouns and verbs in this algorithm are particularly insidious and probably also gendered? How can that syntax and iconography, over time, not change the way kids are thinking about things?

The other cool (?) thing about cognitive linguistics is, culture doesn't just inform how you speak; the way you speak rewires how you parse other things, too. If you are always using these learned syntaxes to mean a certain thing, the two soon become inextricable. Sure, I think the argument to change the word "women" to "womyn" is silly, but the argument itself is… kinda based on science instead of "feelings." (Still, I think the shift is due ~900 years in the future, so it isn't like I'm advocating it.)

Look, I used to go out of my way to use "mankind" instead of "humankind," to say "he" instead of "he or she.". I tried to be a man living in a man's world, writing like an honest-to-god man. When I was a kid I wasn't allowed to watch commercials, so I never understood a gender construct of what I was meant to be "into"; in college I wondered why feminists were into dumb stupid shit.

Do you even know what it's like to be a female subjected to "trash talk" online?

Try being female and writing like a man. It worked for me in college. Today you will get smacked down for that, because you cannot win, and unfortunately it is younger people who, in my experience, smack you down for "being a man" about things. Like, what are you, some kind of lesbian? (Btw the Internet uses "lesbian" as an insult, as meaning you're less-than-female or "packing some heat," and God help you if you really are a lesbian or really transgender.)

Have you ever worked as a Community Manager? No, I'm really asking. Because my job had not even started before I got my first penis photoshopped into my mouth. I was a well-known actor and musician in Chicago, but all I can remember is repeated allusions to my having a penis, and then that photoshop of a dick in my mouth, and then the comment "hotness fail," all before I started that job. I'm sorry, but does the age of the people doing those things even matter at that point? Maybe it does, though! because I do not remember people behaving like that online in the late-90s or early-00s.

Brendan Keogh said...

[Continuing Jenn's comment:]

Anonymous: "There is a culture of trash talking. Saying the words in the middle of a videogame gunfight does not equal actually committing such crimes."

Oh, I agree. Teabagging an opponent doesn't equal dipping your actual ballsack into his mouth. Photoshopping a penis probably does not actually equal putting a dick into a woman's mouth.

Still. "Rape culture" does suggest an eventual broader, unspoken complicity with bullying or abusing anybody who seems "other" because that person is somehow perceived as socially defenseless. Get it? It's a power struggle, an all-of-us versus the-few-of-you. For my own part, my own job as a CM -- as a white, hetero female! -- sent me from feeling powerful and smart to wanting to be dead. And that is not hyperbole at all.

Women -- an entire half of the world population -- are abused constantly. They shrink away from being "online" or being in "tech" because the types of people making this linguistic trash-talk "ok" and "normal" are all already there. And more are coming! Younger people! Younger people who have gleaned that this is how the Internet works!

Someone once accused me of having "girl on the Internet syndrome," and I replied that, since I have been on the Internet since 1993, I got over being on the Internet long before I ever got over being a girl.

Finally, and this is somewhat unrelated, Anonymous, but your last remark -- "hey, I see you're upset, but at least your genitals aren't being cut off in Africa!" -- is kind of beyond the pale. I'm sorry for coming off as so "entitled." But if a woman has the same efficacy of a man, earns $10k less annually, and could be in Mensa if she wanted -- and even if she doesn't have all that -- she deserves to be excused from a "culture of violence," a "culture of objectification," and "hey, women are mutilated in Africa, so try being grateful for what you have!" I really do try to be kind, but that puts me so far beyond even having shit to handle. "That's real"? "That's real," you say? Hey, I have a 160 IQ and have begged my superiors to let me edit the penis back out of my mouth. That's real, too. Describe sexual violence to me again, and how not-part-of-my-life-it-is, and I'll send you a super-cool gif I got when I was 23.

Brendan Keogh said...

Thank you so much Jenn (and Helen, and Amie) for these very important inputs. I really appreciate it.

SisterStigmata said...

Excellent article. You hit on a lot of things that have particularly disturbed me, like the Bloodmoney ads and the Gears of War 3 breeding camps. The handwavyness of the latter as no big deal has always horrified me. It's like making a game with no black people and when someone asks where they are saying "Oh, we ethnically cleansed them!" and then proceeding as if you didn't just say something unbelievably awful.

I agree with Rob Fahey that the response to criticism of the video is worse than the video itself. Handwaving it away as just being a trailer is ridiculous. Trailers are expensive and time consuming, a lot of thought went into this and important people signed off on it at every stage from storyboarding to completion. Those people decided that this is what they wanted to show you, this is what they wanted those resources spent on.

And what they spent it on is really disturbing. I'm a horror movie fan and I sometimes watch grindhouse movies from the 70s and 80s and these often have a lot of sexualized and fetishized violence. They don't try to hide what they are, these films are intentionally trying to be transgressive and disturbing. The genre is often referred to as exploitation films. (There's even a subset for films about nuns, nunsploitation!) I'm a feminist and I enjoy some of these movies but they are really screwed up and problematic and I keep that in mind. I would never claim that they are harmless or that their content was no big deal.

Every once in a while I see something in the videogame industry like promo videos of Sheva from RE5 in sexy DLC outfits being savaged by zombies (or worse, the statue of her character being attacked and molested at a tokyo toy exhibition and this Hitman trailer that look a helluva lot like something out of an exploitation movie except somehow worse because of the level of polish and professionalism and lack of context and the fact that it is being shown to the public at large as if the content is no big deal. And then for some reason most people seem not to notice or care how incredibly disturbing and screwed up it is.

And in the case of this trailer, people will actually defend fetishized virtual snuff from people who are disturbed by it by claiming that it isn't a problem. That is horrible. Media that reinforces rape culture is the most effective when people deny that it has an effect.

Anonymous said...

Replace 'rape' with 'murder' and you have the argument that politicians use to ban video games altogether. I'd rather have these juvenile type of games out there along with self depreciating blogger diatribes than censorship because people think games contribute to rape or violence

SisterStigmata said...

So, the difference here might be that you're statistically unlikely to know someone who got murdered, that murdered people are rarely blamed for getting murdered or asked what they were wearing when they got murdered or suspected of wanting to be stabbed but then regretting it before they bled out.

Brendan Keogh said...

Yes, what SisterStigmata said.

Anonymous, when 1 in 6 women are getting murdered and society is still saying we don't have a murder problem, then I might find that excuse reasonable.

SisterStigmata said...

Also censorship is an independent issue from bitching about something being terrible. I'm against the former, and for the latter. No one has said it should have been illegal to make this trailer.

Amie said...

Jimmy Carr SHOULD stop making rape jokes. As far as I'm concerned no one should make rape jokes. They have the potential to trigger flashbacks to traumatic events for one in six women. They have the potential to reinforce the behavior of rapists. And they're also not fucking funny.

Oh, and, fat jokes don't just hurt your feelings. They reinforce stigma and hatred. That's not funny either.

Alan Williamson said...

I've already discussed this post with Brendan on Twitter, but I thought it would be beneficial to add a public comment as well.

I don't really have much to add to the discussion. This blog has killed my enthusiasm for writing another piece about it, because it's already been said more eloquently. One thing that has not been said is: we need to think about where we are having writing these articles and having these discussions.

I think it's great that you've written this article. But, as it's on your private blog, the scope is limited. Most of the people who have watched the Hitman trailer don't read your blog: they don't even read Kotaku! We need to have this discussion in forums where it can really affect mainstream opinion. I'd love to see this reprinted in somewhere like Official Xbox Magazine. Keza MacDonald wrote about the issue for IGN UK, and that's exactly the place it needs to be.

What I'm saying is: Brendan, get this thing syndicated so it gets where it needs to be- into the minds of naive young men.

Anonymous said...

We absolutely do have both a murder and rape problem. I'm just very very wary of the 'potential to influence' argument. Once you go down that path you have governments censoring everything to promote societal harmony.
Treat women with respect and decency, encourage others to do so by word and example, but also clearly delineate the difference between real life and video games.

Tyson Davis said...

This whole saga reminds me a lot of the 'Dickwolves' controversy which was the result of a Penny Arcade strip. For me, that had the potential to be a lot more offensive seeing as rape was explicitly mentioned, unlike this Hitman trailer.

When we accuse 'fans' of this trailer (are there fans? It's pretty terrible, for other reasons) of enabling rape, we do an injustice to actual cases of sexual abuse where somebody has legitimately suffered. What we end up with is a 'cry wolf' situation where, eventually, nobody wants to pay attention because they heard it all before.

I think people are generally okay with media until it offends them personally, then the line is crossed. At the end of the day, people will have different thresholds as to what offends them. That's fine. Everyone's different.

Amie said...

I don't think governments need to legislate against people being misogynist douches. I think we as a society need to stop being complicit in such things and start telling others that shit like that is just not on.

"Treat women with respect and decency, encourage others to do so by word and example, but..."
But nothing. That sentence needs to stop right there.

Anonymous said...

Lets have a small percentage of completely tasteless games, enjoy them for what they are, but also have the accompanying discussions so people can keep them in context. Time to retire the internet outrage machine on this topic.

Brendan Keogh said...

Bravo, Amie.

This has nothing to do with censorship and everything to do with what ideologies our culture is built on. Hypersexualised violence against women being okay should not be one of those.

Anonymous said...

I’m not a gamer, but cinema is my thing. And I struggle with this sort of stuff when the censorship debate comes up again and again. I like to think I’m anti-censorship, and that if art has a point to be made, that it should be allowed to make that point in whatever way it sees fit. That said, the thing I find most disturbing about this game trailer (and the recent cinematic craze for ‘torture/ gore porn’) is that the violence and the sexualisation of that violence doesn’t appear to exist for any reason other than to appeal to an audience. By virtue of existing purely to ‘entertain’ beyond any other reason, this sort of tripe does normalise abhorrent behaviours, there's no two ways about it. It doesn’t exist to ‘teach a lesson’, it’s not revealing an unpalatable truth through art, it’s just there purely for audience enjoyment, and that makes me feel a little sick. It’s more the case in cinema than here, but it upsets me that the entertainment industry hides behind the ‘art’ excuse to normalise a very very disturbing set of ideals. It’s hard to see how apologists for said entertainment can’t be complicit in the perpetuation of a ‘rape culture’ if they’re not evening questioning why it is that the game they’re playing (or the film they’re watching) chooses to show the things it does. And it upsets me more to see people defending that and saying it’s okay – because I guess that means it is normalised!