50 Shades of Rape
On my journey through the essential games of the last few months I’ve finally gotten around to playing and finishing Far Cry 3. I’ve not really been all that interested in the first-person shooter genre in recent years, so when I noticed how the mechanics managed to keep me playing for hours on end, and the premise and story kept me thinking long after I’d shut the console off, I was quite pleasantly surprised. And as I progressed towards the end of the game, I grew increasingly sure that I would end up having to write at least one, if not two or even three posts about certain aspects of the game. What I hadn’t expected, however, was that among the many thoughts that were swirling around my head as the credits screen finally rolled, the strongest would be a Chris Rock quote.
[Mild spoiler warning: Far Cry 3, Killer 7, Deus Ex: Human Revolution, Tomb Raider]
Let’s back up a few months first, to when Square-Enix’ marketing of their latest Tomb Raider game got them into trouble with parts of the gaming community. The gist of it is this: the protagonist Lara Croft was, supposedly, put in a situation that quite heavily implied the threat of sexual violence. Some people cried “foul”, accusing the developers of cynically using the threat of rape as a plot device. Now, there are loads of discussions to be had here, including one about how justified it is to use sexual violence as a plot device considering how much more common it is than murder – which incidentally is what the player is more often than not threatened with in action games. But what I want to focus on more than anything is the timing and circumstance of the outrage.
Because the truth is that we’ve seen explicit or implicit sexual violence used in games before. For instance, while playing through the DLC campaign for Deus Ex: Human Revolution, I encountered a detainee in a prison facility who explained unambiguously that she had been repeatedly raped by her captors. Many years earlier I had played cult classic Killer 7, where one of the main characters, a semi-vegetative older male in a wheelchair, was raped by his abusive caretaker right in front of the player. There are sure to be other similar instances of sexual violence in video games that I’ve either missed or forgotten, but the point is that neither of these elicited the same response as the Tomb Raider debacle.
You’d be forgiven for jumping to a simplistic explanation in this specific case. My first example is from an optional portion of a game, and it’s further nestled in opt-in dialogue that the player can easily miss. The other example is from a game that not a whole lot of people played. The reason I won’t simply accept the obscurity argument, however, is that nobody seemed to care about the sexual violence in the blockbuster hit that prompted this post.
One of the goals of the story of Far Cry 3 was, according to its writer, to take the standard storytelling tropes in games to their extremes, and to turn some of them on their heads. There is a caricature-ish aspect to much of the game’s narrative and aesthetics, and the player is at one point tasked with rescuing one of his friends who is being held captive, tortured and raped by a detestable psychopath. Later, he must save another hostage from being sold into sexual slavery. Now, as I mentioned, this is happening in a game that to this date has sold more than twice as much as Tomb Raider. The events also happen on the game’s critical path, so it’s impossible to miss for anyone who even gets one third or so through the storyline of the game. Yet to my knowledge no one of the critics of Tomb Raider’s narrative has raised any concerns about this use of sexual violence (which is arguably worse than the threat thereof in Tomb Raider, as it’s happening to “objects” rather than the player-character). Yes, it’s likely (though not exactly flattering) that the Tomb Raider situation happened in part because the scene alluding to sexual violence was part of the marketing campaign, in one of the early gameplay trailers. But I do wonder if it doesn’t have to do more with the fact that both of the victims in Far Cry 3 were men.
“Nobody give a fuck about daddy…” said Chris Rock to my mind’s ear while the credits were rolling. “Now, momma has the roughest job…” he continued “… but at least people appreciate momma…” And in light of what I’d seen in the game, and the total lack of outrage on message boards and elsewhere, I had no choice but to at least entertain the notion that maybe, just maybe, he’d hit the nail on the head all the way back in his Bigger and Blacker HBO special. Now, obviously Chris was speaking a lot more generally and didn’t really mean to comment on the narrative use of rape in video games, but the whole thing still felt really poignant. Thing is, his bit is basically about how men and women are treated differently for no good reason, something that should strike a nerve with any feminist, male, female or otherwise. And though his examples are more mundane and less gruesome, there’s still the element of an expectation that men be stoic and tough and not be need of appreciation or comfort from others (which in itself reinforces a stereotype about men that hurts everyone). This is actually reflected in Far Cry 3, after the victim of repeated torture and rape asks the main character to keep the details of what he’d been put through secret from the rest of their friends (note that these friends include two attractive women who were both also held captive, but incidentally not raped).
I’m not totally sure what’s going on here, to be honest; it’s not uncomplicated. Maybe it’s all about the fact that the last couple of years have seen such a strong reaction against the dudebro-y nature of the games industry. We’ve been speaking almost non-stop about the position of women in games (whether as characters, consumers or producers), and this is a good thing. Maybe that’s the whole reason behind the relative over-reaction to the Tomb Raider situation. Maybe it’s also the fact that Far Cry 3 is much more directed at men as its target audience, at least on the surface; I happen to think that the game has a lot of very strong anti-patriarchal, anti-dudebro themes in it, but irony doesn’t usually register all that well among gamers. That said, even if it just so happens that none of the people that made a big deal out of Lara Croft’s predicament knew about the sexual violence in Far Cry 3, it still leaves a whole lot of people who either didn’t understand the messages in the game or didn’t care enough to make a big deal out of it (maybe because they didn’t want to talk about something quite so emasculating and taboo as male-on-male rape). The worst thing would be if people had actually tried to put a spotlight on it, but that neither the grassroots nor the games press thought it worth making a big deal out of. Whatever the excuses, it is simply bad that it’s happened. Because rape is a terrible offense, no matter the perpetrator or the victim, and being selective in our condemnation or debate about its use as plot devices does nobody any favors.