Me at the Game Developers Conference in San Franscisco earlier this year. Ostensibly I am applauding because a rape joke was not happening. (Image via Official GDC)
As a well-rounded nerd, I enjoy video games. No surprise there. I enjoy them as a player and even as a spectator. I’ve been controlling little pixelated avatars since the Atari 2600 was considered mind-blowing technology. Video games have been a critical part of my life almost as long as BOOKS have been, and I started reading when I was two, so that’s saying something.
What I haven’t been, however, is much a part of so-called “gamer culture.” In many ways, I fall into the oft-derided stereotype of the “girl gamer” (or, to extend a popular concept, the “fake gamer girl”?) because I am generally bored by games in which all you do is shoot things, and yet I will spend hours playing that iOS game in which you just control a pony walking down a trail. (And you can also get your pony pretty new saddles and stuff by spotting wild animals on your treks!) (IT IS SO RELAXING.)
I’m also not much a part of gamer culture because my tolerance for bullshit is basically zero. And there is a lot of bullshit to be had amongst alleged hardcore gamers. Let’s look at an incident that took place during Microsoft’s big E3 press conference yesterday, in which their new hardware, the Xbox One (#Xbone to its friends on Twitter) was revealed.
At one point during the festivities, two presenters, a man and a woman, demonstrate a fighting game onstage. The dude is playing with a “fightstick,” which is a specialized controller for fighting games, and the woman is using a regular controller.
When his opponent protests that she can’t even block his attacks in time, the guy tells her, “There we go. Just let it happen, it’ll be over soon.” Big laugh from the audience for this.
Then, a few seconds later, as he is continuing to attack her character onstage, he tells her, “Oh, you like this!” to which she responds a little testily, “No, I don’t like this.”
The moment passes quickly, and it would be easy to shrug this off as just a bit of clever trash talk, and unusually gentle trash talk at that, especially when you compare it to the kinds of heinous comments one is likely to hear in non-scripted scenarios when playing online with real people via Xbox Live.
Even if this was improvised, I would have problems with it. But here’s the thing: NOTHING IS IMPROVISED at press conferences like this. Indeed, in many cases, when you see two people “playing” a game during a press conference, they’re only feigning their movements to a bit of prerecorded video (and understandably so, as relying on equipment not to fail you at a crucial moment when the media is nitpicking your every move is probably not always wise, if a little dishonest).
The unavoidable fact is that someone wrote (or at least approved) these lines for their presenters to deliver, and THAT gives me problems aplenty.
The exchange may not have been consciously intended to symbolize rape, but the truth is that untold numbers of women have heard exactly these words from a dude trying to overcome their resistance to sex. “Just let it happen, it’ll be over soon” is far too evocative of sexual assault to dismiss. And you know, my read on this, and many others' impressions as well, went straight to the suggestion of rape for a reason. The comment would be creepy and gross no matter the context, but given that both video games themselves, and the insular culture of their hardcore adherents, have a SERIOUS PROBLEM with rape, it becomes exploitative of a subtext of which most of the dudes in that audience are all too aware.
The thing is, guys talk about “rape” in games all the time. The word is used flippantly, to describe having overwhelmingly beaten someone in a match: losers “get raped” by the winners who “rape” them. If you listen to the gratuitous Xbox Live voice chat on virtually any widely-popular first-person shooter (military-themed ones especially), in between the copious racial and homophobic slurs, you’ll also hear a lot of people talking about raping their opponents.
The problem is, when you say something like this often enough, it becomes embedded in the culture. And once it’s embedded, it’s almost impossible to get it out again. A year ago, on the gaming blog Kotaku, Patricia Hernandez wrote about the concept of rape as employed in playing Gears of War 3 online, and how she had come to use the term, in spite of being a rape survivor herself, in spite of the complex matrix of feelings and pain saying it caused her. She talks about one instance in which, having won a difficult match, she told her opponent she had “raped” him:
What I said is troubling, especially because the way I was saying it, I wanted to make it clear the sentiment wasn't figurative. I wanted them to have some vague semblance of the actual experience: that was just how upset I was. I wanted to make it clear that I had destroyed them, because that's what rape represented in my mind. Someone destroying someone else.
But they just laughed. It didn't mean a thing, it wasn't something that would 'register' or even something that could be used against them.
The problem with brushing off these comments as meaningless, and those who would call them out as "oversensitive feminazis," is that it's a lie: they’re not actually meaningless. Indeed, the dismissive and thoughtless way in which rape, as both concept and word, is used by many gamers gives it MORE meaning, not less, by diminishing the reality of what rape is, and how it affects the lives of those who survive it. Therefore it is ENORMOUSLY meaningful to suggest that rape analogies are just dumb jokes not worth worrying about.
The Microsoft example is rather benign in a games culture in which “rape” is so ubiquitous, but that makes it even more creepy to me -- the fact that a major hardware and software developer thought it was appropriate and even funny to have a male presenter instruct a female presenter to “let it happen,” and that she actually “likes it” in spite of her own outspoken protestations is seriously troubling. More than that, it’s unnecessary -- lots of gamers, arguably even the majority, are fully capable of trash-talking an opponent in ways that are intimidating or funny, but without invoking sexual assault.
I start to wonder if the glee with which some dudes (and this isn’t limited to one gender, to be fair, even if dudes tend to dominate) use the concept of rape doesn’t suggest satisfaction at breaking a taboo, at saying something they could never say and get away with in different circumstances.
As a hypothetical situation in a different context, if you beat out a colleague at work for an important project or promotion, and you joyfully told her you “raped” her? You’re probably going to have a long meeting in HR. IF you don’t get fired immediately. This simply isn’t something people say to each other in polite company. Why should games get a pass?
What Microsoft has done here, really, is to further bolster the use of rape and rape-like language in games as “funny” and totally appropriate, even in a press conference in which the company is supposedly trying to impress its audience with how awesome their products are. It’s not funny. And it’s not OK. And honestly? I’m inclined to check out the Playstation 4 instead at this point, and not just because it may be the better hardware. At least Sony -- as well as LOTS OF OTHER GAME-RELATED COMPANIES -- knows not to put women onstage for other presenters to publicly “rape” as a funny joke.