Rape in video games is something we should be okay with

Brutal violence: good. Rape: bad.

Last week, controversy broke when PC Gamer got the opportunity to preview the sequel to the ultra-violent Hotline Miami.

In the preview, the author (who is female), expresses disappointment and sadness about a feigned rape scene in the game.

When I wrote about this particular bit of news in This Week In Gaming, I advised developers to simply avoid this kind of content altogether, as every time we’ve seen it in the context of a video game it has resulted in drama and controversy.

But I got to thinking, and I can’t help feeling that was somewhat of a cop-out. Rape in video games is always labelled as disgusting, misogynistic, and/or distasteful and immediately swept under the carpet. But I think it’s just about time we lift that particular rug and take a hard look at what’s underneath.

First of all, I’d like to get the sexism aspect out of the way. Sexism in the video game industry, community and culture is rampant. It’s widespread, it’s unacceptable and it’s something I’ve campaigned against in my writing in the past.

Unfortunately, because of the extremely sexist climate in which sexual violence in video games is discussed, it very quickly becomes labelled as misogynistic. I disagree. The way women are portrayed in video games is often depressingly stereotyped and conforming to some kind of adolescent fantasy, but sexual violence is, unfortunately, very real.

In the same way a portrayal of racism in a video game doesn’t make the developers racist, I don’t think a portrayal of violence against women makes them misogynistic.

I did a little internet searching to see what people think about this issue, and you tend to stumble across the same arguments.

angry internet guy
All conveyed in a mature and constructive manner.

The most tired classic is “you’re fine with killing hundreds of people, what’s the big deal with a rape scene?”

I came across this blog on Forbes, where the author claims this is the wrong question because “the answer is so obvious”. His “obvious answer” is that it’s because everyone else is trying to kill you first – the woman in Hotline Miami 2 is an innocent bystander, not a thug with a shotgun.

This answer is also obviously wrong. Has this guy ever played any GTA games? Anyone who has ever played GTA has spent countless hours gleefully squishing civilians with a tank while gunning down the elderly from a porthole (do tanks have portholes? Whatever.)

What about all us sadistic Sims players who lock our neighbours in a room until they piss themselves or take the ladder out the swimming pool?

We aren’t okay with killing people in games because “they shoot back” – it’s because we’re desensitized to it. It’s the norm, it’s what we expect. When we load up any action title, we’re expecting to wade through hordes of corpses, innocent or not.

"Hey dude, what were you thinking for lunch?"
“Hey man, after this game you wanna grab some lunch?”

You can apply this same logic to the other most popular argument, that you’re controlling the character, therefore it’s like you’re doing it yourself. So you’re okay with being a sadistic serial murderer? No, you’re not. It’s just how we’re used to spending our time in-game. All of us sane, rational people have no problem separating fantasy from reality.

On the topic of separating fantasy and reality, in the PC Gamer preview the author mentions that she can’t help thinking about what kind of effect this game would have on the 1 in 5 people who have been affected by sexual violence. It’s hard to criticise that sentiment without coming across as insensitive, but it’s a completely unfair statement. Books, movies and almost all other forms of media don’t have their content criticised based on who it may upset; why should video games be evaluated differently?

Here’s the thing – my favourite games are ones that move me. Games with story, with emotion, with depth. Games, done correctly, can be art.

Honestly, I think the real issue is simply that video games are still a relatively new form of media. Video games as a device for story-telling even more so.

Movies can get away with anything. Child molestation, rape, torture, brutal and gratuitous violence – we gasp and we sigh and we call it art and tell our friends what a must-see it is. A video game does something similar and it’s “disgusting” or “repulsive”.

Last year there was an almighty hoo-ha over a Splinter Cell: Blacklist demo that had you twisting a knife into the shoulder of an enemy. torturing them for information.

We had people like Gears of War: Judgment co-writer Tom Bissell spout off crap like this, “I spent a couple days feeling ashamed of being a gamer, of playing or liking military games, of being interested in any of this disgusting bullshit at all.”

It amazes me that we have such an immature and intolerant attitude towards games. This scene, to be quite frank, was really not even all that cringe-worthy.

I want games to evolve, to grow. I want developers to push boundaries. I want games to break the mould of being something for kids and to make us actually feel something. Every time we freak out over some sensitive content, we are locking ourselves into this prescriptivist bullshit where games are something for children, a play-thing, a harmless distraction.

I want to feel something when I play a game. I want to feel uncomfortable, I want to feel angry, I want to be sad and confused and be emotionally shaken. I don’t want that from every game, but I want games like that to exist.

If we limit what we allow developers to do, if we box what we as a consumers are okay with into exclusive categories of violence, games will always keep us at arm’s length; stuck in a fantasy that we can’t quite connect with, a world where anything truly awful cannot exist.

I think it’s time we all grow up; and let our games grow up too.