[Trigger Warning: Sexual Assault] I’ve recently discovered the comedic stylings of Amy Schumer, thanks in large part to her new Comedy Central show. The program, Inside Amy Schumer, sees the comedian performing stand up, interviewing people on the street, and act in longer sketches. Much of Schumer’s humor, though certainly not all, is told from her perspective as a woman; a breath of fresh air for Comedy Central. Her jokes run the gamut from absurd, like infidelity by way of clown orgy, to satirical, as with the viral-hit Aaron Sorkin parody The Foodroom.
One of her newest sketches lands itself in the realm of uncomfortably thought-provoking, tackling a whole number of issues: Sexism in gaming, sexism in the military, and even delves into some of the harsh realities of sexual assault in both. Please count that a warning before you hit play.
PHEW. That’s a lot to process in less than three minutes. “I am so thrilled that this game doesn’t actually exist!” I thought after watching this sketch. Then I realized: It does exist. Only unlike Schumer’s game, we’re not playing them from the perspective of the victim.
Before diving into the game-stuff there’s the much more pressing issue at hand: sexual assault within the ranks of the US military. The Department of Defense reports that 19,000 sexual assaults occur in the armed forces per year. In 2013, of those 19,000 a little more than 1,000 troops filed for an investigation, and only about half of those cases were processed. And just in case you thought it couldn’t get worse: 90% of the victims wound up involuntarily discharged (read: fired).
While 53% of sexual assault victims in the military are men (as reported by the Pentagon), that other 47% is comprised of women who, in total, comprise only about 15% of the military’s ranks. The big issue (in addition to misogyny and homophobia, amongst myriad other problems) for all of the victims, most of whom do not bother reporting the offense to higher ups thinking it will have little effect, is that of a larger cultural problem within the armed forces; one that has only recently been subject to major attempts at reform. The US Navy is even utilizing video games to try and reduce sexual assault.
But the problem still persists and is not one so quickly dealt with, as demonstrated by Schumer’s in-game experiences with shaming, peer pressure, endless paperwork, more shaming, and an all-for-naught conclusion.
Now without undermining its significance let’s move past the very real issue of sexual assault and talk about those fabricated game-experiences for a bit. While she doesn’t beat us over the head with it, Schumer has tapped into a very real issue in gaming: The depiction of sexual violence in games, both as imagery and as mechanic.
So many game developers strive to make their titles the most overused media term of the last several years: gritty. Dark and gritty and real. I mean it’s not a ‘hardcore’ game if its primary mechanic isn’t mass-murder with hi-res blood, right? But what happens when gritty no longer equates to dark pallets and a body count? When we change the perspective? Where do we draw the line with what is and isn’t acceptable?
When does a game stop being a game? Or at least a game anybody would actually want to play?
Perhaps you get something a little too gritty. Something that makes you genuinely uncomfortable. Something that strips the power fantasy away and highlights a very real problem.
Countless games feature tacked on ‘romance’ missions that serve little to progress the narrative in any significant way. Despite being a very small part of the games, the ability to have sex with, beat, rob, and kill female sex-workers is one of the Grand Theft Auto series’ most popularly talked about features. God of War: Ascension infamously featured the ‘Bros Before Hoes’ trophy, awarded only after pummeling to death a particular female foe. Metal Gear Solid: Ground Zeroes has come under fire recently for the heavily suggested sexual assault of a major character. One could even look at the ongoing kidnapping of Princess Peach by Bowser, though only sexual in the eyes of fan fiction writers, as an example of ongoing female-assault in gaming. A less severe one, but arguably one of the most pervasive.
I’m not even going to touch the content of some dating-sim titles, some of which directly utilize rape as primary mechanic like the notorious Japan-only game RapeLay. (I hesitate to even mention this title, or acknowledge that I’m even aware of its existence.)
Rape and other forms of sexual abuse are regularly employed devices in video games, but never from the perspective of the person being assaulted. An exception might be the recent reboot of Tomb Raider, which featured Lara overcoming a brief stint with some intense physical intimidation (the subject of its own controversy months before the game saw the light of day) and ultimately bringing down her male captors. A more concrete example would be the critically acclaimed Heavy Rain, a game that made waves when it attempted to explore ‘mature’ themes in its narrative. These themes included the forced-striptease, regular objectification, and in one game-ending instance the genital mutilation, of its only playable female character Madison Paige (though it’s worth noting that many critics praised Madison’s characterization otherwise). Yet even with those examples in mind, with widely varying opinions on how well the experiences were executed, they are but two games in a medium of thousands and thousands.
I can watch a movie that tackles the issue of sexual assault and not feel like it’s been tacked on for cheap drama (assuming it’s done well) because there are plenty of films featuring women in the lead that explore other issues. In gaming that couldn’t be further from the truth. First of all there’s the active playing part of a game. No matter how many cutscenes you include, due to the player/avatar relationship anything that happens in a game is going to resonate with the player as something they did themselves, rather than something they observed. And when you put those resonant actions in the context of a victory or an achievement all you’ve done is reinforce the player and tell them that what they did is okay.
There’s a shortage of female protagonists in games, and protagonist or not female video game characters have an unfortunately intimate relationship with objectification, assault, and victimization. Perhaps if we had more Lara Crofts, Faith Connors, Aveline de Grandpres, Lightnings, and Ellies running around the things that happen to Madison Paige or Paz Ortega Andrade would feel less like cheap attempts at gritty realism and more as honest explorations of mature themes. Big maybe, but still a maybe. There’s certainly an argument to be made for video games as tools for empathy, as I recently discussed with BioWare’s Manveer Heir, and I personally don’t think that any topic is too taboo for a video game to explore. As previously mentioned the US Navy is already doing this, using a video game to teach sailors the realities of sexual assault in hopes of stopping it. What’s important, though, is the context of how this content is created and presented, and whether or not developers take the time to make these instances meaningful parts of the story rather than as easy narrative devices to draw sympathy, rage, or even arousal from the player.
When you get right down to it, representation is a numbers game and right now it’s a game stacked heavily against women. Just as with the female soldiers, every time a female video game character is assaulted it’s one more in an already very small population. Heck, Battlefield 4 isn’t even going to bother including playable female characters yet (though now that I have this sketch in my head, maybe that’s for the best….)
When Schumer’s girlfriend character decides she no longer wants to play and hands the controller back to her boyfriend, who begins making unnecessary shooting noises; unphased by the whole ordeal and suggesting that Amy just did something wrong, she’s transcended herself and become representative of every girl scorned by games. The many women who have a real interest and curiosity in gaming but are rejected entrance to the hobby for various reasons. The members of the competitive Smash Bros. world that have faced very real instances of sexual harassment, for instance. Perhaps they go on the internet to discuss games (including their critiques) only to be rejected or even attacked by the trolling masses. Sound familiar? Or they start at home, wanting to give their boyfriend’s favorite game a try only to be told, upon voicing an issue with the game, that they were just ‘doing it wrong’. Maybe they even work in the games industry already, only to find the male-dominated world assuming the worst in them from the get go. Maybe they get called a ‘fake nerd girl’ or get harassed while playing a game on Twitch.
And sometimes, as with Schumer, they play a game only to find it does little to speak to a female audience or at worst goes to great lengths to remind them that they don’t belong here. The GTAs, the Call of Duties, the God of Wars.
Imagine if we took all of the aforementioned games and changed the avatar to the victim rather than the attacker, a witness, or her savior. The power-fantasy actually hasn’t gone away….it’s just this time around the player isn’t the one experiencing it. No this time the player is just a plot-device, or a collectible, or a means to get more points, or perhaps most disgustingly an ‘achievement’. The player has become an unimportant part of someone else’s narrative, someone else’s experiences, and someone else’s pain.
Just like Amy Schumer brilliantly points out, that’s not a game anybody wants to play.
It’s not a game at all.