A lot of terrible things have happened in the world over the last few weeks. In Steubenville, Ohio, a teenaged girl was raped and subsequently footage was released on YouTube of people joking about the event and mocking the victim.
This video provides an excellent summary of the Ohio case, and includes some of the footage. It includes footage and discussion which may be distressing to some viewers. We are linking to it here because it places the event in the context of the culture in which it was allowed to happen and which excused it afterwards, a culture that we are all a part of and likely contribute to in some way. The men – or boys, perhaps – who perpertrated this crime were not evil, nor mentally ill, yet were perhaps not even aware they had committed a crime, and certainly had no conception of the imorality or inappropriateness of their actions, and they did not become that way in just a moment.
The boys involved were football players, not gamers, but culture is powerful and important. The media is full of examples of these kind of events happening with regard to sports teams and sport sub-cultures, and in such cultures we also find the hallmarks of rape culture. That is to say, studies continue to show that rape is more likely to occur in environments that produce a “rape culture”, where women are stereotyped, objectified, isolated, denigrated and demeaned, through both overt and subtle rituals and communication.
This is information we should be very concerned about indeed. Gaming is rife with rape culture and has become increasingly so in the last decade, both in the content of the games and in the subculture’s behaviours and standards. Even if no crimes had occurred, that should make us worried at the risk this might present, based on similar cultures with similar dysfunctions where the culture does indeed lead to increases in actual events. The sad truth is, there are such events. Cases of sexual assault and physical sexual harrassment have become more and more common at gaming events, particularly conventions. If there are less reported cases of rape and sexual assault among gamers than among sport teams, we might suggest that is simply because gamers are less social in general, less likely to socialise with the opposite sex, and/or that, for computer gamers, the nature of their hobby – being mostly online – keeps them isolated.
In other words, it could be that the only reason gamer geeks rape less frequently than jocks is because geeks go to fewer parties.
That is a simplification but deliberately so; the summary allows it to be more direct, more shocking, and it needs to be shocking, because it is a crisis situation that must be addressed.
What’s also interesting about this discussion is the timing. As this article also discusses (as it dissects rape culture, brilliantly and at length, please read it) there is a familiarity to this accusation that many will find uncomfortable. For the longest time, gamers have fought against the stigma that games cause violence. Dungeons and Dragons and RPGs were blamed for murder and mind-control in the early 1980s; from the Columbine massacre of 1999 to the horrific events at Sandy Hook just a few weeks ago, media pundits have rushed to blame video games. Indeed, the residents of Sandy Hook recently gathered to perform a mass burning of violent media, including games.
Many gamers have faced great objections to their games because of fears like this. Some games have been banned or made extremely hard to find as a result. Some gamers have devoted enormous amounts of time, energy, passion and intellect to defending against these trends, and keeping our hobby, all of it, out of the pyres, and out of the shadows of fearful stereotyping and stigma. The suggestion that games make you violent – and murderous – is one that has been fought long, and hard and instinctively and repeatedly because it had to be. In voicing anything that resembles such a claim, even from inside the hobby, we should expect a vocal and ardent defence, out of long justified habit.
So is there a difference between saying games make you a murderer and saying games make you a rapist?
For one, the claims are fundamentally different. The first draws a line directly from simulated behaviour to actual behaviour without any recognition of steps between, a line that ignores all sense of contributing culture, and a line that science doesn’t support. In the second case we have increasing evidence that rape culture – a measurable, well-defined state – exists in gaming culture, which is bad enough on its own, because it isolates, demeans and degrades women. We also know that in other subcultures, rape culture contributes significantly to the risk of actual physical assault.
The only question that remains is whether the rape culture is being sufficiently contributed to by the content of the games themselves, or simply coming from outside sources. Are men being overwhelmingly caught up in rape culture from mainstream sources, or does the portrayal (or lack thereof) of women in gaming help build and maintain that culture?
That is hard to say for sure. There is increasing evidence, however, that women are underrepresented in game content, and stereotypically represnted when they do appear. That gaming continues to market strongly and slavishly to the mindset of the adolescent, hormonal teenager. We know this because, if from no other source, women are talking about it. Because they can’t find the games they want to play.
The claims are different, and what’s more the reaction is different too. The knee-jerk response to any talk of art being dangerous is to fear the pyre, and again, there are very good reasons for that to be the instinctual response, because we humans are very quick to condemn. For some, the emotional response is equivalent: we can get on social media and label something as evil and that is just the same outpouring of collective hate that gathers around the book-burning pyre.
But there is a fundamental difference between burning books and criticising them. This is a difference not all find important: Penny Arcade’s “Tycho” believes the solution, as he explains here in response to a certain hypersexualised game trailer, should never be less art but always “more art”. But that suggests that all ideas are worthy of all attention, and that creativity produces a wild jungle where ideas of every stripe thrive in their own niche. This is not true of art and certainly not of paid entertainment. The point of the critic – whether that criticism be artistic or political – is to say that some ideas are more interesting than others, and absolutely more important than others. This is not censorship, this is an artistic winnowing that cuts down the trivial and banal, and values the beautiful and truthful; that ignores the cruel and the reactionary and elevates the better angels.
Does that risk exiling some works for being politically incorrect? Maybe so. But it also forces artists to be more interesting. More intelligent. More aware. And less lazy. Less comfortable. Less boring. Less grubbingly dependent on the visceral and the shocking, on the profitable and profligate. Criticism is not the same as censorship; criticism makes art better, in every possible sense. And in a commercial sense, it is vital: it is the consumer telling the producer what they actually want.
That it might also lead to changing the whole culture of the hobby – and thus significantly reduce the number of actual sexual assaults – is a rather nice bonus.
So here we are, and here we remain. We will continue, along with others, to point out games that fail to challenge the dominant, exclusionary, objectifying and demeaning culture, and, more importantly, to celebrate loudly and vocally, those that succeed in challenging them. Because it’s not the same as saying violent games kill people and should be banned. Because the danger is one that history has shown to be actually real – and because our response is one that history has shown to actually work.