Rape, Video Games and the Lost Power of Image
When Crystal Dynamics and Square Enix debuted their trailer for the upcoming Tomb Raider game at E3, it contained a scene which implied that Lara Croft might have become the victim of sexual assault had she not shot her assailant in the face a few seconds later. The internet predictably imploded.
This was originally going to be an essay picking apart all that nonsense, but over the course of several discussions with my fiance my answers began to pose more questions. It’s easy enough to see why all the (mostly feigned, I imagine) outrage over Tomb Raider is silly; it’s much harder to imagine why a group of people that fought tooth and nail to keep Grand Theft Auto 3 out of the hands of government regulation would write entire articles on why Crystal Dynamics should be ashamed for daring to suggest that rape is a thing that women sometimes go through.
Film has been dealing with rape for years, sometimes artfully, if brutally, and sometimes not so much. So the big question is “what’s so different?” Did we all forget that one of last season’s most popular television series, Game of Thrones, either alluded to or overtly depicted rape in nearly every single episode? Game of Thrones is described as “edgy” and “sexy” by lackeys that get paid to do so, and meanwhile if someone dares to make a cutscene in which a man runs his hands down the hips of a traditionally cardboard-cutout version of independent femininity the whole thing becomes a “symptom of sexism in video games”.
I want to give critics the benefit of a doubt; I don’t think it’s the suggestion of rape that upsets them; I think it’s the fact that it’s in a video game. And the easy route out would be to say “Well, it’s because video games are a new medium, and we’re just not as used to pushing boundaries.” That’s only half true and approached from the wrong direction. It has as much to do with the evolution (and subsequent irrelevance) of film as it does with the much slower evolution of video games. The other problem is a much deeper one, an old bogeyman that I usually avoid because it’s used to assert a whole raft of things that are untrue: video games are interactive.
Most people today don’t understand what a revolution for mass media the moving picture was. That old story about the people in the tent ducking as the train approached the camera not withstanding (it’s probably untrue), film revealed a hitherto unknown wealth about human psychology, perception, and the unconscious. The Russian director Sergei Eisenstein demonstrated, for example, that when shown an expressionless face, and then shown a series of provocative images before and after, the viewer will naturally transpose his emotions about the proceeding and preceding images onto the face. In some cases the viewer would argue vehemently that the face was ever expressionless at all. They truly saw things that weren’t there.
This is probably the purest example of exploitation in cinema that I can think of, though I think most film makers would use the slightly more benign word “manipulation”. These days that sort of manipulation is an accepted and integral part of film (and increasingly in video games), and encompasses almost every part of the film making process, from sequential images to lighting and soundtrack; it’s an essential tool in the arsenal of any film maker. The problem (or depending on whom you ask, the salvation) is that it doesn’t work nearly as well as it used to.
I’m not claiming that the principles of film making have somehow broken down. We still use sequence and montage to suggest ideas to the viewer, and if the film is well made those ideas generally get through. Basic human psychology remains intact. I’m saying that those ideas, and how they are suggested, have lost much of their impact, partially due to overuse, and partially due to an over-saturation of visually consumed media. This is natural; if nearly all the information we process every day uses these sorts of manipulations, on some basic level we’re going to become aware of and resistant to them.
I am a huge fan of Exploitation cinema, circa 1960 through about 1980. This was a period of time when you could see a lot of modern film making techniques sometimes literally explode in a shower of blood into the mainstream consciousness, though it was often hidden behind outrage and shock at the content of the films themselves (sound familiar?). Exploitation cinema is a difficult obsession to explain to anyone who doesn’t already understand the appeal. A lot of the power of those early films has been bled dry by co-option by Hollywood. This is a familiar cycle; anything genuinely dangerous or subversive to the status quo is repurposed with slightly less edge and enough mainstream tropes to sell to the masses. It happened with Communism in the seventies and Hardcore Punk in the eighties. When the rape/revenge film Last House on the Left was released in 1972, it was immediately banned in the UK and stayed that way until the mid nineties. Now movies that follow the rape/revenge formula are released with a PG-13 rating and shown to cynical teenagers all over the country. Movies like Saw and its umpteen sequels (not to mention every awful rip-off that cycle spawned) regularly open to millions of dollars of ticket sales.
If there’s an upside to this resistance to shocking imagery, it’s that film makers can no longer rely on the power of a severed head or a rape scene to say something. As much as I love Exploitation, I also understand that it was a pretty lazy way to make a point. Today any thinking person can look Hostel and and roll their eyes. There’s no point in getting angry about the exploitation of shock imagery because imagery no longer shocks. If you’re going to have a rape scene in your film it better damn well have a point, else I’m going to ignore it the same way I ignored every sequel Saw ever had.
Looked at from that angle, it’s hard to fathom why people like Helen Lewis would be offended by the suggestion of sexual assault in a video game while presumably ignoring all the implied and overt rape in a show like Game of Thrones, or violence against women in a movie like Hostel II. But video games aren’t movies. Film, as powerful as it can be, is very much a passive medium when compared to games. Though she didn’t say it, I think Lewis and the rest of the peanut gallery are uncomfortable with the idea of playing out a potential rape scene, and for what it’s worth I agree with that discomfort.
If you disagree, check out Jim Sterling’s opinion on the issue of rape versus murder in video games. I have a lot of problems with Sterling’s assertions, but I agree with his central argument: the act of rape can never be justified while murder can be, and often is. Rape is inherently about power over another person who has no chance of fighting back, and it can be compared to an act of torture in that sense: sadism that serves no purpose other than to harm.
My question for Sterling is how a person can justify a game like Grand Theft Auto using the same argument. GTA is a game that allows (and arguably encourages) the murder of unarmed and innocent civilians. If the only difference between rape and murder is that one is perpetrated upon a helpless victim (not that I actually believe that), then how is GTA any different from a game like RapeLay? You could make arguments about presentation, and I think that’s part of it, but the much bigger difference is the one thing that video games offer us that films can’t: choice.
Sterling’s argument against rape in video games only works when applied to a small sub-genre of games like RapeLay, which are in a very real way rape simulators. In a game like RapeLay you have no choice: it’s not a game about rape, it’s just a game of rape. In taking away the choice, the developers take away the impact. This is the same problem I have with the “No Russian” level in Modern Warfare 2. The choice is what matters in any video game. Without it, an interactive rape scene is exploitative and pointless. It’s not even worth getting angry over; we just sigh and move along.
The new Tomb Raider doesn’t get anywhere close to this, of course: the rapist is the enemy, and I have a feeling that if you fail the quick time event to fight him off, Lara will win anyway. But it raises some uncomfortable questions about the nature of rape in interactive media. How would you feel about a game that gave you the choice to rape another human being, and made the impact of that decision meaningful? I would defend and even support such a game, but I’m not sure I’d play it. I don’t think I’d like the answers to the questions a game like that asks.