Rape in video games: “Sex Sells”

Video games and controversy, especially where sex and violence are concerned, seem to go together like two things that often go together but really shouldn’t.

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Violence in video games is no new thing.

Just poke around the Internet or listen to the news for a little while and you’ll uncover a treasure trove of articles and talk show rants about how video games are corrupting America’s children with their gratuitous sex and violence.

Personally, I’m of the belief that violence in video games does not translate to violence and real life, and the idea that it does or will is a myth perpetrated by overly anxious newscasters and parents. While you can argue that we have seen an uptick in casual violence in recent years, I think that’s as much a product of other societal factors including news coverage of wars and crime, gory TV shows and movies and explicit music videos as much as it is a result of teenagers killing pixelating people.

But that’s an issue for another blog.

Instead of picking apart the conservative argument that violence in video games causes violence in real life, I’d like to take a look at the other element of video games that tends to draw controversy like moths to a flame: sex.

[READ: Why sexy modding isn’t really sexy at all]

As a culture that holds conflicting attitudes towards sexuality, especially in regards to women, America often invites controversy over sex and sexual content as a way to sell products and push political or social agendas.

The age old adage “sex sells” is heard so often around some advertising agencies — or in some news reports justifying and/or condemning said sexual content — that it’s become an accepted mode of communication, especially persuasive communication.

Take, for instance, the Hardee’s and Carl’s Jr. commercials that feature heavily sexualized, buxom blonde babes taking monster bites out of a hamburger too big for her plump all-American mouth. These commercials are so outrageous and over-the-top they’re almost parodies of themselves. Despite recent claims that Hardee’s will dump the “Slutburger,” commercials featuring the sexy models still air in many states, perpetuating this ideal image of American women as sex objects and icons.

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Even this new commercial with its central message of changing cultural attitudes within the company features big-breasted women with their juicy burgers even if the context in which they are shown is made to satirize such representation. Source: Youtube.com

In a contrast so sharp it may give you whiplash, the LPGA has recently announced a new dress code for female golfers intended at making their outfits less revealing and more “professional.” ABC News reported this tonal shift on morning talk show “Good Morning America” by showing stock footage images of female golfers in low cut, tight tube tops while actual footage of female golfers on the course showed women in skirts, long-sleeved tops and, in a select few cases, colorful racerback tanks.

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This dress code has been criticized as a form of slut shaming by the LPGA and, like the “pinky-length” dress codes enforced by overzealous middle school teachers, humiliates women when the real problem are the men who are so often “distracted” by such displays of skin. Source: Guardian.com

This strict divide between how American popular culture depicts women and what society actually wants them to be is confusing, hard to navigate and often leaves many women trapped in a social limbo where they can never fulfill cultural expectations without running afoul of actual societal assumptions.

[READ: ‘Wonder Woman’ calls for a reimagining of cinematic feminism]

But what does all of this have to do with rape in video games?

The answer lies in a discussion of one of the most pervasive social influences of this century, one that plays a hand in the conception and design of everything from TV shows to music videos to movies to video games to news stories to policy and political agendas while simultaneously coloring our perception of events in a way that tolerates and even condones violence and sexual violence against women.

Rape culture.

For anyone familiar with feminist discourse and rhetoric, the concept of a U.S. rape culture should be no new thing, but for those confused as to what rape culture means and what it looks like in our society, buckle in.

It’s a complex and evolving social concept, one that is decried and highlighted as much as it is ignored and tolerated. It’s also one of those social shames that nobody wants to talk about or admit has a hand in shaping how they perceive things. But in order to talk, really talk, about rape in video games, we need to talk about rape culture, what it looks like and how it affects us. The “Sex Sells” mentality of advertising is only one aspect of rape culture, a multifaceted, multi-headed Hydra beast.

Next week I’ll take a crack at defining rape culture and delineating its affects on our societal social perception, but for now just think about the LPGA golfers and the Hardee’s commercials I talked about above. Not only are they results of the rape culture mentality so prevalent in our society, they also further the kind of thinking that most feminists — and most rational people, if they actually stop and think about it — want to eradicate.

Until then, let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

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It should be this simple, but it often isn’t. Source: Huffingtonpost.com

A brief history of Gamergate and why it’s still important today

We need to remember Gamergate because we need to create a better Internet, one that isn’t defined by hate groups and the vitriol they’re allowed to spread under the banner of Internet anonymity.

My first exposure to Gamergate was in the research I did for my English 105i term paper (the one that inspired this very blog, as a matter of fact). While the paper itself focused more on Lara Croft as a representation of what future female game protagonists could look like, I read a lot of articles, both scholarly and not, about the Gamergate controversy and what it looked like for women in gaming in the initial stages of research.

What first appeared like another Watergate rip-off — incidents likened to the Nixon scandal by the –gate names that have becoming increasingly (see: too) common over the years — morphed into a reactionary flood of antifeminist and anti-diversity sentiments.

It started with Zoe Quinn, an independent game developer, and the 2013 release of her game “Depression Quest.” While some argued that the game drew ire because of its unusual format — it’s extremely nontraditional, a “game” where players read and then choose text “actions” based on an evolving story paired with a moving soundtrack — the closer you look, the more it becomes about gender and about the angry white men that make up the “traditional” gamer demographic.

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“Depression Quest” was based partly on Quinn’s personal struggle with depression, and yet her genuine expression of vulnerability and heart was met with hostility and contempt by many. Source: Vice.com.

Shortly after her game was released, an angry ex-boyfriend, Eron Gjoni, posted a series of blog posts about Quinn’s alleged emotional abuse and infidelity. In a scathing six-part series, he explained that Quinn slept around with industry leaders, including a Kotaku game writer, in order to get ahead, claims both Quinn and the writer, Nathan Grayson, denied.

While Gjoni’s posts can easily be read as the ravings of a mad ex-boyfriend, some Twitter users took his view and rolled with it, spouting off claims of journalistic misconduct and ethical violations. Some took it one step further, making anonymous usernames and taking to Twitter and 4chan to harass Quinn, posting her address online, leaking nude photos on social media and even sending her death and rape threats, some of them so vile and specific she was forced to flee her home.

At the time, most Gamergate supporters tried to minimize the latter part of their “movement,” emphasizing that the real problem was the journalistic misconduct and that the threats were just the protests of a small minority group. But the “minority group” then turned their sights on another independent developer, Brianna Wu, and feminist media critic Anita Sarkeesian, making the Gamergate conversation less about journalistic ethics and more about gender and inclusion. Or rather, the extreme resistance “traditional” gamers had to it.

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Internet culture allows for a dehumanization of women and other objects of derision, allowing violence to be further perpetrated against them under the protection of Internet anonymity. Source: BBC.com.

It’s important to remember that none of this would have been possible without the protective cloak of Internet anonymity.

Walter Isaacson of “The Atlantic” described anonymity as the “bugs in the foundation, bats in the belfry, and trolls in the basement” of the Internet and online communities.

“For years, the benefits of anonymity on the net outweighed its drawbacks,” he continues.

But if Gamergate has taught us anything, it’s that the opposite is becoming true in an era where claims of alternative facts and fake news dominate information cycles with increasingly regularity.

While it’s true that there are people willing to share their vile beliefs in person, in public, without any regard to who might or might not be listening – the Pit Preacher at my school and the things he screams at passing students is proof enough of that – Internet anonymity makes it frighteningly easy to do so without any of the traditional repercussions the public sphere provides.

Internet culture has created a “boy’s club” environment that is characterized by hostility towards women, gay men and other minority groups. It’s gotten better in recent years, but there’s no denying the fact that while the Internet may provide important and unprecedented avenues for interpersonal connectivity and expression, it has also allowed mean-spirited trolls to flourish anonymously with no real repercussions for their actions.

Which brings us to this: Why is Gamergate still important?

For one, Gamergate never really went away. It just kind of receded into that dank, dark Internet hole trolls and offensive memes hide in, just waiting for the right time to rise and strike again.

You can see it resurface from time to time in anonymous hate directed at female industry leaders, characters and players, and those who critique existing and upcoming games. You can see also it in the number of female video game professionals: 22% compared to a male 75% according to a 2015 international survey. You can see it in the “buxom babes,” “femme fatales” and “damsels in distress,” or the persisting female stereotypes as outlined in “Pixel Pinups: Images of Women in Video Games” by Nina Huntemann.

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These are the statistics about gaming’s shifting demographics, one that frightens many who identify as the traditional straight white males many companies advertise to. Source: Theesa.com

More importantly, you can see it in the larger divisions in our cultural dialogue, beyond just those concerning video games, the male demographic readily involved in Gamergate, and gender and gender harassment.

Caitlin Dewey of “The Washington Post” said it best in her analysis of Gamergate, “The only guide to Gamergate you will ever need.” In her article, she described the movement as a question about “how we define our shared cultural spaces, how we delineate identity, [and] who is and is not allowed to have a voice in mainstream culture.”

“It’s about that tension between tradition and inclusion,” she continued. A tension that is still relevant – and painfully present – in our culture today.

In order to alleviate that tension — or, at the very least, allow us to talk about it civilly and humanely — Internet anonymity needs to be reconsidered and revised. Isaacson suggests a number of reforms in his article “How to fix the Internet,” including a voluntary system of identification and authentication. But any real proposal to reevaluate and rectify our divisive Internet culture would need serious consideration by industry professionals, users, and government officials.

At its heart, Gamergate was a confluence of antifeminist sentiments from a white male demographic afraid of female power in “their” industry and small-minded hatefulness made possible by Internet culture and anonymity. It’s important today because the hateful discourse at the center of the Gamergate storm is still on the Internet, indiscriminately targeting online communities over a variety of social issues from feminism to birth control to abortion to gay rights to #BlackLivesMatter to intersectionality to equal pay to trans rights to bathroom bills to any number of social and political issues.

Gamergate isn’t going away. And it shouldn’t.

It should serve as a reminder to us all about what happens when you allow the very worst of humanity free reign over a powerful and influential media like the Internet. It should also serve as the motivation for a better Internet, one that isn’t defined by anonymous hate groups and their rage.

Until we have that kind of Internet, game on and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

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