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.

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

Lucky 13: This ‘Doctor Who’ fan isn’t ‘scared’ of 13th Doctor’s gender

What a time to be alive.

Truth be told, I haven’t watched “Doctor Who” in years. Once a rabid “across-the-pond” fan, my attention has waxed and waned over the years before declining sharply with the introduction of Clara as “The Impossible Girl.”

Part of my inattention was caused by the increasingly complex (see: ridiculous) plotlines and escapades imagined by series writer Steven Moffat. The other part was a long waiting period and weakening Netflix addiction that was only revived by my foray into college life. But after yet another wibbly-wobbly timey-wimey tale of hijinks ran off the rails into dramatic explosions and cleverer-than-thou Doctor monologues, I had to stop watching the show or start hating the series that I had loved so much in my late middle school and early high school years.

However, with the release of the new trailer unveiling the 13th incarnation of the alien Doctor grabbing attention across the globe, I’m willing to give this classic British series another chance.

It’s no secret that I’m for more female protagonists. Whether they be in video games, movies, TV shows, books or other mediums, I’m of the belief that more female characters — more complex and engaging female characters with realistic emotional definition and detailed character arcs and plotlines — the better.

[READ: 5 things we need more (or less) of in video games]

So it should be of no surprise that I’m excited about this new Doctor. I do have one critique, however.

What the hell took you so long?

This show has been running continually on British TV since the 1960s — barring a brief break during the 90s until the show’s official relaunch in the early 2000s — with twelve, now thirteen, different incarnations of the title character and countless variations of the spunky sidekick role throughout the years.

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Some of the most memorable Doctors include David Tennant (Ten, 2005-2010), Tom Baker (Four, 1974-1981) and Patrick Troughton (Second, 1966-1969) with more great companions than I have room to name in a 800-word blog post. Sources: David-tennant-news.com, Dailymail.com and Pinterest.com

But year after year, Doctor after Doctor, Tardis set after Tardis set, there have been no female Doctors until Jodie Whittaker. And Whittaker has already released a statement urging fans not to be scared of her gender.

You heard right.

Scared. Of her gender.

In a quote in the article “Doctor Who: Fans react to Jodie Whittaker casting” from BBC News, Whittaker said, “I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender. This is a really exciting time and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change.”

The tone of this quote is defensive and a little pleading and while I can sort of understand its necessity , I’m a little shocked and a lot pissed that Whittaker and/or her PR agent felt they had to say it.

But she’s not exactly in the wrong to feel defensive. The BBC article went on to compile some of the most memorable fan reactions to the announcement, rom a father tweeting about his 8-year-old pumping her fist in the air to Facebook and Twitter trolls bemoaning the syntactic difference between a Time Lord and a Time Lady.

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Seriously, shut up. Just shut up. You have no right to take this moment of victory away from the female Doctor Who fans who are finally celebrating gender parity in regards to the show’s main role. Source: BBC.com

I could go on and on about how the term “doctor” is gender-neutral and about how the show has already shown us through secondary characters and Moffat-y exposition that there are as many Time Ladies as there are Time Lords and about how everyone criticizing the new direction of the show needs to get real about what year we’re living in, but I’m not.

Instead, I’ll just say that this is the kind of world I want to live in. Setting aside the horror-show that is modern politics, at least some in the entertainment industry are trying to do the right thing by factoring gender into equations of Hollywood and small screen success and broadening the traditional role of women in the industry.

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

In a world where women can be Ghostbusters, and superheroes and Jedi and queens and Doctors, those who stand opposite these powerful women and complain about their successes are in the wrong. Those that complain and bemoan the death of traditionally male-dominated roles in the industry are in the wrong. And those that rail against gender parity, that criticize and demean and condemn the female presence as a mark of equality rather than an object of the male gaze are, undoubtedly, unequivocally, unmistakably wrong.

But to all those celebrating the new female Doctor, keep calm and carry on, as those of the BBC would say, and let the power of Lara Croft (and Diana Prince and Rey and the 13th Doctor) be with you.

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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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Top 5 intersectional women in video games

Or why a “color-blind” approach to women in gaming isn’t going to cut it.

It’s no secret that the gaming industry loves the heterosexual white male protagonist. While some steps have been made recently to break the mold (both in the gaming industry and in a larger pop culture context), of the most popular games of 2016, white men were often the featured protagonists.

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Female players make up nearly half of the gaming population, but a paper published in New Media & Society reveals that nearly 90 percent of primary game characters are white males.
Source: Valkymie.tumblr.com

Don Reisinger of Fortune reported on the most popular games according to data from the research firm NDP and the results might not surprise you. Of the top three games – “Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare,” “Battlefield I” and “Tom Clancy’s: The Division” – all of them featured a white male in a main role.

To be completely fair, some had multiplayer or differing story options where players could choose from a variety of characters, but giving players the option to choose from a diversified range of characters is different from actually giving them one intersectional character to play. It’s the same idea behind letting players choose between a male and female character, like many RPGs have done for ages, versus forcing the player’s hand in choosing a female protagonist.

But that’s an issue for another blog.

Setting the issue of diversified men aside, if you’ve kept up with this blog, you probably know I’m in favor of more female protagonists in video games. So I’ve compiled a list of gaming’s top five intersectional women to increase awareness and to advocate for a future where not just more women are featured but more intersectional women are featured as gaming protagonists.

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Aveline de Grandpré ~ “Assassin’s Creed: Liberation”
A mixed race Assassin born of a wealthy French merchant and an African slave, Aveline is a badass lady whose biracial and multinational identity is an integral part of her quest to liberate New Orleans from Templar influence. She recognizes many of the contrasts in 18th century American society and works to correct them, as much as she is able as one lone Assassin against the innumerable and immeasurable forces of injustice and oppression.
Source: Walldevil.com

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Chell ~ “Portal” series
While little is actually known about the “Portal” and “Portal 2” protagonist, the video game canon has generally concluded that Chell is of white European and East or Southeast Asian descent. She is also most likely the daughter of an Aperture Science employee with strong ties to the company as their number one test subject and as one of the only living employees/characters encountered in the game’s universe.
Source: Secondtruth.com

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Clementine ~ “The Walking Dead” series
Simultaneously the cutest and most badass zombie apocalypse heroine I’ve every had the pleasure of playing, Clem is the most notable character out of the entire “Walking Dead” series, one who keeps coming back even when other characters drop like flies around her – or like distressed humans being eaten by their undead brethren. Although the Walking Dead wiki lists her race as African American, I’ve, personally, always believed her to be at least partially Asian. From the first episode of Season One, it’s apparent that she is of a middle class suburban background, but everything about her life pre-apocalypse is either assumed or dropped in hints throughout her interaction with Lee and other characters. Regardless, she’s an emotionally deep and incredibly real girl who players watch grow throughout the Telltale series.
Source: Thatvideogameblog.com

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Faith ~ “Mirror’s Edge” and “Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst”
Another badass gaming gal of mixed Asian and Caucasian descent, Faith Connors is the protagonist of the dystopian “Mirror’s Edge” series. In both games, she makes a living by running from an overzealous police force all while jumping, kicking and flipping her way in style through the City of Glass. Her story changes pretty dramatically from “Mirror’s Edge” to “Catalyst,” but Faith’s appearance and kickass attitude stay consistent. If anything, Faith becomes even cooler in the reboot as her hand-to-hand combat and parkour skills are revamped for the Frostbite 3 engine.
Source: Wallpapersite.com

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Nilin ~ “Remember Me”
I did a lot of scouring to try to uncover the actual racial makeup of Nilin, but as far as I could tell, she was only ever listed as “of a mixed ethnic origin.” While a lot of people on the internet were curious as to her official racial identity, a lot more seemed to think it didn’t matter. However, I say it does matter. While her ethnicity may not have played a large role in the game – as Connor’s Native American heritage did in “Assassin’s Creed III” – I still think it’s important to note racial distinctions because a deliberate diverse choice is better than the vocal equivalent of a shrugging emoji which is passed on as an attempt to minimize the effect of a potentially impactful choice.
Source: Wall.alphacoders.com

Even as I wrote this list, it became apparent to me that nearly all the characters that I chose – based on previous playing experience and critical commentary – were of a mixed racial or ethnic background. While I’m not saying that a mixed racial or ethnic identity is not important, I just think it’s something to note that game developers and designers felt they needed to throw a bit of white in with their diverse characters in order to get players to connect with them.

And if that doesn’t say anything about the state of female diversity in video games right now, I don’t know what does.

This isn’t so much a critique of the women in video games right now as it is a reminder that while we all work towards increasing female representation, we can’t just throw more white women at the problem and assume that fixes it.

If we truly want to increase female representation, then we need to take a long look at the intersectional makeup of our society and try to design and develop characters that reflect our multiethnic, multiracial, multinational, complex and beautiful female identity.

So game on, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

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Condescending casual sexism or gaming’s “Girlfriend Mode”

I find the term “casual sexism” to be a bit of an oxymoron.

 

There’s nothing casual about sexism.

It isn’t a lazy Sunday afternoon spent reading books or lying in a hammock somewhere with a fancy cocktail in one hand. It isn’t a Friday at work where you can wear blue jeans instead of blazers or a flowy dress instead of a tight pencil skirt.

Sexism is men cat-calling women on the way to work, following them down darkened alleys to scream obscenities at them to then get unreasonably angry when those women don’t respond favorably.

Sexism is women being beaten for the mistake of being born female, being paid less on the dollar, and being told they are somehow less than men.

Nothing about sexism is casual and yet casual sexism exists. And it’s more prevalent than you might think.

Sexism, as defined by Merriam-Webster, is the “prejudice or discrimination based on sex; especially discrimination against women” (emphasis theirs). As the definition implies, sexism is often intentional and based on perceived social roles and the violation of them.

What’s different about casual sexism is that it’s sexism that is so ingrained and common that we forget it’s even there.

It happens when women aren’t hired for jobs because their bosses are worried they’ll only work for a few years before popping out babies and draining the company’s paid leave reserves. It happens when men make jokes about hairy lesbians or bright young things that are too pretty to work or too gorgeous to have brains. It happens when women take leadership positions and the confidence they would have as a man is described as having a “bossy” or “bitchy” attitude.

It happens in a hundred different ways every day in our society, our media, our everyday lives and even our video games.

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Alanna Vagianos at the Huffington Post compiled a list of #QuestionsForMen tweets that perfectly describe the hundreds of ways sexism is ingrained in our society.
Source: Huffingtonpost.com.

Examples of casual sexism in video games are all too common. Most of them involve rewarding player characters with women (particularly prostitutes) in games like “God of War” and “Grand Theft Auto,” and violence against women (of which prostitutes are a significant number) in “Red Dead Redemption” and “Bioshock.”

[READ: Stuffed in refrigerators, or why gaming’s number one trope has got to go]

But casual sexism is more than just outright violence. It’s often as little as a thoughtless disregard for female players or their representation in video games of all genres.

Take for example the Gearbox hit “Borderlands 2.” Out of the two female characters, at least one was specifically designed with female players in mind, and not in a good way. Gearbox lead designer John Hemingway wanted to, “make, for the lack of a better term, the girlfriend skill tree.”

Thus the DLC mechromancer, Gaige, was born.

Although Gearbox quickly condemned Hemingway’s description of the character, the “Girlfriend Mode” skill tree, officially dubbed “Best Friends Forever,” still exists in all its condescending glory.

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Called one of the cutest characters ever made by lead designer Hemingway and given a condescendingly named “Best Friends Forever” skill tree with gems like “Close Enough” that don’t require players to aim and a potential reference to women in the kitchen with “Cooking Up Trouble,” it’s easy to see casual sexism at work, once you start paying attention.
Source: Playbuzz.com.

Hemingway presented Gaige’s “Girlfriend Mode” as a way to be more inclusive of non-player audiences, but he actually just alienated women, nearly 48 percent of the gaming population, according to the Pew Research Center.

Nuances of language and meaning aside, there’s a significant percent of the population that definitely did not take issue with Hemingway’s statement. And that’s what’s so scary about casual sexism.

Because it’s an attitude that is generally assumed and co-opted by men that refuses to allow any deviations or changes in belief. Pew did the math, and 60 percent of Americans agree with the statement “most people who play video games are men” with 31 percent disagreeing and another 9 percent unsure if it is true or not.

It’s something I assumed until I started really looking into the demographic breakdown of video game players when I started this blog. And if everyone holds this idea, nothing is going to change and casual sexism will continue to be a problem.

Because it is a problem. Whether you’re violently murdering a female character or “helping” gamer girlfriends play by condescendingly lowering skill requirements in a “Girlfriend Mode” created just for them, casual sexism in video games is a problem because it reflects casual sexism in society.

And if we change our attitude in our video games and other media outlets, then maybe we change our attitude in society as well.

So combat sexism, both casual and not, and let the power of Lara Croft be with you.

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