Opinion: Lara Croft ‘Rape’ Controversy – Are Games Being Scapegoated Again?
The reaction was, it’s fair to say, pretty much inevitable.
Ever since the revelation that there are scenes in the upcoming Tomb Raider reboot in which protagonist Lara Croft is attacked, tormented and brutalized by an older male assailant, controversy over this content has raged in the media, with various tabloid papers reporting on the issue, and some going so far as to call the game’s new trailer ‘torture porn’.
The usual outrage and moral panic has ensued, and many have expressed fury that there appears to be the suggestion of an attempted rape in the game. The backlash has even swelled to the extent that charities who work to stop violence against women have been voicing their concern.
Now, first of all, let it be known that developer Crystal Dynamics have today responded to this by clarifying that the game will not in fact feature sexual assault or attempted rape of any kind. The title does depict a pivotal moment in which Lara is menaced by a captor, but the scene in question is actually a trigger for her to fight back. It is, for all intents and purposes, a hard-hitting turning point in her journey to become the tough, resourceful survivor that we all know and admire.
Still, it is easy to understand how all this controversy has arisen. The myth that games are just for kids is still widespread, Lara Croft is one of the view game characters familiar to countless people who have never even picked up a control pad, and she has always been seen as a kind of over-sexualised male fantasy in pixel form – so any kind of dominating violence committed against her by a man, explicitly sexual or not, is going to cause a stir.
But the truth is that if games are to be given their rightful due as a legitimate artform, and I believe that they should be, then we should be prepared to defend their right to depict mature, adult and sometimes uncomfortable themes – just as literature, cinema and television do.
Many acclaimed and celebrated films, books and TV dramas have featured scenes of violence against women as crucial moments of their narrative. No doubt some of these moments were, or still are, controversial to an extent. But the truth is that if a video game so much as hints at the possibility that it might feature such content, it is almost invariably condemned – regardless of the intentions behind such a move.
Context is of course crucial. If the inclusion of such violence – sexual or otherwise – is done purely for the purposes of titillation or to generate publicity, then it can be rightfully considered as crude and possibly reprehensible.
But if it is done for genuinely important reasons in either story, subtext or wider social implications, then I really don’t see the problem. Issues such as rape, child abuse and torture are horrific ones to address, but there are many important works out there that have explored these themes in a way that is both sensitive and illuminating for society as a whole.
One particularly important point is that the Tomb Raider reboot does not feature a scene in which the player is themself invited to commit violence against an injured, vulnerable woman. Instead, it is the player who becomes the very woman in that experience, and said sequence is designed to make us empathise more greatly with her plight, lend more insight into her character and its development, and actively encourage us to fight back against the aggressors.
Even if the scene in question did in fact feature an attempted rape, I would argue that such a depiction could actually better sensitize men to the horrors of sexual violence against women. Assuming it were handled in an intelligent way, the effects on the audience could be overtly positive and constructive, rather than negative and damaging.
It seems to me that Crystal Dynamics did not decide to include the violence against Lara Croft for the purposes of attention and column-inches – though they have surely now got those – but rather because they felt that this grittier, grown-up reboot needed to establish important details about what has made Lara into the fierce, strong and determined survivor of the Tomb Raider series.
The reboot is her origin story, and it features her fighting for survival in the harshest of conditions against the most intense of dangers. Does this character-arc justify showing the young Lara being menaced and attacked by an older man? It just might.
Ultimately, the fact is that any time a video game attempts to address themes which could be termed ‘sensitive’ or ‘adult’, there is a torrent of criticism and fury from certain quarters of the media, who either misunderstand the number of intelligent adults – male and female – who play such titles, or underestimate the potential for games to explore complex, hard-hitting stories and difficult social issues.
According to the right-wing reactionary press, shooters shouldn’t be allowed to depict terrorism, Mass Effect shouldn’t be allowed to show sex, and Tomb Raider shouldn’t be allowed to explore violence against women.
I don’t know about you, but I think that’s bullshit…