Opinion: Ultra-Violence And Sexism – Does Gaming Need To Grow Up?
Perhaps the most ludicrously ironic moment of this year’s E3 conference occurred during the centrepiece presentation of strikingly mature post-apocalyptic title The Last Of Us, when a gruesomely violent kill – clearly intended as a shocking, brutal moment encapsulating the game’s gritty, serious take on survival – was greeted by juvenile whoops and cheers from the assembled crowd.
It seems I wasn’t the only one to find this slightly jarring. Last week, in reaction to the sheer dominance of killing, battering and bloodshed among the gameplay and trailers of E3′s biggest showcases, Deus Ex developer Warren Spector was moved to remark that “the ultraviolence has to stop…and we have to stop loving it”. And Spector certainly wasn’t alone in commenting on this prevalence of murder and gore – nor the arguably immature celebration of it.
Another familiar criticism to rear its head in recent days has been the accusation that games are sexist in their depiction of women. Some have argued that the suggestion of sexual violence against Lara Croft in the forthcoming Tomb Raider reboot, and the vicious slaying of S&M nuns in the much-debated Hitman Absolution trailer, sum up gaming’s dispassionate attitude to violence against women. Others have suggested that the way in which Crystal Dynamics expect us to feel sorry for Ms Croft and “protect her” is not exactly something you would expect if we were talking about a male lead in a game.
All of these claims have been widely dismissed and ridiculed by fans in the past week, and sometimes not in the most pleasant of ways. When culture critic Anita Sarkeesian recently announced a Kickstarter project looking at gaming’s depiction of women, can you guess what a certain unpleasant bunch of angry of gamers did? They flooded her with hateful abuse, insults and death threats of course, all undercut with a vicious layer of misogyny. Nice.
Now, the first thing to say here is that as a passionate and dedicated enthusiast of gaming, I’m usually a staunch defender when it comes to the wild and often unfounded accusations that people make about our beloved medium. Only last week I was writing about how the recent controversy over Lara Croft being ‘raped’ was clearly blown out of all proportion, and I’m also happy to stand up and argue that the newly-released Lollipop Chainsaw – seen by some as a tacky, adolescent embodiment of both gaming’s rampant violence and sexism – should be accepted for exactly what it is: a deliberately ludicrous slice of knock-about, entertaining and tongue-in-cheek fun. Hell, you could even argue that it’s sending up oversexualisation and hack-and-slash gore. It’s certainly hard to take it too seriously.
However, with that initial disclaimer out of the way, let me also be blunt and spell out a couple of things I’ve been mulling over in the last few days. Firstly, I believe that Warren Spector may well have a point about the prevalence and presentation of violence in gaming. Secondly, I also believe that sexism is an issue with many mainstream games, even if recent controversies don’t quite provide the best examples.
When it comes to the issue of violence, like Spector I want to stress that I genuinely don’t buy the tiresome argument that playing violent video games makes people violent. Indeed, I’ve actively disputed such claims in the past.
And I have no problem with the presence of violence in games per se. After all, many of my favourite titles (Condemned, Fallout 3 etc. ) contain moments of eye-watering brutality.
However, what I am slightly concerned about is the increasingly prominent glorification of gratuitous violence in gaming, and the way in which disturbing or unpleasant acts of brutality are so widely celebrated or trivialized.
It is ultimately the context, tone and presentation that are all key in determining what is tasteful, and what is not. And the truth is that some games go out of their way to make hideous, gratuitous violence look cool, while others present it in such a casually callous way that it beggars belief.
One particularly explicit recent example that springs to mind is the early stages of Silent Hill: Downpour, where the opening in-game tutorial demands that you stalk into a grimy prison shower-room and savagely murder a pleading, unarmed man.
So there you are: hacking away at this terrified, semi-naked bloke who is screaming and begging for his life – literally running around sobbing with a shank stuck in him at one point – and the whole thing is presented as some matter-of-fact ‘press this key to pick-up weapon; press this key to attack’ button guide. As a cutscene, it would probably have been somewhat more palatable. But making you murder some pathetic, defenceless nonce as a way of teaching you the controls? In my view, that’s utterly, disgustingly tasteless.
As noted by Spector, one of the major reasons why this matters is that it is easier for those looking to criticize, belittle or demonize gaming to do so when they are confronted by a mainstream landscape dominated by experiences in which you wound, maim and kill for entertainment or as a matter-of-course, especially when they also see crowds of fans cheering stylized throat-slits and head-shots. A journalist looking for a sensationalist article or a politician wishing to fuel a moral panic can easily latch onto this adolescent celebration of increasingly gratuitous and realistic violence, and claim that both games – and those who play them – are warped.
Does this mean that we should take issue with violence in games across the board? Of course not. But it should at least motivate us to think long and hard about the way in which it is presented, packed and perceived.
So what about the other aforementioned area where the games industry frequently runs into trouble? That of its oft-criticized depiction of women?
Well, while I would point out that allegations of sexism and mysoginy in games are often overcooked (as with the Lara Croft debacle), and that the more OTT sexualization of games such as Bayonetta should be taken with the stylized pinch of salt that their fantastical settings demand, at times I also have to concede that such concerns do carry substantial weight.
I think of games like Mafia II, purporting to be serious, grown-up exercises in storytelling, and note with regret the criminal lack of strong female characters, and the way in which every woman gets depicted either as a disposable sex-object or a helpless damsel-in-distress. There are exceptions of course – not least the complex and resilient heroines of BioWare’s output – but such lazy casting is quite typical in gaming across the board.
It’s true that Hollywood blockbusters, pulpy novels and trashy TV shows also often pander to adolescent male fantasies of wanton violence and destruction, nihilistic consequence-free carnage and the interplay of butch, heroic guys and impossibly sexy, passive women. But the difference is that critically-acclaimed and supposedly higher-brow games do this too. And rather than see them as the dumb-but-fun exercises we probably should, many gamers and industry players actually applaud and celebrate this immaturity.
The point is, perhaps we shouldn’t be so swift to dismiss all the accusations that come the industry’s way. Even if 99 per cent of them are bullshit, there are always likely to be some criticisms that have some valid weight to them – especially when respected figures inside the industry are starting to speak out. We also have to recognise that the only way gaming is going to ultimately mature and evolve, is if we are willing to accept that it needs to.
There are certain companies out there who are working hard to help gaming grow up. Journey creators thatgamecompany, Dishonored devs Arkane Studios and Last Of Us supremos Naughty Dog are all seemingly attempting to push the medium into more serious, intelligent and thought-provoking territory. But so long as both industry professionals and fans alike continue to cheer and celebrate genuinely nasty, eye-widening kills that really should be making you flinch rather than grin, and so long as people throw misogynistic dirt at women who dare to suggest that gaming might actually have an issue with sexism, then our beloved medium is unlikely to be able to shake off its enduring and unfortunate image problem. And that ultimately does us all a great disservice.