Thoughts on Gamer Culture, Rape Culture and CNN

by Shaker Scott Madin

[Trigger warning for discussion of video games which simulate rape and violence.]

I've got video games on my mind lately — as some of you have probably seen me talking about in comments, I was at the Penny Arcade Expo in Boston this past weekend — and I just wrote a mostly-positive post with some criticism and a dubiously clever pun for the title over at my blog, about gamer culture in general and one panel at the Expo in particular.

This post is much less positive, and I'm also much less certain, ultimately, what should be done to try to fix the problems I'm talking about.

Many of y'all probably remember previous discussion, both here (Rape For Sale, Looking for Rape Products? Try Amazon., From the Mailbag for 2009-08-17) and at many other blogs over the past several years, of a Japanese computer game called RapeLay, the genre of hentai (lit. "pervert"/"perverted") games, and the subgenre of rape-focused hentai games to which it belongs.

CNN's Connect the World program has now run a story on the game, and its continuing availability through illicit channels despite its having been pulled from production and removed from retail. The video from that link is embedded below the fold; CNN doesn't appear to have a transcript available, so I've included one at the end of the post.

CNN's Eve Bower also has a post on the Connect the World blog which brings up some additional issues, and related context from recent news in other countries — Iceland's recent vote to ban strip clubs on the grounds that they're degrading to women, and a women's rights advocate in China arguing for the repeal of laws against obscene material.

There are a lot of issues involved here. In particular, I'd like to talk about not only CNN's coverage, which tries to highlight how disturbing the subject matter is but also falls into the "journalistic balance" trap of making sure to find a woman who says she's not offended by the game (as though "offense," rather than the harm to all women — indeed, all people — that the perpetuation of rape culture represents, were the issue), but also whether legislation is a viable way to address the problem games like this represent, and what the existence of games like this says about game culture and games as a medium. I'm going to sketch some of my thoughts, but I'm especially interested in having a discussion and hearing Shakers' ideas.

The content of RapeLay and other games like it is clearly indefensible. The question is, what, if anything, can effectively be done about it? Most experience seems to indicate that banning something for which there's a market, no matter how bad the thing is, doesn't really work to prevent people who want the thing from acquiring it, and in this case that also seems to be true: RapeLay isn't available for sale through any legitimate retailers, but people who want to play it can still get it easily. And I worry that it will be difficult to implement laws which target only material like RapeLay and its ilk without also potentially — depending on the views of the particular people executing the laws at whichever particular point in time — catching in the same net subject matter that has traditionally been wrongly deemed objectionable (e.g. gay characters).

The CNN report fails, I think, to make it clear that neither sexual violence nor sexual activity with female characters who look extremely young are universal features of hentai games, for example. And if outright bans not only may have overbroad effects, but also probably won't prevent dissemination of the games, what's the use of enacting them, especially when developers of rape games could simply work in another country, and distribute their products over the internet.

To make the probably-obvious analogy to illegal drugs, prohibition and cracking down on supply just hasn't worked, because demand is still present; prohibition + demand merely creates a black market.

And, unlike hentai games, illegal drugs are physical objects that need to be transported, causing logistical problems that don't exist when the product is strictly virtual and distribution is effectively both free and instantaneous. Surely prohibition on digital material won't even work as well as the prohibition on illegal drugs — a notoriously dismal failure — anyway.

Now, obviously I don't want these games to be on the shelves, or available on the Internet. Nothing about them makes the world a better place. They are a self-perpetuating component of the rape culture, which, if not demonstrably a cause of actual rapes, are nonetheless the sort of symptom that itself contributes to the exacerbation of the disease. It is only in a rape culture that anyone would think to create games like these, and anyone would want to buy them — and though the rape culture would find other avenues of expression, as it always has and still does, if these games did not exist, they, as well as those other avenues, nonetheless contribute to the continuing mainstreaming and normalization of rape culture's basic idea of women and girls as sexual objects and as things (I use the term advisedly) to be despised.

Where, then, do we start: How can we prevent dissemination of harmful games like this when the pervasiveness of rape culture means there's a continuing demand for them, or how can we work to undermine the rape culture that creates the demand for games like this, when their existence, and indeed the ubiquity of expressions of rape culture in every medium, itself perpetuates and normalizes rape culture? How many people, like Kibble and Gardner, seek out things like this because they're curious, but through exposure become desensitized and come to think of them as normal?

Another issue brought up in the CNN story and blog post is the comparison with non-sexual violence in many games. Most Americans (and probably many other cultures, but I can't speak for them) reflexively think that graphic, bloody depictions of non-sexual violence are less problematic (even, frequently, unproblematically entertaining!) than graphic depictions of sexual violence.

Many of the games I enjoy playing involve a lot of killing — some, like Gears of War, extremely graphically: One of the things many fans love about Gears is the ability to cut enemies in half with a chainsaw attached to the barrel of your gun. Extreme discomfort (to put it mildly) is, I think, self-evidently the appropriate response to something as reprehensible as RapeLay, but doesn't that throw into question the ubiquity of violence as such in our sources of entertainment?

What does it say about gamers — what does it say about me — that I'm totally comfortable with the idea that, in a game like Resident Evil 4, I can shoot my enemies in the head and see their heads explode in a spray of gore, that I only started to have a problem with it when that extreme violence was overlaid with blatant racist, colonialist, genocidal imagery? What does it say about gamer culture (and the larger society in which it's embedded) that we think detailed, interactive representations of violent, gory murder are fine, and there's controversy over whether we should draw the line at rape and genocide? Nothing good, I fear.

I don't think violent games should be banned (irrespective of whether that would ever work, anyway). But I think that gamers, whose reputation for not being very self-aware or introspective is not entirely undeserved, need to look more critically at why so many of us find vicariously committing countless murders to be so much fun.

One line of questioning that comes to mind is: Does shooting someone constitute the same denial of their personhood as raping someone does? How does the difference in intimacy level factor into this?

On the one hand, it seems, rationally, as though the necessary closeness and the fact that most rapists are acquainted with their victims, while a murderer with a gun can kill someone they've never seen before from far enough away not to see their face or hear their voice, would argue for killing as more depersonalizing; but on the other, if rationality entered into it we wouldn't need to have this discussion.

Certainly in some cases, serial killers do adopt a "predator" mentality, and a view of their victims as Other, subhuman, prey; but I know of few if any video games which cast the player in such a role. Another point here, of course, is that in games where the player shoots people, those people shoot back (or attack in some way): they're active opponents, a threat to the player*. In other words, they have agency, which is a sharp contrast to the victim characters in games like RapeLay, and supports the idea that casting the player as a rapist is more dehumanizing to the victim characters than casting the player as a killer.

I don't really have any conclusions, and I've left a lot of issues involved in this story unaddressed, but I'm sure they'll come up in comments. I've been doing a lot of thinking lately, both in general and in the context of this story and my experiences at PAX, about what a hypothetical society free of oppressive hierarchies would be like. I don't think we can really know, because our experience is so molded by those oppressive hierarchies, no matter where each of us stands in them; but we can see what our society is like, and perhaps extrapolate from that some things that a non-hierarchical society might not look like. And in particular, I think its forms of entertainment wouldn't look much like ours at all.

[Update: Sady Doyle, proprietor of such fine blogs as The Tiger Beatdown, also has a post on RapeLay at Broadsheet, and I always encourage everyone to read Sady's writing.]

*There was a notable exception to this recently, the "No Russian" level in Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2. Shaker Nolittlelolita had an excellent post on it, over at Hysterical Broads, but the gist is that your character, an American agent, is undercover in a Russian terrorist cell and must participate in a terrorist attack on an airport, indiscriminately killing civilians. The level caused a great deal of controversy, possibly even more than Resident Evil 5 did.



[Title: This report includes graphic content. Viewer discretion is advised.]

[Shot of busy street in Akihabara]

Voiceover: The heart of Japan's electronics district. The world's games of tomorrow, on sale today.

[Shot of software boxes on shelves]

VO: On shelves in mainstream stores, plenty of what's known here as "Hentai games." Almost all feature girlish-looking characters; some are violent, depicting rape, torture and bondage in detail. It didn't take long to find a game where the object is revenge: find and rape the woman who fired the player from his imaginary job.

[Parts of screenshots from the game, depicting women in distress and/or tied up. Background sound effects of a woman moeaning as if in distress.]

VO: Most of this game we cannot show you.

[Shot of shopper holding game boxes whose covers are blurred out.]

Hentai games are not new for Japan. This country has long produced products the rest of the world would call pornographic,

[Shot of street again.]

but before the Internet shrunk the world, it stayed here.

[Shot of hands typing on a keyboard.]

VO: A quick web search generates hundreds of Japanese games.

[Shot of Google results, apparently for search terms "rape game free".]

[Shot of shopper picking up games from a store shelf.]

VO: Once a game goes on sale in Tokyo,

[Shot of Google video results, apparently for search term "rapelay".]

VO: it's digitized and shared everywhere.

[Footage from RapeLay of a woman standing on a subway platform. During the following narration some of the possible actions are demonstrated in the game footage.]

VO: This one, called RapeLay, begins with a teenage girl on a subway platform. With a click of your mouse, you can grope her, and lift her skirt. You, the player, stalk her, her sister, and her mother, following them on the train.

[Shot of reporter Kyung Lah in front of computer with RapeLay on the screen.]

Lah: What follows is a series of graphic, interactive scenes that we can't show you. Players can corner the women to rape them again and again, and it goes on from there.

[Footage from RapeLay.]

VO: The game infuriated women's rights groups.

[Shot of Taina Bien-Aime, Executive Director of Equality Now.]

Bien-Aime: These sort of games that normalize extreme sexual violence against women and girls have really no place in our communities.

[Footage from RapeLay.]

VO: International outrage led the Japanese developer to pull the RapeLay game from stores last year.

[Shot of YouTube search results for clips from RapeLay.]

VO: But that didn't stop its spread. In fact, the controversy took it viral.

[Shot of laptop screen; Lah is video chatting with a young couple in Britain.]

VO: That's how Lucy Kibble and Jim Gardner in England heard about and downloaded the game,

[Shot of Google results, apparently for search terms "rape game free".]

[Shot of Lah sitting at laptop, talking with Kibble and Gardner.]

VO: As they told me over Skype.

[Shot of laptop screen.]

Lucy Kibble: Just the fact it was a controversial subject, and I wanted to try it, really, just to see what it was all about.

[Shots of game store and streets in Akihabara.]

VO: That global availability is why international women's rights group say Japan needs to regulate game makers better, stopping creation of certain content.

[Shot of Taina Bien-Aime, then of YouTube videos from RapeLay.]

Bien-Aime: What we are calling for, though, is that the Japanese government ban all games that promote and simulate sexual violence, sexual torture, stalking, and rape against women and girls, and there are plenty of games like that.

[Shot of Japanese flag, pulling out to show Lah walking down the street.]

Lah: How sensitive is Japan to this issue? Despite weeks of repeated calls to the government, not a single government official would speak to CNN on camera. They wouldn't even make a statement on paper. Over the phone, one official who would not allow us to use her name said that the government realizes these games are a problem, and it is checking to see whether self-policing by the gaming industry is enough.

[Screenshots and footage from games Chain Trap and RapeLay.]

VO: Sexual images are subject to censorship in Japan. For example, in the RapeLay game, genitalia are obscured. But Japan does not have laws that restrict video game themes.

[Shot of laptop screen showing Skype call with Kibble and Gardner.]

Lah: Did you feel offended, as a woman?

Kibble: No, not at all.

[Shot of YouTube videos.]

VO: Lucy and Jim point out it is easy to find shoot-'em-up games, which no one seems to worry about.

[Shot of laptop screen.]

Kibble: It's escapism, that's why people play it.

Jim Gardner: The idea of banning it, or telling people what they can and can't do, just because — on the off chance some kid might get involved in it, is just ridiculous.

[Footage of RapeLay.]

VO: But women's rights groups say the interactive games step closer and closer to reality, and no one should play a game where the only way to win, is to rape. Kyung Lah, CNN, Tokyo.

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