Archive for June, 2012

Trigger warning: some mention of rape

TMI warning: masturbatory themes

In Craig Thompson’s graphic novel Habibi (which is problematic to say the least), there’s a scene where Zam, a preadolescent boy, watches with horror as his female caregiver and sole companion, Dodola, is raped. As Zam and Dodola live alone in the desert – and as, through a strange twist of circumstances, Dodola is less than ten years Zam’s senior – his sexual awakening has thus far consisted of a burgeoning, awkward attraction to Dodola, who is quite literally the only woman he knows. But after he witnesses her rape, he starts to loathe his own sexuality. Because that single, awful, abusive image is Zam’s sole frame of reference for adult sex, it’s what he pictures whenever he tries to imagine himself with Dodola; instinctively, he recoils from it, but without any knowledge of what consensual sex might look like, he draws the conclusion that male desire – his desire – is inherently evil, not only because that’s his sole experience of it, but because that image has invaded his fantasies, turning them into something repugnant. He doesn’t know how to be aroused without linking that arousal to something vile, with the result that he ultimately comes to despise his own sexual identity.

This is both a fictitious and decidedly extreme example of negative sexual reinforcement, but one which nonetheless makes me think about a vastly different, non-fictional account of sexual awakening: that of writer Caitlin Moran in her hilarious, feminist biography, How To Be a Woman. To quote:

Coupled with the pan-sexual, freak-show silliness of Eurotrash – Lolo Ferrari, the woman with the biggest breasts in the world, bouncing on a trampoline; drag queens with dildos and butt plugs; gimps in harnesses; hoovering bored Dutch housewives’ flats – this is the sum total of all the sex I see until I’m 18. Perhaps ten minutes in total – a series of arty, freaky, sometimes brutal vignettes, which I lash together, and use as the basis for my sexual imagination.

Thinking back, my own initial exposure to sex scenes came from a similarly weird melange of sources. Like most Australian teenagers of my generation, I’d memorised the page-number for the bit in John Marsden’s Tomorrow, When The War Began where Ellie and Lee had sex, while my copy of Nicholas Evans’s The Horse Whisperer ended up with several similarly well-thumbed sections. Combined with a 1972 edition of The Joy of Sex I discovered lurking in a forgotten corner of my parents’ bookshelves and the bit in Money Train where Jennifer Lopez sleeps with Wesley Snipes, this constituted the sex-positive end of my masturbatory spectrum. Somewhere in the middle was a volume of archaic erotic bookplates (shut up) that was similarly liberated from obscurity, the sex scenes from Shakespeare in Love and the sometimes-positive-but-usually-problematic-and-occasionally-outright-rapey sex in Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books and Sara Douglass’s Axis and Wayfarer Redemption trilogies. At the far end were the disturbing and numerous glimpses of aggressive sexuality, coercion and rape that constituted the bread and butter of my favourite crime shows, plus the aforementioned rape scenes from writers like Douglass and, much later, Terry Goodkind.

In other words, it was a mess, and one which left me with a mental sexual landscape dominated by male  aggression. It took me years to to understand that the dissonance between my private sexual fantasies and what I actually like in real life was, in large part, attributable to the fact that the overwhelming majority of sex scenes I’d encountered in my formative tweens and early teens explicitly situated male dominance as sexy, or at least as the default form of sexual instigation: I hadn’t realised I could fantasise without it. This bugs me less now that I’m an adult and can, up to a point, sort through it all rationally, but as Moran goes on to say in How To Be a Woman, most teenagers now don’t have to rely on strange, half-glimpsed sex scenes in adult books and TV shows: instead, they can just look up porn on the internet – and that’s a bit worrying, because as weird as all those pre-internet sex sources were, at least they involved some mystery and variety, to say nothing of everyday bodies, whereas the online porn industry is rife with institutionalised misogyny, fake boobs, vaginoplasty, airbrushing and contextless, unemotional grunting scripted solely for the male gaze.  And that’s bad for everyone: boys because they assume that’s what girls both want and should look like as a default, and girls because they’re taught to try and emulate sex-scripts and bodies that are anything but natural. (That’s for hetero boys and girls, of course; I can’t speak to the experience of LGBTQ teens browsing porn online, but by and large, and particularly given the wealth of lesbian porn that is in fact produced for straight men, I’m going to assume it’s not much better.)

And nor, by and large, are TV and movies. The fact that there’s more visible sex and nudity in a single episode of just about anything produced by HBO (Deadwood, A Game of Thrones, True Blood) than I managed to glimpse in my whole adolescence cannot help but bring this comic to mind; but more importantly, the current abundance of televised sex is not the same as an abundance of sex-positivity. Almost exclusively white women being grabbed forcefully, raped and abused, or else being coyly and passively coaxed into sex by active hetero menfolk? That, we have aplenty. Women initiating sex, lesbian sex that isn’t written with heterosexual voyeurs in mind, actual gay sex, loving LGBTQ encounters, men being passive in sex, sexiness being tied to something other than male dominance, and interracial or non-white couples having sex? That, we have not so much of, and in some cases none at all. Cinema is infinitely worse than TV in this respect, because television, for all its faults, is much less bounded by that peculiarly hypersexualised-yet-1950’s sense of  what sex sells, or ought to, that so toxically pervades Hollywood. But even so, it’s far from the full and well-rounded spectrum of tastes it ought to be.

Which leaves books: both adult works that teenagers find themselves reading and, more specifically, YA novels. And even though this is a post about the importance of sex-positive sex scenes for people of all orientations and genders, I’m going to go out on a limb and say that literary sex scenes are particularly important for girls, not only because of the staggering number of teenage ladies looking to YA for romance and sexiness in the post-Twilight period, but because when it comes to the representations of sex in other media – porn, TV and movies, to say nothing of magazine ads and sex advice columns – girls are almost universally the ones being grabbed and raped, the ones depicted as passive sex-objects, posed like dolls or lusted after as unattainable conquests. As things stand right now, YA novels are pretty much the only place a teenage old girl can go to find the image of someone like her receiving cunnilingus from a caring, considerate lover, and when you look at it that way, the power of sex scenes in YA novels should instantly become apparent. In a sexual climate where women’s wants and needs are so often painted as secondary to male desire, and where male dominance, instigation and aggression are seen as sexual defaults, any medium where girls can lash together their sexual landscapes from scenes of female desire, mutual respect and non-aggression is made fundamentally radical.

Not, of course, that this always happens: while Twilight, for all its many troubling failures, at least produced a heroine with sexual agency, one who knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to ask for it, some other prominent novels haven’t managed even that much. Others, though, have, and that’s the point – that sex in YA novels can and does do what sex in other media doesn’t, namely: focus on female pleasure, needs and desires. Which is, I suspect, why the merest prospect of it freaks so many people out: because if there’s one set of bodies that puritanical conservatism has always yearned to shame, contain and control, it’s young female bodies. It’s not even a question of how graphic (or not) the sex/sexiness might be, though as with all matters of personal taste, YMMV – it’s a question of who the audience is. And absolutely every time I’ve seen journalists, concerned parents or censorship groups get up in arms about ‘inappropriate’ sexual content in YA novels, it hasn’t seemed irrelevant that the books in question have overwhelmingly been aimed at teenage girls. (Not that gender is ever mentioned as justification for the complaint – heaven forbid!)

And maybe it’s just a consequence of the fact that YA is a genre currently dominated by women writers, women who perhaps grew up with few or no books to read whose heroes were in fact heroines like them – a problem they likely also encountered in TV and movies – and who subsequently have set out to rectify the disparity; and maybe it’s because society carries a tacit but biased expectation that teenage boys are inevitably going to buy magazines like Zoo and FHM and look at boobies on the internet, and are in any case less interested in romance than they are in pure, abstract sex, with the result that there’s less of a perceived market for sexy books for boys, and hence fewer books of that type and minimal objections to the ones that do exist. Or maybe there’s as many sexy books for boys as for girls, and it’s just that people are more freaked out by the latter than the former, perhaps because the raging, overtly romantic teen-girl fandoms outstrip in their sudden visibility the quieter teen-boy fandoms, because caring about stories and fictional couples and queuing for hours to see your favourite literary idols are all acceptable things for girls to do, but which for exactly that reason boys are likely to be stigmatised for doing, even though that sort of sexist double standard is, well, a sexist double standard. But the point, the point, is that whenever I hear someone talking about how it’s wrong to have sex and sexiness in YA novels, what I actually hear is this:

I’m terrified that the first fictional sex a teenage girl encounters might leave her feeling good about herself. I’m terrified that fictional sex might actually make teenage girls think sex can be fun and good, that reading about girls who say no and boys who listen when they say it might give them the confidence to say no, too – or worse still, to realise that boys who don’t listen to ‘no’ aren’t worth it. I’m terrified that YA novels might teach teenage girls the distinction between assault and consensual sex, and give them the courage to speak out about the former while actively seeking the latter. I’m terrified that teenage girls might think seriously about the circumstances under which they might say yes to sex; that they might think about contraception before they need it, and touch themselves in bed at night while fantasising about generous, interesting, beautiful lovers who treat them with consideration and respect. I’m terrified of a generation of teenage girls who aren’t shy or squeamish about asking for cunnilingus when they want it, or about loving more than one person at once, and who don’t feel shame about their arousal. I’m terrified that teenage girls might take control of their sexuality and, in so doing, take that control of them and their bodies away from me.

Which is also why I get so angry whenever I come across negative sexuality in YA novels: books where the brooding hero treats the heroine badly, ignores her when she says no, abuses her trust and feelings and slams her bodily against walls, and where she’s made to feel uncomfortable about and disquieted by her feelings, because not only do such romances fail at sex-positivity, but if that’s your bag, then every other form of pop culture is ready and willing to oblige you.

Sex/y scenes in YA matter because YA novels aren’t contraband. It’s not like sneaking a glance at the late night movie, then frantically switching channels when your parents inevitably walk in during the naked bits, or covertly trying to hide a Mills and Boon under your bed, or having to clear your browser history and check that the door’s locked if you want to look at porn or read slashfic on the internet. You can read YA novels openly – on the bus, at school, at home – and never have to worry that someone’s going to find your behaviour suspicious. Sex/y scenes in YA matter because, by the very nature of belonging to a permitted form of media, they help to disassociate sex from surreptitious secrecy: they make it something open rather than furtive, something that rightfully belongs to you, the reader, because the book was meant for you to read and remember. It doesn’t matter if the scene is detailed or not, if it’s only fiery kisses or much, much more: the point is that you’re allowed to have it, allowed to enjoy it, and that perhaps for the first time in your life, you’re viewing something arousing that doesn’t make you out to be a sex object in heels, but an active, interesting heroine who also happens to have a love life.

To quote one of my favourite ever YA novels, Laini Taylor’s utterly brilliant Daughter of Smoke and Bone:

‘I don’t know many rules to live by,’ he’d said. ‘But here’s one. It’s simple. Don’t put anything unnecessary into yourself. No poisons or chemicals, no fumes or smoke or alcohol, no sharp objects, no inessential needles–drug or tattoo–and… no inessential penises either.’

‘Inessential penises?’ Karou had repeated, delighted with the phrase in spite of her grief. ‘Is there any such thing as an essential one?’

‘When an essential one comes along, you’ll know,’ he’d replied.

No wonder the conservatives are terrified.

Slightly more than 24 hours after my post on rape culture in gaming was posted, I moved house, a process which involved disconnecting my internet (the connection at the new place won’t be up again until the 25th), driving eight hours down from north-east Scotland to south-west England, lugging all our possessions up thirty-eight steps, and then unpacking them while my husband (who did all of the driving and most of the lugging) collapsed in an exhausted heap, in which recumbent posture I joined him several hours later, once the house was (mostly) assembled. The next day – that is, Wednesday – I woke up late, put away our remaining possessions, and then headed out to join the local library, primarily because I like libraries, but also – it must be said – to gain access to their free internet. When last I’d checked, the post had been viewed about fifty times and had two comments, so as I logged on at the library, it didn’t really occur to me that anything might have happened in the less-than-forty hours I’d been offline.

And then I opened my gmail, Twitter, tumblr, and WordPress, and saw that everything had exploded.

I’m still sort of stunned by how much attention the piece has received. Had I been online as the comments started coming in, I would have been replying to them in real-time; and even yesterday, if I’d been on any other computer than one with a user time-limit whose only browser was a version of Internet Explorer so scabrous and ancient that WordPress kept telling me to update it, I might’ve still tried to clear the backlog. But circumstances being what they are, that wasn’t really an option, and so (to cut a long story short) I’ve decided to reply to various points that were raised in comments here. The reason I’m taking the time to explain this decision is that the points in question are objections to my thesis, viz: that rape culture exists in gaming, and while I can’t control what people think, I’d like it to at least be on the record that this isn’t an attempt to stop debate, or to avoid having direct conversations with commenters, or anything like that: it’s just that, as my internet access will be unusually limited for the next week and a half, it seems more expedient to reply en masse rather than individually. However: given the extent to which the original piece has seemingly resonated with people, it might also be of value to have all my extended thoughts on the matter ready and accessible as a single post, rather than scattered disparately throughout a comment-thread.

So, with all that in mind: there seem to be three main objections to the assertion that rape culture exists in gaming, all of which are deserving of attention, and which I’ll respond to  here.

1.’Gaming doesn’t have a rape culture – it’s just that some gamers happen to be terrible people already.’

Let’s say you’re a high school teacher at a school where a lot of the kids, for whatever reason, have serious behavioural and authority issues. Lots of rule-breaking, absenteeism, verbal abuse, violence; that sort of thing. Now, it’s certainly fair to say that you, as a teacher, didn’t create those issues – but how you deal with them still matters. In fact, there’s an argument to be made that your responsibilities are greater towards these students than to those with fewer or no issues. For as long as they remain at your school, it’s within your power to help them – or, conversely, to make them worse, whether through neglect, poor management of their issues, or active endorsement of their most problematic behaviours. And if your attitude is to shrug as though these kids have nothing to do with you, your school or its policies – if you don’t bother to understand or educate them beyond the absolute minimum, or if you selectively decide they don’t really belong to your school because you’d rather they didn’t – then chances are, your actions fall into the latter category. And at that point, if people see your kids wrecking up the joint or behaving badly, then they’re going to consider that you’ve failed in your duty of care; but more to the point, they’re also going to associate the actions of those kids with the culture at your school – and in both cases, they’ll be right to do so.

Or, to put it another way: everyone comes from somewhere, and nobody gets screwed up in a vacuum. Every culture has negative elements to balance out the positive, just as every culture cannot help but impact on its participants. Only very, very rarely do terrible people just spring up from the ground like fully-fledged horror movie psychopaths, absorbing nothing that might contradict their primary urges: the rest of the time, we live in a state of mental give and take. So even if, by some incredible fluke of statistics, every single gamer who acts like a sexist, misogynistic asshole already was one prior to their discovery of gaming, it seems incredibly unrealistic to assume that gaming culture then procedes to exert no influence over those people whatsoever. In some cases, I’d suggest, native sexism and misogyny – to say nothing of general assholishness – are doubtless amplified by exposure to an online culture that’s rife with sexist, racist, homophobic and abusive language, and which graphically sexualises women a default setting. Or, here’s another question: why do so many assholes enjoy gaming? Invariably, assholes crop up in every social context from knitting circles to pro wrestling, but if the contention is that all the terrible sexism and rape culture in gaming comes from people who were already like that beforehand (which presumably excludes anyone who got into gaming as a child, unless we’re saying that adult sexism is genetically predetermined) – and if these assholes are loud and passionate enough to give confused readings about the state of gaming culture as a whole – then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to wonder: what is it about gaming that attracted all these sexist, misogynistic adults in the first place?

More pertinently still, the origin of the bad elements in a culture is irrelevant to the ability of those elements to affect and change that culture. So even if all the asshole gamers were like that before they discovered gaming, that certainly doesn’t prevent them from remaking gaming culture in their own image, or distorting it, or ruining it for other people. Cultures aren’t static: they exist in flux, and it’s extremely important to note that even people who start out with positive values can start to change when faced with a different social paradigm. To quote one of the papers I referenced in the original post, Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace:

“…individuals (married to a woman not employed) whose behaviors were atypical for their gender ideology (e.g., egalitarianism) would shift their ideology in a direction more consistent with their behavior (e.g., a woman’s place is in the home)… when individuals occupy roles inconsistent with their gender attitudes, they adjust their attitudes to match their behaviors. Such results are consistent with findings in psychology that “dissonance” (e.g., Festinger, 1957) results whenever one’s behavior violates some self-standard (e.g., one’s gender ideology) (Stone & Cooper, 2001) and that such dissonance can result in attitude change (Cooper, 2011).”

In a nutshell: when people with egalitarian beliefs regularly engage in non-egalitarian activities, they unconsciously start to adopt less egalitarian attitudes which then translate to a change in their actual beliefs. So: given that the depictions of women in video games is highly sexualised, deeply stereotyped and frequently negative – and given also that sexist insults are commonplace in what are often male-only or male-dominated gaming environments – it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that, regardless of their intentions, some gamers are being coerced into ignoring or supporting sexism and rape culture as normative, simply through prolonged exposure to it as a normative social framework. And like it or not, that does reflect on gaming culture as a whole, because a healthy culture would work the other way, altering the attitudes of sexists for the better rather than changing egalitarians for the worse.

2. ‘Blaming rape culture for gamers who behave badly towards women is like blaming Islam for Muslims who are terrorists – you’re just falling back on negative, blanket stereotypes as a way to demonise a whole culture! Stop tarring us all with the same brush!’

 This is an accusation I take seriously, because I’m not trying to stereotype anyone; nor am I trying to say that gaming culture is some sort of closed ecosystem that can be held wholly and exclusively responsible for its own flaws. As stated in the previous point, everyone comes from somewhere, and these days, it’s comparatively rare for any one person to be the product of just one culture. Our experience of ‘culture’ is more akin to being the smallest nesting doll in a matryoshka set than to being shepherded by a single colossus, and ultimately, gaming is a subculture: a specific, blurrily-defined aspect of something larger that both contains its own subsets and overlaps with other aspects and subcultures. So when I said, in my previous piece, that we’re not wrong to ask about the presence of rape culture in gaming if and when gamers behave in a particular negative way, that’s not the same thing as saying that the most defining and significant aspect of gaming is its relationship with rape culture. There is, I think, a fundamental and important difference between investigating why a representative of a particular group would undertake a particular action in order to understand what relationship, if any, exists between the motive for the action and the logic of the group itself, and assuming – as stereotype does – that any member of that group would naturally perform such an action in accordance with group logic, because the necessary motive is both innately possessed by and requisite for its members. Or, to put it another way: inquiring how a footballer might have been influenced by rape culture is not the same thing as saying that all footballers are necessarily rapists, or that they commit rape because they’re footballers, or are footballers because they’re rapists; it’s just acknowledging that, in some instances, there’s a relevant correlation between our actions and the culture that surrounds us.

Which brings me back to the nesting doll concept of culture: because gaming, as I’ve said, is ultimately only an aspect of wider culture, and wider culture – however you want to define it – has an ongoing problem with sexism, misogyny and violence against women. The accusation of participation in a rape culture is not unique to gaming, and nor have its consequences happened in isolation. Subcultures are no more created in a vacuum than people are, and anyone who concludes that gaming has a problem with rape culture because it’s somehow necessarily and innately rapey is missing the point that wider culture is what gave birth to gaming. The hypersexualisation in games is not a separate issue to the hypersexualisation of women in movies and other media, because sexism and misogyny are pan-cultural problems. As I said earlier, it doesn’t matter where gamers got their sexism before they became gamers – it’s our collective responsibility to not be sexist anywhere, and that means creating a gaming culture where rape threats, misogynistic abuse and casual sexism are not only unwelcome, but actively called out as wrong.

3. ‘But guys cop insults in gaming, too!’

Let’s say you’re walking down the street, and you come across someone who’s clearly just been beaten up – black eye, bloody nose, split lip – and is telling anyone who’ll listen that they suffer such beatings regularly, but that the police refuse to press charges against their assailant, because the attacks aren’t deemed severe enough. Say you stop to talk to this person: if the first words out of your mouth are, ‘But why are you complaining? I got beaten up once, too – it’s just something that happens, and you should learn to deal with it,’ then congratulations! You are officially an asshole.

This is called derailing, a term which is often used to explain why countering complaints of abuse with assertions that the abuse is normative or unimportant is a bad thing to do, but which many people seem to not understand. Abuse is never acceptable, but the fact that you’ve suffered it too doesn’t mean your interlocutor doesn’t have a point, and if someone is telling you about a bad thing that’s happening to them, it’s a catastrophic failure of empathy to instantly change the subject from their pain to yours, particularly if you do so in a way that suggests their pain is lesser or ultimately unimportant. It’s also important to note that not all abuse is the same: that it doesn’t always happen for the same reasons, to the same degree and/or with the same frequency. In the above example, the person with the black eye is being attacked regularly, but nobody is doing anything about it. This is not a comparable situation to being beaten up once; and if, as the metaphor is trying to suggest, the other person is being targeted by a specific type of assailant for a particular reason – such as, for instance, their gender, race, religion or sexual orientation – then this is certainly not the same as you getting into a fight with someone because of an intellectual or competitive disagreement.

So, yes: men get insulted in gaming, too! And that’s definitely an issue. But if you really care about the issue of abuse in gaming, you should listen when someone else is telling you about their experiences, and be open to the fact that maybe, some people have it worse than you. Trying to conflate your own experiences with those of someone else or declare them universal is ultimately a form of silencing – a way of telling the victims to shut up. And if you really want to create an environment where abuse of any kind isn’t tolerated, then this is the last thing you should be doing.

About a week ago, I wrote a post on Penny Arcade vs. Rape Culture, which sent my blog traffic skyrocketing after it was linked on Reddit. However, both in comments on the post itself and elsewhere on Reddit, quite a few people seemed to be missing the point: or, more specifically, misunderstanding what rape culture actually is and how it applies to gaming. One commenter, in fact, responded thusly:

My mind is boggled that you feel righteous in condemning something people enjoy, especially when it’s not even real. Do you realize that’s what you’re doing? You’re standing up and telling all these people, people you don’t know, that what they’re enjoying is *wrong*. You don’t have numbers or statistics or any sort of fact behind you quantifying how what they do is wrong. None. Telling people that what they enjoy in the privacy of their own homes in a virtual reality contributes to a Rape Culture is crazy. What’s next? Telling people what sort of porn they can watch, what sort of books they can read?

Seriously, show some facts. Show a concrete link between this and that, between playing the computer game and a rise in rape statistics. I know, I know, it’s not “Rape” it’s “Rape Culture”, so you conveniently don’t have to show *any* facts. Which is the one saving grace in all this. In the real world, for laws to pass and things to change, you have to show concrete evidence of your position. I remember how they tried to do that with Computer Games and Violence, and how no one was able to draw *any* sort of factual link between one and the other that would stand in any court of law.

Which is what made me decide that, rather than linking to any number of excellent rape culture 101 posts online, there might be a need for an explanation of rape culture tailored specifically to gaming. Because, let’s face it: gaming culture has so often been singled out by lazy politicians as the root cause of society’s ills – which is to say, as being inextricably bound up with violence, obesity, immaturity and so on – that it’s small wonder most gamers, on hearing it simultaneously accused of rape culture, are likely to roll their eyes. After all, those other accusations are only so much hot air, and tend to stem from a deeply prejudicial view of games and geekery besides – so why on Earth should rape culture be any different?

From the outset, we need to acknowledge something critical: that gaming is primarily a digital culture, and that digital cultures – while analogous in many ways to other cultures – happen in venues that lack a physical presence. Yes, there are gaming expos, conventions and tournaments where gamers come together, while many friends who meet up regularly IRL will also game together online or at lans. But the difference between gaming culture and, say, workplace culture is that the latter occurs primarily – if not exclusively – in a specific physical location inhabited by all the individual participants in that culture. What this means is that a Venn diagram of the overlap between social interactions, physical proximity and guiding culture for any given workplace would practically be a circle, as all three elements would, with very few exceptions, happen in the same space. But the same diagram of gaming culture would look drastically different: physical proximity would barely have any overlap with guiding culture and social interactions, which would themselves be separate, because proximity is a meaningless concept in digital environments, guiding culture doesn’t come from a single body but from multiple competing sources, and social interactions are less a byproduct of something else – like being at work – than they are a primary point of gaming.

And what this means for rape culture, which is a term we most often hear applied to cultures that do center on a physical environment – such as, for instance, sports clubs and fraternities – is that right from the offset, people are confused about how it can apply to digital environments in comparable ways. Because for both sports clubs and fraternities, rape is a significant problem; it is an actual, physical consequence that happens in the actual, physical environments associated with their cultures. Hardly a week goes by without some sporting hero somewhere being accused of rape or sexual assault, while the dangers faced by women at fraternity parties are a mainstay of both popular culture and popular knowledge. So when we talk about rape culture being promoted by this football club or that frathouse, we – very naturally, and very sensibly – tend to link the accusation with instances of rape being perpetrated by their members. But when the term is applied to something like gaming, there instantly seems to be a disconnect between the accusation and the reality, because barring conventions, tournaments etc, gaming lacks the physical spaces in which rape can actually take place. Which isn’t to say that sexual assault and rape never happen at cons or expos or tournaments; they do. But obviously, there’s a difference, because the primary mode of social interaction in gaming is digital – and how can you rape someone over the internet?

Which brings us back to the actual, proper definition of rape culture. Quoting from Fraternities and Collegiate Rape Culture: Why Are Some Fraternities More Dangerous Places For Women? by A. Ayres Boswell and Joan Z. Spade (my emphasis):

“Rape culture is a set of values and beliefs that provide an environment conducive to rape… The term applies to a generic culture surrounding and promoting rape, not the specific setting in which rape is likely to occur.” 

In other words, rape culture refers neither to physical locations where rape is deemed likely to occur, does occur and/or has occurred, nor to the specific details of  particular rapes: rather, it refers to a culture – that is, a set of values, beliefs, rituals, social codes, language, laws and art – which can be said to promote sexual violence, and particularly sexual violence against women as perpetrated by straight men. Note that this argument neither automatically nor universally implies the existence of a direct causal link between specific cultural artifacts and incidences of rape (though this is certainly possible); nor does it contend that every participant in that culture is or must be a rapist. What it does describe is a culture where rape is trivialized, where both the abuse and sexual objectification of women is normalised, and where, as a result, the sexual abuse of women is more likely to happen. 

But – and I cannot state this emphatically enough – rape is not the sole expression of rape culture. The whole point of the term is that abuse of women doesn’t happen in a vacuum: other sexist, toxic social conditions have to be present first, and so long as these conditions remain unaltered, the abuse itself will continue. The fact that gaming exists largely outside physical spaces isn’t a get out of jail free card; it just means that in the case of digital expressions of rape culture, we have to get ourselves out of the mindset that rape is the only consequence that matters – or, worse still, that unless rape happens, the accusation of rape culture is somehow bunk. Culture is what informs our actions; it is not the actions themselves – which means that rape culture is perhaps best understood as the presence of an ongoing sexual threat. If someone wielding a gun threatens to shoot me unless I comply with their orders, I’m supremely unlikely to challenge them: they don’t have to shoot me in order to change my behaviour. In that sense, it doesn’t matter if they really planned to shoot me, or if the gun was even loaded. The point – the effect – is power and coercion, and only someone who was completely callous, stupid, oblivious or a combination of all three would argue that the threat of being shot – and the subsequent change to my behaviour – was meaningless unless I actually was shot. Similarly, if I’m threatened with rape and violence and silenced with gendered, sexualised slurs every time I disagree with male gamers on the internet, it doesn’t matter if they really plan to rape me, or if they’re even capable of doing so: as with the gun, the point – the effect – is power and coercion, and the logic which underlies their choice of threat. What they want is to shut me up by reminding me that rape happens, that it could and should happen to me because of what I’ve said. And when that is your go-to means of silencing women in a context where men are the majority, where the female form is routinely shown in attitudes of hypersexualisation, sexualised violence and submission, and where men are in majority control of that setting? That is rape culture. 

Which brings me to the attacks on Anita Sarkeesian.

Sarkeesian, for those who’ve never heard of her, runs a website called Feminist Frequency, where – among other things – she posts videos deconstructing and criticising the presence of sexist tropes in popular culture. Recently, she went on Kickstarter to garner funding for a new series of videos: Tropes vs Women in Video Games. It should tell you something significant about the popularity of this idea – and of Sarkeesian herself – that, having asked for a mere $6,000 in financing, she has, as of today – with four days left on the clock – been funded to the tune of $44,027 – more than seven times what she initially asked for. Here’s her kickstarter pitch:

I love playing video games but I’m regularly disappointed in the limited and limiting ways women are represented.  This video project will explore, analyze and deconstruct some of the most common tropes and stereotypes of female characters in games.  The series will highlight the larger recurring patterns and conventions used within the gaming industry rather than just focusing on the worst offenders.  I’m going to need your help to make it happen!

As a gamer, a pop culture critic and a fan, I’m always working to balance my enjoyment of media while simultaneously being critical of problematic gender representations. With my video web series Feminist Frequency,  I look at the way women are portrayed in mass media and the impact they have on our culture and society.

THE PROJECT

With your help, I’ll produce a 5-video series (now expanded to 12 videos) entitled Tropes vs Women in Video Games, exploring female character stereotypes throughout the history of the gaming industry.  This ambitious project will primarily focus on these reoccurring tropes:

  • Damsel in Distress – Video #1
  • The Fighting F#@k Toy – Video #2
  • The Sexy Sidekick – Video #3
  • The Sexy Villainess – Video #4
  • Background Decoration – Video #5

1st Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Voodoo Priestess/Tribal Sorceress – Video #6
  • Women as Reward – Video #7
  • Mrs. Male Character – Video #8
  • Unattractive Equals Evil – Video #9
  • Man with Boobs – Video #10
  • Positive Female Characters! – Video #11

2nd Stretch Goal Achieved!

  • Let’s Bump up the Production Quality!

3rd Set of Stretch Goals Achieved!

  • Tropes vs Women in Video Games Classroom Curriculum 
  • Video #12 – Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games

Each video will be between 10 and 20 minutes long and available online for free for everyone and anyone to watch, share and use.

Pretty benign language, yes? All she’s done is state what should be a fairly uncontroversial and obvious truth – that women are often presented badly in video games – and proposed to discuss this in detail.

And for this crime, she has been threatened with rape, with death and with violence, and had her Wikipedia page vandalised with images of graphic pornography.

This is what rape culture looks like in gaming: the use of misogyny to defend yourself against the accusation of misogyny. It’s like a woman telling an abusive partner that he’s abusive, and the partner being so angered by this that he punches her in the face. It’s doing exactly the thing you’re being accused of in response to that accusation while simultaneously trying to plead your innocence. And you know what makes this even worse? Sarkeesian hasn’t even started her videos yet. All she’s done is tried to get the funding for them – but even the prospect of a popular feminist deconstructing video game sexism has apparently been deemed so threatening, so emasculating and yet simultaneously so unnecessary by this particular misogynistic segment of the gaming population that, as one, they’ve risen up to threaten her with death, rape and physical violence.

And I can’t help but wonder: how many of Sarkeesian’s attackers use rape language when gaming? How many of them have inferred that because it’s apparently OK to talk about raping other players in-game, it’s OK to issue rape threats against women out of game? What are the odds that the men who vandalised her Wikipedia page with pornographic images – who decided that the quickest, easiest and most universally effective way to insult, demean and punish a female adversary was to hypersexualise her – are the same men arguing that the hypersexualisation of female characters in video games is normative, desirable, harmless? I’ll say it again: rape is not the sole expression of rape culture, and the fact that it exists foremost in gaming in nonphysical spaces – forums, online, in game, on the other end of the microphone, in game design itself – doesn’t make it any less toxic to women than the unsafe frat houses of Boswell and Spade’s study.

Critics within gaming seem to think that, unless we can prove definitively that rape culture acts like some sort of Hypno-Ray to turn otherwise normal men into rapists and sexual harassers, the whole idea of social settings that are inherently toxic to both female safety and healthy gender relations is bunk. But what else do you call it when gamers defend sexism in gaming by threatening a woman with rape? What else do you call it when a prominent figure in gaming says that “sexual harassment is part of the culture” and counts this as a defensible, necessary thing? What else do you call it when the combination of hypersexualisation and violence against women are so deeply embedded in gaming culture that a significant portion of developers and fans don’t see it as problematic? What else do you call it when the default form of insult used by and against male players is, as Penny Arcade’s Tycho once called it, ad mominem – that is, a way of insulting men by sexually impugning the women (mothers, sisters, wives and girlfriends) with whom they’re most closely associated? There’s a reason, after all, why such jokes are used primarily against men, and why their subjects are never fathers, brothers, husbands, boyfriends – what misogynistic male gamer would bother leveling sexually loaded insults at a female player’s mother when he could just level them at her? Show me a female gamer who’s played online or at tournaments, or even one who has simply participated actively in male-dominated gaming forums, and ninety-nine times out of a hundred, I will show you a female gamer who has at some point been called a bitch, a cunt,a slut or a whore by male players, or who has been crudely sexually propositioned by male players, or who has otherwise been sexually threatened or intimidated by male players, because this is how rape culture is primarily expressed in digital contexts: through the abusive language, gendered slurs, sexual threats, silencing and exclusion that are levelled at women generally, but which are specifically and intensely used to punish women like Sarkeesian, who dare to point out that this is what’s actually happening.

The core argument of rape culture isn’t that exposure to yet another instance of highly sexualised violence against women will turn every man who sees it into a rapist, and that therefore we should censor everything that even vaguely references women and violence together; the point is that in a healthy culture, there would be no need to censor such images, because participants in that culture would have enough respect for women to neither create nor demand them as mainstream in the first place. Because ultimately, the big objection to the charge of rape culture in gaming seems to boil down to fears about censorship: that by criticising creative output and language as being problematic, sexist and offensive, people like me are arguing for less art all together, when what we’re actually arguing for is more good art. Sexualised violence and the sexual objectification of women should be to gaming like The Human Centipede, a film which is horrific in absolutely every sense of the word, is to cinema: something that we all understand is vile, but where a desire to confront that vileness is the motive for watching – as opposed to a scenario where almost every film produced contains elements of The Human Centipede, and has done for so long that cinemagoers treat those elements as normative rather than vile, because they’ve become so commonplace that they can’t properly imagine films without them, reacting with bafflement and outrage and cries of ‘Censorship!’ every time some critic were to suggest that maybe, just maybe, not every film needs to feature graphic depictions of the forced ingestion of shit.

In other words: it is not censorship to suggest that gamers and game corporations should increase their collective respect for women, or to try and encourage the creation of a gaming culture that would nominally reflect such respect in both its output and its language.

Returning to the Boswell and Spade paper about rape culture in fraternities, it’s extremely important to note the differences between houses which were identified as ‘safe’ – that is, houses where women felt comfortable and which had lower levels of sexual assault – and those which were ‘unsafe’ – where women felt more vulnerable and which had higher levels of sexual assault. To quote:

“At high-risk houses, parties typically had skewed gender ratios, sometimes involving more men and other times involving more women. Gender segregation also was evident at these parties, with the men on one side of a room or in the bar drinking while women gathered in another area. Men treated women differently in the high-risk houses. The women’s bathrooms in the high-risk houses were filthy, including clogged toilets and vomit in the sinks… 

Men attending parties at high-risk houses treated women less respectfully, engaging in jokes, conversations, and behaviors that degraded women. Men made a display of assessing women’s bodies and rated them with thumbs up or thumbs down for the other men in the sight of the women. One man attending a party at a high-risk fraternity said to another, “Did you know that this week is Women’s Awareness Week? I guess that means we get to abuse them more this week.” Men behaved more crudely at parties at high-risk houses… It was rare to see a group of men and women together talking. Men were openly hostile, which made the high-risk parties seem almost threatening at times.”

In other words: the high-risk environments that were toxic for and dangerous to women were characterised by skewed gender ratios, poor respect for female spaces, offensive jokes made at the expense of women, the hypersexualisation of women themselves, and male hostility towards women – all of which is representative of rape culture. The fact that these behaviours are also representative of many digital spaces in gaming culture should not be any less alarming simply because they happen online: the misogyny, sexism and disrespect which underlie their usage is, at base, identical. Similarly, it’s worth noting that in another recent paper, Marriage Structure and Resistance to the Gender Revolution in the Workplace by Sreedhari D. Desai, Dolly Chugh and Arthur P. Brief, the authors found that employed men in traditional marriages – that is, marriages where the wife stayed home and the husband was designated as the sole breadwinner – tended, when compared to men in non-traditional marriages, to:

“(a) view the presence of women in the workplace unfavorably, (b) perceive that organizations with higher numbers of female employees are operating less smoothly, (c) find organizations with female leaders as relatively unattractive, and (d) deny, more frequently, qualified female employees opportunities for promotion.”

On the surface, this has nothing to do with rape culture – and yet I mention it by way of demonstrating that the way men treat and think of women in their private lives has a direct impact on how they treat them professionally and elsewhere. This doesn’t even have to be a conscious process – as the authors point out, the majority of such sexism was implicit rather than overt, meaning that the men didn’t even realise they were doing it – but either way, the impact on women remains the same. Given this evidence, then, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to suggest that male gamers who disrespect women online, who threaten women with rape, who call women bitches and sluts in anger, and who view both women in games and women gamers through the lens of hypersexualisation, will be much less likely to respect women generally and elsewhere. And that really is significant in terms of analysing the elusive physical, real-world implications of rape culture in gaming, because even though gaming itself is a primarily digital culture, gamers themselves still inhabit the real world, where they must necessarily interact with women in physical spaces and contexts that have nothing whatsoever to do with gaming.

Or, put it another way: parties, clubs and bars are universal spaces, places where people of all different cultures and subcultures meet – as, for that matter, are workplaces, offices, shops and streets. If a group of footballers sexually assault three women in a hotel, for instance, we aren’t wrong to ask about the influence of rape culture in football, even though the physical location of the assault is a public place with no specific ties to either the sport or its culture. But this is where things become tricky, because gamers – unlike footballers – aren’t celebrities; and unlike fratboys, their subcultural identity is unlikely to be mentioned in the event that they’re involved in an incident of sexism or sexual assault. And there’s the additional problem of making the nomenclature accurate: while it’s very easy to identify footballers and fratboys – do they belong to a club or frat house? then yes – it’s less easy to tell who, for the purpose of analysis, is a gamer, and if so, what their level of participation in gaming culture actually is. It’s exactly this sort of subtle point that so easily gets lost in public discourse, but which becomes exquisitely relevant when we start talking about preventative strategies and the real world consequences of rape culture in gaming. Saying gamers are is a vastly less accurate and more problematic notion than saying gaming is: even though there’s a massive intersection between the two concepts, the former is still a generalisation about types of people, while the latter is an assessment of culture that may or may not be relevant to individual participants in that culture. But still, I have to ask: if gaming itself lacks the physical spaces we usually associate with the most dramatic consequences of rape culture – but if this doesn’t invalidate the fact that many sexist male gamers are nonetheless learning from and actively participating in a rape culture they refuse to acknowledge as negative – then what happens when those men interact with women in other areas of life? On the basis of the evidence, they seem deeply unlikely to respect them, and however subconscious their sexism may be at such times, the fact that any physical consequences, such as abuse or assault, would happen outside of gaming-oriented contexts does not free gaming as a community – as a culture – of the responsibility to reinforce the fact that abusing women at any time is completely unacceptable.

So: gaming culture is – or at least, contains many problematic elements of – a rape culture. It is frequently hostile to women, toxic in terms of both the hypersexualised, violent content and the hypersexualised, violent language it uses to demean and belittle women. Even if, for whatever reason, you’d hesitate to use the term rape culture, it should nonetheless be apparent that gaming, en masse, has deep-seated problems with its treatment of women, and that this ought to be addressed. The horrific backlash against Anita Sarkeesian is unacceptable. The Hitman: Absolution trailer is unacceptable. Aris Bakhtianians’s comments are unacceptable. Saying so is not censorship: it is simply a call to treat women with respect. But so long as gamers refuse to acknowledge that rape culture is an issue which applies to gaming, the situation will not – cannot – get better.

Back in 2008, I found myself somewhat hilariously fired by humourless bureaucrats for, among other things, daring to read Nick Harkaway’s debut novel, The Gone-Away World, by the photocopier. The fact that TGAW is merciless in its mockery of, among other things, humourless bureaucrats only added to the delightful, ironic savour of the experience. More recently – which is to say, this year – Nick has released two more books: fiction/SFF work Angelmakerwhich is a sort of blackly comedic gangster-spy-steampunk novel set alternately in the modern day and WWII, and non-fiction work The Blind Giant: Being Human in a Digital World, an exploration of the many intersections between digital culture and human life – which, quite coincidentally, the wonderful Nick has consented to discuss with me, despite my tendency to ramble. So, without further ado: Nick Harkaway on The Blind Giant

Given its subtitle – Being Human in a Digital World – the casual observer could be forgiven for assuming that The Blind Giant focusses more on technology than it does on being human. In fact, I’d contend, the opposite is true: rather than using the digital world as a lens through which to view social issues, it instead uses humanity and the human condition as a means of analysing what part digital culture plays in society.

I think that’s exactly right – when I did an event at the School of Life the other day, one of the people there described the book as ‘a call to active citizenship’. So much of the digital debate is actually a cipher for debates we should be having about our culture, so a lot of what I’m doing is teasing out technological strands from cultural ones…

At the very least, it alternates between these perspectives in a way that makes the technological elements easily comprehensible to the layperson. Being of the geekish persuasion yourself, and given also the book’s iteration of the importance of constant engagement with the world, was it difficult to keep to a particular structural path and within the intended scope?

The aim was to produce a book with a very wide possible readership – something which would be readable whether you were an absolute blazing Luddite or a grade 1 digiphile. My hope is that there’s something of interest for everyone, that the book can be appreciated at a number of levels, but obviously there are limits on that. Staying within scope was relatively easy, because the idea was to go as broad as possible, to show the top metre of the ocean over a wide area rather than attempt to follow a single narrow fishing line down to the bottom – but staying coherent was harder. I was writing fast and sucking in information as I went along, organising it in Scrivener, trying out pathways. It was genuinely an iterative writing process and I could easily still be doing it. My ideas have evolved since the book came out, largely through dialogues with readers and with fascinating people like Anab Jain, Simon Ings and Andrew Keen. But seriously: the contract and the software kept me sane. I didn’t have time to write Gödel, Escher, and Bach.

Early in the book, you talk about the importance of the digital hearth, deliberately choosing a word with ancient, preindustrial connotations. This is a particularly effective image for many reasons, but chief among them – for me, at least – is the simultaneous invocation of the mythic: of the idea of lares and penates, those minor household deities who were honoured as being integral to hearth and home. In our current world, where both the fluidity of texts and the hearth-extending properties of social media have allowed us to define our digital homes through endless recombinations of the ideological, the sacred and the personal, what sort of figures – whether real or imagined, familiar or unknown – do you think have taken on the equivalent roles of our guardian household gods?

That’s part of our problem, in a sense – they’ve faded into us and we haven’t entirely realised it yet. We’re still looking for external sources of influence and protection – we blame the phone for ringing, the Internet for serving up information, the TV for strobing ads at us. And that’s ridiculous. If we ever make self-aware appliances with volition of their own, we can come back to that, but right now we’re alone with ourselves and if something happens it happens because we did it. We allowed it. I think the alienation comes from the metaphor of cyberspace, which proposed a foreign country behind the screen, and I think that’s breaking down now – thank God – as a consequence of the arrival of the touchscreen. When you can drag data around with your finger, it’s no longer other, it’s immediate. Things are not emerging from a TRON landscape in a subatomic alien world, they’re coming from other people using technology. We don’t need household gods in a literal sense – we need to understand that they were always reflections, and accept the role we took from them.

You talk, too, about the problem of ‘locked in’ systems, which – to quote the book – are defined as such ‘because while we might wish to break out of [the system], we cannot do so without also unravelling everything that has been constructed on top of it, and many of those things are hugely profitable and hence powerful and able to defend themselves. They refuse to be undermined, even while the individuals within them might privately recognise the need.’ This is a very apt description, and one which fits a distressingly large number of systems and institutions. I’m especially concerned about its application to our current educational frameworks; secondary school in particular. Given the myriad disconnects between the old world our educational systems were originally built to support and the worlds – both digital and tangible – that exist now, do you think it’s possible that part of what you describe as ‘the growing sense of abandonment and contempt’ that fuelled the anger of youthful participants in the UK riots could stem, however subconsciously, from the awareness that they’re being trained to enter a society that no longer exists?

I think there’s an element of that. They were told they’d always get richer, that that was the natural state of being in an information economy (which we don’t have, by the way, as Ha Joon observes in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism). They can see in front of them that the pathways they’re on don’t lead anywhere very cool, and that was fine so long as the economy was on the up and they could still expect a rising standard of living. Not any more. Alexis Tsipras told the Guardian the Greek financial situation was part of a war between the people and capitalism. I think he’s almost right: it’s a struggle between sanity and a particular style of finance-based fairydust capitalism which is a bit stupid, a bad iteration which consumes too much fuel and throws up too much waste and benefits a very, very few in the short term. But look, all the rioters knew was that they were getting screwed, and they didn’t like it. That’s what revolutions are in the first place: a sense that you have to push back even if it kills you.

Which locked in system would you most wish to see torn down, and why?

I can’t pick just one. There are simply too many. Gender inequality has to be the most wasteful human-aspected one one. Petroleum is probably the most interconnected, along with beef farming, which results in famine, soil erosion, environmental damage, poor health in the industrialised world, and economic shenanigans around subsidies. The reason to tear them down is the same throughout: they don’t do what they’re supposed to do. They’re aberrant. They cause problems rather than creating solutions. I’m not saying “no oil” and “no beef” – I’m saying that the entrenched systems around those commodities are obnoxious.

Midway through the book, you make a fascinating and deeply significant point about the correlation between the preservation of online privacy on the one hand, and the retention of intellectual property rights on the other. To quote again, ‘You can’t trash privacy and hope to retain a sense of respect for IP.’ Bearing in mind that this is an enormously complex issue, if you woke up tomorrow as King of Earth, what measurements would you enact to try and foster a united sense of ownership and privacy in the digital sphere?

Well, I’d have anyone who pulled what the FBI just did in the Megaupload case tarred and feathered. To clarify: they took a bunch of data they may not have had a right to from New Zealand and are now defending the action on the ironic basis that because it’s non-physical the law does not apply. I mean, seriously? In a copyright infringement case, this is your position. It’s insane. You can’t respect IP if that’s how it is defended.

More seriously: I think I’d legalise encryption globally and institute powerful protections for keys under – at the moment, in the UK, you can go to prison for refusing to hand yours over. In Russia you can go to prison for just possessing encrypted data. Personal data should have the same robust protections as personal space. I’d need to find a balance between powerful protections for the individual and the rights of a free press, but I’m not sure that’s as tricky as people make out. I’d also require a new policy of reasonable enforcement from content owners, since we’re making me dictator. The problem is that they’ve already gone so far down the bad road that it’s going to be really hard to establish a proper social contract again – but it’s the only way they can go, in the end. The alternative is slow exsanguination.

The notion of deindividuation through adherence to impersonal systems is a terrifying one, particularly as exemplified through experiments like those conducted by Zimbardo and Milgram. It’s also a significant theme in both your novels: The Gone-Away World and, more recently, Angelmaker. In the former, it appears as a chilling warning about unyielding and ultimately sadistic bureaucracies, while in the latter, it comes across in the comparison of personal, ‘friendly’ gangster crime, with its weirdly chivalric rules and its black sense of humour, with the impersonal, devouring autocracy of greed and mechanisation. Despite – because of? – being fictional, these stories seem to treat the deindividuation problem as much more of a binary issue than The Blind Giant, which appears to be more optimistic about the possibility of a viable middle path; perhaps because fiction provides the luxury of usurping such locked in systems as would otherwise prove intractable. Even so, the introduction to Giant, wherein you posit both a dystopian and a utopian future as a starting point for discussion, is still titled Dreams and Nightmares – one of the most archetypal binaries of all. How optimistic are you about our ability to change problematic systems without wholly uprooting them?

I know more about deindividuation now than I did when I wrote TGAW, so inevitably there’s more nuance. I still don’t know nearly enough to answer that question. I tend to think the only way it comes right is at a micro-level: citizen action to rehumanise everyone’s relationships. It’s a big ask, but a necessary one if we want a friendly society. It can start small. Smile at the irritating person on the other side of the ticket office glass, say. Get them to smile back if you can. And so on. Day by day, inch by inch, we inhabit a less divided society. It only works bottom up, though.

On a more positive note, something you blogged about recently was the verisimilitude of coincidence in writing. ‘In the small world of the novel, coincidences can multiply. The people about whom you’re telling the story are the people to whom significant events occur, otherwise you’d be telling the story about other people… We recognise the level of connectedness in the world, and we want it to be appropriate.’ This is definitely something I’ve noticed and appreciated in your fiction, but it also seems a fitting description of the way in which you’ve coherently united disparate (or seemingly disparate) ideas in The Blind Giant. Interconnectedness is obviously relevant to the digital world – arguably, in fact, it’s what it does best. Do you think this has changed or is changing the stories we tell about ourselves and our interactions with the world, and if so, how?

I think we’ve become increasingly aware of our connectedness over the last century. Chains, the story by Frigyes Karinthy which began the ‘six degrees’ discussion, was published in 1929. The mathematics of (pre-digital) social networks became apparent before digitisation really took off, though of course the Internet made the connections more discoverable and concrete. So the answer is probably part of the history of 20th Century storytelling, but I don’t know what it is. The stories we tell about ourselves change constantly, and stay the same.

One final query about informed behaviour: you end the book on what is arguably a cautionary note, exhorting the reader to engage with the world, and to be particularly aware, not only of the choices they make, but the many opportunities they have to make them, and of the idea that being the person we want to be ‘is a matter of constant effort rather than attaining a given state and then forgetting about it.’ This is a timely piece of advice, and one that applies just as significantly to our relationships with equality, privilege, politics and popular culture as to our use of technology and the digital world. With this in mind, how best would you advise people only newly aware of the fluidity of our culture to engage with it critically?

The important thing is to ask questions. That is, after all, the heart of the critical process: you ask what a thing is, whether it is what it appears to be. One of the simplest and most effective tricks in a political or a social context is to ask, of any phenomenon, whether it’s really a noun or a fixed situation, or whether it’s created, constructed, and held in place by a continuing action. Mostly, things are the latter, and when you see how they’re held in place you also see in whose interest it is to maintain that they’re part of the natural order of things. Then it becomes a question of what to do next…

Nick Harkaway can be found online at his blog, on tumblr and on TwitterThe Blind Giant is available in both ebook and hardcopy formats. 

Warning: all the spoilers.

Trigger warning: some rape and pregnancy squick.

Earlier today, the husband and I went to see Ridley Scott’s Prometheus, after which we watched Alien, which I’d actually never seen before. I’m extremely glad I did, because if nothing else, it offers a whole new perspective on Prometheus, viz: that the latter is actually a reboot of the former. The visual, narrative, structural and thematic similarities between the two are such that, when coupled with Prometheus’s ending, it’s an extremely difficult thesis to ignore; at the very least, Scott is borrowing heavily from his original, and while I’ve not yet seen anyone else make the comparison, if you watch the two films back to back, the relationship between them is undeniable.

But first: Prometheus itself. Considered in isolation, it’s surprisingly hard to categorise with any degree of accuracy. Though ostensibly SF/horror, the tone and pacing are much more philosophical, concerned primarily with abstract questions of identity, genesis, belief and kinship. At the same time, though, the bulk of the characterisation is thin, if not actively dependent on stereotype, which causes a weird, occasionally mesmerising disconnect between the actions of the protagonists and the narrative arc. Having discovered archaeological evidence that the same images of giants, together with the accurate depiction of a distant star system, have appeared in geographically and temporally different cultures throughout history, scientific couple Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace) and Charlie Holloway (Logan Marshall-Green) set out aboard the Prometheus in search of an alien race they call the Engineers, who Shaw in particular believes created humanity. However, the ship itself has been financed by dying industrialist Peter Wayland (a heavily made-up Guy Pearce) at the expense of his company, Wayland Enterprises, and is nominally under the command of captain Meredith Vickers (Charlize Theron), an icy professional who doesn’t believe in Shaw and Holloway’s theories. Also on board, apart from sympathetic pilot Janek (Idris Elba) and a handful of interchangeable engineers and scientists, is David (Michael Fassbender), an enigmatic robot in the employ of Wayland. Fassbender’s performance is perfect: we’re never quite sure about the extent to which David’s personal motives (which he claims to lack) overlap and intersect with his programmed directives. He’s quiet, polite and inhuman, but with an implied depth of insight and evident sense of wonder that balance eerily with his detached courtesy. It’s David and Shaw whose experiences and interactions form the real basis for the film, and one that makes for an interesting mix of themes.

If you’ve seen any other films set in the Alien universe, then I don’t really need to tell you how the plot progresses: mysterious ruins are discovered, the party splits up, infection/infestation occurs, people die, fire is employed in defense of humanity, corporate greed forces the crew to stay when any sane person would flee, the female lead gets forcibly impregnated by an alien monstrosity with an accelerated growth rate, a big alien boss with a grudge against humanity is revealed, everyone bar the female lead and the robot dies, and the alien threat is averted (for now) in a climactic final battle; the film ends with Shaw flying away in an alien craft piloted by David’s dismembered (but still functional) head. None of which was new or surprising, but all of which was entertaining to watch: the 3D used in Prometheus is superb, the soundtrack is gorgeous, the visuals compelling, and the overall story something I’m glad to have watched. As an action movie, it isn’t half bad (though it does lag briefly in the middle).

The real heart of the film, however, is in the contrast between Shaw’s quest for the creators of humanity and David’s strange relationship with his human creators. My favourite moment comes when Holloway, drunk and dispirited after having discovered that all the Engineers are dead (or so he thinks), laments his inability to ask them the big question: why did they make humanity? To which David, deadpan and quiet, asks why Holloway thinks humanity decided to build robots. “Because we can,” says Holloway, as though this is the most obvious thing in the world – but when David asks if Holloway would be content to receive such an answer from humanity’s creators, Holloway just snorts and rolls his eyes, as if to say, But that would never happen to us . We’re different, and you’re just a robot. The arrogance of Holloway’s disconnect is staggering, such that we feel real sympathy for David; but when, moments later, the robot deliberately contaminates Holloway’s drink with an alien biological sample – not maliciously, but as part of a calculated plot to try and find a cure for his dying master – our sense of his humanity is instantly eroded. Shaw, meanwhile, is caught in a constant balancing act between her faith in God and her scientific belief that the Engineers created humankind. When questioned about the contradiction – shouldn’t she take off her cross, Holloway asks, now that she has proof the Engineers seeded Earth? – Shaw smiles and answers, “But who made them?” Confronted later by the growing evidence that the Engineers weren’t as benign a force as she’d imagined, Shaw retreats into her faith, only to have it tested in other, more horrible ways. And yet she survives with both her faith and her hunger for answers in tact, flying off into the unknown with only the remnants of a created being to keep her company on her quest to understand why humanity’s creators turned against them.

Despite this solid and compelling philosophical core, however, the rest of the characterisation is disappointingly lackluster. Vickers is little more than a cold, blonde ice maiden; Wayland is the archetypal dying industrialist looking to prolong his life; Janek is the loyal captain; the other crew members – Fifield, Millburn, Ford, Chance and Ravel – are by turns anonymous and textbook; even Holloway, for all his greater significance, is strangely generic – supportive and loving to Shaw and a believer in their work, but completely undeveloped in terms of his own history and motives. The Engineers, too, are unfathomable, due in large part to the fact that we never learn anything tangible about them: not why they made humanity, not why they abandoned it, nor even why they subsequently turned to the creation of biological weapons – the aliens whose predations are the film’s main source of threat – with the intention of unleashing them on Earth. There’s a sense in which this enforced ignorance is deliberate: a way of leaving the story open-ended, so that we, like Shaw, are still left with unanswered questions, the better to preserve the sense of mystery. But there’s also a sense in which the lack of answers undermines the integrity of the narrative – because in the absence of any concrete explanation, certain elements of the plot and worldbuilding start to look less like deliberate omissions and more like accidental discontinuities, some of which occurred to me while watching the film, and the rest of which are classic fridge logic.

In the very first scene of the film, for instance, we witness an Engineer – a giant, white-skinned man who bears more than a passing resemblance to Darth Malak in his underwear – standing alone as an alien spaceship flies away in the distance. The Engineer drinks the biological compound that’s later used to kill Holloway and which, by all accounts, appears to be the doom of his species. And yet he does this voluntarily, even though it instantly causes his body to disintegrate, right down to the level of his DNA. The reason for this scene is never explained. Why is the Engineer alone? Why does he drink the compound? Does he realise it will kill him? If not, why not? And if so, why drink it when there’s no-one else around? What planet is he on? None of these questions are answered during the course of the movie – and in fact, what little information we do glean only serves to make the first scene look self-contradictory. Similarly, the ultimate implication of both Shaw’s final voyage and Janek’s never-refuted supposition that the planet they’ve found is a military outpost both point to the fact that the Engingeers came from a different star system all together. But if that’s true, then why didn’t the archaeological evidence Shaw and Holloway found on Earth lead them there instead? More pertinently, it’s stated outright that the dead Engineers the crew finds were killed roughly two thousand years ago, while their earliest appearance in human culture is five thousand years old. So if the Engineers only decided to destroy humanity *after* leaving Earth, why leave behind directions to an outpost planet that they hadn’t yet colonised? In fact, why leave directions at all? We’re shown explicitly that the Engineers intended to send their biological weapons back to Earth, in which case, leaving messages in human culture to one day come to the source is redundant: the only reason humanity survived that long is because the aliens the Engineers bred to destroy us destroyed them first. Under those circumstances, the archaeological messages can’t be a warning, but nor are they viably an invitation. Instead, they appear only as a plot device: something Scott has orchestrated in order to justify his characters being where they are, but which, on the basis of the evidence presented, makes no narrative sense at all.

Other niggling issues also drew my attention: little glitches that made me question the overall story. Why does David think that infecting Holloway will help Wayland? Why does nobody chase after Shaw when she physically attacks two of her crewmates and runs away? Who is Janek working for, and how much does he know? Why, when we’re explicitly told that there are seventeen crewmembers on board, do we only ever see ten of them? This last might seem like a strange niggle, but it becomes relevant near the end, when Vickers is told to run for the escape pods while Janek and two of his companions stay behind to make a Heroic Sacrifice and crash their ship into the alien craft that’s headed for Earth, thereby saving humanity – because if there were still seven other people on board, people we never met and whose deaths we never saw, then it feels extremely odd that Janek and the others would tell Vickers how to save herself, but leave the rest of their crewmates to die. (It’s also worth mentioning that the three men who make the Heroic Sacrifice are all POC – the only three in the movie. I’m not quite sure what to think of this, but it does feel like something of a trope subversion that all three died nobly rather than running for their lives as plucky comic relief, or as the archetypal black dude who dies first.)

And then there’s the gender issues. Round about the midway point, Vickers initiates a conversation with Janek and actually seems to be thawing a little, prompting him to flirt with her. Vickers reacts in kind, but ultimately rejects him, at which point she turns to leave. Janek, however, stops her by asking an incredibly invasive question: is she a robot? Now, on the one hand, this is a narratively reasonable question: Scott’s Alien-universe movies do tend to contain secret robots, and as far as the audience is concerned, Vickers is definitely a viable candidate. On the other hand, though, Janek has asked this in direct response to Vickers choosing not to sleep with him, and even worse, her response, rather than saying yes or no, is to tell him to come to her cabin in ten minutes – they can have sex after all! And this is problematic for me, because even though Janek might plausibly be curious, his timing is gross, and Vickers’s response is grosser still, because the way she proves her womanly nature is to change her mind about sex. The whole scene did not sit well with me, and even though we don’t actually see the deed take place – the whole incident is, I suspect, narratively engineered solely to get Janek off the bridge, so that when the crewmates stuck outside call with an SOS, he isn’t there to hear it – and even though it effectively answers the question of Vickers’s humanity, it still comes across as sexist and offensive.

And then we have the Underwear Problem – or, more specifically, the fact that women in the future apparently don’t wear bras or singlets, but have instead reverted to wearing weird wrap-around boob tubes that look uncannily like bandages, and which come complete with matching bandage underwear. To wit, this:

and this:

Setting aside the infuriating ubiquity of Hot Terrified Women In Their Underpants as an SF/horror trope, what would have been so terrible about letting them wear bras or crop tops? Even Ripley in the original Alien gets a goddam singlet, despite the fact that her undies are literally and gratuitously about five sizes too small.  I just, I actually cannot get over this lack of bras. I mean, the first time we see Vickers, she’s doing pushups in what amounts to a boob tube, and I’m sorry, but it’s hard enough to get a strapless bra to stay put when you’re hugging your armpits at a party, let alone engaging in strenuous physical exertion like running for your life. I don’t even care that, from one perspective (although certainly not the one employed for the gratuitous cleavage shot pictured above), the boob tube bandages arguably cover more frontal cleavage than a real bra would, because once you’ve decided to have your female heroine running around in her underwear, you’ve pretty much abandoned the notion of modest costuming. As far as I can tell, the only possible logic behind the boob-wraps is because someone, somewhere decided they were more aesthetically pleasing than bras – but speaking as a person of somewhat busty dimensions, the absence of good, supportive bras is the exact fucking opposite of futuristic, and is in fact about as big a visual anachronism as having an axe on a spaceship.

Oh wait.

*facepalm*

But all of this is small beer compared to the big, endlessly problematic notion of forced alien impregnation. Insofar as the alien attacks go, I’ll give Scott some credit for trope subversion: twice in the course of the film, male characters are violently orally penetrated – and, in the process, killed – by phallic alien tentacles. This is visually disturbing on a number of levels, but given the near universal establishment of tentacle rape as a thing that happens to women, I’m going to give him a big thumbs up for bucking the trend. That being said, what happens to Shaw is awful on just about every level imaginable. If you have difficulty with the womb-biting vampire birth scene in Breaking Dawn, I’m going to issue a big, fat warning about Prometheus, because everything that happens to Shaw from about the three-quarter mark onwards is the ladypain equivalent of that scene in Casino Royale where Le Chiffre tortures James Bond by tying him naked to a wicker chair with the arse cut out and then repeatedly belting him in the genitals with a length of knotted rope, with bonus! psychological angst thrown in.

So: Shaw is infertile; she can’t have children. This is a source of evident sadness to her, something that Holloway has to reassure her about after he accidentally makes an offhand comment about how easy it is to create life. At the point at which we see them make love, Holloway has already been infected with the alien biological compound: he dies horribly not long after, forcing Vickers to literally set him on fire while Shaw watches rather than continue in his painful, bodily disintegration. Making this even worse, Shaw’s own father, an explorer or anthropologist of some sort, also died of an incurable, graphic virus – ebola, in fact. Understandably, Shaw is so distressed by watching her lover die that David has to sedate her – but of course, David is the one who infected Holloway to begin with. When Shaw comes to, David asks her (politely, of course) if she and Holloway have made love recently; when Shaw says yes, he does an ultrasound, and reveals both that Shaw is three months pregnant – impossible, as they only slept together ten hours ago, never mind her infertility – and that the foetus is abnormal. Unhesitatingly, Shaw tells him to get it out of her, to which David replies that he can’t: they don’t have the technicians on board to perform a cesarean. His solution is to suggest she go into cryo. Shaw refuses, so David forcibly sedates her. When she wakes up again, two fellow crewmates in quarantine suits have come to see her frozen. Shaw feigns unconsciousness, attacks them, and runs – in some considerable pain, as the alien-baby is trying to squirm free – to the special, super-expensive automated surgery pod in Vickers’s quarters. Desperate, she tries to program it for a cesarean, only to be told that the chamber has been locked for male use only (we later find out, through inference, that this is because it’s meant for exclusive use by the aged Peter Wayland, who’s secretly been on board the whole time).  Thinking fast, she tells it to perform abdominal surgery to remove an obstruction, jabs herself with a couple of painkillers, and hops in.

While Shaw is still conscious – and clearly able to feel pain, despite her medical injections – the pod cuts into her with a laser, opens up her uterus, and uses a metal grappling tool that looks frighteningly like the lovechild of an arcade grabber machine claw and an eggbeater to pull the writhing alien-baby in its placental sack out of her stomach and hold it overhead. Shaw is now trapped in the pod with a gaping abdominal wound and a predatory tentacled alien that wants to kill her – plus and also, the umbilical cord is somehow still linking it to her insides, so she has to physically pull the cord out of her goddam womb, at which point the pod wraps things up by closing a gash the entire length of her abdomen with giant metal staples. She then has to slid downwards and out of the pod by passing underneath the alien, slam the pod-lid closed, and then stagger, weeping and bloodied, into the hallway.

To summarise: an infertile woman who wanted children and whose partner died ten hours ago is forced to give herself an emergency c-section to rid herself of the ravenous alien baby he impregnated her with, alone, while on the run from her crewmates, without help or anesthetic. Also, despite the fact that her stomach is literally being held together with staples, she then spends the rest of the film running for her life while in obvious, crippling pain, alternately sobbing and injecting herself with painkillers. Fun times! Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

So how, then, does Prometheus resemble a reboot of Alien?

Barring the Engineer prologue and a brief scene on Earth, Prometheus contains exactly the same establishing shot and data that Alien does: the image of a spaceship with the written details of its name, function, crew, cargo and course superimposed over the top; both films also end with the lone survivor, a brunette Final Girl, dictating a last entry into the ship’s log, stating that the rest of the crew are dead, the ship was destroyed, they’re the only one left, and that now they’re about to travel elsewhere. Both are also accompanied in their escape by a small, inhuman companion – Ripley has a cat, Jones, while Shaw has the disembodied robot head of David. In Alien, the ring-ship the crew discovers is identical to the one piloted by the surviving Engineer in Prometheus; in both films, it’s a pair of white men who stumble on the larval face-sucking aliens and subsequently die. In both films, it’s the female protagonist who calls for the implementation of quarantine (Ripley is ignored where Shaw isn’t) and who subsequently suggests that the message which lead them there to begin with wasn’t an invitation or an SOS, but a warning to stay away. In both films, a robot secretly furthering the agenda of a corporate power turns on the crew, ignoring quarantine and disobeying direct orders in order to bring an alien sample on board, actively harming and endangering others in order to protect it. Both films also follow a very similar plot progression, kill off secondary characters in a similar order, and make graphic use of flamethrowers; even the title fonts are the same (both also pass the Bechdel test). Perhaps most importantly of all, however, the final scene of Prometheus shows an alien – that is, an Alien alien – emerging from the wreckage, created in its larval form by gestating in Shaw (the Holloway-monster she cut out of herself) then growing again in the body of the Engineer, which makes the whole of Prometheus look like nothing so much as a retcon of the entire Alien universe.

Given that fact, my suspicion is that there’ll probably be a sequel at some point down the line, restarting the Alien mythos in a suitably altered context (though whether Rapace’s Shaw will go on to be as canonically significant as Weaver’s Ripley remains to be seen). Over all, I found Prometheus to be an interesting movie: flawed in some ways, problematic in others, and peppered with enough apparent discontinuities and WTF moments that I couldn’t wholly settle into the story, but still entertaining and definitely one of the better SFnal flicks I’ve seen of late. (Though if you’d rather pass on the open-womb surgery scene, I can’t say I’ll blame you.)

Trigger warning: rape. 

Penny Arcade is the webcomic that got me into webcomics, which is saying something. The first truly geeky friends I met at school showed it to me almost as a rite of passage, thereby hooking me not only on the strip itself, but webcomics generally. For years, PA held pride of place with all of us: most quoted, most referenced, most likely to be shown to yet more newcomers as an offer of subcultural goodwill. A friend and I once spent an entire all-day Latin seminar staving off boredom by writing PA quotes to each other in a shared notebook; at college, I introduced my hallmates to it and ended up participating in several cardboard tube samurai battles on the front lawn; I still sometimes wear my Div shirt. In fact, my email signature contains a Tycho quote – not from a comic, but from a now-ancient newspost about the Playstation; so ancient, in fact, that I don’t think it’s even online any more, and which was so obscure originally that I’m probably one of the few people who actively remembers it, let alone ascribes it personal relevance.  The quote, which I have memorised, goes like this:

People seemed to prefer this, but only marginally so, the way one might prefer to be stabbed than shot. Optimally, one is neither stabbed nor shot. Optimally, one eats some cake! But there are times when cake is not available, and instead we are destroyed. This is the deep poetry of the universe.

You’d have to perform an impressive feat of archaeological psychology in order to understand the relevance of this statement to my sixteen-year-old self; or rather, in order to understand why, of all possible quotes from all possible PA newsposts, it was this one she chose to take to heart. Nonetheless, it’s a line I’ve always liked, because even though it originally appeared in context as a form of poetic sarcasm, it still manages to convey something important about life, the universe and everything, viz: sometimes there are just no good options available.

At the time of the dickwolves controversy – that is to say, slightly less than two years ago – I had never heard of rape culture. So when I saw that PA was being accused of it, my first reaction, rather than to get angry at the strip itself, was to try and get my head around what rape culture actually was. By the time I’d done this, enough time had passed that the furor had died down, which left me in sort of a weird headspace. On the one hand, the dickwolves joke made me uncomfortable even before I encountered criticism of it, and after I’d done so, I thought the critics had a point; on the other, I had a deep-seated trust and affection for all things PA, and as I’d come late to the argument, I didn’t feel much personal impetus to weigh in. Instead, I resolved to become a more critical reader, and to keep my eyes peeled for any future offences.

And then, today happened.

Basically, the trailer for the new Hitman game involves hypersexualised BDSM assassin-nuns being beaten to death by the male protagonist, and a significant proportion of the online gaming community has risen up to point out that this is both textbook rape culture and completely, grossly offensive. So when I saw that PA’s Tycho (aka Jerry Holkins) had followed up their latest strip with an explanatory newspost, I was understandably curious as to what his stance would be.

To quote:

I saw a single still used to promote a Hitman: Absolution trailer, a phalanx of leather-clad Battle-Nuns, and decided to skip it.  I felt like I had probably seen something very similar at some point.  But being mad at it is apparently a thing, a compulsory thing.  Except I don’t do compulsory, and I also don’t do infantilizing chivalry.  So I don’t do well at these kinds of parties…

It’s fight choreography, and it may set an “erotic” stage but it quickly – and I mean quickly – gives way to a gruesome, life or death, septum obliterating struggle that might be hot for somebody but I suspect that’s a very specific demographic.  Only a necrophile could be titillated by something like this; by the end, it literally defies the viewer to maintain an erection.  As spank material, it leaves something to be desired; specifically, spank material.

I think that once a nun produces an RPG from her habit, we have passed through a kind of “veil” critically speaking.  We can certainly talk about it for a long time if you want to.  But she did pull out a rocket launcher, seriously just right out of there.  It came out.  And then people still wanted to talk about this as though it were some kind of haunted obelisk around which an entire medium whirls.

I don’t understand what it is about the idea of a “medium” that people find so confusing; it’s a conceptual space where works that share certain characteristics may occur.  Nobody is going to approve of the entire continuum.  There’s no shortage of games for the broadest possible audience – there isn’t, and grotesque sums are being made seeking the wide part of the curve.  There are also niches, as in any ecology.  You can certainly find things you don’t like, but those things aren’t anti-matter; when they come into contact with things you do like, there is no hot flash which obliterates both.  This totalizing dialogue, where “everything” and “everyone” is this or that, and here are the teams, and morality is a linear abstraction as opposed to its three dimensional reality is a crock of fucking shit.

The swooning and fainting and so forth about this stuff, the fever, is comical in its preening intensity.  There is clearly some kind of competition to determine who is the most scandalized.  It reminds me of church, frankly; I don’t do church, either.  I have no common cause with perpetually shocked viziers of moral pageantry.  Indeed, I think it is fair to say that I am their enemy.

The answer is always more art; the corollary to that is the answer is never less art.  If you start to think that less art is the answer, start over.  That’s not the side you want to be on.  The problem isn’t that people create or enjoy offensive work.  The problem is that so many people believe that culture is something other people create, the sole domain of some anonymized other, so they never put their hat in the ring.

That’s basically the whole post, right there; and as I read it, I experienced this sort of terrible wrenching in the part of the brain that houses our idealised past, our youthful idols, and all the naive perfection and nostalgia we ascribed to them first at the time and then later in memory. It only lasted a moment, but it was profound, because it irrevocably signals the point at which Jerry Holkins transitioned from being “geeky figurehead I respect” to “stubborn, selectively insensitive ass on the internet” in my personal lexicon. Which isn’t to say that these are forever and always mutually exclusive positions; it was just disappointing as hell, however heralded by his response to the dickwolves incident (or even to the fact that he thought it was acceptable in the first place).

When broken down, his argument basically runs as follows:

  • compulsory things are bad – or rather, compulsory outrage linked to what he seems to think of as political correctness is bad;
  • he personally doesn’t find the video arousing, so therefore the argument about it being hypsexualised is  moot;
  • because the nuns are doing something physically impossible (withdrawing big weapons from skintight clothing), the setting is confirmed as unreal, which means nobody can sensibly complain about anything else it gets wrong;
  • any problematic elements that still conceivably exist aren’t representative of gaming culture as a whole, but only of a niche section of games whose existence constitutes a healthy part of the creative ecology;
  • complaining about the influence or subject matter of such games is missing the point, because we should all be able to just respect each other’s tastes; and
  • bringing any moral or social complaint to the table is not only tantamount to the advocation of censorship, but something people only do when they want to be scandalized, as opposed to actually having a legitimate complaint.

Let’s address these points in order, shall we?

1. Compulsory things are bad – or rather, compulsory outrage linked to what he seems to think of as political correctness is bad.

Disparaging something lots of people care about as ‘compulsory’ and thereby refusing to participate is an act that tends to fall into one of two categories: childish contrition, as per a toddler refusing to eat their vegetables, or hipsterish disdain, as per anyone who refuses to read a book, watch a movie or listen to a song solely on the basis that it’s popular. Applying this attitude to politics – or, more specifically, to problems of inequality – is pretty much the genesis of hipster racism and ironic sexism, which (funnily enough) are both completely indistinguishable from actual racism and sexism. So straight off the bat, anyone who says they refuse to get angry about rape culture because that’s what everyone else is doing – or, to use Tycho’s words, because they “don’t do compulsory” –  has, much like the hipster racist, completely sidestepped the issue of whether bad things are genuinely happening in order to try and look cool. Which, yeah, no.

2. He personally doesn’t find the video arousing, so therefore the argument about it being hypsexualised is  moot.

Every time I hear someone arguing that a particular sexualised or negative representation of women is neither problematic nor offensive because they, personally, don’t find it sexy, I die a little inside. Dear straight men everywhere: case by case, the hypersexualisation of women is not definitionally dependent on your getting a boner. It’s not even necessarily about what you consciously find attractive or erotic. Subconscious bias is a real thing: the images we see, the stories we absorb and the cultural narratives in which we participate all have the power to change our unconscious assumptions about the world. Anyone who thinks that our conscious reactions and preferences are all that matter is missing the point by quite a substantial margin. The Hitman: Absolution trailer isn’t problematic because somehow, magically, the majority of straight men who watch it will feel conscious arousal and/or actively think about hurting women as a result (though doubtless there’s a concerning minority who will); the problem is that the majority of people who watch it, regardless of orientation or gender, will subconsciously absorb the message that violence and sexuality are linked; that images of beautiful dead women are normal; and that there’s nothing sexist or problematic about the image of a man gratuitously killing hypersexualised nuns being used to sell videogames. The argument, in short – that games can’t change us, and that their content doesn’t matter – is one that PA have actively pilloried when reactionary politicians have used it to say that games aren’t art; to argue that games can only change us for the better, however, seems just as ignorant. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too: if games are truly a valid means of cultural expression with the power to effect real change in those who love them, then that means they can impart both negative and positive development; can be dominated by negative or positive trends. Asserting otherwise is an act of willful blindness – and not only because fiction has an actual neurological effect on our brains.

3. Because the nuns are doing something physically impossible (withdrawing big weapons from skintight clothing), the setting is confirmed as unreal, which means nobody can sensibly complain about anything else it gets wrong.

Seriously, this isn’t a point I should need to explain to anyone who regularly grapples with SFF, but as I apparently do:  the presence of unreality in a story no more renders it immune to criticism on the grounds of sexism than it excuses a lack of narrative cohesion, poor writing or offensive stereotypes. The fact that a story isn’t ‘about’ sexism doesn’t prevent it from being sexist, and the presence of one flaw – improbably concealed weapons – certainly doesn’t obviate the presence of others – hideously sexualised violence and dead BDSM nuns. Honestly, I’m not even sure what Tycho meant to convey with this point: that because one visual element of the trailer was problematic or unreal, calling the whole thing out for sexism and rape culture is redundant? That because the game isn’t very good or original, nobody should comment on how offensive the trailer is? Neither of those arguments makes any sense at all, unless your sole purpose in deploying them is to try and argue that accusations of sexism and rape culture are less important than poor visual continuity in a second-rate game.

Oh. Wait.

4. Any problematic elements that still conceivably exist aren’t representative of gaming culture as a whole, but only of a niche section of games whose existence constitutes a healthy part of the creative ecology.

The assertion that sexism and rape culture aren’t part of mainstream gaming culture – or even that they’re problems worth discussing with reference to gaming culture as a whole – is both hugely problematic in its own right and deeply baffling when you consider that not long ago, the PA site was providing coverage about the widespread prevalence of sexual harassment and rape culture in fighting game circles when Aris Bakhtanians said they were fine and necessary aspects of it. And it’s not like PA has traditionally been oblivious to the sexualisation of women in games, online and by geek culture generally –  although they’ve definitely perpetrated sexism as well as criticising it. Or, put it another way: Penny Arcade has been around now since 1998 – that’s the better part of fourteen years – and has been considered a preeminent voice in gaming culture for most of that time. So if I can dip into their archives and, over the course of fifteen-odd minutes, find regular references to sexualised depictions of women in games, sexual insults in gaming and sexual harassment generally, then it doesn’t seem unreasonable to conclude that sexism in gaming and the hypersexualisation of female characters has been an ongoing issue for at least the past decade. I mean, seriously: it’s one thing to argue that all this bullshit belongs to a niche area of gaming that has nothing to do with the mainstream, and quite another to say so when your own history of creative output  – which itself constitutes your professional livelihood – contradicts you.

5. Complaining about the influence or subject matter of such games is missing the point, because we should all be able to just respect each other’s tastes.

Respecting other people’s tastes is generally a good rule to live by, but acknowledging that some depictions are problematic and actively contribute to problematic cultures is still necessary. More than once, PA has referenced the prevalence of homophobia and homophobic insults in the gaming community; in fact, they’ve arguably taken active steps to destigmatise it. This being so, I can’t understand why, when it comes to the issue of rape culture, the whole issue reverts to this wishy-washy stance that people should be allowed to like what they like. The only possible explanation is either that Tycho just doesn’t see rape culture as an issue in the same way homophobia is, or that somehow, he doesn’t see it as an issue at all – neither of which is exactly encouraging.

6. Bringing any moral or social complaint to the table is not only tantamount to the advocation of censorship, but something people only do when they want to be scandalized, as opposed to actually having a legitimate complaint.

Similar to the above, it would be ludicrous to suggest that attempts to counteract homophobia in gaming represent active censorship in terms of what stories can be told and the destructive presence of a ‘compulsory’ political agenda – by which I mean, the only people suggesting it are themselves homophobes. So why, when it comes to an identical issue of language, bias and prejudice, is PA suddenly fearmongering about how acknowledging the existence of rape culture in games is somehow the same as arguing for the creation of ‘less art’?

Well, I guess Tycho was right about one thing: there are certainly times when cake is not available, and instead we are destroyed. Or at least, our faith in humanity is.