Sunday, 25 August 2013

The place of the rape joke in video game culture

I don't really play a lot of first person shooter games, especially online. There are a few reasons for this:
  1. I really, really suck at them. Seriously, my reflexes and hand-eye coordination are so bad that I wonder how I even manage to play (let alone finish) any games at all.
  2. I'm more of a fantasy RPG kinda gal anyway.
  3. Too many rape "jokes".
I'm sure you're more than familiar with the distasteful language consistently used in online gaming. And I know that trash talk is all part of the fun for a lot of gamers (in fact, some of the garbled nonsense that gets screamed into headsets in the heat of the moment is downright hilarious). But for me, the likelihood of having rape wished upon me just for being female in an online environment isn't exactly welcoming or comforting.

In fact, even if I wasn't a woman, the often lighthearted and casual use of the word 'rape' in these domains still offends me. It offends me not only as a feminist, but as, y'know, a decent human being with a somewhat functioning brain and a basic moral compass. I actually struggle to name a female friend of mine who hasn't been sexually assaulted at some point in her life. But even if I had no personal qualm with joking about these kinds of things, I'm still not an idiot- i.e., I know, as an adult, that there ain't a damn thing funny about rape.

I have a confession to make: I used to be the type of person who thought rape "jokes" were funny. I would laugh at jokes relating to rape; I would use the word 'rape' in what I thought was a casual and humorous context. To be honest, I really didn't see (or didn't want to see) the issue with my behaviour, and it was more the shocking nature of these quips that appealed to me. Even worse, I can recall making a joke to a friend that I could "never be a feminist because I still make rape jokes". Yep.

I know I can't just excuse the way I acted in the past, but I was a teenager who, quite frankly, didn't know any better. I guess you'd better understand the person I was then if you saw the town I came from, and even the friends I had back then. I would hang out with a lot of people who, to put it bluntly, were a bunch of misogynistic assholes. Rape jokes were an accepted and common occurrence in conversation, often made at the expense of any girls present.

Looking back now, I can see that they were absolute losers. And I really wasn't much better by association. Needless to say, I don't hold those values anymore. Why? Because I grew up. I educated myself. I became a somewhat well-adjusted adult. I became a feminist. And I learned that there is absolutely nothing funny about rape. Now, I'm not going to go in to the many obvious reasons why you should never, ever joke about rape. But I will say this: rape is, and will probably continue to be for a long time, a huge problem. It is almost ingrained in our society and culture, and making lighthearted jokes about this massive issue is not helping anyone. More importantly, they are not funny in the slightest, and are definitely not okay.

Which leads me to my main argument: the issue of rape jokes in video game culture. You don't have to be a hardcore gamer to be even slightly aware of the kind of, ahem, backwards and immature attitudes of a lot of gamers even outside of actual online gaming worlds (see: sandwich joke). Despite female gamers making up almost half of the world's gaming population, not everyone seems to be getting the message that sexism is so 1945. I mean, another sexist quip? Really? Surely there are better (and funnier) things to make jokes about, like Half Life 3 announcement conspiracy theories, or botched console conferences. Seriously, you have internet access, and yet you still choose to borrow humour from your grandfather's generation? Poor form, society. Poor form indeed.

Speaking of console conferences, Microsoft's Xbox One conference at E3 was the subject of a lot of public scrutiny for a lot of different reasons which I am not going to go in to. However, there was 25 seconds in particular that got a little bit of attention, eliciting a widespread response of "Whoa, hold up- was that a... rape joke?"

The whole scenario confused the hell out of a lot of people. Was it a rape joke? Why did they say it? Why am I reading these awful YouTube comments and what the hell is a 'feminazi'? I wrote a brief post about it which can be found here, in which I suggested that letting representatives of your company use rape joke-y banter on stage at a press conference is not only a really, really terrible PR mishap, but totally tacky and downright inappropriate.

And then, just as we were all recovering from the shock and confusion over the use of that kind of humour in such a professional and PR-monitored context, we were hit with another dose of industry-borne inappropriateness.

If you're Australian (like me!) you will probably be well aware of our somewhat recently introduced strict classification guidelines regarding games. While you may think that something as pedestrian as an age-restrictive classification shouldn't really affect us adult gamers (my condolences to any under-18 readers), you'd actually be mistaken. You see, while we're celebrated as being a fairly relaxed lot here Downunder, the Australian Classification Board actually has the power to refuse classification to any game they see fit (or should I say unfit)- i.e., if your game is deemed to wildly inappropriate (or just plain not okay), it can't be sold through Australian retailers.

I know I said I'm not a big fan of shooters of any kind, but I'm willing to make an exception for certain games. And yes, Saints Row is definitely one of those exceptions. Being a middle class white girl who grew up in good ol' safe Australian suburbia, it should come as no surprise that I freaking love playing any game that lets me act out my inner street gangster fantasies. For me, there's no better way to relax after work than cracking open a frosty cold cider, getting nice and cosy in front of the TV, and wasting away the night with a tirade of unprovoked car jackings, bloody gang shootouts and senseless violent rampages that can only result in an impressive criminal record (as well as some cash incentive).

Obviously, I was pretty excited about the release of Saints Row IV. And who wouldn't be? Aliens and guns and presidential shenanigans, oh my! What's not to love? Well, anal probing, actually.

Yes, I was one of those people. All it took was the words "Saints Row IV refused classification" to send me in to a state of anger and disbelief. Obviously, this was foolish of me. For if I had actually bothered to read in to the reasons for the classification refusal (rather than jumping on the "rabble rabble rabble" bandwagon), I'd have saved myself a lot of internal anxiety. Thank god I don't have a reputation to ruin... yet.

There was two reasons Saints Row IV was refused classification, and thus deemed unworthy of our sandy shores. One of them was drug-related. The second reason- which gained quite a bit more media attention than the whole narcotics aspect- was "interactive, visual depictions of implied sexual violence which are not justified by context". Basically, the game features an "Alien Anal Probe" weapon, which the player can use to attack their enemies (or civillians) by, well, forcefully probing them... pretty much to death.

Now, while some part of the gaming community was all "Ho ho, alien probes are pure comedy gold!", another part (yes, I am raising my hand right now) had cottoned on to the fact that hey, that right there appears to be rape. And just to clarify: yes, violently forcing a probe in to someone's backside is indeed rape.

Games journalists globe-wide were divided. Some were compliant with the decision- after all, do we really need a game that encourages us to rape our enemies... to death? Hmm, no thanks. Some were a little confused- other games had been known to show alien probing, and they hadn't received this kind of negative attention. And others were a little less understanding of Australia's aversion to sexual violence. Alien probes? Hilarious! Calm down Australia, you uptight bunch of feminazis.

First of all, yes, other games have featured alien probes, but that was before all this new-fangled classification business. Secondly- and I know I'm going to be at risk of perpetuating America's recent and beloved "Australians have no sense of humour" moniker that's been made oh so popular thanks to this debacle (if America said it, then it must be right... right?)- but come on, guys. We really don't need to be raping people in video games. Yes, Saints Row is a notoriously ridiculous game, with an arguably childish sense of humour that we've all come to know and love. But a gun that allows the player to rape NPCs just for a laugh seems to be taking it a bit far, don't you think?

Fortunately, us Aussies are going to be able to partake in that signature Saints Row debauchery after all thanks to a modified, less-violent/narcotics-glorifying version of the game. Plus, we get free DLC because of the delays- DLC that features the alien probe as a playable weapon.

But I digress. There are undoubtedly disappointing aspects of the gaming industry, and as much as I try to focus instead on the parts of this community that I absolutely love, it's really starting to get old. I don't want to have to cringe at some bad-taste joke spoken at a supposedly professional product launch. I don't want to have to explain over and over why a weapon of rape shouldn't have a place in an interactive and primarily entertaining form of media. And I really, really don't want to have to hide my gender online just because I know the likelihood of being threatened with sexual violence, even if those threats are completely empty. Most importantly, I don't want to have to write about this, because as much as my journalism professor would absolutely berate me for using this cliche, at the end of the day, there is nothing funny about rape.

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