Rape, Violence, and Gaming

by guest contributor Amber

Amber is a queer, pasty, cisgender college student currently residing in Pennsylvania. She has a blog on Dreamwidth where she primarily writes about being a feminist and an English major.

Trigger Warning

Kotaku’s Brian Ashcroft wrote an article recently on CNN’s coverage of Rapelay. Unsurprisingly, I was no fan of the article. And (again, unsurprisingly) many of the comments were incredibly lacking in critical… thought. Yet the article and the responses it received were intriguing, if only in a wow-these-analogies/rhetorical strategies-suck sort of way.

A Japanese woman dressed in a green top and a cream colored skirt waits for the train. She is looking directly at the camera. The player's cursor is clearly visible on the screen.

A Japanese woman dressed in a green top and a cream colored skirt waits for the train. She is looking directly at the camera. The player's cursor is clearly visible on the screen.

Interestingly, I do agree with some of Ashcroft’s ideas: it is problematic for Western journalists to decree what should and shouldn’t be censored in other countries, and games like Rapelay get covered in uncritical ways that ultimately position “Western morality” as superior to all others. But Ashcroft’s observations (which are presented in an unsophisticated manner) do not seem to be for the sake of unveiling the hypocrisy of USian journalism, for his defense of Japan is inseparable from his defense of sexual assault games.

In a move I anticipated when I began the article, Ashcroft writes “Japan has one of the lowest rates of reported rape” and then lists the statistics, as reported by the UN. As the argument goes, the availability of pornographic material makes men less likely to rape. But many commenting on the article actually pointed out that “reported” is a key word here, especially when talking about a socially conservative country. Also, if feminists and others are arguing that such games objectify women, why look at reported rape alone as an indicator of this? Would it not be more appropriate to look at sexual harassment and sexual assault? The former is especially ubiquitous in Japan. And in the United States of America. And in India. And in the UK. And… I think you get the picture.

Moving on, while Ashcroft’s article did not end with the message “it’s a game,” or “it’s just fantasy,” his flippant attitude towards the material reality of (female) sexual objectification seemed to encourage a great deal of responses along those lines.

One person—who echoed many of the responses on Kotaku—wrote:

Like we fantasize about killing men in games you know? I don’t go around killing people because of that, neither I would like to do it.

I play violent video games, but I don’t fantasize about killing the (wo)men in them. Because the killing of NPCs is generally built into the premise of the game. You are (often) given a context wherein murder is okay, such as war. You are playing out a fantasy, but you aren’t actually breaking social taboos. The GTA series, which I am not a fan of, is the only exception I can think of immediately, and there has been a lot of outraged coverage on its excessive amounts of non socially sanctioned violence. And though I haven’t played it myself, I know God of War 3 has also garnered some attention for having needless sexually charged violence in it.

My point is, most games try very hard to justify non-sexual violence. The vast majority of them do not have premises built around mutilating helpless victims with the stroke of a cursor. They do not allow you to set up Saw-like deathtraps and watch as NPCs try to escape.

A game in which rape is the objective is obviously different; analogies between rape and killing cannot be drawn. Rape is used to no productive end (not that I’d want it to be justified), and in such games is implemented as a form of torture. Allowing a player to graphically rape an innocent NPC is not the same thing as shooting human-killing robots.

That said, the comment I quoted earlier unsurprisingly ends on this note:

I can also argue that killing is worse than raping, so by playing a murder/war game, we are more sick than guys who play rape ones.

I would argue that one is not able to compare the two. Doing so is a form of discursive violence, eliding important elements (such as the psychological effects) of rape and furthermore ignoring that being raped and murdered occur together at times. A more apt comparison to rape simulators would be to non-sexual torture simulators, but… right, the latter isn’t exactly ubiquitous.

39 thoughts on “Rape, Violence, and Gaming”

  1. Thank you Amber for highlighting this false dichotomy. I think this is a much more productive analysis of games like Rapelay, and you should take it even further. I wouldn’t stop at the justifiable argument, because then of course some ignorant people wanting to make a quick buck will make a game where the character is narratively “justified” in raping and torturing women cause they’re really aliens, like Jack the Ripper or something. . . oh wait . . .

    I read Crescente’s argument as basically: “violence in videogames doesn’t lead to real life violence, therefore rape in videogames doesn’t lead to real life rape” and if you disagree then he’ll accuse you of being Jack Thompson-esque, as if video games have some supernatural power to force people to do things. The problem with this argument is that Crescente is arguing against someone who wants to censor games, whereas the problem with games like Rapelay is that they’re, as you eloquently put it, a form of discursive (I’d say symbolic) violence. Those are two different arguments and the distinctions you are making are much more interesting than the “freedom of speech” one (which is so 18th century).

    Unfortunately, there are a number of triple-A titles that have strong elements of torture simulation, although “justified” in the game narrative: Manhunt (1 and 2), Madworld, Condemned (1 and 2), Killer 7, Mortal Kombat, (most “finishing moves” are gratuitous violence bordering on torture).

    1. Yes, you’re absolutely right about not stopping at “justifiable” violence/sexual assault, since… well, some games do try to justify it.

      Ashcroft is definitely polarizing the issue with his critique by bringing up issues of censorship. Yet many of the critiques of Rapelay (though perhaps not CNNs) aren’t concerned with censorship as much as they are concerned with the societal implications and influence of such games. It also seems that Ashcroft, at least in this article, is saying that anyone who disagrees with him is a xenophobe and a hypocrite… which, yeah.

      I considered the possibility that someone would be able to come up with lots of games with torture simulation, especially since I’m more aware of RPGs than anything else. I suppose they distinguish themselves from sexual torture games like Rapelay because of a “justified” narrative; the physical torture isn’t the objective of the game. But as you mentioned earlier, looking at justified violence vs. unjustified violence presents its own set of specific problems.

      1. Well, the recent revival of Rapelay in the news is all about censorship, so the Kotaku article would discuss that. Not just censorship of games, but censorship of the Internet itself.

        Stephen Conroy, a politician over in Australia, is explicitly using it to justify his campaign to censor the Internet – including forcing Google to censor its search results. Then there’s stuff like this San Francisco Chronicle article saying that if you’re not for sweeping Government censorship of a wide variety of content with no oversight, you’re supporting the rape of women.

        Even the original CNN report has an obvious pro-internet censorship spin. Notice the comments about dangerous, unstoppable nature of viral content on the internet.

        1. I get that (about censorship being the focus). But the Kotaku article is not just about censorship, and I would argue that censorship isn’t even really his angle. He’s more or less focusing on the hypocrisy of countries like the USA calling for Japan to censor rape related material. Except he tangles a lot of ideas together, as evinced by him citing reported rape statistics, and it’s difficult (at least for me) to not think that the Kotaku article is crying about censorship and USian hypocrisy because he – as well as many of the people commenting on Kotaku – doesn’t care/believe that such games affect society. Most of defenses for Rapelay, however anti-censorship they are, almost always deny that the material has any effect whatsoever on women’s lives.

          The anti-censorship people, particularly when it comes to this subject, also ignore that (at least in the USA) a lot of things are already censored by government entities. I mean, some of the same people on Kotaku who believe that censoring Rapelay is a bad thing think it’s just fine for public schools to not allow children to read LGBT friendly children’s books, or for public schools to ban books containing homosexual relationships. Some think that a policy like DADT (which *is* the government saying someone in the military can’t speak freely about their sexual orientation if they are not straight) is important in protecting the country. More of people on Kotaku probably just don’t care one way or another, but they’ll cry a lot louder about the censorship of Rapelay than they will about a book like “Heather Has Two Mommies”.

          It’s unfortunate that people are calling for government censorship in light of the Rapelay revival, but at the same time the anti-censorship response to it consists of a lot of hypocritical turds that would rather rally around a rape simulation game than (at times career ruining) censorship directed at the LGBT community. Both sides need to be more critical of themselves, but that’s not something I see happening anytime soon.

    2. And what about this video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QJ_zTrjMhX8 (warning, although not graphic, the fact that it is real makes it absolutely horrific) which shows members of the US military treating actual human lives as if they were avatars in MW? It seems common sense that at least for some, video games desensitize them to real life violence, and same thing would apply to rapelay.

      1. @thefremen: I was thinking about that a lot, especially in light of writing this post. At some point, nearby my area of the USA, an army recruitment center in the mall had a “shooting simulation” arcade thing going on (it probably still does)… so I guess I’m not surprised to see a real life situation being treated as a video game, since the idea of war as a game was/is being used as a recruitment method.

      2. Thefreman, I appreciate you pointing out videogames’ link to the US military. In addition to desensitizing, I’m disturbed how videogames are used as a recruitment tool to manipulate young poor people, so often people of color, to murder brown people in the name of US empire.

        So I guess I think violent games are used as a tool to some pretty horrible atrocities, especially considering that rape is systematically a tool of war.

    1. It looks terribly painful. That is the kind of thing that would cause extreme back pain. It was definitely not normal proportions by any means.

  2. Thank you for dismantling what was wrong with Brian Ashcroft’s article! It really irritated me when I saw it on Kotaku but I just didn’t have the energy to wade into the comments. It would have been too depressing.

    What annoys me most though is, as you say, the lack of critical thought. It is very easy to find explanations of feminism, objectification and rape culture on the internet, if you are so inclined to go search them out. In fact, I’ve just tried googling RapeLay + sexism and there are a number of feminist blogs that appear on the first page of results. Some people have already worked really hard explaining why the game is problematic and why what Brian says is not cool. They were saying it to some other dude a year ago.

    So easy to find. The main problem is that womens’ objectification is so ubiquitous that people don’t even notice.

    1. There are some issues with language though, as critical approach, as most accademic discourses pretty quickly can create pretty hermetical language. Even if specific terms are explained, the real understanding them comes from pretty wide knowledge, to people without this knowledge it can be really hard to understand how one term, even explained, can describe complicated social and cultural mechanics, imo it’s often quite off-putting.

    2. “So easy to find. The main problem is that womens’ objectification is so ubiquitous that people don’t even notice.”

      That’s part of the main problem, I agree, but an equally problematic element, I think, is that the ubiquity of the objectification of women causes some people to argue either that since it’s universal, complaining about one particular example is pointless and/or that there are much more serious examples of objectification to focus on.

      Neither of the above are valid arguments, I think, but they’re fairly common, in my experience.

  3. Oh jeez. I’m sure Kotaku has some really insightful things to say about Rapelay. I’m not even going to read it. But here is a Rapelay Bingo Card for those of you who do: http://i41.tinypic.com/ng1q8g.jpg

    Tell me how long it takes you to get bingo!

    1. Oh wow, we’re at the point where someone made a bingo card. Sadness… Thanks for linking the card, though, those are always helpful.

  4. Thanks for the interesting post. I agree that RapeLay is problematic, but it can be difficult to articulate the relevant differences given the predominance of violent games.

    One thing that bothers me is that the only reason to criticize these games is to show a direct causal relationship that demonstrates real-world rapes are caused to increase if games like this are played. This bothers me because as a research question, it is very poorly framed. It is nearly impossible to prove causation in any situation, even when dealing with simple biological reactions. When dealing with something as complex as human behaviour, this difficulty is multiplied.

    Often the above insistence is coupled with dismissing any evidence that is garnered from any research question that might actually be answerable. For example, over at Shakesville there is an interesting discussion of this game.

    Commenter SKM notes at 04/01/2010 09:26 AM, that research shows “exposure to sexist humor can lead to toleration of hostile feelings and discrimination against women.”

    Then commenter ghosty67 replies at 04/01/2010 12:43 PM by saying that this research only demonstrates a short-term effect, not long-term effects. I suppose the conclusion ghosty67 wants us to draw is that therefore it is not problematic.

    But there are two problems. First, the research ghosty67 wants would be impossible to do. For example, if you re-test the study population x amount of time later, whatever result you found could have been influenced by any number of factors.

    Second, I think the point of feminist critiques is that although there may only be a short-term effect, if the item in question is ubiquitous, then your exposure is near constant, so this adds up to larger effects. When there is more than one item in question (not just problematic video games, but also problematic jokes, problematic advertisements, etc. etc.) then the exposures and effects are no longer minimal nor short-term.

    1. Edit: oops broken link to Shakesville post.

      And typo, should read: “One thing that bothers me is the argument put forward that the only reason to criticize these games is to show a direct causal relationship that demonstrates real-world rapes are caused to increase if games like this are played.”

  5. Thanks a lot, because of you I had to come out of my blogging semi-retirement just to take Ashcroft down :P

    The irony of him using the adage of “don’t throw stones in glass houses” regarding shoddy journalism when his journalism is so very shoddy couldn’t pass without comment.

    I mean, he gets away with his craptastic writing because 1) it’s Kotaku, and 2) most of his readers don’t speak Japanese so they don’t know that when he chooses his quotes he often leaves out important points from the other parts of the articles (probably because being accurate and truthful would take the bite out of his snark).

    1. Awesome take down! You were very generous with your time! I hope this is circulated widely.

      1. Thanks *blush*

        This week is probably the last free time I’ll have for a while, but it was nice to get back to doing some blogging.

    2. That was excellent – what a great take down of the Kotaku article! Thanks for linking it here.

      A lot of the writing is really bad on Kotaku, but I didn’t realize writers there got away with not properly citing their sources and doing misleading translations. Unfortunately, I’m not at all surprised.

      1. Their research is shoddy all around; when Revena and I first started the IRIS Network one of our friends plugged it on her site. Kotaku not only advertised Iris as a sub-forum of said site, but then went on to criticize IRIS for something she had said (which they, of course, quoted out of context).

    3. Great critique! Your blogging has been missed.

      One thing though, his name is “Ashcraft” with an “a,” not “Ashcroft.” Gah, I could see Kotaku-esque jerks using that against you to discredit your piece, so I thought I should mention it.

      1. Thanks! I miss blogging, but I have to say that I miss the connection it gave me with the anti-oppression gaming community even more. I hate that I don’t have the time to properly keep in touch with y’all anymore :(

        One thing though, his name is “Ashcraft” with an “a,” not “Ashcroft.”

        Oops! Thanks for the heads up; I’ve updated the post. I noticed, though, that this post has the same error; it might be worth correcting (the tag says “ashcroft” as well).

  6. Personally, those who create such games, play them or defend them ( even from just obnoxious mentality) are people i am both afraid of and worried from them…it’s disgusting and somehow sad… and yes i would ban this game.. i don’t care, it shouldnt be legal.

    1. yes i would ban this game.. i don’t care, it shouldnt be legal.

      A lot of people would say the same about any game that depicted homosexuality. Which is clearly a totally different thing – my point is just that a morality-based reaction can’t be enough to justify censorship.

      The game is disgusting, don’t get me wrong. Even in the Japanese world of retail erotic video games, rape simulators like that aren’t ubiquitous. Many games aren’t about rape at all, and many that do contain rape have plots and attempts at justification, just like Western games do for violence.

      1. The thing is if we accept games as art, then art says something, and in turn says something about its creators. Whenever I hear about Rapelay and its defenders I can’t help but think about “Jade’s Game” and its defenders, and how the guy who made “Jade’s Game” also wrote and drew horrifying murder/torture porn.

      2. ok what i wanted to say is: I would like this game banned. And about censorship issue, well i am not sure if it’s really applying here, neveretheless, when i am not convinced that so called “price of freedom” is “pay” pretty much equally by all society, i would rather have people possibility to democraticly decide what really is bigger concern for them.

        1. The problem with that is that the majority would agree that Rapelay is indecent, but the majority also voted in Prop 8 in California and would likely vote for a federal equivalent if possible. Why not just get rid of the First Amendment as it stands and have anti-hate speech laws? (rhetorical, I know the answer is that such a move would cause American Civil War 2) Honestly I think that would be a good way to go given how vile public speech has become as of late.

          1. I think it’s important to separate morality based decisions from bigotry. The rights of a minority should not be put up to popular vote, otherwise you get the “tyranny of the majority”. Something like Prop 8 really went against the spirit of American democracy, even if putting gay marriage up to vote isn’t directly unconstitutional.

            Rapelay supporters are not a minority. Well, not a marginalized minority. I know the average person probably wouldn’t realize that there a major differences between censoring Rapelay and censoring homosexuality (and the latter is censored a great deal already)… which is a little sad.

            Honestly, I wouldn’t mind getting rid of the First Amendment. I hate that it gets brought up in every single damn debate without most people knowing what they’re talking about (ex: “You’re violating the first amendment because you’re not publishing my racist comment on your blog!”). Even among feminist bloggers, there’s this really romanticized, ill-informed idea about how great the First Amendment is; there’s no consideration of how a lot of speech/press is suppressed currently, and how it’s been suppressed in the past. Or, especially when it comes to anti-oppression folks, the fact that people get abused, scared, threatened, etc. because hate speech is acceptable.

            1. There are no really good answers here, and dangers comes from each side, history doesn’t give much hope for optimistic solution: tyranny of majority from one side, divided society and political system without legitimization from the other. Freedom of speech getting abused for evil purposes, and limiting it never bringing too much good in long run, practicly just the opposite everytime.

            2. You know I think it’s about damn time we have a re-do with the constitution. The second amendment has also been well abused over the years, and now the 14th amendment has been used to support corporate personhood! It makes a lot of sense that we should have another constitutional congress, and at the very least we could draw up a constitution that already includes the right to vote for all people rather than just white land owners, and do away with the silliness of having one amendment saying “alcohol is prohibited” and another saying “no it’s not, feel free to drink up!”.

              At any rate, I agree completely with your assessment of the first amendment. There is no reason at all for us to have absolute freedom of speech on paper when in reality speech will always be controlled by gate keepers of some sort, leaving the hate filled propaganda of pro-corporate instruments of the patriarchy free to spread messages handed down directly from the GOP, while anyone truly left of center will never find a channel to reach the populace in this country.

            3. American Hentai fans *think* they’re an oppressed minority, although the nature of their ‘oppression’ mostly boils down to “people make fun of my hobby and call me a loser”, plus a pervasive fear of being locked up for it.

              Many people will be able to see a clear difference between censoring rape and censoring homosexuality, but there are people to whom the idea of gay love is an abomination that threatens to destroy society and must be wiped out for the good of all. It is, to them, every bit as serious *or more so* than us wanting to combat misogyny and rape culture.

              In both cases, it’s a moral issue. You can’t prove that the existence of rape porn leads to more rape, but you feel strongly that it’s wrong. They can’t prove that the existence of gay romance leads to the downfall of society, but they feel strongly that it’s wrong.

              Censorship *always* hits unintended targets and causes collateral damage; if you want to craft a proposal to block the worst of rape porn, craft it very carefully.

      3. I think there’s an argument to be made that RapeLay constitutes hate speech, which is not covered under the US First Amendment, so it could be banned Stateside without amounting to censorship.

        1. No there isn’t, or at least not a very good one. In order for something to count as hate speech, it has to not only contain an actual incitement to violence, but the violence also has to be imminent. So even if Rapelay actually and explicitly told the player to go out and rape women, it probably wouldn’t meet the requirement and would potentially be protected by the First Amendment.

          This is actually a fairly important principle. For example, prior to its creation it was illegal in many states to suggest that overthrowing the Government by force might ever be desirable, even entirely hypothetically. Not only that, but previously advocating or supporting non-violent civil disobedience wasn’t protected under the First Amendment either, since it was encouraging violation of the law.

          1. Hey can we skip the posturing lecture? Kthx. I do actually understand how hate speech is understood legally in my country and I never claimed that the game would be recognized by courts as such. Only said that there is an argument to be made because, regardless of what a judiciary might decide, RapeLay is a personification of hate.

          2. I dunno, you could make an argument that RapeLay incites actual real-world violence towards women because it is so clearly a stalk-and-attack simulator with zero justification for doing it within the game world.

            That argument would not apply 99% of hentai games or even rape hentai games, but it would cover this extreme case.

            It might not WIN, but you could at least make an ARGUMENT to that effect.

            I’m not sure that the ‘imminent’ bit is actually required… I think publishing an article that explicitly says “Go on, rape women!” is going to get you in trouble even if it’s not *imminent* violence. I’m pretty sure people have been prosecuted for hate speech for things like writing horrible racist slogans on walls and the like, which were about intimidation, not imminent violence.

  7. I used to do the whole “Well it’s legal in Japan, leave it alone.” sort of trash, as i was under the “free speech” banner. After reading around however, and reading other articles on Japan. I will say that Japan being the closed “polite” society they are, likes to drag their feet on ANYTHING and it takes an outside source to get the to move in the first place. I cite Japan’s whaling industry. Technically they are NOT supposed to be hunting whales, however they kill them and sell them citing RESEARCH as their cry when it’s just a mask to hide their wrongdoing. Again it’s going to take an outside influence to say “Hey, stop doing that… it’s bad.”

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