Trigger warning: Street harassment.
So, recently a Flash game was released that caused a bit of a stir on a number of gaming (and feminist) websites. The game is called “Hey, Baby”, and it is a game about street harassment. It is a first-person shooter where you play as a woman walking around a city fighting off waves of men who approach you while repeating “classic” street harassment lines, everything from the notorious “Smile, baby” to shouted rape threats. Killing the harassers results in a gravestone popping up with their line engraved on it. There are also both male and female bystanders who do nothing and can’t be killed. If possible, I do recommend playing the game a little before reading this post; it’s a Flash game and only takes a minute to play, although it is quite violent.
There have been a number of different reactions to the game around the internet. It has started a conversation in the gaming online community about street harassment (and in the feminist blogosphere about satirically violent video games), and for that alone, I think this is a win. But I’d like to take a closer look at the various reactions surrounding the game.
Some people (myself included) interpreted the game as a statement on the frustrating nature of street harassment. Kieron Gillen at Rock, Paper, Shotgun gets all 101 on his readers, patiently explaining what male privilege is and how the game taps into the experience of being on the receiving end of harassment:
You approaching a woman in the street and being what you think is politely flirty is a different thing when, down the street, someone’s suggested that maybe you’d like to suck my dick and you’re a fucking bitch if you don’t.
From her perspective, it’s a culture of harassment she has to either politely deal with or ignore.
From your perspective, you’re just showing how you feel.
That your passing desire means you get to derail a woman’s life whenever you feel like it is the absolute definition of male privilege.
If you’re a man, and you’ve acted like this, the woman you do it to, beneath the polite smile she has to offer, has probably fantasised about you dying.
He goes on to point out that, if guys are disturbed by the game, good. They should be. That’s the point. “You should be disturbed that we live in a world where a woman feels the need to make the game – and for other women to smile at it, recognising it.”
Seth Schiesel at the New York Times had a similar take, writing about how the game gave him a powerful lesson about what it’s like to be a woman in public:
But as I played on, I came to realize that it is equally unrealistic and absurd to suppose that saying, “Thank you, have a great day” is going to defuse and mollify a man who screams in your face, “I want to rape you,” with an epithet added for good measure.
And that is the point of Hey Baby. The men cannot ever actually hurt you, but no matter what you do, they keep on coming, forever. The game never ends. I found myself throwing up my hands and thinking, “Well what am I supposed to do?” Which is, of course, what countless women think every day.
Amanda at Gaming Angels had a different take (additional trigger warning on this link for victim-blaming). She talks about how she gets catcalled on the street very often, but makes a snide comment about how thinking about that harassment is selfish: “You question if what you’re wearing is too provocative, even if it’s a sweater paired with slacks. You, you, you, you, you. It’s always about poor you.”
Well… yes. If you’re walking down the street and someone yells “Suck my dick” at you, then it is about you. And it’s the harasser that is making it about you. Otherwise you would just be walking down the street instead of blaming yourself for doing something to provoke a man to harass you.
And that’s what Amanda goes on to write: paragraphs of victim-blaming. It’s women’s fault for not enjoying harassment! Don’t get angry just because “men are capable of being wolves.” It’s a “social normalcy.” They can’t help it. Smile and enjoy it!
She goes on to say that the man in this situation is actually the victim, but the key quote here is: “When a man ‘flirts’ with you, hes giving you the power to accept or reject him. You’re just complaining you have this power.”
Aha. Yes. This old gem. Women have all the power over men because men can’t control themselves around women they find attractive. (Forget, for the moment, that Amanda notes there is a difference between men who are trying to flirt and men who are going on a “power trip”–how can they go on a power trip by making themselves a victim? And what are women supposed to do about those men?) Never mind that real empowerment comes from within a person, it’s not given by anyone, much less street harassers. Because power given to you can just as easily be taken away.
Amanda ends with the super-helpful comment, “Get over yourself.” Don’t complain because you’re so pretty you take male attention for granted. But the fact is women have just as much right to be out in public as men do, harassment-free.
The game was covered in the feminist blogosphere as well, and some of the responses surprised me. Amanda Hess, who has done extensive coverage of street harassment on her blog, The Sexist, describes her experience playing the game and concludes, “Call me a pessimist, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that feminist issues can never be perfectly applied to a game based on simulated murder.” At the Hathor Legacy, Jennifer Kesler writes about how the game’s extreme reaction to street harassment undermines real women’s actual reactions and work against street harassment. On the other hand, Sarah at Feministe focuses on the afore-mentioned reactions of Kieron Gillen (a friend of hers) and Seth Schiesel.
What I think the detractors are missing is that this is a video game, and it’s helpful to look at it in the context of video games and video game culture. Both Hess and Kesler seem hung up on the violent aspect of the game, but, like it or not, video games are, by and large, violent. Many of the most successful and popular games are first-person shooters, like Hey, Baby. The game presents the problem of street harassment–and the frustration and lack of adequate options that individual women have in the face of harassment–in the language of video games. I also suspected that the game wasn’t necessarily made for women to let of steam about harassment (though it could certainly be used for that purpose), but for men to learn what it’s often like to exist as a woman in public. And that aspect of teaching men about women’s experiences reminded me of a game idea I wrote about a little over a year ago, a game that would show, rather than tell, men what it’s like to live in a rape culture (TW: discussion of sexual assault). I admire Hey, Baby because of the way it teaches is much more direct and less convoluted than my design.
But let’s hear what the creator of the game, Suyin Looui, has to say:
A few years ago I was on the subway, just on the platform and it was just a really cold winter day, totally bundled up in layers and someone said hot ching chong.
So that was the moment when I decided that I was going to make this game and it would be an ode the young man on the subway platform in New York. The next two years it just became this other thing this project about how to create conversations around the whole issue and just how its a very difficult topic, just how people engage in a really different way around it.
About the violent aspect of the game, she says:
I definitely had women saying, you know, why dont you try hugging them or how do you what is a way that you could actually flip it around so they become embarrassed? For me, in particular, I really wanted the violence to be so ridiculous and sort of over the top gory, that people would know that it was a joke.
But I do understand and it was one of the huge things when I was making it to make sure not to give points for everybody that shot someone. I didnt want to advocate that violence was an appropriate response in any way.
About Kieron Gillen’s posts about the game, she says, “I couldn’t have asked for anything better than that.”
What do you think of Hey, Baby? (And again, if at all possible, please take a moment to play the game.) Does the violence undercut its message?