This past week was supposed to be all about the post-E3 cool down, the assorted grumblings regarding what was and was not shown, and me, twiddling my thumbs, thinking about the upcoming release of Spec Ops: The Line. Instead, this past week unleashed the anger of the video gaming masses, aimed at one executive producer in particular, whose interview with Kotaku opened up a big old can of worms regarding gender politics, the struggles of female protagonists to merit the same respect as men, and a long-overdue conversation about what is and is not acceptable in character development, regardless of gender, in video games.
What tripped gaming triggers? Crystal Dynamics Executive Producer Ron Rosenberg gave an interview to Kotaku, during which he stated that players will want to 'protect' Lara Croft, and appeared to be suggesting that without a true threat to her physical person, Lara could not become the feisty adventurer whom we've come to know and love over the years. What's his idea of a threat? Attempted rape, and brutal violence that forces her to become 'like a cornered animal'.
In his casual discussion of an event in the upcoming Tomb Raider game, Rosenberg unleashed hell upon his company, in the form of angry gamers, commentators, bloggers, and journalists. Rosenberg might have been trying to sell his product to Kotaku and gamers of the world last week, but it seems like all he really succeeded in doing was wedging his foot deeper into his mouth. Crystal Dynamics reacted to the outcry by trying to backpedal on Rosenberg's statement, and they made the mistake of talking to the very people who had reported the initial interview.
There isn't a shovel big enough for this mess.
This is the age of the Internet, of tech-savvy gamers who use social media sites to share information at all hours. Once Kotaku's initial interview hit, there was no going back. Trying to erase it with one statement doesn't work anymore. A gaming company can be a technological machine, it can produce incredible feats of computer engineering, and it can make gamers cheer. It cannot, however, undo the damage of one poorly worded statement, not when gaming networks extend across the globe, across all demographics, and through every single aspect of life. When even the Guardian (UK) is stepping in to comment, you know you've got a bad time on your hands.
Even before Rosenberg's disastrous - there is no other word for it - interview, I was starting to feel that, as much fun as I had with the Tomb Raider games over the years, I've outgrown them as a gamer. I was vaguely curious about the upcoming reboot, but I was not dead set on purchasing the game, and after witnessing its story trailer, I cast it from my mind entirely. What the trailer showed me was a classic women-in-peril situation, their fates controlled by violent men, for no other purpose than to terrorize, abuse, and hurt them. As I remarked to a friend of mine, I've already seen The Descent; I don't need to play the game.
Along with my distaste for the trailer, I'm not the same gamer I was three years ago. A female Indiana Jones character clambering up mountainsides and delving for treasure doesn't really suit my gaming tastes anymore. I'm sure that quite a few gamers who played Tomb Raider when they were younger would say something similar.
We evolve as gamers as we grow older, and we start to notice things about games that can trip our real life fear triggers, or cause us instinctual revulsion. We react as human beings do to things happening in video games because we are thinking, feeling people, and when we see something is wrong, we react to it. This time, it looks like an honest discussion about gender, sexism, and misogyny in video games is starting and might actually go somewhere.
As grateful as I am that this interview has forced a serious discussion about gender and the use of sexualized violence in video games to further a story, I cannot help thinking that there is an even bigger and louder elephant in the room. Female characters in video games notoriously get the shaft in personality development and are treated pretty terribly by other characters.
The Lara Croft I remember from my younger days isn't a young woman in constant danger of violation. She's a smart, capable, adult woman who makes her own decisions, and lives life to its fullest. Dehumanizing her through sexual violence in order to make her the woman she becomes strikes me as a crass way of creating a character. It suggests that Lara could never become who she is without suffering the basest of humiliations.
As uncomfortable as I am with the idea of Lara Croft as a victimized woman, there is another video game character that evoked my pity and sympathy far more. Harley Quinn in Batman: Arkham City is the poster child for abused girlfriends. Her devotion to "Mistah J" doesn't protect her from being victimized in discussions by the Joker's henchmen, and even if they're just words, they still sting.
While watching the game, I started to wince each time I heard Harley referred to as a "bitch" or a "crazy bitch". With the frequency of its use, it's as though that word defines who and what Harley is. Henchmen discuss in casually disgusting detail the violence they want to do to her, including raping her, or beating her senseless, and it seems to be for no other reason than she's a "bitch" who deserves it. She's hardly even a woman to these men; she's just the crazy bitch who slavishly serves the Joker's every whim. She's meat to be used as far as the criminals are concerned. She isn't even a person. She's a "crazy bitch."
Why did Harley's treatment in Batman: Arkham City garner so little attention? Why could a woman be so casually insulted and be talked about so brutally without tripping anyone's warning bells? Why was that game given a pass for its treatment of this particular woman, but the perceived victimization of Lara Croft raises the ire of the gaming community? Do we have such skewed perceptions between who is a "bitch" versus who is a "woman"?
What can I read from Ron Rosenberg's comments and the uproar over them? Crystal Dynamics has shown that they are using Lara Croft as the female character, and for nothing else. She is an object to them, a thing to be used and abused and marketed, a teaser to reel in customers. She's a video game character whose sole purpose is to sell games, at the cost of whatever makes her a person. She's meat. She and Harley Quinn have quite a bit in common. This is what I, as a woman and as a gamer, am seeing.
Developers are making progress in understanding that women are as important as men in the character sphere, and that sometimes they make a bigger impact on players. Final Fantasy XIII's Lightning has become a poster girl for exceptional female characters, much as the female variation on Shepard from Mass Effect has. Even the vivacious Bayonetta, curves and all, made an impact with her cheeky, sassy approach to life. These three female characters showed what women could be in video games: strong, empowered, charismatic, talented, and still women at the core.
To be fair to Crystal Dynamics, it does not appear that anyone has played the particular portion of Tomb Raider wherein Lara Croft is threatened with rape, and no one knows the outcome should she fail to defeat her opponent. Personally, I do not care to think about that kind of game over screen.
Serious Infotainment runs on Mondays.