Can't We Discuss This Like Adults?
Sexualised violence against women is a serious topic. It deserves a serious debate, not conniving and dishonesty
When I was about 12, I absolutely loved id Software's Doom II. It was scary and violent and tense, and I was a 12 year old boy - of course I loved it. My dad had seen me playing it, though, and he was less convinced. He didn't doubt that it was fun and engaging, but he was perturbed by the content. Doom II had a lot of human-like enemies (especially in the early stages), who sprayed red blood when you shot them and exploded in pixellated gore when you blew them up. My dad is not, by instinct, a censorious man, but that felt a bit too real, and my deep engagement with it felt a bit worrying. He said so. We argued. I doubt I argued terribly well or convincingly, but Doom II remained a part of my gaming diet.
Almost every gamer, I suspect, has some story like that in their background. It's not restricted to games, either. Kids born a decade before me faced interrogation over the 80s' "video nasties". My grandmother apparently didn't think much of my mum's fascination with Elvis Presley. Teenagers today undoubtedly face parental concern over their Internet usage, musical preferences and so on.
"The protracted struggle for recognition and respect for our industry has largely robbed us of the capacity to engage in intelligent or reasonable critique"
For our generation, though - and I'm using the word "our" in quite a broad sense here - the experience of videogames being Public Enemy Number One is probably one of the defining ones. No sooner had we grown up beyond the point where parents could question our choice of weeknight bloodbath entertainment, than we were confronted with newspaper headlines accusing games of inspiring everything from mass-murderers to a rise in cases of rickets (no, really). There are intelligent, reasoned arguments to be made against such attacks, and they've been made intelligently and reasonably by countless people down the years. But often, under constant assault from what has largely been a flood of ignorance and bile, the temptation isn't to say "actually, here are the facts that you aren't considering in your argument" - it's to cover your ears and say "shut up, shut up, you're stupid, shut up".
In spite of that, for the most part, we've won. The occasional "games give your eyes cancer!" headline in the tabloid press has become an outlier rather than a part of a broad narrative, more likely to be mocked than to spur public outrage. Talk of censorship and regulation has largely evaporated. Governments now talk about supporting the games industry, encouraging the growth of development studios in their countries, nurturing the creative and technical talents required for success. We've won - but there's a cost.
The cost, sadly, is that this protracted struggle for recognition and respect for our hobby and our industry has largely robbed us of the capacity to engage in intelligent or reasonable critique of what's happening in games. Since our childhood, most of us have been leaping to the defence of videogames - defending the medium from our parents, from our media, from our politicians. It's become an automatic response. Many of us don't seem to be able to turn it off, even now that there's really very little need for it. As a result, attempts at reasonable discussion over questions like race, gender, sexuality, violence or addiction with regard to games from within the industry get treated with the same hostility that Keith Vaz or Jack Thompson's grandstanding used to (quite rightly) receive a few years ago.
This week's example, of course, is the trailer for Hitman: Absolution which has been released by Square Enix. It's a rubbish trailer, showing absolutely nothing of relevance to the game and actually turning fans of the series off the latest incarnation by suggesting that it's a sub-par action romp rather than a stealthy, fairly cerebral affair - in that alone, the marketing team responsible (who are undoubtedly patting themselves on the back for generating such a media storm around the brand) are desperately underselling the work of the development team, who are working on what is by all accounts a great-looking new game. That's not the key issue, though. What has disturbed many people is that the trailer appears to strongly sexualise and fetishise not just its disposable female characters, but also the actual act of killing them.
Let's be absolutely clear that it's that factor which is the issue. It's not the fact that there are nuns in the game who then turn out to be sexy nun assassins in suspender belts. You want sexy nun assassins in your game trailer? Be my guest. It looks ridiculous, and I don't see them getting much assassinating done while wearing those heels, but if you think your target audience is the demographic slice of people who get turned on by poorly CG rendered assassins in habits and stiletto heels, go for it. Nor is the issue the fact that Agent 47 commits violent acts against women. He's a hitman, assassins are attacking him, he kills them. That's not the problem.
"What has disturbed many people is that the Hitman trailer appears to strongly sexualise and fetishise not just its disposable female characters, but also the actual act of killing them"
The problem is the interaction between those two things. The thought process of the creators of this trailer is naked for the world to see. Gamers like sexy women. Let's have sexy women, and let's make them sexy nuns because that's edgy. You know what else is edgy? Having the dark anti-hero kill women, rather than the usual faceless male soldiers and thugs. That'll get headlines. Let's do that.
One of two things happens at that point. Either the marketing team managed to completely not realise that the interaction between "sexy" and "violent death" might not be an entirely comfortable one; or they did realise, and went ahead anyway, which labels them as an utterly unpleasant and irresponsible bunch of sociopaths. I'm going with option A. I prefer to see the good in people, even if that means thinking they're a little bit dim.
The issue here, then, is the sexualisation of violence against women. It's an issue rooted in a whole morass of problems that our society struggles with. The video makes it seem as if it's "okay" for Agent 47 to kill these women not because they're assassins, but because they turn out to be dressed like prostitutes under their nuns' robes. It creates shots which emphasise the sexiness of the women even as they're being killed, and even highlights the sexiness of their corpses (there's one for "words I wished I'd never have to write on a gaming website, or indeed anywhere"). It intercuts the whole thing with slow-motion, stylised shots of Agent 47's gleaming pistols being raised into the air. The imagery is deliberately powerfully sexual. It's also deliberately powerfully violent. Square Enix intended both of those things to be present in the imagery. I don't think (wishful, perhaps) that they quite intended their interaction to be so horrific. In a society where 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence, Square Enix just released a video of violence against women presented as sexy and fetishised. That's the issue.
The response? A backlash against those who have raised voices in criticism of the video. You expect the cries of "feminazis!" or eye-rolling at the "PC brigade" from the 14 year old boys (and men who have failed to develop intellectually beyond that stage) who frequent forums and think they're being brave and edgy by pronouncing all women to be sluts, and so on, and so forth, ad nauseum. What's disappointing and even borderline upsetting is the equally strong reaction from many within the games media and the wider games industry - people who would set themselves forward as being culturally aware observers of the medium, but whose reactions have suggested that they're being so quick to defend videogames that they're not even prepared to understand the problem.
The bulk of the rapid responses which have defended the Hitman trailer are complete straw man arguments. They defend things which are not being attacked, arguing for the right to include sexy women in trailers (which is a bit tiresome but not the issue here), the right to include violence against women in games (which again, isn't the issue here) or simple arguments from the standpoint of freedom of expression (again, absolutely not the issue - nobody says Square Enix shouldn't be allowed to make a trailer like this, just that they should have more sense). Absolutely none of the responses that I have seen have actually addressed the issues being raised. Either those responding simply don't understand the issue as it's being presented, or they understand that the real nub of this matter is something quite indefensible, and that the best way to defend it is by distraction and whataboutery.
"We have to learn that we've won, and that the sky won't fall if we try to have an adult debate over big questions of how our medium deals with tough subjects"
This is hardly the first example of this kind of utterly depressing failure to engage intelligently with criticism and discussion on the part of the games industry. Resident Evil 5 is a celebrated example, with perfectly valid concerns over racial stereotyping and the use of extremely sensitive and specific racial imagery never actually being addressed by any of the commentators who leapt to the game's defence. Duke Nukem Forever also did itself no favours in terms of sexualised violence, and again, defenders of the game chose to completely avoid the specific issues at hand in favour of a more general straw-man debate about "whether it's okay for women to look sexy in games", which nobody had ever raised or even suggested.
Watching forums and social networks inflame this week over Hitman's awful trailer is like watching a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder sufferer live out his wartime fantasies inappropriately again and again. In Imamura Shohei's award winning movie Black Rain, one of the characters suffers so badly from shell-shock that every time a bus passes through his village, the noise of its engine convinces him that it's a tank, and he rushes out to try and destroy it with a "bomb" (actually a pillow) on the end of a stick - the suicide mission for which he was trained during the war. It's a little comedic, but also terribly tragic. The complete dismissal of legitimate concerns and often vitriolic responses to criticism (especially vitriolic when the critic is a woman, sadly, which illustrates a problem in itself) which the games market engages in so often now is a similar response, a programmed reaction to a war that's been over for some time - but lacking even the hint of comedy. It's not funny. It's just sad.
We have to get over this, as an industry. We have to learn that we've won, and that the sky won't fall if we try to have an adult debate over big questions of how our medium deals with tough subjects. We don't need to present a united face to the world; there's no "them" out there waiting for division in the ranks so they can take videogames away from "us". Your mum isn't about to sweep in and unplug your Xbox 360 because there's an ongoing debate about legitimate questions of the fetishisation of violence against women in a promo video. We grew up. We won the war. Can we stop fighting it now, please?