Sunday, 2 September 2012

Design Decisions Raped My Computer Game

Trigger Warning: This post discusses rape and the dismissal and trivialisation of rape in the media. The last section of the post contains a quote from Harriet J describing her experiences as a rape survivor that may be triggering.

The past few weeks have seen the issue of rape prominently in the media spotlight. From British MP George Galloway’s classification of the rape of sleeping women as “bad sexual ettiquitte” to US Republican Todd Akin’s distinction between “legitimate” and “illegitimate” rape and his ideas about the ability of the female body to respond to them, rape and its definition have been discussed extensively across the mainstream media. It is perhaps timely then that the gaming press now finds itself with its own spurious redefinition of rape to contend with.

Cory Davis, lead designer at development studio Yager for Spec Ops - The Line, a title focussed on its single player campaign’s meditation on the morality of warfare, spoke out against publisher 2k Games over the inclusion of a multiplayer mode developed by a second studio to “check a box”. As part of an article with the Polygon section of online magazine the Verge, Davis stated:

“The multiplayer game's tone is entirely different, the game mechanics were raped to make it happen, and it was a waste of money. No one is playing it, and I don't even feel like it's part of the overall package — it's another game rammed onto the disk like a cancerous growth, threatening to destroy the best things about the experience that the team at Yager put their heart and souls into creating.”

Reports on Davis’ comments were carried in Joystiq, Rock Paper Shotgun, Strategy Informer, EGM Now, Kotaku and Eurogamer among others. In all instances, there was no particular mention of Davis’ misuse of the word rape beyond reference to his “strong language” in general, while several of these outlets chose Davis’ questionable usage of “cancerous” as worthy of inclusion in their story’s headline. When studio Darkside, responsible for the game’s multiplayer portion, issued a response, they too engaged with Davis’ remarks without commenting on his choice of language.

To many gamers, this misuse of the word “raped” will be familiar. In gaming culture the word is often used to refer to being crushingly defeated and in some communities is thrown around quite liberally. It is perhaps because of this, and in spite of the recent controversies in the wider press, that the response to Davis’ comments in the gaming press has totally ignored his abuse of the word “rape”.

In her incisive 2010 analysis of games journalism, “No Cheering In The Press Box”, AJ Glasser talks about games journalism’s status as essentially an “enthusiast press” and criticizes the “...self-destructive cycle that begins when journalists behave like an audience because they're filling the dual role of professional and fan.” While she forms her criticism within the context of feedback between a professional press and games developers, the same criticism can also be made of the failure of the gaming press to reflect on gaming norms and culture.

It is inconceivable that a content producer in any other medium or industry could make a statement which so casually trivializes not only the act of rape but the experiences of rape survivors and not have their language remarked on if not outright condemned by that industry’s press.

While rape is an issue that affects men and transgender individuals as well as women, statistics on the first two groups are hard to come by. We do know from various studies into rape and sexual violence in the US, however, that somewhere between 15% and 20% of women have survived rape, that’s around 1 in 5 people in what the Entertainment Software Association calls “one of the industry’s fastest growing demographics”. What this translates to is a sizable number of gamers likely to be not only alienated, but hurt and disturbed by the trivial use of the word rape by gamers, by developers and the failure of the gaming press to challenge this behaviour.

I contacted Davis via his Twitter account (@Snak3Fist) to challenge his comments.
@Snak3Fist its pretty disgusting that you throw around "rape" to discuss design decisions in a video game. You ought to publish a retraction

Davis responded by attempting to turn the issue into a topical joke, riffing on Todd Akin’s widely condemned statement that women who are “legitimately” raped are able to automatically terminate any resulting pregnancy.
@Skipjack451 True. I should have been more specific. It was actually "Illegitimate Rape" because we did eventually birth the Multiplayer.

When I challenged Davis on the inappropriate nature of attempting to turn the issue of rape into a joke, I received no reply.
@Snak3Fist thats really not funny and youre being unbelievably disrespectful and callous toward rape survivors by trying to make this a joke

Davis did, however, post up this quote from author Hunter S. Thompson.

“Life has become immeasurably better since I have been forced to stop taking it seriously.” ― Hunter S. Thompson

The timing of this tweet would seem to suggest Davis was obliquely suggesting that both I and another Twitter user, @mescalineeyes, who had complained about Davis’ usage of the “cancerous” were taking things too seriously. This would certainly be consistent with the attitude belied by Davis’ attempt to turn his comments on rape into a joke.

In her excellent deconstruction of the trivialization of rape through humour, Harriet J offers this incredibly powerful account of her experiences of hearing friends joking about rape:

“Hope the conversation does not continue extolling the virtues of rape, making saying nothing harder. Hate yourself for saying nothing. Notice girl sitting on the porch of the house next to you who has heard what was said. Notice her similar reactions. Hate yourself more for saying nothing, because she has probably been raped, too, because you don’t know any woman who hasn’t. Hate your friend, because he doesn’t know that every woman he knows has been raped. Have minor flashbacks of what was done to you. No feeling the sun, the breeze now, just his hand on your shoulder to get leverage. Simmer with stopped-up rage that this thing he did, his hand on your shoulder, has just been joked about as fun and exciting. Simmer with stopped-up rage that you said nothing then, too, even though that’s not really true. You just said nothing that was listened to, deemed important. Like your silence and obvious rage is being ignored now. Stop enjoying the day. Stop enjoying the company of your friend. Make a mental note to withdraw from others before they can casually, “jokingly” remind you of your rape. Feel bad. It’s not like they know you were raped. Feel angry. It’s not like you’re ever going to tell them, now. Feel alone and angry. Assume bitterly that you will feel this way forever.”

It is this kind of reaction and these kinds of feelings that Davis’ comments and his flippant response are likely to stir up in any rape survivors that come across them. The failure of the gaming press to challenge Davis over his comments will further this distress by making it seem as though his language is acceptable and normal and that the reaction of rape survivors is unwarranted or illegitimate. Combined with the continuing status of “rape” as a piece of gaming terminology, this perpetuates a situation where gaming remains an exclusive domain unwelcoming to women and rape survivors.

While the response to the recent scandal over the sexual harassment of a female participant at the Cross Assault gaming tournament showed that attitudes are slowly changing and that there is a clear grassroots desire for gaming communities to become more welcoming and inclusive, the gaming press must do more to support and reflect this feeling and to show that games have the potential to become a mature and professional medium.