Tomb Raider, Rape, and Gamer Culture

Posted: April 2, 2013 in Uncategorized

I’m an avid gamer, and while I don’t think I’m as immersed in gamer culture as I once was, I do like to think that I’m still relatively in touch. This is why it came as a shock to me when a non-gamer friend brought to my attention this interesting controversy swirling around the reboot of the once popular Tomb Raider franchise.

In short, the developers chose to provide a scene in the new Tomb Raider game that is kind of analogous to rape. This scene caused an uproar with critics saying that a video game is not the place to discuss or depict rape. The backlash to the controversial scene was such that representatives from the publisher have publicly announced the scene is in no way intended to be analogous to rape, nor meant to provide commentary on rape and rape culture.

And everyone is wrong about almost everything.

Whether the scene really was intended to provide commentary or to depict rape I don’t know. I haven’t watched the scene, and I’ll probably never play Tomb Raider as I have never been a fan of the series. However, I take serious issue with the idea that video games do not provide an appropriate forum for discussions about rape. I think they do. I think they specifically because of the audiences they are speaking to, and gaming culture in general.

In the United States, one in six women have either been raped, or experienced an attempted rape. That means that, statistically, you know someone who has been the victim of some form of sexual assault. Rape is one of the biggest dirty little secrets of our culture. As a society, we seem almost incapable of dealing with rape at a reasonable and mature level, approximately 5% of rapists are expected to serve time for their sexual abuse. 99% of rapists are men.

Rape is a thing so insidious that I believe we must be able to talk about it in a number of forums, especially in video games.

One of the reasons I have been a lifelong gamer is because at an early age I saw the potential for video games to grow as a story telling medium. Back in the heady days of the Super Nintendo Entertainment System I recognized that video games added a new dimension unrealized by movies or television or books–interactivity. Other forms of media do tell stories and sometimes offer immersion, allowing the audience to use their imagination to inject themselves into the story. But video games build a bridge that includes the audience inside the fourth wall. You no longer imagine yourself as the main character; you are the main character.

Now, video games are able to provide near photorealism, and in some cases create imagery that almost exceeds photorealism. Music and sound effects are no longer provided in computerized blinks and boops, but scored in real instruments and lifelike roars and crashes. We no longer are forced to read rudimentary single sentences that patch together simplistic stories; instead we are treated to fully voiced dialogue that weaves together complex stories that touch on a number of issues and themes that are important and relevant to modern society.

Video games have grown up and become a valid way to tell stories, produce art, and connect with people over a variety of subjects. I remember back when the original Playstation blew up thanks in no small part to Final Fantasy VII. One of the lead directors for what would later be considered one of the greatest games of all time discussed how he had just lost a close family member, and when he sat down to make this game, themes about death and coping with loss played heavily in its make-up. What resulted was one of the most memorable death scenes in gaming history, and the ways in which the characters dealt with that loss throughout the rest of the game were touching and powerful.

Nor does Final Fantasy VII stand alone. Since then major studio productions have conquered parental love and the lengths to which it is willing to go (Heavy Rain), provided deep and meaningful commentary on Ayn Rand libertarianism (Bioshock) as well as socialism (Bioshock 2). Independent developers go even further, providing thought provoking titles like the Passage, or Beggar.

In fact, because video games offer interactivity and immersion not readily available to other forms of media, these themes can be explored much more deeply in an artistic manner by making the audience the actual subjects.

So, as a medium, video games are quite well equipped to handle in a mature and meaningful way the subject of rape. Especially today when the technology is such that developers can accurately and effectively convey facial expressions realistically. Which leads us to ask if the audience is the correct audience to discuss this topic with? Considering that the target demographic for mainstream gamers appears to be the classic 18-35 male powerhouse, I can’t think of a better demographic to have a serious talk about rape with.

Remember, 99% of rapists are men. And while mainstream gamers are disproportionately males, those females that do play games are in the same age bracket and themselves susceptible to being victims of rape.

What’s more, as anyone who has played Call of Duty will readily tell you, gamers seem woefully insensitive to rape, sexual assault, sexism, and misogyny. Rape jokes are hurled about repeatedly with no appreciation to the severity of the act (and I will readily and shamefully admit that I have participated in this myself–hopefully in a way that truly did not hurt or offend anyone).

The fact is, the mainstream gaming community as a whole could probably benefit from an intense bout of mandatory sensitivity training covering everything from sexual harassment to racial sensitivity. Barring that, I think it would be a great idea if some of the guys playing these games played a game where they were forced to experience rape through the eyes of a victim, to understand the trauma that occurs, to maybe start to get a glimpse of what all their jokes mean to someone for whom being a rape victim is a reality.

What will benefit no one, however, is to run from the subject. To pretend that rape is not something that we should be talking about. Because the fact is, a disturbingly low percentage of rapes are ever reported, and as I point out, only 5% of rapists are ever expected to be brought to justice. This is in no small part because we, as a society don’t think rape is something we should talk about. So whether it is in books, or movies, or in video games, whenever and wherever the opportunity arises to talk about this subject in a sober and mature manner, we have a responsibility to do so.

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