To Be Free to Be Evil Means the Freedom to Be Brutal …

In the same link dump, I came across this post talking about the brutalization of women in video games. I don’t even have to read in to the article to get that, because that’s the title. Essentially, Paul Fidalgo talks a lot about Sarkeesian, Gamergate, Quinn and, most importantly for this post, depictions of women in video games. I’ll add the standard disclaimer that I don’t think the rape and death threats are acceptable, and then jump right into the action:

A complaint was made that in a certain game where Sarkeesian shows player brutality against an NPC woman, it was not also noted that any object or person in the game could be treated the same way. In another, I was told that in the Hitman sequence, Sarkeesian had somehow “doctored” the scenario to allow for the brutal behavior of the player, and that it wasn’t a normal part of the game experience.

This seems an extremely flimsy thing to take issue with. Sarkeesian herself addresses this concern generally, saying that the mere ability to treat women (or anyone) in a violent manner, intentionally programmed by the developers (this isn’t in the game by accident, folks), is an implicit invitation to do those things, and that in the game world it’s acceptable behavior. Why defend the intentionally-added ability to brutalize women at all? Why not just call for the exclusion of such a capability? Why excuse it?

Because the key is that treating women brutally isn’t something that the game itself specifically advocates. If we take the first case, it’s merely a side effect of being able to treat everyone brutally. In that sense, women are being treated exactly like everyone else in the game. Isn’t that what feminists want?

It is a good question to ask, in general, if it’s a good thing to be able to brutalize innocents in a game (not just women). And my answer is that yes, it is indeed a good thing. It is a side effect of a very good and desirable trend in modern gaming to allow players the freedom to play as the sort of person they want to play as (not necessarily who they are or want to be). In Sith Lords, for example, you can force persuade someone to jump off the platform to their death, and the only consequence you get for that is some Dark Side points … which is what you want to get if you are playing as a Dark Side character, because maxing out your Dark Side points gives you various bonuses. But this does not mean that the game is implicitly inviting players to do that, or that players who do that really want to get people to jump to their deaths. Instead, the game is simply giving you the freedom to act either good or evil, and what you do is what the character you are playing would do.

Modern games are pushing these elements more and more, but are moving away from ethical judgements and consequences and more towards more “realistic” consequences. From my understanding of the Hitman case — I don’t play that game myself — what you have is some kind of notoriety stat, and if you kill innocents and indiscriminately it goes “down”, in the sense that you get a negative reputation. If you hide the bodies, then you get that back, presumably because it’s harder to trace the killings to you. So the game is essentially letting you decide how you want to act in the world. Do you want to be a clean, surgical killer, only killing those you absolutely need to? You can do that, and there are consequences. Do you want to be a brutal thug, slaughtering your way to your targets? You can do that, too, and there are consequences. All the game invites you to do is play the character you want to play in their sandbox.

The brutalization of women is nothing more than the consequence of those mechanics. The stripper scene follows from the idea that you can kill innocents and that hiding the bodies reduces your reputation hit. The GTA scene follows from the idea that you can interact with prostitutes for gain, and then kill and loot innocent civilians. None of these are, at least, necessarily, aimed at “Let’s hurt women”. It’s just the consequences where you can hurt people … including women. And the ability to be a bastard or a saint adds depth to games that have been sadly lacking for so long.

Wilson notes that television’s effect “is larger than any other single factor that accounts for violent behavior in youth.” And that’s just TV, a passive medium. TV is not participatory like games are, where this behavior is explicitly rewarded, it’s often the whole point. More on that later.

I’ve already talked about reasons why we might think that it being interactive doesn’t make it worse, but instead makes it better. A lot of this falls into the idea that you aren’t a passive bystander, and so the game doesn’t force you to do or accept something you don’t want to do … and when it does, it breaks immersion. So we need a lot more evidence than what he provides here, which is all about the impacts of passive media.

Several folks told me that the issue of women’s treatment in these games was moot because men get treated much more violently overall, as of course the vast majority of the violence in games is done to male characters, player and non-player alike. But again, Sarkeesian addresses this (it can’t be that her critics haven’t actually watched her video, can it???). She notes, correctly, men have the chance to be anything and everything in game worlds: yes they are the targets of brutalization themselves, but not exclusively. They also get to be heroes, conquerors, geniuses, villains, all-powerful warriors, etcetera, etcetera. Women are mostly relegated to background, prizes, sex objects, and targets for abuse. There are a very, very few exceptions to this, but clearly making an equivalence over the portrayal of male and female characters is ridiculous.

The issue though is that when men are treated brutally it’s often considered par for the course, while far, far more often when women are treated brutally it’s treated as a sign of horrible immorality on the part of the abuser. That’s why you see men treated more brutally than women, and so complaining that women are treated brutally and so the game encourages it when it generally encourages treating men brutally explicitly and constantly is a bit much … and the defense given here is not a complaint about brutality in games, but a complaint that women are under-represented. Fair enough. But then pointing to women being treated brutally is in no way an argument that defends that complaint; your better example is the lack of female protagonists, not that they are treated like everyone else in games. Also, it’s not a complaint that can be leveled at any specific game; you’d have to be talking about representation as a whole. So a bunch of clips about specific scenes in specific games is the worst way to make that point, if that is your primary point … and the retreat to it when faced with men being treated more brutally, to work as a defense, must make that your primary concern.

Who cares? I want attention too, and so does everyone else who publishes content online or anywhere else. Apologists for the games’ content have an agenda, and want attention paid to them. The people who expend enormous amounts of energy and time attacking her personally have an agenda. Spare me.

There’s a difference between someone who wants to write something so that they’ll get attention for themselves and someone who writes something that they want people to pay attention to. The criticism, rightly or wrongly, is that Sarkeesian is the former, not the latter, so this defense doesn’t work.

In modern civilization there is simply no excuse for manufacturing entertainment that holds up the brutalization of women as virtuous and worthy of reward. None. It’s not necessary even if the aim is to create the most suspensful, pulse-quickening adventure game. The only reason to do it is to titillate a certain demographic, and make them feel more powerful than the automata women placed in the games.

But they don’t. Let me back up a bit to the only example he gives of a case like this:

One fellow defended in particular a sequence from the game Red Dead Redemption in which a wild-west gunslinger binds a prostitute, throws her on his horse, takes her to the train tracks, leaves her there, watches her get squashed by a passing locomotive, and unlocks a game achievement as a result. He’s rewarded.

There is a general issue with thinking that getting an “achievement” means that you get a reward, and so that behaviour gets rewarded and so is encouraged as part of the fun, an issue that even most gamers have with it. First, there is no reason to assume that you earn achievements for having fun. In fact, a lot of achievements are things that are definitely and definitively not fun, but instead reflect persistence and grinding. Second, achievements tend to be the equivalent of trophies, and don’t add any material benefit to the game itself. Third, when they do provide some sort of benefit or bragging rights — like, say, unlocking all achievements — this turns the experience into one of mechanics rather than one of character. Someone on a full completion run does that isn’t doing it because they think it’s interesting, but to put another check in a check box. Thus, the people who achieve this achievement get it either because it’s something that they would want to do and the game is simply noting that their character, at least, would do that, or else they achieve it because the game “encourages” them to … but not as a character note, but as a mechanical note. So in either case, the game does not treat it as virtuous. It treats it as existent. And that fact pretty much refutes his entire point … and most of the reasons he gives against brutalization.

Games aimed at adults that allow them to be brutal and/of evil is an important addition to the depth of video games, which is what the people who want gamers to be over are supposed to be in favour of. Women being treated the same as men is also something that they are supposed to be in favour of. So, then, what are they opposing here?


One Response to “To Be Free to Be Evil Means the Freedom to Be Brutal …”

  1. Jakeithus Says:

    “Games aimed at adults that allow them to be brutal and/of evil is an important addition to the depth of video games, which is what the people who want gamers to be over are supposed to be in favour of.”

    The people who want gamers to be over don’t care about video games. In my mind, all that matters is the narrative, and attempting to control a male space that has resisted incursions of feminists and progressives.

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