A close look at the themes and gender roles explored in your favorite video games.
It wasn't until I started working in the video game industry that I began to hear the word "rape" on a regular basis.
I worked as a game tester for a major publisher, spending my days working through connectivity checklists in a room with the shades permanently drawn.
Among the 15 or 20 other people, there were only two women. Throughout the day, “rape” would be used as a way to describe everything from cell phone service plans to shooting other players in the few moments of actual play time we were allowed. I'd heard the word used in those loose contexts before, but never with such regularity. A few years earlier I'd worked overseas with a woman who had been sent home after being raped, and while it didn't offend me to hear all the other guys use the word, I couldn't use it in such a lighthearted way.
As video game culture has become ascendent in the last decade, a seemingly violent subculture has risen alongside it. These are people who form their identity around a willingness to use the most aggressively offensive language in contexts where they are least likely to have any literal truth.
Video game heroes define themselves through violent domination, so any thematic point must be defined within the context of violence.
At last week's E3, one of the most recent critics of this masculine antagonism, documentarian Anita Sarkeesian, was given an incomprehensibly aggressive response when she noted that none of Microsoft’s newly announced Xbox One titles feature women protagonists. She posted a number of deeply hostile responses from her Twitter feed, some calling her "cunt," "the biggest bitch of all time," or simply "entitled."
In the same Microsoft press conference, an onstage demo of the fighting game Killer Instinct produced an uncomfortable exchange in which a man who was dominating his woman opponent said, "Just let it happen, it will be over soon." A few seconds later, he followed up with "Wow, you like this," when his opponent seemed unable to stop his attacks. "No, I don't like this," she answered.
While both players later argued none of the banter was meant to evoke rape, the language is drawn from the same bullying pathos of humiliating the loser in defeat,
The pervasiveness of this kind of thinking, which does not explicitly mean to tie itself to rape but almost perfectly mirrors the logic of rationalizing it, has become increasingly difficult to dismiss as simply part of the fun in video games.
Video games make violence a euphemism. They create a space where dominance established through aggression can be simplified into an easily accessible fantasy simulation. Traditional games have long rested on the power of making the player feel like a hero—a status encoded into their visuals, music and storytelling—making sure that every act feels both necessary and moral. Video game heroes define themselves through violent domination, so any thematic point must be defined within the context of violence.
It all points back toward the act of taking something from someone else. Even in analog games like chess and checkers, one removes another player's pieces from the board and the rules become the logic that make that action seem just and inarguable.
The conversational rationalizing of "You like that, don't you?" can be taken as an instinctual reaction to the discomfort of suddenly finding one's self in the position of violent aggressor. The hero is seeking some kind of vague reassurance that the entitlement of behaving like a monster for a few seconds is allowable within the mutually agreed terms of play.
In many ways, the sexism and hostility toward women is least meaningfully expressed in aesthetic standards and the choice of protagonist gender. In games with women heroes like Metroid Heavenly Sword, Bayonetta, Dragon's Age, andTomb Raider, the underlying systems remain rooted in violent domination.
The call for more representation of women in games—both as characters and in development, where men outnumber them by almost 9 to 1—is good and necessary. However, it has most force when combined with a movement that is critical of the legal and political structures that give these aesthetics resonance.
The surest way to tame them is to change the political and legal culture in which they're experienced. Even art that seems maximally offensive and morally disgusting can be taken as a starting point for self-reflection. The most encouraging dialogue to open about games is not one based on repudiation, but rather one of effect and interpretation—something that empowers the audience to claim their subjective authority over the work.
In its own way, negative criticisms of art perpetuate the fear of being wrong or seeming weak, which makes the hyperbolic fantasies of violent domination seem even more appealing. When we're ready to think more openly about how to play with each other without resorting to miniaturized models of domination, the language and logic behind our aesthetics will be changed accordingly.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.