Why the Lara Croft backlash is bad for games

Hair-trigger outrage harms creativity.

Gender issues surrounding games are more controversial than ever. Add the word “rape” and they become incendiary. Following the Tomb Raider reboot’s executive producer Ron Rosenberg’s statement that Lara Croft will face the threat of rape from scavengers, as a narrative plot point engineered to show Lara’s vulnerability, the games community ignited in debate.

Rosenberg’s justification for why the threat of sexual violence is being used was somewhat ham-fisted, saying that “you start to root for her in a way that you might not root for a male character”.

Suggesting that a female character needed vulnerability to evoke empathy, where a male one wouldn’t, is a clear under estimation of an audience. There was a strong leaning to condemnation in the ensuing debate, with the media reacting quickly, although not all were focused on the motivation but instead the theme itself.

The game’s developer, Crystal Dynamics, studio head responded with a statement which said “sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game”. This would be believable had they not already released a video in which Lara is beaten and groped by a male aggressor. Sexual assault, or at least its threat, was an intended theme.

The game’s art director Brian Horton told Edge, in an interview conducted before the statement, that the company wants “to create a story that is informed by real life”. Following that it “is completely integrated with what you learn about the scavengers and what this island is about, and we felt we could go there, even though we knew we were making a play that was a little controversial”.

This is the second outcry in recent weeks, with a similar reactions to a trailer in which Hitman’s protagonist, Agent 47, kills, rather gruesomely, a group of latex-clad nuns. Many commentators suggested that there was an implied link between the assassins seeming sexual availability and their violent deaths. An official apology followed.

Neither of these reactions arose from the complete, publicly available games themselves - yet both have forced the developer’s PR agencies, and those of developers around the world, to act. This is not a good result for creative freedom.

Games undoubtedly have long established problems with representation of gender, where females often occupy a space as trophies or ill proportioned backgrounds. However, the motivations of a character and the motivation to create a character are very different. Particularly in the case of Tomb Raider, I feel that the majority of the noise was specifically about the game daring to tackle the issue of sexual violence at all. Many seem to feel that there’s simply no room for it in the medium of games.

Sexual assault and rape openly receive discussion in literary circles, where authors such as JT Leroy make names for themselves with graphic depictions. The fictions of Leroy are not intended as comfortable reading, as the films and TV using the subject are not comfortable watching. They are unsettling, as sexual violence as a subject is and should be.

I know that games, having played titles such as Super Columbine Massacre RPG and Global Conflicts: Palestine, can be uncomfortable yet edifying experiences. However Crystal Dynamics’ treatment of a theme as emotive as sexual violence has been lost to us, due to ostensible self-censoring.

The comic book industry began to moderating itself in response to moral outrage in the 1950s. The Comic Code Authority forbade particular themes from being used, including drugs and sex. The major publishers stayed safe from legal meddling, but until recently comics existed as culturally stagnant, populated with spandex and cookie-cutter B-movie monsters.

If the developers chooses to place Lara in a situation in which she is a captive of a group of male mercenaries who live outside the law and our moral codes, a scenario not unfamiliar to the character, the threat of sexual violence is a challenging, but a believable narrative point that should be available for consideration.

We should give our creatives the credit that they can explore issues around women in a manner that is sensitive and interesting until we have clear evidence that they are not doing so with diligence. Otherwise we face a situation in which the artform becomes risk-adverse creatively, timid to tackle and represent real issues that impact real people. As someone wanting to use my art to invoke a full range of human emotions and provoke thought, that, to me, would be a real scandal.

Will Luton is creative director of the developers Mobile Pie. He tweets @will_luton

Lara Croft: the decision to have her beaten and sexually assaulted has provoked a backlash. Photo: Crystal Dynamics

Will Luton is creative director of Mobile Pie. He tweets: @will_luton

Photo: Getty
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Saudi Arabia is a brutal and extremist dictatorship – so why are we selling it arms?

With conflict in Yemen continuing, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of “our despots”.

This year, during Pride week, I noticed something curious on top of the Ministry of Defence just off Whitehall. At the tip of the building’s flagpole hung the rainbow flag – a symbol of liberation for LGBTIQ people and, traditionally, a sign of defiance, too.

I was delighted to see it, and yet it also struck me as surprising that the governmental headquarters of our military would fly such a flag. Not only because of the forces’ history of homophobia, but more strikingly to me because of the closeness of our military establishment to regimes such as Saudi Arabia, where homosexuality is a sin punishable by jail, lashing and even death

That relationship has been under the spotlight recently. Ministers writhed and squirmed to avoid making public a report that’s widely expected to reveal that funding for extremism in Britain has come from Saudi Arabia. The pressure peaked last week, after a series of parliamentary questions I tabled, when survivors of 9/11 wrote to Theresa May asking her to make the report public. At the final PMQs of the parliamentary term last week, I again pressed May on the issue, but like so many prime ministers before her, she brushed aside my questioning on the link between British arms sales and the refusal to expose information that might embarrass the Riyadh regime. 

The British government’s cosy relationship with Riyadh and our habit of selling weapons to authoritarian regimes is “justified" in a number of ways. Firstly, ministers like to repeat familiar lines about protecting British industry, suggesting that the military industrial complex is central to our country’s economic success.

It is true to say that we make a lot of money from selling weapons to Saudi Arabia – indeed figures released over the weekend by the Campaign Against Arms Trade revealed that the government authorised exports including £263m-worth of combat aircraft components to the Saudi air force, and £4m of bombs and missiles in the six months from October 2016.

Though those numbers are high, arms exports is not a jobs-rich industry and only 0.2 per cent of the British workforce is actually employed in the sector. And let’s just be clear – there simply is no moral justification for employing people to build bombs which are likely to be used to slaughter civilians. 

Ministers also justify friendship and arms sales to dictators as part of a foreign policy strategy. They may be despots, but they are “our despots”. The truth, however, is that such deals simply aren’t necessary for a relationship of equals. As my colleague Baroness Jones said recently in the House of Lords:

"As a politician, I understand that we sometimes have to work with some very unpleasant people and we have to sit down with them and negotiate with them. We might loathe them, but we have to keep a dialogue going. However, we do not have to sell them arms. Saudi Arabia is a brutal dictatorship. It is one of the world’s worst Governments in terms of human rights abuses. We should not be selling it arms.”

With Saudi Arabia’s offensive against targets in Yemen continuing, and with UN experts saying the attacks are breaching international law, it’s clear that we’re failing to moderate the actions of "our despots".

The government’s intransigence on this issue – despite the overwhelming moral argument – is astonishing. But it appears that the tide may be turning. In a recent survey, a significant majority of the public backed a ban on arms sales to Saudi Arabia and just this weekend the Mayor of London denounced the arms fair planned in the capital later this year. When the government refused to make the terror funding report public, there was near-universal condemnation from the opposition parties. On this issue, like so many others, the Tories are increasingly isolated and potentially weak.

Read more: How did the High Court decide weapon sales to Saudi Arabia are lawful?

The arms industry exists at the nexus between our country’s industrial and foreign policies. To change course we need to accept a different direction in both policy areas. That’s why I believe that we should accompany the end of arms exports to repressive regimes with a 21st century industrial policy which turns jobs in the industry into employment for the future. Imagine if the expertise of those currently building components for Saudi weaponry was turned towards finding solutions for the greatest foreign policy challenge we face: climate change. 

The future of the British military industrial establishment’s iron grip over government is now in question, and the answers we find will define this country for a generation. Do we stamp our influence on the world by putting our arm around the head-choppers of Riyadh and elsewhere, or do we forge a genuinely independent foreign policy that projects peace around the world – and puts the safety of British people at its core?

Caroline Lucas is the MP for Brighton Pavilion.