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

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The toxic new right-wing media will outlast Trump even if he’s impeached

Fox News and a network of smaller outlets have created an alternative version of reality. That ecosystem might prove more durable than the US president. 

An early end to Donald Trump’s presidency looks more feasible than at any time in the 117 days since his inauguration.

The New York Times revealed on Tuesday that FBI director James Comey – who was fired by Trump a week ago – wrote a memo recording the President’s request he “let go” an investigation into links between Michael Flynn, Trump’s pick for national security advisor, and Russia.

Already there is talk of impeachment, not least because the crime Trump is accused of - obstructing justice - is the same one that ended Richard Nixon's presidency.

But with a Republican-controlled Congress the impeachment process would be long and fraught, and is only likely to succeed if public opinion, and particularly the opinion of the Republican voters, swings decisively against Trump.

In another era, the rolling coverage of the president's chaotic, incompetent and potentially corrupt administration might have pushed the needle far enough. But many of those Republican voters will make their decision about whether or not to stick with Trump based not on investigative reporting in the NYT or Washington Post, but based on reading a right-wing media ecosystem filled with distortions, distractions and fabrications.

That ecosystem – which spans new and (relatively) old media - will be going into overdrive to protect a president it helped elect, and who in turn has nourished it with praise and access.

On Monday, BuzzFeed’s Charlie Warzel took a forensic look at how a new breed of hyper-partisan right wing sites – what he calls the "Upside Down media" – tried to undermine and discredit claims that Trump disclosed sensitive security information to Russian officials.

The same tactics can already be seen just 24 hours later. Notorious conspiracist site Infowars talks of “saboteurs” and “turncoats” undermining the administration with leaks, mirroring an email from Trump’s campaign team sent late on Tuesday. Newsmax, another right-leaning sight with links to Trump, attacks the source of the story, asking in its web splash “Why did Comey wait so long?”. GatewayPundit, which published several false stories about Hillary Clinton during the election campaign, appears to have ignored the story altogether. 

As Warzel points out, these new sites work in concert with older media, in particular Rupert Murdoch’s ratings-topping cable news channel Fox News.

Fox initially underplayed the Comey memo’s significance, switching later to projecting the story as a media-led attack on Trump. At the time of publication, the Fox homepage led with a splash headlined: “THE SHOW MUST GO ON Lawmakers vow to focus on Trump agenda despite WH controversies.”

Fox acts as a source of validation for the newly established right-wing sites. Once Fox has covered a story, smaller sites can push further and faster, knowing that they aren't going too far from at least one outlet considered respectable and mainstream. If anything should make the UK value the impartiality rules, however imperfect, which govern its broadcast news, it’s Fox’s central role in enabling this toxic mix of misinformation.

These new media sites have another weapon, however. They understand and exploit the way internet platforms - in particular Facebook - are designed to maximise attention. They have found that playing on very human desires for stories that confirm our biases and trigger emotional responses is the best way to build audiences and win fans, and they have little compulsion abusing that knowledge.

This isn’t just a Trump or Fox-related phenomenon. It’s not even just a right-wing one. In both the US and the UK left-wing hyper-partisan sites with a tenuous relationship with the truth have sprung up. They have followed the same playbook, and in most cases the same advertising-based funding model, which has worked so well for the right. Emotive headlines, spun stories, outright fabrications and an insistence that “the corrupt mainstream media won’t report this” work just as well in generating clicks and shares for both ends of the political spectrum.

The main difference between the two political poles is that the right has benefited from an ideologically and temperamentally suited president, and a facilitator in Fox News. 

Of course the combined efforts of this new media and the Fox-led old may still fail. Trump’s recent transgressions appear so severe that they could break through to even his diehard supporters.

But if Trump does fall, the new right wing media ecosystem is unlikely to fall with him. 

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