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

Show Hide image

The conflict in Yemen is a civil war by numbers

Amid the battles, a generation starves.

Ten thousand dead – a conservative estimate at best. Three million internally displaced. Twenty million in need of aid. Two hundred thousand besieged for over a year. Thirty-four ballistic missiles fired into Saudi Arabia. More than 140 mourners killed in a double-tap strike on a funeral. These are just some of the numerical subscripts of the war in Yemen.

The British government would probably prefer to draw attention to the money being spent on aid in Yemen – £37m extra, according to figures released by the Department for International Development in September – rather than the £3.3bn worth of arms that the UK licensed for sale to Saudi Arabia in the first year of the kingdom’s bombing campaign against one of the poorest nations in the Middle East.

Yet, on the ground, the numbers are meaningless. What they do not show is how the conflict is tearing Yemeni society apart. Nor do they account for the deaths from disease and starvation caused by the hindering of food imports and medical supplies – siege tactics used by both sides – and for the appropriation of aid for financial gain.

Since the war began in March 2015 I have travelled more than 2,500 miles across Yemen, criss-crossing the front lines in and out of territories controlled by Houthi rebels, or by their opponents, the Saudi-backed resistance forces, or through vast stretches of land held by al-Qaeda. On those journeys, what struck me most was the deepening resentment expressed by so many people towards their fellow Yemenis.

The object of that loathing can change in the space of a few hundred metres. The soundtrack to this hatred emanates from smartphones resting on rusting oil drums, protruding from the breast pockets of military fatigues, or lying on chairs under makeshift awnings where flags denote the beginning of the dead ground of no-man’s-land. The rabble-rousing propaganda songs preach to the watchful gunmen about a feeble and irreligious enemy backed by foreign powers. Down the road, an almost identical scene awaits, only the flag is different and the song, though echoing the same sentiment, chants of an opponent altogether different from the one decried barely out of earshot in the dust behind you.

“We hate them. They hate us. We kill each other. Who wins?” mused a fellow passenger on one of my trips as he pressed green leaves of the mildly narcotic khat plant into his mouth.

Mohammed was a friend of a friend who helped to smuggle me – dressed in the all-black, face-covering garb of a Yemeni woman – across front lines into the besieged enclave of Taiz. “We lose everything,” he said. “They win. They always win.” He gesticulated as he spoke of these invisible yet omnipresent powers: Yemen’s political elite and the foreign states entangled in his country’s conflict.

This promotion of hatred, creating what are likely to be irreversible divisions, is necessary for the war’s belligerents in order to incite tens of thousands to fight. It is essential to perpetuate the cycle of revenge unleashed by the territorial advances in 2014 and 2015 by Houthi rebels and the forces of their patron, the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. This demand for retribution is matched by those who are now seeking vengeance for the lives lost in a UK-supported, Saudi-led aerial bombing campaign.

More than 25 years after the two states of North and South Yemen united, the gulf between them has never been wider. The political south, now controlled by forces aligned with the Saudi-led coalition, is logistically as well as politically severed from the north-western territories under the command of the Houthi rebels and Saleh loyalists. Caught in the middle is the city of Taiz, which is steadily being reduced to rubble after a year-long siege imposed by the Houthi-Saleh forces.

Revenge nourishes the violence, but it cannot feed those who are dying from malnutrition. Blowing in the sandy wind on roadsides up and down the country are tattered tents that hundreds of thousands of displaced families now call home. Others have fled from the cities and towns affected by the conflict to remote but safer village areas. There, food and medical care are scarce.

The acute child malnutrition reported in urban hospitals remains largely hidden in these isolated villages, far from tarmac roads, beyond the reach of international aid agencies. On my road trips across Yemen, a journey that would normally take 45 minutes on asphalt could take five hours on tracks across scrubland and rock, climbing mountainsides and descending into valleys where bridges stand useless, snapped in half by air strikes.

Among the other statistics are the missing millions needed by the state – the country’s largest employer. Workers haven’t been paid in months, amid fears of an economic collapse. This is apparently a deliberate tactic of fiscal strangulation by the Saudi-backed Yemeni government-in-exile. The recent relocation of the central bank from the Houthi-controlled capital, Sana’a, to the southern city of Aden is so far proving symbolic, given that the institution remains devoid of funds. The workforce on both sides of the conflict has taken to the streets to protest against salaries being overdue.

Following the deaths of more than 140 people in Saudi-led air strikes on a funeral hall on 8 October, Saleh and the Houthi leader, Abdulmalik al-Houthi, called for yet more revenge. Within hours, ballistic missiles were fired from within Houthi territory, reaching up to 350 miles into Saudi Arabia.

Meanwhile, in the Red Sea, Houthi missile attacks on US warships resulted in retaliation, sucking the US further into the mire. Hours later, Iran announced its intention to deploy naval vessels in the area.

Vengeance continues to drive the violence in Yemen, which is being drawn ever closer to proxy conflicts being fought elsewhere in the Middle East. Yet the impact on Yemeni society and the consequences for the population’s health for generations to come are unlikely to appear to the outside world, not even as annotated numbers in the brief glimpses we get of this war. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood