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Why the Lara Croft backlash is bad for games

Hair-trigger outrage harms creativity.

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

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