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 Images
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Meet the remarkable British woman imprisoned for fighting against Isis

The treatment of Silhan Özçelik shows how confused British policy towards the Middle East has become. 

Last week, a British court sentenced a woman to prison for attempting to join fighters in the Middle East. Silhan Özçelik, an 18-year-old from Highbury, London was sentenced to 21 months for her part in “preparing terrorist acts” under the Terrorism Act 2006. The judge called her a “stupid, feckless and deeply dishonest young woman”.  What all of this misses out is the most extraordinary fact: that Özçelik was not convicted for going to fight for the Islamic State, but for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party – better known as the PKK, one of the only effective and consistent opponents of Isis since the war began.

Volunteering to fight in foreign wars – so long as they are long ago enough – is a celebrated tradition in Britain. In the late 1930s, while the Spanish Republic battled on against a fascist coup led by General Franco, tens of thousands of volunteers from all over the world went to fight for the International Brigades, including 2,500 from the UK. They included future celebrities such as writer George Orwell and actor James Robertson Justice, and commemorative plaques and memorials can now be seen all over the country

Like the International Brigade volunteers, Özçelik allegedly volunteered to fight for an embattled state facing military defeat at the hands of a far-right insurgency. The combat units she might have joined have been the subject of moving portraits in the Guardian and even praise on Fox News. The PKK is a secular socialist organisation, with a streak of libertarianism and its own feminist movements. But because of its military opposition to the often brutal Turkish treatment of the Kurds, the western powers list the PKK as a terrorist organisation; and would-be heroes like Silhan Özçelik are detained as criminals by the British state.

On one level, what Özçelik’s conviction represents is a change in how the state relates to ordinary citizens who fight. In 1936, the rise of fascism was something on our doorstep, which was opposed most fervently not by official western governments but by ordinary folk, dangerous far left subversives and free spirited writers who sailed to Spain – often in spite of their own governments. In today’s wars in the Middle East, the state is absolutely determined to maintain its monopoly on the right to sanction violence.

What Orwell and other volunteers understood was that while western governments might promote values like liberty and deplore the rise of tyranny, they were also duplicitous and unreliable when it came to prioritising the defeat of fascism over the narrow interests of nation and profit. Then as now, western governments were  deeply uneasy about the idea of ordinary people taking up arms and intervening in global affairs, or deciding – by force – who governs them. If the Terrorism Act 2006 had applied in 1936, Orwell would surely have been arrested at Dover and sent to prison.

More pressingly for the current situation, the persecution of the PKK should make you think twice about the motivations and outcomes for military intervention in Syria. Cameron is on a march to war, and, following the Paris attacks, much of the political establishment is now lining up to support him.

At the same time, our court system is imprisoning and persecuting young women who try to take up arms against Isis. It is doing so at the behest not of our own national security, which has never been threatened by the PKK, but that of Turkey. Turkey’s military is actively targeting Kurdish forces, and has recently stepped up these attacks. There is a wealth of evidence, not least its behaviour during the recent siege of Kobane, to suggest that Turkey – Britain’s only formal NATO ally in the region – is tacitly collaborating with Isis in an attempt to defeat both Assad and the Kurds.

As the government rushes to war in Syria, much of the media attention will focus on Jeremy Corbyn’s awkward task of holding his anti-war line while persuading his party and Shadow Cabinet not to split over the issue. Others will focus, rightly, on the complexity of the situation in the region and the question of who western air-strikes are really there to support: is it Assad, the murderous dictator whose regime has itself been linked to the rise of Isis; Turkey, which is seemingly focussed entirely on defeating Assad and the Kurds; or the soup of organisations – including the Al-Qaeda franchise in Syria – which constitute the anti-regime rebels?

But Özçelik’s conviction should also raise a more fundamental concern: that the contradictions and complications that we are so used to associating with the Middle East lie at the heart of British and western policy as well. If the British state persecutes, rather than supports, the few secular and progressive organisations in the region who are fighting Isis, whose interests is it really serving? And if we don’t trust those interests, how much trust can we really place in it to act on our behalf in Syria?

You can sign a petition calling for Silhan Özçelik’s release here, and a petition calling for the decriminalisation of the PKK here.