The Arma question: is it easier to kill a man than a woman in a videogame?

We find ourselves trapped between realism and reverence.

Sometimes questions of equality do not give easy answers. Sometimes they do not give the answers that feel right. And sometimes your belief that everybody is equal and your sense of right and wrong find themselves at opposite ends of the same track, travelling towards each other at equal speeds, doomed to collide in the middle like a maths puzzle gone awry.

What brings about this sort of moral dilemma for the gamer? Not the knockabout fun of a Saints Row dildo clubbing rampage, nor firing a bunch of birds head first into some oblivious pigs. No, it’s the games that create a world that feels real with characters that look and act in realistic ways; these are the ones that can be a test.

The debate as to whether the Arma series of military simulators should include female characters not just as civilians but as actual soldiers is one that has been bubbling along in the background of the series development for years. With the sudden popularity of the Day Z zombie mod for the game which brought with it female playable characters, and of course more female players, the debate about whether female characters should be allowed to fight in Arma 3 appeared to really take off.

Arma games have included women in the past, of course, and you could even play as one. However, there was the caveat that all female characters were civilians and they could not pick up or use weapons, at all. For all intents and purposes they served the role of the decoy target in the firing range that you’re not ever meant to shoot at. In some ways this is actually the worst way to put female characters into a game, mimicking the standard story tropes of women as damsels in distress, victims to be avenged and other completely powerless entities.

From a realism perspective of course this position is indefensible and has been getting less defensible year on year. Women now make up a large proportion of the armed forces of most countries and while very few countries use women in a front line infantry role the front lines are notoriously difficult to define these days. To be realistic a game should include female soldiers, even if only in supporting roles. This is something that the newly released Company of Heroes 2 has done, featuring women in the roles of snipers, aircraft pilots and tank crew for the Soviet forces. Arma 3 could do it easily too and really that should be the end to it.

However a second trend has appeared in the debate regarding female soldiers in Arma and it is the question not of whether people want to play as female characters, but whether they are happy to kill female characters.

At first this might sound strange, but on reflection there is some merit to this argument.

There is a degree of intelligence required with a game like Arma 3, a degree of engagement that you do not find with a cartoon style game like Saints Row 3 or even something fantastical like Skyrim. The Arma games require calculation and consideration almost more than they require reflexes or other traditional game playing skills. The game demands that you make the right decisions, often under pressure. The ability to shoot in a straight line, always a bonus, is usually a secondary consideration because if your decisions are wrong you’ll probably be dead before you can shoot anybody. The beaches of Day Z were littered for months with the still twitching corpses of Call of Duty and CounterStrike players who didn’t really appreciate what they were walking into until they’d been gunned down and had their beans robbed off them many times over by more experienced players.

Bearing that in mind, and also bearing in mind just how one-sided a properly planned engagement in an Arma game should be, this does bring certain ethical concerns into play. It is one thing to gun down other men in a game and sure it may not be sporting to do so while they have their backs turned or otherwise oblivious to them, but that’s just how it has to be, otherwise you get killed. But to do that to a woman? That may well require your blood to be a little bit colder. Unlike most reflex-based games, in Arma you will often find yourself watching your target, choosing your moment. A well-executed plan in an Arma game is more a series of murders than a fight. Inflicting that sort of calculated carnage on female characters isn’t necessarily going to sit as comfortably with players as shooting men would.

It is notable that even Saints Row 3, that most heartless of harlequins, did not feature female police officers or soldiers. Women remain in two of the gangs you fight against, but make up part of the rank and file of only one of them, appearing as bosses for the second. When even a game as ostensibly tasteless and disrespectful as that is willing to recognise some degree of chivalry in its enemy selection it seems apparent this is something designers are aware of. It can be hard to see the lines that Saints Row is not willing to cross, just due to the size of the truck they cheerfully drive over the lines they will cross, but they are there.

And so the ethical train wreck occurs. Women should be on the battlefield in a realistic game, but it doesn’t feel entirely kosher to be killing them because, particularly for a man, violent acts directed towards women are considered morally worse than those directed towards other men. We could say the same about other groups too. For example, what if the Arma series set a campaign in a civil war with one faction employing child soldiers? Would players go near a game where your opponents are horrifically exploited tweens? Not likely.

But then here’s the thing. If we’re going to get into this sort of discussion, what makes one digital representation of one demographic more ideologically safe to murder than another? Why is it so much easier for people to shoot a male avatar rather than one of a woman, or a child? It is pixels and polygons, it shouldn’t matter. But it does matter, even when we can clearly differentiate between what is a game and what is real our human empathy will kick in. We all know Bambi’s mother is a huge pile of pictures of a deer shown in rapid succession to create the illusion of movement, she’s not real, we know this, we understand this, but we’re still sad when she dies. This is because we’re sensitive creatures and it is completely understandable that a lot of us will be less comfortable killing a digital woman than we would a man, at least for the first few times, until we’ve become suitably desensitised.

So here we are, trapped between realism and reverence. Arma 3 will almost certainly feature women in combat roles, this is 2013 after all, but we should not discount all of the protests as simple misogyny. People will have to accept that women are not delicate flowers to be stepped over while those of us equipped with Y chromosomes handle the rougher aspects of life, whether it is considered to be for their own good or not. For some people that acceptance will not come easily and it might require some adjustment, but nobody said the Twenty-First Century wasn’t going to be complicated.

The Arma games require calculation and consideration almost more than they require reflexes or other traditional game playing skills.

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses