Laurie Penny manoeuvres through a scenario that lets women strike back.
At first click, Hey Baby looks like a standard bloody revenge fantasy - with a twist. The PC game, launched this month, is a crude urban street simulation played from the point of view of a woman, walking home alone, assailed by passing creeps who stroll over to make personal comments. "Smile for me, baby," one of them demands. So far, so wearily accurate.
In real life, you'd grit your teeth and walk on, or maybe flash a smile if you were particularly worried for your safety. But in Hey Baby you get to draw an AK-47 and pulverise the leering scumbags. As you vent your frustration on the computer-generated misogynists, headstones appear displaying their obnoxious suggestions. It's not big, it's not clever, and it's hardly a coherent manifesto for feminist resistance - but, boy, is it cathartic.
Male bloggers and commentators have rushed to decry the game as misandrist, despite the silence of the same players when it comes to the ultraviolence involved in games such as Grand Theft Auto. Video games have long been an acceptable outlet for men's fantasies and everyday frustrations, however unpleasant. Hey Baby is similarly about familiar frustration - in this case, the kind of frustration that women feel when strangers treat them as sexual objects in a public space.
What nobody seems to have noticed is that Hey Baby isn't a real game at all. The "premium product" advertised on the website is difficult to download, there is no price mentioned, and the test version is so ludicrously awful that I strongly suspect the real point of Hey Baby may not be the game at all.
The interface is unrealistic and the controls are unresponsive to the point of obnoxious. Moreover, there are no obvious objectives apart from charging around in a jerky frenzy of vengeful slaughter and watching your aggressors explode in a satisfying cascade of computer-generated gore. Hey Baby has all the aesthetic subtlety of a political slogan scrawled on a wall - and just as much impact.
This is a game that's meant not to be played, but to be discussed. Its creator, Suyin Looui, a digital activist rather than a professional game designer, has said that her aim was to "examine new technologies and their potential value for feminist activism". Hey Baby is guerrilla feminist art masquerading as a PC pastime, and is all the more effective for the knowledgeable, unpatronising way in which it subverts the tropes of gaming to make its points.
Crude as it is, the interface has been modelled carefully to produce maximum emotional realism. Not all of the men in the short simulation are aggressors - as in life, some simply pass by in the background - but all have to be imagined as a potential threat.
The men who do approach vary in age and race, and their comments range from the seemingly innocuous ("God bless you" or "You look nice today, miss") to lewder suggestions, along the lines of "I'm not hungry, baby, but I'd love to eat you". The game does a great deal to show how, for a woman used to defending her personal space from all manner of intrusions, even a polite comment can feel threatening.
Fascinatingly, Hey Baby translates what men often see as individual compliments into the atmosphere of sustained threat associated with a first-person shooter. Part of the immersion experience of playing Doom, Quake or Half Life 2 is the understanding that violent monsters might lurk around every corner on the street - and this sort of relentless apprehension mimics the constant vigilance that is part of the daily lives of most women living in cities.
Hey Baby, like the everyday sexism it critiques, is much more than just a game. The project is propaganda art par excellence, using the conceits of gaming technology to model how male privilege feels from a woman's perspective. Mowing down digital aggressors may be satisfying, but making real men understand is infinitely more so.
More details: heybabygame.com