Laurie Penny: Hey Baby - The PC Game with a twist

Laurie Penny manoeuvres through a scenario that lets women strike back.

Hey Baby

LadyKillas Inc

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.

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Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things .

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide