(tw: rape, gendered & ableist slurs)
Recently, the University of Canterbury’s student magazine (Canta) recalled an issue containing an article about virtual rape in GTA5 (Grand Theft Auto 5) Online. The title? ‘The Epidemic of Virtual Butthurt’. The editor has claimed satire as their defence, stressing that this is an opinion of an individual student. But of course: why on earth would a publication ever have to take responsibility for the toxic opinions they publish?
I admit: I have little to no desire to directly address many of the author’s points. The article is essentially a snapshot of misogynistic mainstream gamer culture that somehow found its way onto a physical published page. That said, the fact that this was published in the first place, with the assumption that readers would appreciate the ‘satirical’ humour, speaks volumes about the state of gamer culture and indeed college and mainstream culture in general. And, I suppose, the lack of source material Canta had to work with. But even a blank page would have been better than this.
The article addresses a fan-made mod (modification) that allows players to trap another player in a humiliating position and, well, simulate rape. They cannot fight back and must simply wait for their attacker to lose interest. While the author doesn’t exactly posit this as a pleasant experience, they claim that it is nothing to get riled up about and that feminism has more important issues to worry about.
Oh, where do I even start?
The author completely misses how a victim’s identity and past experiences can shape their reaction to this ‘virtual rape’. Just because it may not bother your average white cisgender heterosexual guy (while the author claims a feminine alias, this applies to the gaming community as a whole), doesn’t mean players with less privileged identities and/or personal experience with sexual assault can write it off as easily (because we exist. Hi.).
Here, in a fictional world, women and non-binary players (especially feminine-identifying and/or passing) are blasted with the same messages we face in the real world: ‘You are inferior. You are powerless. You are available for others’ amusement and pleasure – and there is nothing you can do about it.’ We have grown to know these whispers well over the course of our lives we have become intimately familiar with that dread. That ice-fire panic and helplessness that hides behind our eyes when we have to plan how to get home at night so we won’t become another statistic. We know this because we exist and because our existence requires us to navigate the constant shadows of rape culture. To survive.
That isn’t to say virtual rape is the same thing as everyday rape. Players can walk away from their screens and occupy themselves while they wait, for example. But instances like these are just another manifestation of the misogyny that allow others to represent us as lesser. As ‘asking for it’, available for consumption. Of course, players whose identities are privileged enough that they never have to worry about rape culture will have a very different response to those who do. The former, those who do not live in fear of rape, nor have to plan their lives around that fear, may be momentarily irritated, maybe amused. For them, it is an inconvenience. For us, it is another reminder of our lesser status. For survivors of sexual assault, it is potentially triggering and traumatic.
In this way, rape becomes not a sickening violation of human rights, but a tool of power – a source of amusement or offhand punishment, and a brief inconvenience.
What goes on in the virtual world is never self-contained. The environment itself is often constructed from what we know in the ‘physical’ world, so bigotry leaks in, and, in this and many other cases, feeds back to other forms of media and real life behaviours. Violence in video games has been linked to a greater tolerance of sexual harassment1, and with the problematic representations in the vanilla (unmodded) GTAO, it isn’t a huge leap from murdering prostitute NPCs (non-player characters) to virtually raping other players. While players do have agency, their views and behaviours are inevitably shaped by the rape culture that permeates the gaming world, and indeed media in general. Gaming is often talked about as an escape from reality, but when the realities of rape culture stalk us to our fantasies, it begs the question: who are games really for?
Most of mainstream gamer culture, and indeed the public, would say that games are for your ‘typical’ gamer (read: white cisgender heterosexual able-bodied young man). Indeed, most games are designed for that audience in mind. When developers do acknowledge that yes, gamers are a diverse population with different identities, and that representing that multifaceted community is not only respectful but non-negotiable, the internet forums explode with damaged egos shrieking about political correctness, censorship and freedom of speech. When critics, specifically women and/or people of colour, point out instances of sexism or racism, they are assailed with rape and murder threats. However, I would like to destroy the notion that there is a vocal minority amongst the ‘mostly good’ gamers that can take all the blame. Everyone who plays games has the capability to actively discourage hate speech, rather than simply tolerate or ignore it. People who do see themselves reflected in the media are less likely to be attacked. But many of them are comfortable in their isolated privileged spaces and instead pressure minority groups to speak up, regardless of our safety. Alternatively, they deflect criticism of toxic opinions by preaching ‘freedom of speech’ and rallying against censorship – utterly missing the point.
Canta’s claims mirror that of mainstream gamer culture in that it individualises hateful views and attempts to pull the issue towards censorship rather than reflect on the bigger picture. If your opinions are actively hateful, then you have nothing constructive to contribute to public discussion. But when people defend these opinions, they fail to recognise that they are excusing not simply the opinion of one individual but entire cultures of hate towards minority groups such as women. Rather than limiting people’s ability to freely express themselves (which is what censorship is often framed as), the issue here is responsible journalism that is respectful of its audience and people in general.
About the article itself: you cannot simply reproduce everyday hate speech and call it satire. While we know next to nothing about the author’s intentions, or whether Canta made the decision to pass it off as satire, toxicity masquerading as satire is still toxic. It would be funny if the beliefs it drew attention to were widely accepted as obviously ridiculous, but these are the genuine beliefs that destroy their targets’ mental and emotional health and make them fear for their safety. This filth is ‘just’ satire? I’ll believe you when players calling people like me ‘stupid cunt[s]’, telling us we aren’t ‘real’ gamers, and, of course, the classic: ‘it’s just a game’. In short, I’ll believe you when people who proudly call themselves ‘gamers’ become empathetic human beings.
I am a gamer. But I am not proud of gamer culture. And if I was a UoC student, I certainly wouldn’t be proud of my university either.
2014 Sexual Politics Now Intern
1 Beck, V. S., Boys, S., Rose, C., & Beck, E. (2012). Violence Against Women in Video Games: A Prequel or Sequel to Rape Myth Acceptance? Journal of Interpersonal Violence, 27(15), 3016–3031. doi:10.1177/0886260512441078