Rape Isn’t a Game

June 10, 2009

When I was teaching high school in California five years ago, we took about 90 students on a weekend retreat to address issues of diversity. One night the boys and girls were taken into two separate rooms and asked to list all the negative messages they had ever heard about the opposite sex. After a couple of hours, the students were brought together in the same room with the boys seated facing the girls.

I felt physically sick as I heard the nauseating and completely inappropriate messages the boys had joked about in their separate room. When it came time for the girls to discuss their feelings about the messages, the stories of sexual abuse began pouring out.

When I first proposed writing a blog to address the disturbing trend of rape simulation video games, I had no idea it would bring me back to that weekend, but, in reading the online comments about these video games, I could hear echoes of the jokes, the stories, and the pain from the retreat.

Many people (myself included) had never been exposed to rape simulation games even though one of the first offenders, RapeLay, created by the Japanese game design company Illusion Software, came out in 2006. It seems like most of the buzz, indignant or otherwise, didn’t really start until this past spring when a new game, Stockholm: An Exploration of True Love, “in which you must … abuse your kidnapped victim to get her to fall in love with you,” started to sell on Amazon. (This game has since been banned by Amazon.)

An article about the banning of this and other rape simulation games was posted to Digg a few days ago. I was shocked to find that, of the 306 comments, many of them were jokes about the game content or expressed disappointment over the ban. Okay, maybe the majority of the comments were tongue-in-cheek, but for some of us rape isn’t really that funny.

One commenter wrote “No means yes. Right?”

Are we still asking that question these days? (P.S. The commenter’s screen name was thefreak.)

This is exactly what I’m talking about. When those high school boys went into that separate room, they were joking and teasing about these trashy messages they’d heard for years. It was all fun and games until they were sitting in front of the girls, watching and listening to them respond to those same messages. Reading the reactions online, I saw this same gender divide in the conversations: while the men were joking around on gaming sites, the women were expressing disgust on women’s blogs.

In some comments I read, people were arguing that rape is no more violent than killing, so why is rape banned and not shooter games. The issue is that in our society we know that killing is wrong, and if you get caught, you will usually be punished for it. On the other hand, the consequences are not so clear and simple with rape. First of all, according to RAINN, 60 percent of all sexual assaults are never reported. Beyond that, if a victim does find the courage and support to report the assault, she is often discredited or the case mishandled. Rape simulation video games continue to blur that line, making sexual abuse a tool of entertainment.

If there is one message we can take from this mess, I would say it only further illustrates the point that women are needed in the gaming industry. The hope is that with more women in the industry, there would be a deeper understanding and sensitivity about the harm that can be done by games such as these. It would be like finally getting the boys and girls in the same room to dialogue and perhaps find a better use for advanced technology tools than simulating sexual violence.

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By:   |   June 10, 2009

14 Comments

  1. Julia says:

    How interesting and sad at the same time! It’s so unfortunate that rape jokes are still perceived as funny to people – how can people laugh at and, by purchasing these games, support violence against women?

    It’s important to recognize that this isn’t just a problem in this country – it’s a worldwide problem. And as bad as it is here, as unclear as the consequences of rape are here, they are so much worse elsewhere.

    Having more women in the gaming industry is great. A discussion about sensitivity between boys and girls is too. But, ultimately, I think we must empower women GLOBALLY to speak up. How can we expect a good discussion between men and women when women themselves are too afraid to speak? ’60 percent of all sexual assaults are never reported’ — that’s 60 percent too high.

  2. Holly Kearl says:

    Great post, Mandy!

    As a RAINN online hotline volunteer and as a street harassment activist (including focusing on the sexual assault of women in public spaces), I whole heartedly agree. There is too much blurring of rape (and violence in general) and entertainment. I abhor games and movies that contain violence for violence sake; there is enough of that in real life and it helps normalize and desensitize people to horrible crimes.

    I too wrote about RapeLay on my Stop Street Harassment blog, focusing on the rampant sexual harassment that occurs on public transportation:
    http://streetharassment.wordpress.com/2009/03/11/video-game-allows-subway-groping-worse/

    & I agree, we need more women designing games, but I also think it’s important to allow young women and men to have the tough conversations about sex, consent, force, and what’s okay and what’s not and why. In the conversation you mentioned in the opening of the blog – did the boys listen to the girls? Did they get it by the end? I wonder if schools could include such dialogue in their sex education programs?

  3. Valerie Connors says:

    I agree. Although women are the victims, we need to speak up and participate in our own rescue! The only way we can get men to take this issue more seriously is by forming a critical mass of women speaking up against domestic violence and rape to enact social and legislative change about how both are viewed and punished.

  4. Valerie Connors says:

    That’s a great point, Holly.

    What was the outcome of that girl/boy discussion?

  5. Mnemosyne says:

    While I agree that the idea of making a video game explicitly about rape may not be in good taste, I disagree with your implied solution (that violence in video games should be replaced with “female-friendly” gameplay). As a woman gamer, an undergraduate researcher on gender in video games, and as an advocate of free speech no matter what is being said, I would disagree with any sort of U.S. ban on RapeLay or industry-wide move toward less violence in video games.

    My reasoning includes, but is not limited to:

    * I would of course discourage people from taking light of a game about sexual violence (such as RapeLay), but an all-out ban would violate our call for free speech. It’s the same thing with hate-speech: most civilized people reject it, but fair is fair, and even someone (or something) we find disgusting should have the ability to speak out.

    * There is no–I repeat no–significant evidence that playing violent video games encourages violent acts. To suggest otherwise is to deny one’s use of good critical thinking: violent people are more likely to play violent video games; video games don’t create violent people. It’s an issue of correlation, not causation. Therefore, we have no evidence to suggest that playing a sexually violent video game will cause someone to become sexually violent toward a real person.

    And if you still aren’t convinced, I’d like you to keep in mind that most of the games U.S. Americans play are developed in Japan (and released there long before they are in the U.S. and the Europe/PAL region). Yet, Japan’s crime rates are significantly lower (to the nth degree) than crime rates here. This is evidence, if not proof, that the issue of violence in video games and real-life violence is one of correlation and not causation.

    Again, I want to make it clear that I’m sensitive to your noble goal: making sexual violence less prevalent in U.S. society. But I cannot, even as a woman, agree with your logic or your implied solution.

  6. Mandy says:

    Valerie,
    I agree with you about the importance of women speaking out. Last semester I took a class in which we created a cause marketing campaign against sexual assault on my college campus. As I delved more and more into the topic, I became convinced that reporting is one of the first stepping stones to addressing the issue of sexual assault on college campuses and beyond. The SAFER program has launched a project funded through an AAUW Community Action Grant that evaluates sexual asault policies on campuses nationwide. To learn more about the project visit http://www.safercampus.org/policies.html.

    Julia,
    Thanks for reminding us that this problem is not just here at home but also abroad. If you are interested in reading about AAUW fellow alumnae who have been working on the issues surrounding women’s rights internationally, I would recommend reading the profiles of Maria Herminia Graterol and Florence Adong. These can be accessed through the AAUW Blog at http://blog-aauw.org/category/fellowships-grants-and-awards/.

    Holly,
    The example you addressed on your blog of the Japanese Train Cafe is just one distressing example of Julia’s point about sexual assault on an international level. Thanks for the work you do through your site and the blog to raise awareness about street harassment!

    About the discussion between the boys and girls, I would like to think it was a very powerful and moving experience for everyone in the room, an experience made possible only through the creation of a trusting and safe environment where the students felt comfortable in speaking out. The one sign for me that the message might have hit home was that eventually even the boys on the other side began to open up about their experiences both as victims and perpetrators of sexual assault. The one thing I found really discouraging is that the morning after the majority of the girls who had brought up their experiences were not comfortable reporting what had happened to them.

  7. Thefremen says:

    Thing is, we haven’t even scratched the surface with Rapelay. Guro loli porn manga is much more disturbing. Especially the scribblekid stuff.

    Agree with author on some fronts, especially that there needs to be more education about how awful rape is and would add that people are suprisingly ignorant about how horrible torture is.

  8. Pia Guerrero says:

    I was married to a successful video game programmer. A leader in the industry proposed that the company he worked for make a game that included violence against women. He called a meeting with his team and they all agreed to not take the job. The company was still successful and continued to win awards and make cutting edge games.

    In my work with http://www.adiosbarbie.com I try to raise awareness around how media messages (in TV, film, online, in Ads, and in video games) have impact on how we not only view ourselves, but how others treat us.

    The military doesn’t use video games to simulate combat for nothing! Just like guns and porn, these games should be more strictly regulated.

  9. Katherine Broendel says:

    I think Mnemosyne has a very unique and informed viewpoint on this topic, and I agree that free speech is incredibly important to protect and preserve. Censorship is rarely a good thing. That being said, I believe the point of the original post was that these types of video games solidify society’s perceptions of sexual violence and the negative perceptions of women. This occurs because, to a certain extent, sexual violence becomes something to joke about.

    I see some interesting parallels with this post and these comments with some studies I reviewed regarding the effects pornography and violent pornography have on audiences. Generally speaking, viewing violent pornography tends to raise/create feelings of aggression toward women. In addition, studies have shown that audiences viewing violent pornography do become desensitized to sexual violence, which is something we should want to avoid at all costs since sexual violence is already such a pervasive social problem.

    While my Master’s capstone (thesis) focused on the framing of sexual violence in the media, I needed to look at the social perceptions of women, victims, and the violence itself. I have begun to blog about some of the literature and studies I reviewed for my research here:
    http://scienceblogs.com/framing-science/2009/06/effects_of_pornography_on_perc.php

    I believe that until people — and society in general — have the same reaction to rape as they have to taking a life, these video games should not become a part of everyday life.

  10. KG says:

    Great post!

    Mnemosyne: The author’s suggested solution to this problem (and games that simulate rape are, IMHO, a problem) was not to institute a ban. She suggested that increasing the number of women in the industry involved in game development would help create needed dialogue. More dialogue would likely result in an increased awareness of the fact that rape isn’t fun or funny. And I think she’s right.

    That said, if a private company like Amazon wants to stop selling a product that it deems offensive, it has the right to do so. This is not a First Amendment violation.

    I agree with Katherine that it’s great to hear from you. I would be interested in hearing more about your experience as a woman in the gaming industry. Have you encountered any direct or indirect discrimination?

  11. pamela kemigisha says:

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR BRINGING TO LIGHT THAT SOME VIDEO GAMES CONTAIN ILLICIT IMAGES. WHAT THE MIND SEES AND HEARS, THE MIND FINALLY IMPLEMENTS.
    WE SHOULD NOT TAKE THIS LIGHTLY, BUT WE SHOULD FIGHT IT BY ENACTING LAWS THAT FORBID MANUFACTURE OF PORNOGRAPHIC CONTENT OR ANY MANUFACTURE OF GAMES THAT CONOTE A FORM OF PORNOGRAPHY.

  12. Mandy says:

    Thanks to everyone who commented on this post. It was great to hear so many different voices and to see this serving as a place for thoughtful and informed discussion.

    One more insight to add…last week I sent this post to a guy friend, and he said he felt like this conversation wasn’t meant for him. To me that sentiment exemplifies one of my points. As I saw both on the student retreat and through online research for this story, when it comes to the subject of sexual assault there are two disparate, gender-divided conversations going on about this complex issue. Any thoughts about this?

  13. itrytobefair says:

    here’s this guy’s blog…
    http://stantonaudemars.blogspot.com/

  14. RapeLay is, of course, utterly repellent, but I hope the furor over this doesn’t translate into an attack on games that try to come to terms with rape in a more intelligent way. Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble! and The Path, for instance, incorporate moments (or implications) of sexual assault without creating a “simulator” or glorifying the assailant. DHSGiT has already had difficulty with a distributor for including a text-only description of an imminent (and ultimately unsuccessful) rape. Including sexual assault in games as a narrative element isn’t a problem any more than including it in a book or a movie is. In fact, I feel that games that tackle rape seriously can be a powerful tool for creating empathy and understanding, a way to address the problems your retreat uncovered. However, having the player participate as a rapist IS a problem, and is a great place for community pressure to do what the law can’t (as happened with Amazon’s delisting of RapeLay).

    You may be interested to read some coverage of this subject by games journalist (and hentai-game enthusiast) Leigh Alexander:
    http://sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com/2009/02/was-rapelay-asking-for-it.html
    http://sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com/2009/03/my-last-word-on-rapelay.html

    and on DHSGIT:
    http://sexyvideogameland.blogspot.com/2009/02/big-trouble-for-dangerous-high-school.html

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