[This piece of writing appears in the most recent edition of Voiceworks. I wrote it a few months before this Feminist Frequency video came out, which covers a bunch of the same things. Apologies for the mega-long post, but I think it’s important.]
You stride purposefully down the vaulted stone corridors of Poseidon’s castle. Your muscles ripple impressively in the torchlight. You have fought all manner of demons and gods up to this point, and none have proven a match to your legendary strength. You are Kratos, and you will have your revenge.
But all of a sudden, you are stymied! An iron gate blocks your path, and although there is a crank-wheel that opens it, when you let go of the wheel to run through the gate – fiendish thing! – the gate clangs shut again. You pause. It seems that you must find something to hold the wheel. At this moment, you hear a woman cry for help.
You maraud violently in the direction of the sound, and swiftly come across a frightened, topless woman, chained up in what appears to be a plush sex-room. She is plainly terrified of you. Ignoring her pleas to be left in peace, you shove her out into the corridor. On the way back to the gate, she curls into a ball, paralysed with fear, so you have to haul her up and shove her roughly forward. This happens several times.
Again, you crank the wheel until the gate opens open. Over the woman’s sobbing pleas (“Lord Kratos, do not leave me!”), you chain her wrists to the wheel. Her breasts jiggle as she sobs and struggles against the chain, but she cannot escape. This time as you run off towards the gate, there is a blood-curdling scream and crunch, and the gate now only closes half-way. Success! You found something to hold the wheel.
This is a real sequence from God of War 3. The game makes you perform every step of it, giving you onscreen prompts if you’re ever confused about what to do.
There is no other solution to the puzzle. You cannot progress in the game until you murder this terrified, vulnerable, half-naked woman. The only optional part is whether you choose to double back to the room afterwards, if you’re curious to see the pool of blood and dismembered body parts where the woman used to be.
There’s a lot to say about this sequence. You could talk about how it represents a chilling subversion of the Damsel in Distress trope, having you ‘save the princess’ only to murder her soon afterwards. You could talk about how it could almost be read as a sickening joke on ‘objectification’: using a woman as a doorstop. You could talk about how a perfectly wheel-appropriate firepot sits there, unusable, the entire time.
When I say there’s a real problem here, I want to be clear what I’m talking about. I’m not saying that every male gamer is a misogynist asshole who gets his rocks off from seeing women hurt and killed in sexualised ways. I’m not out to demonise gamers; I’m a lifelong nerd and gamer myself. This criticism is coming from within, not without. It’s not an extravagant claim to observe that there’s something toxic about the way women are treated in videogames and around them. Take that God of War sequence – here’s a sample of the kind of comments that can be found under a YouTube recording of it:
- “THAT WAS FUNNY”
- “best use for a woman”
Since Anita Sarkeesian began her (excellent) YouTube series exploring the issue, Tropes Vs Women in Video Games, there’s been more conversation than usual about the treatment of women in videogames. In more ways than one, that series has not reflected well on the videogames community. Even beyond the ways Sarkeesian has pointed out that women are routinely sidelined and objectified in nearly all types of videogames, the response to her project has been a masterclass in misogynistic territorialism: she’s been sent death- and rape-threats, her website has been DDOSed, and one particularly classy fellow made a flash game where you punch a picture of her face until it bleeds. Not the gaming community’s proudest moment, to say the least.
But it’s an important issue, and I’m glad that someone like Sarkeesian is tackling it. I’m no stranger to videogame violence, but that sequence from God of War 3 crossed a real line in my mind. Videogame violence normally comes against an armed and armoured enemy, who you have some in-game reason (however paper-thin) to reign your destruction upon. The woman you murder in that sequence, on the other hand, is unarmed, innocent, and highly sexualised. The developers carefully coded her so that her breasts would jiggle as you wrench her around by her chain. We live in a world women are more likely to be assaulted or murdered by an intimate partner than any other kind of person. If the game is trying to give male gamers a boner at the same time as it’s making them murder a women, that’s a problem.
Videogame critics didn’t see the same issues. I looked at all one hundred videogame reviews that collated into God of War 3’s Metacritic score (92/100: one of the twenty highest ever for the PlayStation 3), searching for any criticism of the way women were being presented. Of those one hundred, only two mentioned the treatment of women, and even then only barely. Gamecritics.com's review criticised it on the grounds that it contributed to the perception of videogames as masturbatory teenage fantasies, and The Telegraph's review, after mentioning the gate-crushing incident as part of a critique of Kratos' unlikeability as a protagonist, immediately followed that up with, “Worse than that, the platforming in the game is seriously rubbish at times”.
Every single other review failed to mention it. No other reviewer deemed it relevant to the consumer that the game demands that you mulch a screaming and highly sexualised woman beneath a wheel. God of War 3 is not some weird outlier; it sold over five million units, and even won a BAFTA for Artistic Achievement. If the YouTube comments are taken to be remotely representative, the one complaint gamers chose to express about this sequence concerned the disappointing lack of interactive rape before the murder.
There are a lot of ‘rebuttal’ videos that have sprung up on YouTube seeking to debunk Anita Sarkeesian’s arguments. From one of these videos, “‘Feminism VS Facts (Anita Sarkeesian DESTROYED!)” – they all have titles like that; I’m not gonna link to it – you can get a good sense of the response of many male gamers to Sarkeesian’s project. The video’s creator, Thunderf00t, denies that there’s any correlation between videogames and real-world thinking or behaviour. When confronted with a 2012 study that found that males playing videogames that depicted sexualised violence “significantly increased” their willingness to believe rape myths (‘rape myths’ being things like “women tend to exaggerate how much rape affects them”), his primary response is that any study that uses the term “rape myths” is clearly not objective, so the study is irrelevant and Anita Sarkeesian is a liar.
But isn’t the point that videogames can influence our thinking made? Thunderf00t argues that because billions of people are killed in videogames each year without those numbers being reflected on a 1:1 ratio in real-world homicide rates, the statistics are on his side. But when people like Anita Sarkeesian talk about the effects of videogames on our thinking, they’re not talking about some kind of simplistic, 1:1, ‘monkey see, monkey do’ mimesis. They’re talking about quiet, long-term enculturation that manifests in more subtle ways (the acceptance of rape myths being one example), and the crossing of associative wires in our minds that we shouldn’t want crossed. Sex and murder, for instance.
For most of us, it is a fact of our lives that ‘media’, broadly speaking, is the primary way we learn about the world, and it forms and frames our subconscious schemas far more pervasively than we tend to give it credit for. Entertainment matters. Demanding that the creators of our entertainment do so responsibly and with a social conscience isn’t censorship; it’s active consumership.
When we play a game like Grand Theft Auto V, most of us are absolutely switched-on enough to know that mass rocket-launcher rampages are Not Okay, and that doing so within the game is a moral breach allowed only within the magic circle of the fictive experience. (If we didn’t, every major metropolitan centre in the world would have been a smoking crater the week after it came out.) That’s fine; that part’s mostly conscious. But are we switched-on enough to also think that way about something subtler? Say, the casual way the white characters continually mock the black character’s accent? Or the way that one of the game’s only female characters who doesn’t exist in the narrative purely to be leered at (the lawyer Molly Shultz) ends up eviscerated in a jet turbine? Or the way that when you receive a lapdance at a strip club, you are encouraged to try and grope the sex worker without being seen by the bouncers, and if you do this successfully enough – i.e. if you sexually assault her at work enough – she’ll go home and have sex with you? Or do these things just wash right over us, their passage eased by repetition and our empathy dulled by the assault?
These patterns and tropes slip into our minds unnoticed, subtly shifting our framing of what is normal. It can be uncomfortable to acknowledge this kind of connection (especially because of the history of puritanical “Won’t someone please think of the children??!”-type censorship campaigns), but censorship isn’t the goal here. The goal is improving representation. It should be obvious that continually consuming media that overwhelmingly portrays women as helpless, stupid and incidental can’t help but nudge us towards those same prejudices. Videogame developers didn’t invent that mindset, but they’re actively profiting off it. When that mindset is plaguing the world and murdering women, that’s a problem.
So who actually are these guys who think this sequence is hilarious?
Whoever they are, they’re the ones who relentlessly threaten, mock, and sexually proposition women gamers who don’t hide their gender online (instances of which are exhaustively catalogued at sites fatuglyorslutty.com and notinthekitchenanymore.com).
They’re the ones who started a Change.org petition to fire a woman Gamespot.com reviewer who dared to criticise the misogyny in GTA V.
They’re the ones who keep making YouTube videos with titles like “Effectively killing prostitutes in Grand Theft Auto V” and “GTA IV prostitutes: how do you kill yours?” There’s a lot of these videos, and their structure is almost ritualistically identical. The sex is shown, to the maximum extent the camera angles will allow. After the sex worker has been paid and she’s walking away, the player-character chases after her, and shoots or beats her to death. Most of the time, the player-character keeps on shooting bullets into her body long after she is dead. He is rewarded by getting his money back.
They’re not all gamers, but they sure do seem at home in our culture.
In my own life, I’ve seen plenty of nerdy gamer guys become awesome adults with healthy relationships with women. I’ve also seen some burrow deeper and deeper into misogynistic entitlement, making themselves deeply miserable and the lives of the women in their life much worse. As I’ve observed it, the trajectory generally runs something like this:
A thirteen-year-old boy who’s interested in esoteric things is, understandably, nervous about talking to girls. The more he struggles, the more tempted he is to see that difficulty as their fault for being ‘impossible to talk to’. He sees girls suspiciously, from a distance, and comes to fear them as the mysterious arbiters of his masculinity. He wishes he could just know the cheat codes for obtaining sexual attention from girls – runmod/deploy:module055/sexandaffection.exe – because real girls seem to be so much more work than the empty, pliable, sexist fantasies he encounters in his favourite media.
As he gets older, he begins to feel cheated. He remains lonely and isolated and masturbating to airbrushed contortionists, so why are all these other idiot guys getting girlfriends? He already saw women as a prize – something to be ‘got’ – but now he begins to also see them as an opponent: something to be tricked, tamed and conquered. He reads some pick-up artist websites, and they exploit his insecurities by teaching him how to better exploit women’s.
Then, if nothing changes, his fear blooms into full-blown contempt. He begins to feel that the only reason women could possibly be overlooking him is out of stupidity or spite. He increasingly seeks out pornography in which women are tricked, humiliated and hurt. He finds internet communities of like-minded guys who nurture his hatred and feeling of victimisation. He laughs long and loud at rape jokes, because deep down he thinks that’s what all men want, and what all women deserve.
That’s how you get to a point where using a woman’s corpse as a doorstop seems like a reasonable thing to put in a goddamn videogame. That’s how you get to an industry devoted to criticising videogames finding in such a thing nothing worth criticising. That’s how you get to the world we live in right now.
It’s important to note that at every point in that continuum, that God of War 3 sequence is able to be enjoyed.
At the earliest stages, the lonely thirteen-year-old gets a kick out of it for pretty simple reasons: (a) boobs, and (b) the shock of such an ‘edgy’, ‘adult’ conclusion. He didn’t suspect what would happen when he brought the woman back to the wheel, and his reaction is basically: “Woah, Kratos is insane! This game’s amazing!”
At the next stage up, the entitled and resentful teenager still enjoys the sequence because of the boobs, but there is now an added sprinkling of smugness with which he witnesses the punishment. “Stupid bitch,” he thinks to himself.
At the final stage, the boobs no longer even matter that much to the man, except insofar as their visibility is tied to a woman’s humiliation, which is what he actually finds arousing. What he enjoys about the sequence are the woman’s helplessness, her pleas for mercy, and the stone-faced lack of affect with which the murder is carried out. “Best use for a woman,” he thinks, without the faintest whiff of irony.
Not every gamer who was unperturbed by that God of War 3 sequence is the kind of openly misogynist troll who lives at the far end of this scale. Far from it – and honestly, that’s part of the problem. It’s not just openly misogynist trolls who perpetuate sexist inequalities, and it’s not just openly misogynist trolls who rape. Our culture has done such a thorough job demonising one tiny segment of rapists (the old ‘monster in the bushes with a knife’), it perversely ends up protecting real-life rapists, the majority of whom don’t fit that stereotype. We think, ‘He can’t have done that! He’s a normal guy!’
But the scary truth about sexual violence is that it is committed by normal guys, all the goddamn time, and our unwillingness to admit this is part of what keeps the epidemic humming along.
At a certain point, videogame developers can no longer claim that they are merely fulfilling demand. Just because videogames didn’t invent misogyny doesn’t mean that they should be exonerated for feeding it. Sequences like that one in God of War 3 offer interactive fantasies of sexual violence to young boys, at least some of whom are growing up to be angry, entitled, sexually violent men. This is a much larger problem than can be handwaved away as ‘aesthetic preference’ or ‘market diversity’. Sequences like this function as a “KEEP OUT” sign for girls and women interested in gaming, and stymie the development of young men: buttressing their prejudices, guiding their fantasies, and chipping away at their ability to relate to women genuinely. Any industry that won’t admit to its role in contributing to the marginalisation and oppression of women, while actively selling violently misogynist fantasies, is the worst kind of hypocrite. And anyone who plays God of War 3 and detects nothing amiss – nothing worth criticising beyond the gameplay, nothing worth fixing beyond the platforming – should probably think about what that means.
God of War 3 is just one example, but it exists in a larger context. That context is a war of attrition, taking place in the psyches of millions of young men every day, between seeing women as objects (prizes, obstacles, valueless spittoons) and knowing them as human beings. It’s a cultural and psychological battle for the rights and dignity of more than half the world, and we need to keep banging this drum. It’s not enough for ‘good guys’ to be passively non-misogynist in our own lives. We need to be actively critical of what we consume and contribute to, and the retrograde sexism of much of the videogame industry is as good a place to start as any.
It’s worth dwelling on this for a moment:
As a guy, it’s hard to talk publicly about sexualised violence against women in videogames without inspiring a litany of knee-jerk and self-serving arguments. As a woman, it’s hard to talk about without inspiring death- and rape-threats.