There's a lot of debate going around the interwebs regarding a comment made during the on-stage demo of Killer Instinct during the Microsoft E3 2013 media briefing. As part of a bit where a female community manager was supposed to be revealed as a secretly awesome gamer, the male producer of the game trash talked during a combo, saying “just let it happen, it'll be over soon” followed by a reference to a “fight stick”.
The comment was widely interpreted as an unintentional rape joke. Emphasis on “unintentional”. Microsoft has since issued an apology, admitting the statement was offensive. Still, some people, including some people I know, don't see why the comments were a problem.
There's been some great stuff written about why it was bad. I've discovered, however, that articles about rape culture and rape triggers can be academically sound, and yet completely unhelpful to the average person attempting to understand this issue. The problem with talking about rape culture is that we are all influenced by rape culture. Since we are influenced by rape culture, we have trouble understanding rape culture. It's like trying to see air.
Furthermore, this particular situation is complicated by the fact that the problem wasn't the concept of the joke. It was the execution. The two people performing the Killer Instinct skit were not charismatic enough to sell it, and the build up was not done cartoonishly enough to make it clear that they didn't condone guys being jerks to women. As a comedy writer, I hurt for these poor folks, because they clearly had the best of intentions. They also, clearly, had no idea what they were doing on many levels. Everyone who attempts comedy eventually writes a joke that bombs. This joke bombed like the back story to Fallout.
For this reason, I was going to leave this topic alone. I also thought that it wasn't worth the potential online abuse, because I'm unlikely to change anyone's mind. I subsequently realized that these were really bad reasons to not get involved, resulting from my own rape-culture-induced symptoms. As much as anyone, I suffer from gamer rape flu. I often don't see how horrific gamer trash talk is, because I'm contextualizing it as “gamers will be gamey”. I need to be more aware of that. That starts now. So, here we go.
For the record, I don't believe for a second that the producer from Rare Inc is a rapist, a would-be rapist, or anything but a super nice guy. He's become a scapegoat for problems with the entire industry, and in many ways, the entire world. Rape culture is about the normalization of rape, and that poor schmo unintentionally proved how frequently we dash off rape metaphors without even realizing it. The significance of the comment is that it's a cultural idiom that represents greater trends. This means that the speaker must be assumed to be an overall good person for us to talk about this in a cultural context.
There's been a growing irritation with a lack of inclusiveness on the X-Bro 360, as some of us have taken to calling the console in our more bitter moments. Trash talk is part of dude bro social norms. No one claims trash talk is polite. We just haven't given enough thought as to why it's rude. Geek media is full of threats of non-consensual sex, sexualized violence, unrealistic physical representations of women, crass moralizing over female sexuality, and an immature relationship with female body parts... but enough about Joss Whedon's body of work.
What's required here is to meaningfully and unemotionally delve into this grey area where catharsis and victimization overlap. Delving into these issues unemotionally requires training, something many in the video game media lack. So we get a bunch of passionate personal reactions and reports on those personal reactions, but we get no context. For instance, a lot of you are probably mad at me for criticizing Joss Whedon, despite everything I said being true.
Most successful game reviewers are white, heterosexual, cisgendered men, and many of the most influential writers are US residents. This impacts the perspective of the entire industry, because the media response to a given product is heavily skewed. That doesn't mean this perspective is bad or invalid. We just need more diversity, because diversity is good for business. A lack of diversity is why many people are confused by this rape joke controversy. Thus far, we've all been speaking from within a very narrow paradigm. This situation woke me up to how far down the rabbit hole we've gone.
To maintain the status quo, our patriarchal culture relies on myths which masquerade as so-called common sense. These myths include the idea that women are inherently more emotional than men, that women naturally understand relationships better, that women aren't funny, and that rape is, predominantly, a female problem. Despite real life news stories telling us that rapes of young men occur in everything from religious organizations to team sports, in mass-consumed fiction, sexual assault is used as the ultimate threat to female characters, but it's completely off limits for males... well, outside of teabagging. To borrow a line quoted to me by a game developer, originally said by someone in marketing, “nothing penetrates our characters but a bullet”. It's the penis thing.
It's an incontrovertible fact of life that men have penises and women don't. Men and women have different social expectations and different social training, because we all fear the mighty penis. Penis ownership is a preferred state of being, which is why men get called douchebags more often than women: a douchebag was originally the name for something used to clean out a woman's vagina, so it's more insulting to men. Men are encouraged to partake of the vag, but not become the vag.
There was also a time when “gay” meant happy, and “bosom” could be used in public without inducing snickering. Language evolves, so I fully believe that there were people who didn't know that “just let it happen, it'll be over soon” does allude to rape. Many women, however, hear that gamer trash talk phrase in their nightmares. Who's right? It doesn't matter. What matters is the impact.
Most women are subliminally trained, from a fairly young age, to fear rape. We are taught to do things to allegedly protect ourselves from rape and a litany of other stigmatizing sexual situations, which creates an intense sense of failure and fault when a rape does occur. Wear a short skirt? You might get raped. Dance seductively with a guy? You might get raped. Spend any time alone around the opposite sex? You might get raped. The reality is that rape has nothing to do with any of this stuff, but too many people, men and women alike, still believe it does, so the victims get blamed.
The way we dress and carry ourselves, the places we go and the times we feel safe going to them, are all connected to how strongly we have been programmed to fear some sort of shadowy abductor, even though the vast majority of assaults come at the hands of someone we know. The idea that a man, regardless of size or stature, must venture into situations deemed too scary or dangerous for women is rape culture at work. It's more okay for a dude to risk getting beat up, because at least he won't get raped. We've accepted the pervasive threats of rape against women to be the status quo. This is the normalization of rape which is the definition of rape culture.
And that's just touching on the fear of rape, not the ordeal of those who actually had to “just let it happen” and hope it was “over soon”. A thoughtless comment in a public setting, followed by laughter, can be a traumatic trigger to a rape survivor. In a media briefing as large as the one for Xbox at E3, there's an extremely high likelihood that someone in attendance has been raped in the past. Forcing those people to suffer through such an obvious trauma trigger at a press conference they're attending for work purposes is unconscionable. It's not the thousand people that aren't bothered that are relevant here. It's the one person who has a panic attack from something that should have been completely avoidable.
This was a point even I didn't consider at first, because I'm so used to people saying ignorant nonsense the minute they get a controller in their hands. That congested thinking is why I call it gamer rape flu.
The reason that gamer rape flu is so contagious is that games are a place to escape all the politically correct crap we have to muddle through on a daily basis. People can't watch every word they say every moment of the day, and people need opportunities to blow off steam. Gaming is about leaving your baggage behind. Part of the reason I enjoy games is that when I'm playing as Marcus Fenix or Kratos, I'm a scarred up meat monster of death and no one cares what my hair looks like or what shoes I'm wearing. I get to cast off the baggage that comes with being a woman. The minute some guy starts talking to me in a way that reminds me of my gender, all that baggage comes back, which ruins that escapist portion of the experience of playing games. Why don't I complain about the constant penis references ruining my fun? Because it's part of the culture.
Instead of speaking up, I've found myself playing fewer and fewer multiplayer games, and even commenting on forums less, because in a single player experience, no one can deny me my blissful relief from all the crap that comes with being a woman. Does this being being a man isn't difficult? No, that's not what I'm saying. Being a dude sucks in completely unique ways, one of which is complete and utter confusion regarding why women are so frequently pissed off.
So if you're just so frustrated by the fact that you're an awkward nerd, so girls look at you like a potential rapist – because to them, you are, you mouth-breathing, unkempt freak -- fire rape metaphors at your totally straight buddy in the privacy of your own home, where no one is going to be upset by your constant references to your junk. Personally, I think that trash talk is just an extension of a person's own insecurities: you say words in a safe environment so they're less scary.
But when you're gaming with strangers, common sense should apply. The thing is, Xbox Live culture has altered common sense in that environment. Stuff that used to only be said around friends is now everywhere on the service. It's normalized. What's private? What's public? It's hard to remember when you're in your living room, and the only connection to the people you're gaming with is a headset microphone.
I won't deny that I myself have a potty mouth when I game. I'm actually not as good at video games around kids, because I can't swear around little ears. Those of you who saw the Canadian version of my old TV show know the filth I'm capable of spewing, some of which was deemed too vulgar for sensitive American ears. But would I assume permission to speak freely in a full auditorium while everyone is watching me? No. Because any good comedienne knows when to do a clean show.