The world of video games has got its knickers in a twist over Lara Croft again. Gaming website Kotaku published statements from Crystal Dynamics (the latest Tomb Raider installment) executive producer Ron Rosenberg saying that gamers want to protect Lara and that at one point, scavengers attempt to rape her.
Articles appeared all over gaming and mainstream media. There's outrage that people may not identify with Lara. There's outrage that Lara might need protection. There's outrage at the suggestion of rape in a scene. And there's outrage at all the outrage about something that doesn't matter anyway because it's just a game.
First seen in the original Tomb Raider game in 1996, Lara Croft was a lone adventurer. Throughout the series she defends herself against aggressors and wildlife with pistols, magnums, Uzis, machine guns, rocket launchers and pretty much any handheld weapon you can think of. As well as being a sexual fantasy for men, her independence has always made her a role model and rare power fantasy for women.
What people don't like is the idea that Lara needs to be cossetted. She was a power fantasy. She was strong.
Let's start with the people objecting to the article.
1. People don't identify with Lara
On being asked by Kotaku about the difficulty of developing a female protagonist, Rosenberg said "When people play Lara, they don't really project themselves into the character. They're more like 'I want to protect her.'"
A lot of women felt that he was excluding the female fanbase by not counting them as people who play Lara. Others dislike the implication that men can't identify with a female character. Rosenberg probably should have said "many people".
2. Lara doesn't need protecting
The new Tomb Raider will be an origin story telling how she became the kick-ass woman that we know and love. To do that, she needs to be less powerful than she has been in the past. It's fine for characters to be vulnerable. It's great for characters to develop through an arc in games.
What people don't like is the idea that Lara needs to be cossetted. She was a power fantasy. She was strong. Playing her made gamers feel powerful and strong. Entertainment is full of Damsels in Distress. There's no need to have Lara cowering in corners, waiting for some big, strong player to come save her.
3. Lara doesn't need to be raped.
Sometimes it feels like whenever writers want to show a woman in peril, they reach for rape. Man in peril? Attacked by wolves, attacked by other men, environmental hazards, whatever. Woman? Rape.
Apparently being tied up and threatened with murder isn't motivation enough.
Admittedly, Lara goes through all the other stuff as well and that's what makes the evocation of rape here even more distasteful. She can't just find her strength through the natural dangers on a tropical island. As Sarah Ditum said in a live chat on video games website VG247, using rape as a reason to find inner strength implies "She's been raped into being AWESOME!"
For many raped women, rape is one of the most horrific things they will ever experience. In Mass Effect 2, Jack's casual mention that she was raped serves to emphasise just how terrible her childhood was. In Tomb Raider, it's just a way to let Lara kill someone. Apparently being tied up and threatened with murder isn't motivation enough.
The need for sexual assault over simple assault for female characters is just tiresome. Women are more than just their vaginas. Stop obsessing over them.
Presenting the counter arguments:
4. There's no rape
Both commenters and Crystal Dynamics have pointed out that there is no rape in the game. The scavenger threatens Lara in a sexual manner before she knees him in the groin. A struggles ensues and if the player is successful, he is shot dead.
Nobody stuck their dick into anybody. That means everything is totally okay. Have a cookie.
Counter-counter-argument: No, there isn't a rape. But there is a man who shoves Lara against a burning hut, gropes her arm, slides his hand against her body and leans in to rub his face against her neck.
What do people think he was going to do, sniff her hair a bit before cutting the ropes that bind her wrists and letting her go free? Perhaps he wasn't going to rape her at all, just a bit of plain old sexual assault.
Well done, you. Nobody stuck their dick into anybody. That means everything is totally okay. Have a cookie.
5. The assault actually empowers Lara
People argue that the scene is good in that it empowers Lara and teaches her how to kill people who threaten her. It's apparently the first time she kills a man after all, and she needs sufficient motivation.
Counter-counter-argument: Nobody is claiming that Lara is disempowered by this particular moment. Seeing Lara learn how to kill people is a good thing (for a rather distorted value of "good").
The objection is to the use of rape/attempted rape/sexual assault as a transformative device
The objection is to the use of rape/attempted rape/sexual assault as a transformative device. Here's how casual treatment of rape in media hurts your game by hurting people.
You could even argue that claiming Lara's fighting response as empowerment contributes to a culture of victim-blaming toward the women who involuntarily freeze during rape. It happens.
6. Portraying rape is fine in other media
Rape, rape attempts and sexual assault are commonly portrayed in films, books, TV. People argue that games shouldn't be the exception.
Counter-counter-argument: Absolutely, games shouldn't be the exception. But rape really isn't portrayed well in other media either. See point 3 above.
Some argue that Press X To Not Get Raped makes it even more distasteful than the non-interactive rape attempts commonly seen elsewhere. Others argue that commonly seeing rape desensitizes people to the nature of the crime.
We all experience death in some form or another, so we understand the implications of real murder despite its common portrayal. We all understand pain, so we empathise with real violence. Most of us are fortunate enough to not experience the consequences of real sexual assault.
All men devolve to rapists without the company of women? Are you sure this is the argument you want to make?
7. Of course the men are going to try and rape her. They're bad people.
Some have argued that because the scavengers are bad, it's to be expected that they will try to rape women. They've been on an island without women for some time and men have needs.
Counter-counter-argument: All men devolve to rapists without the company of women? Are you sure this is the argument you want to make?
Putting aside the implication that women bear the responsibility for men's behaviour, this is just gross.
Perhaps you're saying that because the men are bad, they will automatically be rapists. This is just poor storytelling. Good storytelling in a "gritty and realistic" tale would give actual, believeable motivations to the enemy.
8. This is why we can't have nice things
Games need to mature as a medium but this can't happen if there's an outcry every time someone tries to tackle a difficult subject.
Counter-counter argument: There are plenty of ways to mature in storytelling without jumping straight to controversial subjects. One of them includes developing a character arc for a woman that doesn't refer to her ladyparts.
Things won't improve if nobody sees their flaws. It's entirely up to developers to decide if they will accept criticism and make improvements where necessary or if they would rather shy away into safer territory.
It's also entirely up to developers to decide the threshold for "necessary".
There are plenty of ways to mature in storytelling without jumping straight to controversial subjects.
9. But it's just a game
Games are entertainment. Some say that writers should stop trying to push an agenda where it doesn't belong.
Counter-counter argument: Games should be open to sociological critique, just like books, films, music and other arts.
Crystal Dynamics have since responded to the outcry saying " One of the character defining moments for Lara in the game, which has incorrectly been referred to as an ‘attempted rape’ scene is the content we showed at this year’s E3 and which over a million people have now seen in our recent trailer entitled 'Crossroads'.
"This is where Lara is forced to kill another human for the first time. In this particular section, while there is a threatening undertone in the sequence and surrounding drama, it never goes any further than the scenes that we have already shown publicly. Sexual assault of any kind is categorically not a theme that we cover in this game."
In other words, they're not supporting the statements of their own Executive Producer and not exploring the theme of sexual assault in any way. How mature of them.
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