Violence Against Video Game Characters

With the news that GTA V has been pulled from Target and Walmart in Australia because of how violence against female sex workers is portrayed, I’ve been hearing a very familiar cry on Twitter and in comment sections. “What about men?!” “Why is it okay to kill hundreds of men but as soon as you add a woman it’s a problem?”

First of all, people have complained about violence in video games in general. Many, many, many, times. Protests have been launched, petitions have been written. While Canada doesn’t tend to ban games, a number of games have been banned or refused classification in Australia because of violence. The majority of those were banned for general graphic violence, not specifically violence against women (50 Cent Bulletproof, Dark Sector, The Getaway, Manhunt, Postal 1/2, Reservoir Dogs, Soldier of Fortune). Australia has also banned games due to sexual content or depictions of drug use.

But let’s ignore the above and pretend that only games with violence against women are subject to criticism and bans. Why would this be?

In the latest Call of Duty, you’re at war and you mow down hundreds of enemy forces. It’s hard to tell for sure with full body armor on, but they’re most likely all men.

Tomb Raider - Lara killing a man who is on fire

In the reboot of the Tomb Raider series, Lara goes around an island killing hundreds of men. Only men. There are no women. If you paid attention to the game you’d know that there are no women on the island because they’ve all already been killed (by the men). But again, ignore that, not relevant to how terribly video games treat dudes.

In Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (excuse the somewhat dated reference, but it’s the only GTA I’ve played all the way through), Tommy murders hundreds, maybe thousands of people, mostly men, in his quest to become the crime boss of the city. Running over pedestrians (of either sex) and beating up hookers (always female) is not a requirement to taking over the city, but sometimes he enjoys doing it in his free time.

These poor men have it tough in video games. They’re always getting tortured, shot, run over, killed. Why is this okay, but as soon as you murder a woman in a video game, people start crying foul?

Take your average military shooter. You’re likely playing as a male, and you’re most likely shooting other men. If you’re not also shooting women, it’s because there aren’t any in the game. This makes me question why there aren’t any women. I can’t speak for everyone, but I’d have no problem with seeing women on the battlefield (maybe I could even play as one in the campaign sometimes?) and having to mow them down along with the men. Equal opportunity senseless killing, that’s all I ask.

In Tomb Raider, the reason Lara kills hundreds of men is because they’re trying to kill her. They’ve kidnapped her friends and if Lara doesn’t kill them, her and her friends will all die. This is how action games work – the player kills aggressors who are trying to kill them.

In GTA and other open world games, you can generally kill anyone you want. However the aggressors in the game, the ones you have to kill, do tend to be males. Would people be upset if the aggressors were females instead? I certainly wouldn’t. I was pleasantly surprised when I played Saint’s Row: The Third and found that the members of my rival gangs were made of both men and women. Women can be bad guys too. It’s okay. Even better, female antagonists can be created that are actual characters with motivations beyond ‘shoot the player’. Rival gang leaders, mercenaries, corrupt law enforcement officers – put a female in one of these roles and I have no problem with having to kill them to progress in the game. The joy I get from having women in these games outside of strip clubs and street corners greatly outweighs any other issues I’d have.

GTA V - sex workers on the corner

The problem with the portrayal of violence against women, and sex workers in particular, in video games is that these characters, scratch that they aren’t characters and that’s part of the problem. These women are not your enemy. They don’t stand in your way to progress, they are no threat to you. They exist, wear skimpy clothing, and flirt to stimulate the player. That’s their purpose. They don’t impact the story. The player has the option to use them and then kill them. They aren’t necessarily rewarded for this behavior, but they probably aren’t punished either. If in Tomb Raider Lara stumbled upon a man on the beach who was offering pony rides and shot him in the face then I’d have a problem. I’d question why the developers put this scenario in the game. Likewise, I’d have an issue if the next GTA portrayed male sex workers who were completely unrelated to the story that a player could use and then kill.

I’m not a proponent of censorship. While Australia banning video games constitutes actual censorship, retail chains in Australia choosing to pull GTAV off their shelves is not. They can choose to sell or not sell whatever they like. What I am an advocate of is developers and consumers being critical of the media they produce and consume. When female sex workers are added to a game to be ogled, groped, or fucked then thrown away, what is it adding to the game? Is it taking away more than it adds? Is it more trouble than it’s worth just to make your game seem gritty?

Many video games are violent, and that’s not ever going to change. While the gender of the people you shoot or fight in games shouldn’t be an issue, it is because males tend to be the aggressors where it’s a matter of kill or be killed, while females are generally not a threat to the player. They get killed to move the story or a quest forward, give a male character a reason to seek revenge, or just because the player feels like killing them. While a couple of the examples aren’t perfect, if you haven’t watched them yet I’d recommend Anita Sarkeesian’s videos on Women as Background directions (part 1, part 2), as they really show how prevalent this issue is in games, especially in AAA titles.

7 responses to “Violence Against Video Game Characters

  1. I found it funny in one conversation about this in which my friend commented, “Well, imagine the lesson it teaches kids playing it – it’s okay to kill women! That’s terrible!” There was no mention that it’s terrible to kill pedestrians as well. Don’t know about you, but I feel that’s a terrible message as well. Those little maniacs are going to end up behind the wheel of a real car some day, and I’m not sure how nimble I’ll be with my walker.

    The key here seems to be victimization. I don’t think anyone cares what the gender is of a Boss or other adversary. They aren’t victims. You’re not being a bully, here, you’re defending yourself – with lethal force. Like you, there are times I can’t tell the gender of my adversary, and that’s fine. It could be a block of wood toting a machine gun, I’ll kill the hell outta it.

    Stretch your apt example a bit and we could ask the question, “if all the prostitutes were male, would that be okay?” Of course not. They’re still victims and the player is still being a bully.

    This is simply a matter of fairness, and I’m glad some people have the gumption to stand up for what’s right on this. Someone wants to be a thug, they can go out on the actual street and make it real, with all the consequences. They wanna be a thug in a video game (which is kinda pathetic), they’ll have to move to the US.
    Grimmtooth recently posted..The new new

    • I think you nailed it with the key being victimization. Is this man or woman I’m shooting an opponent or a victim? It’s not that men in video games are never victims, but they make up the majority of opponents. Women on the other hand, tend to be victims often and opponents only sometimes.

  2. I agree that Grimmtooth has nailed it with the victimisation thing.

    In Bioshock, some of the mobs were men, some women. They were all actively trying to kill you, though, so there was no thought of treating them any differently. Same in TSW, the zombies and Filth-infected humans are both men and women, and neither type is worthy of special treatment – most of the time you don’t even register it until they speak or moan or whatever. The main storyline includes a woman who has been portrayed as being probably corrupted by the quest for power; I fully expect her to become a boss fight later on, and there will be no question that it will be appropriate to kill her.

    I kind of hope that Anita does a full video in her series about the differences in the presentation of violence against (most) women and the violence against (most) men in games, and how it is all about the power differential. Maybe that will help the detractors to understand why these issues need to be addressed.
    Dahakha recently posted..Steam Challenge – Knytt Underground

    • I can already hear the cries of “cherry picking!” if Anita were to make a video like that. I really hate that that term – like it’s not completely normal for people to choose relevant examples when they want to make a point. That does sound like a good idea though whether for videos or for blog posts. I’ll certainly be paying more attention to the violence vs. men and women in games that I play.

  3. What is even more surprising in GTA5 is that the city is devoid of children. Weird seeing an entire city without kids. Kills immersion, right?

    They remove them for a reason, of course.

    I don’t have a problem taking my 9 year old to a lot of PG-13 movies (most superhero movies, Iron Man, Avengers, etc. are rated this). The violence in those movies there are clearly “good” people and “bad” people. The fighting is good trying to stop bad. He gets that it is all make believe, but as a parent I am comfortable with being able to explain the fighting that way. He also gets it.

    He wanted to see Hunger Games but I wouldn’t let him because even in that world the violence is far more complicated. Kids killing kids… just because? (dystopian futuristic sci-fi is much harder to explain..)

    So yeah, I get why there is an issue when it comes to victimization. Which is why I also have a problem with that new shooter coming out (Hate) where the entire point is to go on a societal rampage.
    Isey recently posted..Dipping the Toe Back In

    • Very good points.

      It’s strange that developers can be very aware of some issues and oblivious, or maybe just uncaring about others. Many people would have a problem with having the ability to run over or go around killing children so most games, even open world ones, do not give the player that option. GTA has no children. Fallout has invincible children. The developers purposely chose to avoid upsetting people or causing controversy with this. But when it comes to the ability to commit senseless violence against sex workers, an issue which has been raised after the release of every GTA installment that I can remember, they just don’t seem to care. This is not a core gameplay mechanic, it doesn’t do anything to make the game better, or drive the game forward. But they just keep putting it in and making the violent depictions more and more realistic.

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