Discussion: Tomb Raider, Video Games, and the Portrayal of Women Therein
As the risk of alienating what little readership this blog possesses, I am going to weigh in on the recent Internet outrage regarding the new Tomb Raider title and the larger issue of how the video game industry portrays women. This is by no means an exhaustive post, and despite my intense passion for the medium, finite time and funding limit my knowledge of current gaming trends rather severely. Still, I will attempt to engage in what is meant to be thoughtful dialogue, and anyone stopping by is welcome to chime in.
Chuck Wendig’s post on the Tomb Raider reboot prompted a brief foray through other thoughts on the subject of violence against women in gaming culture. As a life-long gamer, the absurd level of female objectivization found in many games is nothing new to me. I’ve played games by Team Ninja and Capcom; I’ve chuckled at the ludicrous “real-life breast physics” of Dead or Alive 3; I’ve felt manly and heroic for rescuing Princess Zelda from Ganondorf’s clutches; I’ve run over hookers in Grand Theft Auto. Somewhat ironically, I’ve never played a Tomb Raider title precisely because marketing for those titles convinced me that Lara Croft was scarcely more than a vapid action hero with plus-sized assets. As a general rule, I eschew what Tori and I refer to as bro titles–games which promise little content beyond satisfying the violent and/or sexual fantasies of a stereotypical adolescent male. This inclination (which existed prior to my relationship for the cynical among you) doesn’t put me in the best position to comment on the hyper-sexualization of women in games, past or present. I’ve never bothered with XBL or PSN, either, and my forays into organized raiding guilds have always been with (more or less) mature individuals. Thus, I have insulated myself from the prevalent women-bashing attitudes of more vociferous, interactive gamers. The dregs of the industry and I are unpleasant acquaintances, and I acknowledge their existence only with crusty looks whenever our paths cross.
In a way, this predisposition is a quiet admission that there has always been a large, rank streak of full-blown misogyny in the industry. I don’t publicly rage about it, but neither do I support it with my time or money. Given that the hobby was once the near-exclusive territory of shell-shocked social lepers, many of whom grew bitter at their rejections (warranted or not) by the female gender, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that this is one of the industry’s larger root clusters. Now that the target market has expanded to include all kinds of assholes,
developers big-ticket investors are realizing that there isn’t much of a difference between a Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread and a “fantasy femmes” wall calendar. Creating a means by which both demographics can act out their pent-up rage at the female gender is a proven money-maker. Should we be upset that this is yet another vehicle enabling the spread of a digital rape culture? Yes. Should we be surprised? Perhaps not.
However, reactions to such issues as the Hitman trailer (that of a burly male MC thrashing BDSM-clad nuns) must be carefully controlled if one hopes to preserve the medium one claims to love. Yes, the whole scene is stupid and offensive, but such things are not the sole gruel upon which the gamer may feed. Whether or not such misogyny is fringe or mainstream is up for debate, but the fact remains that many games do feature a strong, un-hyper-sexualized female lead and are similarly devoid of grotesque hyper-violence targeted specifically against women. To name just a few: Enslaved: Odyssey to the West (quick, which character is the most sexualized?), Silent Hill 3, Xenoblade Chronicles, Half-Life 2, Final Fantasy XIII, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Xenosaga, Eternal Sonata, Rule of Rose, Kingdom Hearts, StarCraft, Portal… I could go on, but I believe my point stands. There are plenty of story-rich games that don’t subjugate and objectify women. Flying off the handle at those that do can easily backfire into creating a “I sure would like to think that game companies will one day put some actual grown-up thought into the handling of female characters, but for a variety of reasons, I am not exactly holding my breath over here (@cmpriest)” paradigm in the public’s mind. Such games do exist; if you love the medium, you’ll find them.
Regarding the Tomb Raider issue, I see where the outrage comes from. Rape is a thing too terrible for words. It should not happen, and those who commit the act are scum. No one is arguing this. Unfortunately, the world has its share of scum, and it does happen. If I correctly understand the situation into which the newly-rebooted Lara Croft is placed, she falls in with a group of scum scavengers. Realism being a priority (as in most “gritty” reboots), the developers must then confront the likelihood that a young woman in such a situation would face the threat of rape. Does it really stretch the imagination to think that facing such a threat and overpowering her attackers would be a formative event for a young woman unused to the crueler realities of life? Granted, I’m not sure I agree with the choice to make it an interactive cut scene, but it doesn’t strike me as bad writing. Showing Lara Croft at a place of weakness, especially early in the story, gives her somewhere to go. Making her vulnerable gives the strength and cunning she later comes to possess even more powerful. I believe that making characters victim of circumstance and brutality is a way to humanize them so long as they are not left in that place. By overcoming victimhood and taking control of their destinies, characters become more real, regardless of gender. Yes, the idea that players “should want to protect her” is a poor one to have when attempting to create a strong female lead, but bear in mind that Rosenberg is speaking to the same core audience that played Tomb Raider for years because they liked watching Lara Croft’s boobs solve puzzles and shoot things. The series panders to the lowest common denominator, and now Crystal Dynamics is trying to elevate it beyond that demographic. Their attempt may be terrible, laughable, or just plain offensive, but at least they’re trying.
Furthermore, despite Rachel Fogg’s tirade that Lara’s development “seemingly ONLY include[s] ‘rape’ because fuck all, that’s how women get character ladies in gentlemen, she has to be raped or attempted raped etc…no way in holy FUCKING hell is she going to gain that development through any other FUCKING means from being shot at, punched, attacked, survive a plane crash, betrayal, set on fire…nope, rape. Perfect, that’s the ‘Go to’ for female development to make her ‘Harder and badass’”, it has been revealed that the attempted rape will not be the sole characterizing event for our new Ms. Croft. Rick Kim lists a series of events revealed by Crystal Dynamics that all conspire to make Lara Croft the gravity-defying, gun-toting murderess we’re all familiar with. So, while the decision to include attempted rape may be insensitive, shocking, or dehumanizing, it is by no means the ONLY FUCKING way her character is developed.
My point in all this? The video game medium has a myriad of problems. Sexism, hyper-sexuality, and misogyny are high up on that list for many, many titles. The online culture that has grown up around gaming is ridiculously, pointlessly hostile toward women. However, for the sake of the good developers, the mature writers, and the legions of egalitarian-minded players, don’t slight the whole for the wrongs of some. When ranting about the titles that offend, please mention ones that don’t. Pulling out the weeds is only half the battle; one must also plant flowers if one is to have a pleasant garden.
And for the love of God, stop treating the new Tomb Raider likes it’s the second coming of Custer’s Revenge.