On Lara Croft and Abuse

TRIGGER WARNING: Discussion of rape and sexual violence.

Jason Schreier interviewed the executive producer for the new Tomb Raider game at E3. The producer’s name is Ron Rosenberg.

Rosenberg, in characterizing the experience of playing the game, states that players will begin to “root” for Lara Croft because the player is more of her “helper” than anything else. I will admit, I didn’t understand that to begin with, and so I read the entire article again.

We live in a game ecology now where I am constantly having games hocked to me in increasingly personal and experiential ways. I am told how “visceral” my experience in a game will be. FPS games are touted for the amount of immersion that they have; this extends to licensed IP as well, with Activision describing their new The Amazing Spider-Man as an “immersive and cinematic adventure“. I’m also told that the experience of playing a game will make me feel powerful (that Cracked article is important–it casts a much larger net, especially into the non-gaming world). Rosenberg himself, in discussing the game with Rock, Paper, Shotgunhad this to say about playing games:

“Certainly, I’ve killed hundreds of guys in videogames,” he admitted. “I don’t think twice about it. But in that particular moment, I feel it.”

In that particular context, Rosenberg is talking about watching a man that Lara Croft has killed in the game go stiff and still in a particularly intense way. The emphasis is mine, of course, but it is just to point out that the standard of video game play is one where the player character and the “I” are intermingled so heavily that Rosenberg can say that he has killed hundreds of people.

So when Rosenberg said that “when people play Lara, they don’t really project themselves into the character,” I was confused. Aren’t games, even third-person games where you control a very specific character, still supposed to have a certain kind of immersive quality? I know that they are sold to me that way. I know that people don’t play as Batman to “help him out;” they play as Batman to imagine that they are as cool as Batman. This is really just “video games as male power fantasy 101,” but it is especially important to bring it up here because Ron Rosenberg is suggesting that it is impossible for a female power fantasy to exist.

In Rosenberg’s world, there are male characters that everyone can get into (read: that men can identify with) and there are characters that are separate from us, that we see for what they are, as distinct objects from us (read: female characters). I’m not going to do the work to explain why this is wrong. It should be obvious that women play games, that men and women can “get into” any sex or gender character, and that identification with a character is a product of writing more than it is a product of what genitalia that have or want.

Rosenberg’s explanation of the role of the player versus Lara Croft assumes that there is a male player who sees Lara Croft as a figure to be saved. This fires off lots and lots of different flares and signals in my mind. It calls up the phenomenon of white knighting. It reminds me of the Southern cultural attitudes about virginity and purity being qualities that must be protected in women at all costs. When Rosenberg says that the (male) player is “going on an adventure to try to protect [Croft],” he is asserting that Croft, without the help of the player, could never make it. If this were a movie, for example, Lara Croft would be raped and murdered–without a player to control her, to do everything for her, she would be lost.

That has been the key hook for a number of blog responses that I have read on this subject. As Chuck Wendig put it: “If we don’t act as her helper, we’ll “help” her get raped.” While that might be a crass way of putting it, Wendig is correct–failure on the part of the player has some brutal consequences for the character of Lara Croft. Beyond that, there are real world implications to this kind of narrative, the key one being that women cannot protect themselves and constantly need a “helper” to make sure that nothing bad happens to this. This kind of protectionism is damaging. It is incredibly, incredibly painful to me to see a historically capable, handy, gun-wielding, active character reduced to a figure who lives in a dichotomy of either existing solely under the control of a patriarchal structure (the game’s design, the envisioned  player, the company) or being raped and then murdered in the diegetic space of the game.

Kat Howard, a science fiction and fantasy writer, takes an additional step with the stakes that are involved with the gameplay mechanism of “lose or be raped” that Rosenberg presents us with:

The reason that I have a problem with this, the reason I am writing this post, is that the executive producer of this game seems to be saying that getting raped is losing the game. I’m going to try to start from a position of generosity here. I’m going to assume that the reason being raped is treated like one of the worst things that can happen to a woman is because the writers and producers of this game understand that it is. Being raped is horrible, and horrible doesn’t even begin to be a big enough word to cover being raped. But I have a huge problem with there being a game where, if your female character doesn’t fight back well enough, she gets punished by being raped. And my problem is because this hews too closely to the actual reactions rape survivors get.
Both Wendig and Howard make a provision in their respective posts about how there is room in the world of artistic production for sexual violence, violence against women, and so on. I agree. What is important, though, is showing sexual violence not as an end of a story but as a middle. There is life after sexual violence and rape. Narratives shape the way we live in the world, and more narratives showing us that there are responses and paths out of sexual violence and healthy for everyone (so is the message “Don’t rape anyone.” That one needs to be hammered in.) What I am saying is that I think that we can tell stories about rape. I think that rape revenge plots are complex assemblages with positive and negative effects. I also think that we need them.
David Brothers, at some point during the middle of E3 fever, wrote his own post about Tomb Raider. In talking about the genre of “abused heroes,” Brothers writes about the fine line between something that is depressing and something that is a setup for a story that is both gripping and inspiring:
…that’s a lot of misery to pack into a trailer. It makes the entire game seem like a slog, like a clipshow of Lara getting punched in the stomach every time she stands up. That’s not what makes abused heroes fun. The slings and arrows aren’t the focus. They’re just the staircase leading to the focus. The focus is the hero with a smoking gun, a bloody nose, and a limp off into the sunset. Maybe a one-liner. The point is that a little goes a long way, and when you put a lot into a little (like shoving a few different examples of grievous emotional and physical trauma into three minutes) the tone changes. It changes from “Oh man, I can’t believe she survived that! Such will! Amazing!” to “Oh man. This is really, really depressing.”
This entire ordeal makes me think about Virginie Despentes’ King Kong Theory. I’ve written on it before, but it is important here, too. The book itself is about female agency and power; specifically, it is about how women should take the power of fear back from a patriarchal structure that commits constant acts of terrorism and violence against women. Despentes wants us to think through all moments of control of and power assertion over women. So we should focus on Tomb Raider. We should point out all of the fucked up things about it. But we should also extend that to an entire apparatus of male dominance–this is merely a terrible peak in a long waveform of violence, systematic silencing, and symbolic annihilation of positive female figures. I will close on this. Despentes writes it better than I can:
Often, things are exactly the opposite of what we have been told, which is why we are told them so repeatedly and ferociously. The character of the whore is a good example: when you hear the prostitution is an “act of violence against women,” we are supposed to forget that it is marriage and other things we put up with that are “acts of violence against women.” We cannot ignore the fact that far more women die from domestic violence then from engaging in sex work. Women who are fucked for free must continue to be told that they have made the only possible choice, otherwise how can they be kept under control? Masculine sexuality is not in itself an act of violence against women, as long as they are consenting and well paid. It is the control exercised upon us that is violent–the power to decide on our behalf what is dignified and what is not. (pps. 79-80)
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