Feedback Loop: When Rape is Just a Game
I have always been especially sympathetic to parody, satire, and general irreverence. I’m skeptical of authority and find tradition and convention extremely dubious. And when topics are off-limits or taboo, the benefits to silencing discourse rarely makeup for what’s lost as a result of doing so.
But sometimes the tradeoff isn’t so one-sided.
Earlier this week, Brandon Sheffield uneasily called out a new Kickstarter project for being in poor taste, and urged readers to contact the crowd-funding website and voice their disapproval. They must have done so, because Kickstarter canceled the project later the following day.
The project in question is a fully funded card game wherein the goal is to rape as many school girls as possible in a fixed number of turns. It’s called Tentacle Bento. It’s disgusting. But does it cross the line?
Writing at Insert Credit Sheffield said,
“Tentacle Bento’s Kickstarter success is the product of a society that doesn’t take sexual assault against women seriously enough. It shows that enough people think it’s “not a big deal.” The argument comparing a game about rape to games about violence is limited by the fact that murder is almost universally penalized in our culture, meaning there is a clear line between fantasy and reality there. With rape and molestation, that line is not so clearly drawn, and it results in “cute” games like Tentacle Bento.”
The problem with Tentacle Bento for Sheffield is that it trivializes an atrocity. In a context where, as Sheffield points out, rape is already not taken seriously enough this is especially problematic (see: the Catholic Church, almost any college or university campus with a vibrant Greek life, and how women who speak up are treated by the media).
This is why sexism in videogames remains an issue as well. What makes Cammy damaging isn’t just that she’s purely a sex object: it’s that she exists as one in a world still plagued with rampant sexism and gender inequality. There are more women in the United States than men, but female members still only constitute a fraction of Congress. Women’s pay is slowly catching up to men’s, but not nearly fast enough given how much more qualified on average the former is than the latter. In other words, when women still aren’t taken as seriously or treated as fairly as their male counterparts: hyper-sexualized, half-naked caricatures matter.
Even if video games like Street Fighter don’t breed these kinds of abusive attitudes they still contribute to the idea that those attitudes aren’t a big deal. Which makes addressing issues of female subjugation and adolescent misogyny in the real world all the more difficult.
And yet if most of us are willing to tolerate Cammy and each of her reincarnations across the medium, why not tolerate a “cute,” “Cheeky,” and “satirical” game about tentacle rape? It’s not even a videogame, so the perversity is never even rendered on a screen. Instead, all of the violence in Tentacle Bento is confined to the imaginations of its players. Are we to become thought police and tell people what kinds of fantasies they can and can’t have?
While I hesitate to say yes, I’m certainly not comfortable saying no, at least not in this instance. But why?
Part of what really disturbs me is that hundreds of people would feel comfortable openly funding a project like this. We can’t morally judge someone for sexual desires and fetishes that are largely out of his control. We can, however, judge and criticize someone for voluntarily embracing them in the form of a mass produced and publically advertised card game.
For another perspective on the issue though I contacted indie video game designer, Michael O’Reilly. He didn’t think the game was inoffensive, or even well put together, but he was surprised by the community outcry brought on by posts like Sheffield’s, or Luke Plunkett’s over at Kotaku.
“I can’t help but to think the problem is that we’re looking at Bento Tentacle as something it isn’t,” O’Reilly told me. “It’s pornography and I am of the opinion that people should not be shamed for the pornography they enjoy as long as no one was hurt in making it and they can keep their feelings under control.
“Sexism in general media or the attitude about rape in open culture is a lot more subversive and should be fought whenever it can. We should hold our ‘public’ media to a higher standard…But hands off the porn. Porn is indulgent and self aware and very much a part of our culture.”
Both Sheffield and O’Reilly are calling for lines to be drawn in the sand, but with different demarcations in mind. Sheffield maintains that any unserious portrayal of sexual abuse, fictional or not, is damaging and has no place in our society. O’Reilly on the other hand wants to distinguish between “public” discourse and private play.
And here I find myself conflicted. The premise of Tentacle Bento repulses me. Yet I find Sheffield’s stance somewhat hypocritical. Just because “public opinion” agrees that killing is wrong doesn’t somehow magically absolve other media of their responsibility for trivializing violence. The fact is that people do trivialize violence in real life. This doesn’t mean Tentacle Bento is kosher; it means that we should apply the same level of scrutiny to more “mainstream” porn like Grand Theft Auto’s rampaging butchery and Modern Warfare’s disaster carnage.
The problem then isn’t that Tentacle Bento is uniquely perverse. It isn’t. The real issue is that we’ve rushed to judge certain fetishes and declare them immoral without applying the same standard to the rest of the gaming culture. We’ve decided that gamifying rape is immoral, and yet millions more people gamify brutal slaughter every year when the new Call of Duty is released, myself included. When the best selling games feature sociopathic endurance tests where killing not only solves every problem, but delivers the most pleasure it’s safe to say that each of is a bit of a sicko.