Drawing the Line

23 Jul

Gamasutra recently posted an article about how the next God of War game is going to curtail violence against women. As they point out, it is unclear precisely how that is going to manifest itself in the game. The quotation from Sony Santa Monica that opens the article is vague, at best, and seems (at least to me) to be pandering a bit to current events amidst the gaming community:

There are some things we’ve pulled back from. I think where this has been an issue is with violence against women — the team’s pulled back from some of that and assessed that a little more carefully.

On the one hand, I applaud the fact that the industry is showing signs of retracting content that abuses women. On the other, I can’t help but think that the vagueness is actually a sign of an attempt to ward off future criticism from someone like Anita Sarkeesian at Feminist Frequency. Gamasutra‘s Frank Cifaldi also points out that the designers are doing their best to make Kratos appear as though he isn’t enjoying the ultraviolent acts he’s committing in the game.

As someone who has played God of War, I can tell you that what Kratos’s expression may or may not be is utterly irrelevant. The ultraviolence in the series is just plain fun. The use of the blades, the drop-kicking of Cerberus puppies (which are trying to bite your feet off, in my defense), those are what make the God of War series so awesome. It doesn’t matter a whit what Kratos’s expression says about his emotional investment (or lack thereof).

But, more importantly, God of War is not the game I would consider the worst in terms of its depictions of women. Sure, it has sexualized female NPCs (and there are a couple of harlots Kratos can sleep with at the start of 2, I believe), but nothing gratuitously over-the-top in terms of genre. And this is a point made by commenters on the article, the first of whom asks, “Which women are they talking about? Do they mean the gorgons and harpies?”

This question spurs my next one: are they talking about curtailing the violence Kratos commits against women (which would be the gorgons and harpies who are usually trying to kill him), or are they talking about cut-scene depictions of violence against women, such as Kratos’s wife? And, if so, why is it that they feel they need to cut these depictions? Presumably, such scenes would serve as Kratos’s motivation – in short, these scenes would condemn violence against women by demonizing it… which, in my opinion, is not inherently misogynist because it would be criticizing misogyny.

Which brings me to the point of another commenter, who says, “Does anyone think that drawing that line is in itself sexist?” And I think he (and it is a he) is right. By focusing specifically on the fact that they are “curtailing” violence against women, the developers are trying to wave the white flag at misogyny: “We’re not misogynist! We’re cutting out violence against women!”

Here’s the key. I’m all for condemning violence against women (and men, honestly), but sometimes that means it has to be shown. As in the video of Lauren Luke putting on makeup “the morning after,” showing violence is sometimes necessary in order to effectively condemn it. (That being said, this video does bother me, although I still can’t quite ascertain what about it makes me so uncomfortable.) Ignoring the fact that violence happens can be a form of silencing – if no one sees it, then no one recognizes it as problematic.

But I can’t really condemn the God of War developers without knowing what they mean when they say they’re going to curtail violence against women in the game. What I am is skeptical about the motivations that lead them to make such a generalized, sweeping statement out of context and in a framework of recent internet hype about videogames and misogyny. So perhaps my cynicism is unwarranted, but it seems to me that they really just want someone to pat them on the head and tell them they’re being “feminist,” when what they’re really doing is giving lip-service to the issue in order to avoid having to really deal with it.