I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while, but it took some time for me to get my thoughts in order.
For those of you who don’t know, an indepedent merchant on Amazon Marketplace recently offered for sale a Japanese game called RapeLay. Reported first by GamePolitics, Amazon quickly pulled the game and apparently banned the merchant (who charmingly called himself “Hentaiguy”)… but not quickly enough. British MP Keith Vaz got wind of it, and from there the story ballooned rapidly out of control. We’re honestly lucky that it wasn’t picked up by more of the mainstream media.
RapeLay is a hentai (hentai = anime porn) game; your first job is to sexually assault a young mother alone in the Tokyo subway, and upon managing that, follow it up by similarly victimizing her two daughters. As if that setup weren’t upsetting enough, both girls are underage – the younger daughter, according to one source, seems to be about ten years old.
Before we go any further I need to point out that RapeLay is not a product of the mainstream games industry, was never meant to be released outside of Japan, is not rated, can’t be acquired at retail or any major download site, and indeed is not particularly easy to find or purchase in the west. Naturally the governments and media who seized on the story either didn’t know this or didn’t care; judging from some of the reports I’ve seen they think it’s available at Best Buy. Anyway.
I have long been a vocal opponent of the theory that interactivity automatically renders a piece of entertainment “worse” or “more desensitizing.” One need only watch Hostel or Captivity to recognize that cinematic torture porn is far, far more devastating than what even the most gruesome and violent game can possibly evoke. And there are some people who are defending RapeLay, arguing that if games are to be recognized as an art form they need to be comfortable dealing with dangerous themes, and rape is often graphically depicted in movies, novels, even comic books – consider the nigh-unwatchable nine-minute rape scene in Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible, presented as a single horrifying, unbroken shot. This is one case, however, where interactivity changes the whole equation.
I would hazard that 99% of sexual assaults that appear in other media are portrayed as bad things, whereas RapeLay presents it as an entertainment objective. Those occasions when it’s portrayed as something fun to watch or read about are limited to the most extreme of all “erotic” media, and of course the internet, where every kind of bizarre kink is but a Google away. Among healthy people, I wouldn’t think there’s anything arousing about watching others get sexually abused.
Look, let’s be honest: the Japanese, no offense to any reading this, are a people of peculiar tastes. This kind of thing is not that uncommon in Japanese pornography, particularly in hentai, where schoolgirls are frequently violated by demons, tentacles, and older men; in doing a bit of research before writing this I discovered to my alarm that “tentacle rape” is actually an expansive subgenre of Japanese porn, as in it has its own section at the local porn movie palace in Akihabara. RapeLay, which – not having played it – I can only assume is as cruel as the descriptions make it sound, is not anomalous in its content. It’s only anomalous that it became available on as mainstream an outlet as Amazon Marketplace… an anomaly that was corrected literally within hours.
Plenty of articles about how horrible RapeLay is, and how it reflects a new low for the human condition, have already been written. There are other perspectives, and the one I’m most interested in hearing is that of the wonderful Leigh Alexander over at Sexy Videogameland. Leigh is a writer of extraordinary talent and sensitivity; she is also a woman, and a woman who has written pretty thoughtfully and extensively about her interest in hentai gaming. As she’s pointed out, her female-ness, rather than being a barrier in this usually misogynistic industry, has made it easier for her to explore this seedier side of interactive entertainment. And what she has found there is not always what you’d expect. She was profoundly affected by Kana: Little Sister, an “incest-themed sex game” – not the kind of thing you generally look to for stories that touch your heart. Leigh has already made mention of RapeLay at SVGL, said she’s going to play it and share her thoughts later on. The perspective of a woman with experience in the genre will be very interesting. I will link to it here when it becomes available.
RapeLay could have been dismissed after the press storm blew over, but right in the middle of the tumult, a curious thing happened, uncommented on by the mainstream media: another game, this one a western-designed, casual strategy game called Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble, was pulled by its main distributor because of a scene near the end, a “branch in the story that resulted in the implied violent rape of a woman in graphic detail,” according to Big Fish Games’ PR folks.
First, the obvious: Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble is like the best title ever. But more salient to our discussion today… it’s since come to light that the offending scene in DHSGIT is no RapeLay. It does not describe a rape; it describes an attempted rape, one thwarted by your character, who saves the victimized girl before the assault by shooting the rapist. And this changes the situation dramatically.
We can surely agree that rape is never good. Even to be the victim of an attempted rape stopped by a last-minute savior, as occurs in DHSGIT, would be devastating and traumatic. But here’s where things get dicey as far as what it’s okay for games to show and discuss. Remember – movies, comics, novels, plays; they’ve all had representations of rape, some very brutal, and some have quite famously not ended in justice being done: consider the end of A Streetcar Named Desire. Stanley rapes his sister-in-law Blanche DuBois, who suffers a complete mental breakdown as a result of the attack, and he is able to have her committed and escape any real retribution for the crime. That play won a Pulitzer… while Big Fish pulled Dangerous High School Girls in Trouble.
In fairness to Big Fish, they’re a family-oriented site and DHSGIT, for all its silliness up to a certain point, does get very, very dark at the end. They’d probably not distribute a game version of A Streetcar Named Desire. I don’t fault them for what they did; the issue is whether or not mainstream games can dare present such grim subject matter without coming under fire from lawmakers and media that refuse to accept the thematic validity of such things in games. Even as it is, developers have to couch a lot of their more controversial stuff in metaphor; Half Life 2’s commentary on the Iraq War, Bioshock’s themes of addiction and drug use, Mass Effect’s subtle indictment of racism. You get into stories about sexual assault in games and you’ll have all kinds of problems… though I’m sure Rockstar will do just that sooner or later, and for all the wrong reasons.
Interactivity does bring a level of personal involvement that’s not available in other media. If you think we’re on the tail end of the battle over censorship of interactive media, you aren’t looking at the big picture. We’re about to set off down a road of philosophical questions so thorny they’ll make Grand Theft Auto look like a kid’s cartoon.
We’re getting close today to brain implants that allow the blind to see, the deaf to hear, the depressed to feel hope. We’re probably less than a hundred years away from VR systems capable of direct stimulations that create simulacrums indistinguishable from reality. I’m not talking a holodeck, I’m talking a plug that jolts neurons just right to give the sensation of touch, of movement, of location, whatever. The brain is a glob of chemicals and amperes. Manipulate either correctly and you can trick it into experiencing things that seem completely real. And as is the case with all new entertainment, it’ll first take off when the skin merchants start developing for it.
Which is fine… but what if someone starts selling a rape simulator? Or a game that allows the player to have sex with nine year olds? What happens when technology makes it possible to experience it as though it were real, but eliminate the victim from the equation?
What happens if a person dreams that they’ve committed rape? Nothing. They’re not expected to turn themselves in, they’ve committed no crime. The brain simply created an image and reacted to it. So what’s the difference between that and a waking dream? The electrons and endorphins don’t care, and they have no rights anyway. RapeLay is pretty awful, but it’s not illegal. It harms nothing but good taste. Eventually it’ll be possible to simulate such things at a far, far greater level of realism. And it’s not too far of a stretch to imagine an argument defending a whole market of such products: after all, a pedophile or rapist who can commit such crimes from the comfort of his home needn’t seek out flesh and blood victims. It could even be seen as a therapy for such individuals. Such content would surely be a small niche… right?
Maybe not. Consider the hypersexualization of fairly young girls in today’s culture. Tweens are increasingly expected to act like teens; girls much younger than that get a rainbow of tarty Halloween costume options. And since there’s no victim in our imaginary brain-stimulating ubergames, I think you might be surprised how many people would buy software that allowed for some very taboo activities. Sure, there’d be a much larger market for good old fashioned healthy consensual sex simulations, not to mention the usual alien-killing and high fantasy adventures. But still.
This is not something that movies or books will ever be able to do. Those media are trammeled by the invisible barrier. Contrary to what we saw in The Purple Rose of Cairo or read in The Neverending Story, you cannot cross the boundary, and those on the other side can’t come over to us. Gaming changes all that, and so far, the changes have been wonderful. On one hand the kind of technology I imagine above sounds like a dream come true… let’s hope it doesn’t become gaming’s nightmare.