Trig­ger Happy

Shoot first, ask ques­tions later


Steven Poole on nav­i­gat­ing the com­plex pol­i­tics of rep­re­sen­ta­tion

How should we en­cour­age the kind of art we like, and dis­cour­age the kind we dis­ap­prove of? It is an age-old ques­tion. For most of mod­ern his­tory some form of of­fi­cial cen­sor­ship was the norm: you couldn’t just pub­lish what­ever you liked, for fear of pros­e­cu­tion. In our age we con­tinue to have a kind of ‘soft’ cen­sor­ship in the form of age rat­ings by the Bri­tish Board Of Film Clas­si­fi­ca­tion. In the­ory you can make what­ever film you like, but it will be very dif­fi­cult for any­one to see it if it doesn’t get a rat­ing. Still, the ex­is­tence of cen­sor­ship af­ter the fact is a stick: it threat­ens neg­a­tive con­se­quences. Can’t we also have a car­rot, promis­ing pos­i­tive con­se­quences to things we would like more of? That is a ques­tion the French are cur­rently ask­ing with re­spect to videogames.

Ac­cord­ing to a re­port ear­lier this sum­mer in Le Fi­garo, the French are con­sid­er­ing ways to tackle di­ver­sity in videogam­ing con­tent: in par­tic­u­lar, the way women are rep­re­sented in videogames. France’s dig­i­tal min­ster, Ax­elle Le­maire, re­leased a state­ment on the sub­ject. “For a few years now there has been a grass­roots move­ment on be­half of women’s place in videogame stu­dios, and at the heart of games them­selves,” she said, not­ing the ex­is­tence of “vi­o­lent polemics” on the sub­ject on so­cial me­dia, and Anita Sar­keesian’s anal­y­sis of the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of women in games on Fem­i­nist Fre­quency.

But many French games fea­ture de­cently por­trayed women pro­tag­o­nists, Le­maire noted, cit­ing Be­yond Good & Evil, Life Is

Strange and Dis­hon­ored 2. So how should she, on be­half of the French state, en­cour­age “the pro­duc­tion of videogames that pro­mote equal­ity be­tween men and women, for ex­am­ple by specif­i­cally giv­ing se­ri­ous treat­ment to sub­jects linked to sex­ism and vi­o­lence against women”?

This raises many ques­tions, of course. One might think of ob­ject­ing that re­quir­ing (or at least en­cour­ag­ing) games to “pro­mote” sex­ual equal­ity is to oblige art to de­scend to the level of pro­pa­ganda. (A sober re­sponse might be to note that all art is pro­pa­ganda for some­thing, whether that is ob­vi­ous or not.) One might feel still less com­fort­able with gov­ern­ment at­tempts to make videogames ad­dress cer­tain par­tic­u­lar sub­jects, how­ever wor­thy they are of artis­tic treat­ment.

Two car­rots are be­ing con­sid­ered. Bonus state fund­ing could be awarded to stu­dios that con­cen­trate on di­verse rep­re­sen­ta­tion; and a sticker could be awarded to those games that “re­spect the im­age of women”. There is, how­ever, a threat on the agenda too. The idea is that the PEGI rat­ing sys­tem for games could be al­tered so that games which “in­cite sex­ism” fall into the cat­e­gory of “dis­crim­i­na­tion”, and so can­not be sold to un­der-18s, or ad­ver­tised on prime-time TV.

Some will re­spond that none of this should be a gov­ern­ment’s busi­ness. To re­turn to an anal­ogy with film: should a film be con­demned to niche re­lease if it does not pass, say, the Bechdel test? Fur­ther­more, there will surely be con­tro­ver­sial cases where rea­son­able peo­ple dis­agree whether some rep­re­sen­ta­tion is “de­grad­ing” to women or is a cel­e­bra­tion of kink; whether a par­tic­u­lar game “in­cites sex­ism”, or is mock­ing sex­ist at­ti­tudes, or is do­ing some­thing else al­to­gether. Con­sider, for ex­am­ple, a game equiv­a­lent of Amer­i­can Psy­cho: in my view it is the great satir­i­cal novel of the 1990s, but it has been de­cried by oth­ers for its re­lent­less de­pic­tion of vi­o­lence against women. A healthy cul­ture can have such ar­gu­ments with­out stick­ers and ad­ver­tis­ing bans.

No, a cul­tural lib­er­tar­ian would ar­gue, surely the great mod­ern com­mu­nity of game devel­op­ers and play­ers will en­sure or­gan­i­cally that less chau­vin­is­tic at­ti­tudes and rep­re­sen­ta­tions pre­vail — as in fact they are do­ing, more and more? Very pos­si­bly. Yet it can­not be gain­said that there is still a prob­lem here that is em­bar­rass­ing to a ma­jor cul­tural in­dus­try. Since Le Fi­garo’s re­port, Sar­keesian her­self has re­cently pointed out, unim­prov­ably in my view, the fact that “Lin­gerie is not ar­mour”. Of 59 ma­jor games an­nounced at this year’s E3, she fur­ther notes, only two fea­tured ex­clu­sively fe­male pro­tag­o­nists. (Sar­keesian is also dis­ap­pointed that 81% are “com­bat”-fo­cused, though one should ac­knowl­edge that many women en­joy com­bat games, and many men en­joy non­com­bat games.) And so per­haps most ob­servers can agree that, whether or not the French gov­ern­ment de­cides to en­act laws on the sub­ject, it is do­ing ev­ery­one a favour by bring­ing the is­sue to main­stream at­ten­tion.

Steven Poole’s Trig­ger Happy 2.o is now avail­able from Ama­zon. Visit him on­line at www.steven­

Can’t we also have a car­rot, promis­ing pos­i­tive con­se­quences to things we would like more of?

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