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