Feminists/social progressives: stop making excuses for violence glorification

The day after the horrifying Orlando shooting, a friend was inviting me to play Overwatch. It was a weird moment. I felt like, I don’t know—maybe it’s just me, but I really don’t feel like running around with a gun shooting at people right at that moment for some reason.

Some E3 events began that night. Everyone was talking about a new Quake game’s announcement on social media. I found it to be pretty distasteful, and actually felt a little bit bad for the people who had to present this stuff at a time like this. Then again, I always find E3-type events pretty distasteful, so I felt like, well, it’s probably just me again.

But then I saw prominent game designer Jonathan Blow, who I’m pretty sure is not remotely influenced by me or anything I’ve written on the topic over the years, put out this tweet:

After the predictable backlash (which is still ongoing at the time of this writing), Jon tried to clarify further:

Maybe I wasn’t crazy. Maybe there really was something actually distasteful about all this. Soon after, I read stories from NPR, The Verge, The Daily Beast, and others, all at least asking good questions. That gave me a bit of hope—are people going to start talking about this issue now?

 

Social Progress in Media

I identify as both a feminist and a social progressive, and I’m proud of the progress that these groups have made over the past decade both in media and in real life. In most ways, I feel like we’re winning the culture war. Mostly because we’re right, but also because of the persistent efforts of people who cared enough to point stuff out.

Particularly, on the topic of noticing sexist portrayals of women in games and other media, there has been a strong movement to convince consumers and creators alike of our positions. Feminism/social progressive blogs and channels started going viral (most notably among them the YouTube channel Feminist Frequency), and developers have started to actually take notice. As bad as things are now, I think they’d likely be even worse if it weren’t for the strong social pressure against portraying every single female character as a sex object. And even when companies screw up, there’s a consistent and reliable backlash, which to me suggests that it’s only a matter of time before we start to see more real change on this issue.

We’ve gotten pretty good at detecting sexist portrayals of women. We understand that the way women are presented in media really matters. We get that it doesn’t have to “turn everyone who views it into rapists” or something similar for it to be a problem. We know that the effects of media on people are subtler, more long-term and harder to isolate. Like racism, it often does its best to conceal itself, but we’re getting better and better at finding it anyway.

And yet at the same time, it seems to me that we’re a little bit blind to the equally damaging and similarly manifesting problem of glorification of violence in media. I see vocal feminists calling out the sexism of a character design or even a story event, and then turn around and completely embrace some utterly disgusting piece of violence glorification.

What’s the connection between this issue and feminism, you might ask? Violence glorification isn’t strictly a feminist topic. But I would argue that women suffer most as a result of our culture of violence, and dehumanization involved in sexist portrayals is highly related to the dehumanization of violence. Ultimately, I feel that feminists would and should be sensitive to issues of dehumanization generally since they have faced it for so long.

So where is the sensitivity to these messages? Why doesn’t the message these works are sending matter anymore? A lot of videogames, action movies and comic books, if you are looking with the same kind of analytical lens you were using to identify the sexist messages, are clearly sending the message: “violence is extremely cool.” This message is an incorrect and socially damaging one, at least equally as incorrect and as socially damaging as the message that “women are sex objects”.

And yet people don’t seem to notice, or care. Instead, we offer weak rationalizations (such as, “you’ve got to get your violence out somehow!”) or quickly jump to point out that studies have not been able to demonstrate that “videogames cause real world violence” or some such thing. Meanwhile, we would never accept something like that as an adequate response to our complaints about the representation of women in games. It’s never been that we “can show some direct link between A and B”. It’s that these works subtly contribute to an institutionalized culture of sexism—or in the case of violence glorification — of a culture of glorified violence.

So why, oh why, do we have this strange blind spot?

 thompson

The well has been poisoned

Over the last few years I’ve talked to people of all kinds about the issue. Pretty much across the board, with a few exceptions, I detect some degree of discomfort or disinterest with the topic, if not outright rejection of it, certainly among normal gamer types (especially males), but also even among strong feminists. I believe a large part of the explanation is that the well has been poisoned over and over again by censorship advocates like Jack Thompson and Joe Lieberman back in the ’90s. It is highly unfortunate that this crowd is the one that has seriously taken up looking at the issue of violence in games. Here are the major mistakes that they made in their approach:

  1. They tried to use the law to legally censor materials, rather than trying to change public opinion. I do not want to legally censor any materials; I want to convince the public that they should not want such materials.
  2. They considered all violent material equal; they failed to see the critical difference between “violence that is glorified” and “violence that is not glorified”.
  3. They tried to make the case that “viewing violent materials causes you to become physically violent”, a position which is very hard to demonstrate. My position is that it has more subtle, second-order effects such an increase in a willingness to vote for war, support for harsh criminal justice and general decrease in compassion.
  4. They seemed to try and make the case that only children are affected by media, when in fact, we all are.

I think their awful and heavily publicized attempts to take action on this topic has made it feel somewhat gross to even go near it for people like myself, who otherwise have nothing in common with a Jack Thompson type of person.

Beyond that, though, even if they had done a good job of making the right points, I think it would have fallen on deaf ears in the 1990s and 2000s. Videogames were just way too cool to be criticized at the time. No one wanted to hear that there was a problem with them. I think things have only recently cooled off enough so that people can take a deep breath and ask, “ok, now what exactly is it I’m looking at, here?”

Anyway, there is a residual resistance to even considering that there might be anything wrong with violence in games because of the actions of these types of people. We have a generation of people who felt like they “already fought that battle” and won. So to hear someone bring it up now brings back all those old feelings.

 

OK, but not this

The other reason I think there’s some resistance on this point is a phenomenon I’ve been calling “OK, but not this.” Basically, when people come along on social justice issue X, many of them will have an automatic resistance to social justice issue X+1. The example that comes quickest to mind for me is Bill Maher, who generally I think wants to be a social progressive, but has trouble keeping up with the times (to put it nicely). He learned in the last five years or so that gay jokes—jokes wherein the premise of the joke is that a person is gay—are probably in bad taste. There really isn’t any actual comedy there, and it’s instead coming from a vaguely if not overtly homophobic place.

But I also detect that he has some degree of “OK, but not this” when the next issue is making jokes about transgender people, which he still routinely does. He peppers his dialogue with mentions of how the world has gotten “too politically correct” which serves as his signal to say “hey, I got on board with the not-trashing-gay-people thing, just let me have trashing transgender people!”

The Maher example is an almost cartoonish example of this problem, which makes it a good illustration of the issue, although in most people I think this effect is much more subtle. I’ve met many people who were kind of on the fence with the whole “giving a shit about how women are portrayed in games” issue. They eventually came down on the right side, but when you start questioning “well, maybe we shouldn’t be glorifying war in these games, either”, there is a panicked sense of “now wait just a second” or “now you’re going too far!”

I think this “OK, but not this” factor also plays a little bit into the “anti-PC” movement and possibly fuels some of Donald Trump’s success. Many Trump supporters are people who feel “burned” by having to go further and further down what may seem like an endless rabbit hole of behaviors that they have to alter in order to be “politically correct”. They are correct: that list is endless, because it is a reflection of our ever-maturing moral landscape. They are incorrect in getting fed up with the process and giving up.

 

Attachment

The other big reason we’re blind to this stuff is that we’re just really attached, and we get really defensive. It’s kind of a weird miracle that a movement formed being critical of games on the sexism front, but even there, I notice that there’s this constant need to re-assure people. In an IGN article profiling Feminist Frequency, Anita Sarkeesian echoes something that she says all the time in her work:

According to her, one of the most difficult aspects of criticism for people to understand is the notion of being able to enjoy something while also taking issue with some of its portrayals and approaches to representation.

“A critic does not mean tearing things apart,” she explains. “A critic means saying it is mostly good or mostly bad or some combination thereof. And I think people struggle with this idea.”

“It’s just a matter of being able to hold a multiple, nuanced position,” she says. “It’s [similar to] the way we have relationships with other human beings. It’s not like your friends or your partner don’t [anger you] sometimes, but you still care about them.”

The message is clear: just because we’re criticizing this thing doesn’t mean we don’t still like it, or that you shouldn’t still like it. On its face, that seems maybe like a reasonable thing to say. But why are we sort of “guaranteeing” the “liked” status of videogames? Would it be the end of the world if we originally liked Metal Gear Solid V, but then heard criticism of it, and then didn’t like it anymore afterwards? Is that really any more of a “problem” than you disliking any of the millions of pieces of media you already currently dislike? And even if so, are we really embracing a “just don’t think about the bad qualities” philosophy, here?

How about “listen to my criticism, consider it, and let the chips fall where they may.” Maybe it results in you liking the thing more, less, the same but different in a nuanced way, or maybe it has no influence at all!

It seems that the videogame world is so insecure in our tastes that we’ve managed to convince our most critical voices to pepper their criticism with constant reassurances. We’ve somehow managed to open up to criticism on some issues, so I think we can also open up on violence glorification.

videogameworld

 

Conclusion

This has been largely an article about our blindness to violence glorification. If you require more convincing that violence glorification in media is a problem—which I know many do—I’ve written a number of articles making that case.

While I criticized the “don’t worry, you can still like these things” approach of Feminist Frequency, I understand why they do that, and doing that is probably a big reason why they were able to slip through the “impenetrable videogame defense matrix”. I should also mention that FemFreq is actually pretty good when it comes to pointing out violence glorification in games. They often tweet about the violence in games, and they made several mentions of the violence in their Uncharted and Tomb Raider reviews.

But I don’t think they go far enough, and I’m not sure the rest of the feminist / social progressive world is on the same page with them on this issue yet. While I’m happy to have seen the reaction to this year’s E3, I’m not exactly convinced that people are going to stick with it. I follow a lot of prominent feminists and social progressives on Twitter, and I almost never hear anyone talking about this issue. Instead I actually hear a lot of them issuing blanket praise for some of the worst offenders in violence glorification, like Fallout 4 with its “kill porn” slow-motion VATS snuff-camera.

It’s time we started really looking at this stuff and asking “what message does this send”? Don’t make excuses for it, even if you like other things about these things. Sure, the violence in the story may be justified (i.e. out of self defense), but the storyteller set things up in such a way so that violence would be justified. That’s the reason we create puppy-kicking villains. Not only justified, but so justified that we can even have fun with it. Why? Of all the stories you could have told, why did you tell that one?

I watched Captain America: Winter Soldier with some friends recently. There’s a scene where the Bad Guy shoots his housekeeper dead because she witnessed the Dark Ninja (I refuse to get his name right). Bad Guy brutally shoots her dead, and a sound of “general distaste/objection” came out of my friends, because, indeed, it was pretty distasteful. But I said, in “defense” of the movie, “yeah but he needs to do that, so that we can do what we’re gonna do to him later!” I hadn’t seen the movie before, but you don’t need to have seen it to know that nearly every action film’s purpose is to design a person that we’d feel justified in killing; a contrived scenario wherein it’s easy to believe that violence is the answer.

action film

Above: He is the bad guy.

The fact is that in many ways, we live in a culture of violence, especially in the United States. We’re obsessed with guns, we vote for wars of aggression, we have a shockingly inhumane criminal justice system. We even use violent language for everyday events, like when Jon Stewart “eviscerates” his next commentary target or when you’re “gonna kill” your friend for not returning the book you lent them.

Art is a tool that we can use to communicate values to each other. Those values can be, and often are, positive, morally correct things that make the world a better place. They can also be negative and perpetuate bad ideas. That’s why we’re so tuned into the sexism stuff—we know that when media sends the signal that girls can’t do this or that, that that has a real effect on society. The answer is not going to come down from on high in the form of censorship or regulations, and I don’t think it should. It’s going to come from people who care about the messages we’re sending with media.

Right now, AAA videogames, action movies, comic books and TV shows are actively working against the non-violent values we know to be correct. Only when we wake up to this fact will this stop, and hopefully we can start using these media to reverse course.

 

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  • Stanley Swanson

    > My position is that it has more subtle, second-order effects such an increase in a willingness to vote for war, support for harsh criminal justice and general decrease in compassion.

    And what is this position based on? Are there studies that show that societies where action movies and violent video games are more popular tend to be more militaristic? In the USSR violence wasn’t glorified at all, unless you count movies about World War II where once in a while a nazi dies in a very non-graphic manner, yet somehow it was a very militaristic and oppressive regime, and even now people who were never exposed to video games or violent films, an older generation, are more likely to support Russia’s military operations around the world and harsher punishments for even minor crimes, than the generation of young people who were practically raised on violent movies and video games.

  • This is kindof a side point mentioned briefly in the above article, but I can’t get myself to agree with the statement “that women suffer most as a result of our culture of violence”. I can see that women may not have as much power in a culture of violence, but certainly not that they suffer the most (using the most broad definition of suffer).

  • Thomas Bartscher

    It’s perfectly fine to not be convinced when evidence is missing, but I’m not sure what your comment is meant to accomplish.

  • Stanley Swanson

    What was this article meant to accomplish?

  • Secret Library

    This is an interesting spot to sit in, I would love for you to take a page from FemFreq and do some textual analysis. I’d also be curious about your take on things like Unmanned by Pedercini. There are more and more game collectives, perhaps we will see these takes on representation made explicit in a group body of work. Lastly, I think it’s worth revisiting the first book on videogame design ever written, Crawford made some similar points in the early 80s.

  • Jake Forbes

    This might be the most persuasive piece I’ve read from you, Keith. It is disappointing how resistant people interested in making games are to even discussing the possibility that glorified violence and vigilantism are problematic. I tend to agree with your take on the subtle impact of seeing the world as hammers and nails, but even beyond the moral reasons, for the game industry, defaulting to combat and violent conflict resolution is a crutch. It has limited the types of experiences games can offer. While that’s changing on the level of independent and small games, violence sells still dominates at the AAA level which matters both for the outsized impact big budget games have on public perceptions and because big game devs/publishers offer the salaries that afford people living wages over a career. Saying a AAA game can’t succeed without a combat core (sports sims excepted) is taken for granted, much the way Hollywood assumed so falsely that women can’t headline a cross-over blockbuster hit. I’m very skeptical of VR tech, but it is encouraging to see companies like Ubisoft and Crytek using the opportunity to apply their tech to new non-combat experiences.

  • JohnReinhardt

    The “Dark Ninja” from “The Winter Solider” is called “The Winter Soldier” you literally used his name correctly in the previous sentence. I mean, I get that you want to distance yourself from distasteful pop-culture but there’s a more subtle way in which to do that.

    P.S. neither of the primary villains are killed by the heroes in The Winter Soldier and the good guy actually wins the day by specifically refusing to fight.

  • I think he should have been called the Dark Ninja.

  • Jereshroom

    Does this also reflect your opinion of loli/shotacon, or do you consider it different? You’ve mentioned in the reddit post that you dislike even the idea of fantasizing about immoral things, but on the other hand you seem to mostly take issue with the fact that violence is being accepted by the mainstream, rather than the idea of individuals taking perverse pleasure from violence.
    And going back to violence: Notably, some (liberal) people enjoy violence precisely because they consider it so serious and horrible, and therefore emotionally potent. http://antialiasis.tumblr.com/tagged/my-buttons Thoughts?

  • Venom

    Apart from plain scumbag tactics that are the feminist and social progressive version of throwing paint on people wearing fur and just straight up lying which I see the VAST major of the feminists/social progressives do more than make any real rational arguments. Even yourself here, although not outright lying and going for the paint, don’t have a leg to stand on when it comes to a statistics. Rather it’s all based on a gut feeling.
    That gut feeling I see so many use to act like the Stasi. Because many I talked to don’t glorify violence not because it’s morally objectionable (most people don’t even recognize it as violence in videogames, unless specifically asked), but rather in fear of backlash.
    And in all irony those people that yell “I am getting harassed for pointing out sexism, racism, etc.” Tend to be the same people that do nothing substantial outside that and often do the same to others.
    As you pointed out the well has been poisoned, but that well is still being poisoned as we speak. There is a very good reason why a lot of so called progressives and feminists are called regressives in a lot of circles.

    Now more specifically:
    “I watched Captain America: Winter Soldier with some friends recently. There’s a scene where the Bad Guy shoots his housekeeper dead because she witnessed the Dark Ninja (I refuse to get his name right). Bad Guy brutally shoots her dead, and a sound of “general distaste/objection” came out of my friends, because, indeed, it was pretty distasteful. But I said, in “defense” of the movie, “yeah but he needs to do that, so that we can do what we’re gonna do to him later!” I hadn’t seen the movie before, but you don’t need to have seen it to know that nearly every action film’s purpose is to design a person that we’d feel justified in killing; a contrived scenario wherein it’s easy to believe that violence is the answer.”
    That is because in reality violence IS sometimes justified otherwise I’d be speaking German now. Self defence, like say in Doom, or to stop someone or something that is doing even more harm, like in wolfenstein, should be justifiable reasons for violence. You don’t need to be meta about that.

    In reality people can be bad, it ain’t hard to think of people on that list, and so should that be able to tell that in fiction.

  • Pete Siecienski

    And what Keith is saying that any time killing IS justified, it is a complete and utter tragedy, a failure of humanity. The fact that World War 2 happened, let alone any war, is terrible. The fact that anyone has to defend themselves from another human being is terrible.

    Yes, sometimes violence becomes necessary, but the problem is glorifying that violence, instead of hammering home how terrible it is.

    Killing demons in Doom is supposed to be spectacular and “awesome”. You’re supposed to be impressed by the violence and take joy from killing things in gruesome ways. They even refer to special kills as “Glory Kills”. This is where it becomes problematic. We shouldn’t be glorifying something that is horrible and ugly.

  • Pete Siecienski

    He’s said in his other Violence Glorification articles that he really enjoys Breaking Bad, and that the violence in that show is in no way glorified. It is shown for what it is, horrible and ugly.

    Violence can definitely be used in an emotionally potent way, like in Breaking Bad, but in Action Movies and most Video Games, the idea of the violence is that you are supposed to be taking joy from it and thinking that its “awesome”. “You’re a hero for killing all those bad guys and saving the day”, you did an awesome thing by solving a problem with violence. That’s when it becomes problematic. No one should feel like they did a good thing by having to resort to violence.

  • Venom

    “And what Keith is saying that any time killing IS justified, it is a complete and utter tragedy, a failure of humanity. ”
    Apart from killing for food.

    “The fact that World War 2 happened, let alone any war, is terrible. The fact that anyone has to defend themselves from another human being is terrible.”
    No of course, but there is a difference between violence for no reason and over use of force and self defence and violence to stop a great threat. I see nothing wrong with violence for self defence and violence to stop a greater threat. Those things are rather admirable.
    And for instance with the whole winter soldier thing, it is justifiable violence. People rarely root for the people in stories that cause violence without reason (normally they are the bad guy), but rather for the once that try to stop that violence. You can’t stop evil violence by anything else than violence in the vast majority of cases.

    “Yes, sometimes violence becomes necessary, but the problem is glorifying that violence, instead of hammering home how terrible it is.”
    It isn’t terrible. Can you, with a straight face, tell a Canadian, British or American WW2 vet that what they did was wrong? Or for that matter say that people shouldn’t stand up against Nazi Germany or advocate for it?

    “Killing demons in Doom is supposed to be spectacular and “awesome”. You’re supposed to be impressed by the violence and take joy from killing things in gruesome ways. They even refer to special kills as “Glory Kills”.”
    Yea, so? It’s also survival. Aren’t you allowed to be happy when you survived some horrible assault on you, by say by tigers? Survival is a good thing. It’s a natural instinct of all creatures.

    My main point is that their are 2 types of violence. Justifiable violence and non justifiable violence. Justifiable violence is a good thing, not a bad. Not justifiable violence is obviously bad.
    Saying portrails of violence are always bad is also saying self defence and violence to stop a greater violence are also bad. They aren’t.

  • Jake Forbes

    Looking critically at a cultural fixation with violent media =/= unconditional pacifism. Arguing when real-world uses of military force are justified is derailing Keith’s arguments rather than responding to it. It is possible to believe that violence is sometimes justified and still be critical of the obsession AAA gaming has with making killing the core activity of play. The vast majority of humans in wealthy nations are never put in positions where lethal force is called for, but in games and movies we seem to fixate on heroes who take lethal force for granted. I don’t believe violent games (of which i do play a fair amount) make one violent, but they do require that we as players dehumanize enemies and shut off critical thought (with rare exceptions of games like Spec-Ops: The Line that bring introspection and nuance… albeit trying to have it both ways). Regardless if you’re convinced that violent media erodes empathy, isn’t it a shame that we practically take for granted in AAA games must be about heroes taking out enemies?

  • Venom

    “Arguing when real-world uses of military force are justified is derailing Keith’s arguments rather than responding to it. It is possible to believe that violence is sometimes justified and still be critical of the obsession AAA gaming has with making killing the core activity of play.”
    I don’t think so, as Keiths argument basically comes down to “killing is bad in real life so don’t do it in games”. While in reality killing isn’t always bad.
    And even in games it’s often in fluff justified.

    “The vast majority of humans in wealthy nations are never put in positions where lethal force is called for, but in games and movies we seem to fixate on heroes who take lethal force and vigilantism for granted.”
    So?

    “but they do require that we as players dehumanize enemies and shut off critical thought”
    Can you show me one sane human being that thinks pixels on the screen are real people? They are easily dehumanizable because the “people” you kill in games aren’t human to begin with.
    And there is no critical through to be had on killing pixels on the screen because there is simply no moral dilemma on killing pixels on the screen.

    “And to be clear, wishing for other models is not the same as wanting to take away the ones we have.”
    I’m well aware, but it does try to stop the inflow of them. As there is limited manpower making games and movies meaning making less violent games/movies if less people work on them. (not that I play many shooters and care for them that much)

    My point is, to think any killing in games movie etc. erodes empathy you’d first have to see those images on the screen as at least on some level human. And I’d think you’d be hard pressed to find a sane human being that think pixels on a screen are on some level human.