It is a truth widely acknowledged that Arkham City’s script is, to use the proper buzzword, “problematic.” Female characters are universally referred to as “bitch,” the ambient banter between miscellaneous henchmen in respect to the game’s female characters is always sexually charged, and nasty undercurrents of sexual violence run throughout.
When several writers (most thoroughly the Film Crit Hulk) pointed this out, the Internet leapt into action in an attempt to defend the game’s script (why is anyone’s guess, as it would be a tangled, incomprehensible mess even if it wasn’t creepy). The usual tired arguments made their appearance: “it’s not that big a deal, you’re just oversensitive,” “Catwoman uses sex appeal as a weapon, of course the badguys think she’s sexy,” etc. But by far my favorite is the claim that such pervasive grossness is defensible because it is “realistic.”
The argument suggests that as Arkham City’s villains are violent criminals, locked away behind the bars of a hellish prison, and haven’t seen a woman in a long time, it’s entirely to reason they would be focused on sex and constantly threaten sexual violence. It’s bad, but it’s how it would really be!
This is probably true. But this fact does not make the dialogue any less reprehensible from an artistic standpoint.
It’s probably true that a real-life Catwoman or Harley Quinn would be subjected to gendered insults and threats of sexual assault to an extent that a real-life Batman wouldn’t. So much as a cursory look around the Internet will show you countless examples of gendered insults and threats of sexual violence made from men to women, even in much less pronounced circumstances.
So why are we made uncomfortable by Arkham City if it is an accurate reflection of an unpleasant truth?
Because Arkham City is not a game about sexism or sexual violence or anything along those lines. Despite the ubiquity of such themes, the game never addresses any of these issues. The pervasive, problematic aspects of the dialogue remain an elephant in the room, albeit an elephant with the sort of mustache that quietly gets the FBI’s attention. So it would be quite a stretch to suggest that the makers of Arkham City were trying to make some sort of deliberate, socially-conscious point about rape culture or sexualized violence against women or what-have-you. It’s more likely that they simply lathered it on like a layer of morbid frosting in an attempt to make the game seem grittier or, again, more “realistic.”
But this leads us to the most obvious weirdness about the realism argument: Arkham City is not a game that could reasonably be accused of caring much about realism. Everything about the game is heavily stylized and largely divorced from reality. Villains concoct elaborate and befuddling schemes, characters behave in contrived and arbitrary ways, and the game’s insistence upon taking itself seriously despite its preposterous premise (a major American city rounds up all of its insane and criminal elements, walls them up in an old part of town and then, like, breaks out the popcorn) render it thoroughly unrealistic. It is, after all, a Batman story.
So for “realism” to suddenly be introduced into the equation at the last minute seems more than a bit convenient, and when the only things in your game that are lauded as realistic are those which contribute to worrying social narratives about sexual violence against women, people start to ask questions. Why is this the only thing you want to be realistic about?
See, “realism” has long been cited as an excuse for mechanical or narrative structures which are skewed against women or other marginalized groups. Perhaps the most egregious example of this line of reasoning I have ever seen came in the form of a commenter on the DayZ forums. Not long after the game’s creators implemented the ability to play with a female avatar, this commenter let loose a series of suggestions for mechanical differences that he felt ought to be implemented between male and female avatars. Female avatars, he suggested, should be less adept with firearms,1 able to hold fewer items, and, in return, would be better at certain domestic camp activities.2 It would, he argued, be more “realistic“3 that way, since women tend to be physically weaker than men, but better at smaller, dexterity-focused activities.
This is obviously an extreme example, but it highlights the problem: by hiding under the guise of “realism,” we can enforce worrying social narratives (in this case: women should stay in the home while men go do what they want). By using a thin veneer of truth (women generally have less body mass than men, women are at greater risk for sexual assault), we can obscure deliberate or unconscious sexism and then argue that all we’re doing is being honest about the way things are.
And this is the crux of the problem, because it’s good to be honest about the way things are. But in writing a game (or a book or a movie or…) you need to understand what it is that you’re writing about and choose your subject matter accordingly.
Contrast Arkham City to George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, which is also full of references to or scenes of sexual violence or general degradation of women. Martin’s female characters are rarely far from the threat of rape, regardless of station or class, and this pervasive worry is made far more explicit than it ever is in Arkham City. But, although I hardly mean to suggest that Martin’s work is immune to feminist critique, the difference is that Martin actually deals with these problems, rather than simply allowing them to serve as creepy window dressing.
A Song of Ice and Fire is partly about life on the margins of an oppressive society, about the vulnerability of bastards and women and dwarfs, and about what sorts of things the marginalized have to do in order to survive. Most of the great movers and shakers in Westeros are not point-of-view characters, and a surprising amount of that great moving and shaking happens offstage. So when some villain threatens to rape Brienne, it is not merely a throwaway line, but rather a real danger.
A Song of Ice and Fire’s realism is not simply an excuse to say naughty things. Instead, it is realistic so that it can ask questions and investigate ideas around very serious vulnerabilities and injustices in the real world. Arkham City doesn’t want to deal with these questions or ideas. It wants to be a game about Batman, and that’s fine! Great, even! I love Batman! But the sort of pervasive, worrying sexism that is found in Arkham City has no place in a story which is just about Batman.4
The real world is frequently an ugly place, and it is undeniably true that racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and various other ‑isms and ‑phobias are pervasive, inescapable facets of everyday life for many, many people.5 Thus, you would not be entirely inaccurate to say that any story which features a woman who is never the victim of sexism is unrealistic.
But all stories are unrealistic. All stories are guided by an author’s hand, with some kind of structured beginning and end. Things happen in stories because some author decided they should; there is no random chance in stories. This is very much not how the real world works. Similarly, all games are unrealistic, because any system of mechanics that attempts to model a situation will necessarily include abstractions in order to be playable.
This is fine, because what makes a great game or story is not realism so much as interior logic and consistency. Bastion is somewhat less “realistic” than Call of Duty: Black Ops, yet it’s more internally coherent and has far more interesting things to say about the human condition; it’s a “truer” story, and a much better game. Some stories do need to be realistic, or obviously recognizable as similar to the real world, but realism is not itself a measure of quality.
The only things stopping women from moving through modern society much the same as men are societal attitudes and cultural roadblocks. When we say that it’s hard for a woman to succeed in a tech career, we are not referring to anything inherent to the concept of Womanness which makes programming difficult, we’re saying that the prevailing cultures in tech companies are male-centric and misogynist.
Art and entertainment help shape these same societal attitudes. If we consistently treat women differently in art, it sends a message that women are to be treated differently in the real world. Artists and entertainers thus have a responsibility to consider the ramifications and implications of their creations.
If you’re willing to thoroughly and respectfully engage with issues of oppression or sexual violence (or homophobia or racism or…), go for it. There’s no reason videogames can’t or shouldn’t engage with these issues. In fact, I’d really like to see more games try. But if you’re not going to do that, there’s very little reason to further underscore or strengthen existing, unjust narratives and modes of thinking in the name of shabby “realism.”6
Far better to create something which might, in some small way, help to make reality less “realistic.”
- You hear this kind of hogwash all the time, citing “recoil” and “lower body mass” and that sort of thing. I’d wager that half the guys that say this sort of thing have never shot a firearm in their lives, and if even a tenth of them can outshoot my wife, I’ll eat my hat. [↩]
- DayZ, if you don’t know, is a game almost entirely about shooting zombies and carrying around inventory. It’s not really about building fires at your base camp. [↩]
- His word. [↩]
- This is not to say that a Batman story couldn’t deal with these issues (though that would not be my first choice), just that such a story would not be just “a Batman story.” [↩]
- One would probably be right to say that such things are always present for all people, but some are lucky enough to be able to ignore them. [↩]
- This does not mean that a story which is not largely about these issues shouldn’t make reference to them at all, but they shouldn’t be fundamental parts of the experience if they’re not going to be dealt with. [↩]