The Context of Content: Gaming’s Public Relations Minefield

on June 13, 2012 4:57 PM

It still strikes me as odd how video games are generally considered different from every other medium. A baby by most standards, digital games are generally sat at the kids table; left to ingest the contextual equivalent of Lunchables and Capri Suns while the adults (books, movies, music) dine on the substantial content of our existence.

Maybe it’s due to the fact that I grew up with video games as a constant presence, but I feel like I’m a minority when I don’t immediately cringe at the idea that a video game is going to tackle touchy subject matter. I just turned 27, so to me it makes sense that a medium I have grown up with has decided to grow along with me.

The girl that isn’t eating her vegetables probably likes Superman 64 or something.
 

When I mentioned growing up, I didn’t just mean growing older. It’s not just realizing that you can curse out loud around adults and being allowed to vote; it’s the full experience of understanding when maturity and tact are needed in a situation as well as having the ability to back that up with the knowledge and assurance that I’m a grown-ass man.

A grown-ass man with hobbies that, for some reason, are considered too juvenile to supply the content that my age affords me the right to partake in. The concept that video games are in any way, shape, or form juvenile just by the virtue of their being video games is something I take great exception to. To wit, I’m not a huge fan of the gut reaction that the media has when a video game is mentioned to tackle particularly mature content.

 
I totally just diaper bagged that noob.
 

In this case, I’m specifically speaking of the reaction people are having to the mention of Lara Croft being beaten and nearly raped in the upcoming Tomb Raider title. Since the topic of rape is incredibly touchy (and rightfully so), I’m going to preface the rest of this article with a disclaimer. It is not a disclaimer to absolve myself from any and all dissenting opinion, but rather an attempt at humility; hopefully it is something that can be taken into account before people and women’s rights groups firebomb my house for being male and daring to have the hubris to speak about a predominantly female suffering.

Disclaimer: As a male that has not yet been incarcerated, I will never fully understand what it’s like to go through such a scenario and couldn’t possibly imagine the horror of being in such a situation. I fully understand that. I don’t want that to be considered dismissive in any way, I get that my gender and current circumstance places me in a position to not fully empathize with such a concept.

I don’t think the mention of a rape attempt in the new Tomb Raider game is necessarily as tasteless as one may initially think. It all lies in how the writers and director handle the whole thing as a part of the plot. It’s a volatile subject, and video games are rarely considered the right medium to touch upon such matters, but that’s not really the fault of video games as a whole.

Video games may be considered inherently interactive, but they are a medium. Like books, song and movies, video games can touch upon any number of subjects with their narrative and not be undermined by doing so. Some people will not be comfortable with the sheer mention or existence of certain subject matter, and they’re well within their right to not support whatever it is that touches upon said subject matter.

But we need to get over the idea that video games are somehow in this different state of existence where they don’t have the “right” to tackle mature subjects. If you’ve ever sang along to Sublime’s Date Rape or read/watched Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, you’re already familiar with two to three types of popular media expressions that have touched upon the matter. If one’s gut reaction is to burn the next Tomb Raider in effigy without taking a step back to view the product and story as a whole, then it’s not the fault of the medium for attempting to tackle it.

A lot of people are also up in arms because Lara Croft is one of the few “strong female protagonists” in video games. Maybe Crystal Dynamics should have taken a note from Nintendo and Team Ninja; people happen to get fully incensed by any scenario where a strong female video game icon is placed in a position of disempowerment. Combined with even the insinuation that one of these heroines may have been the victim of attempted sexual assault, and you have a powder keg just waiting to be sparked the wrong way.

Lara being a female protagonist is a two-part equation. Lara is definitely strong female, there’s no question about that, but there’s also the part about being a strong protagonist. Strong leading roles are often subject to capture, torture, and violence. Granted, we haven’t been subject to Uncharted 5: Drake’s Dropped Soap, but disempowerment provides a new facet to our heroes; being allowed to shine in a scenario where most would be down and out. The ability to keep calm and carry on in situations that are utterly FUBAR is what makes them stand out in the first place.

We have made icons out of female characters whose pasts are mired in cotroversial sexual matters more than once. The entire history of Wonder Woman is steeped in implied sexual assault and blatant bondage, only for Diana to defeat all that would attack her. I previous touched upon the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, but Lisbeth’s rape and her strong, steadfast reaction to it actually defines her character throughout the books. She executes her own brand of justice almost immediately, but we’re constantly reminded of her trauma as she moves forward, bolstered by the knowledge that Lisbeth is stronger despite it. In this vein, I am hoping that Lara will find the strength in herself to overcome her personal nightmare.

Most of this hoopla is likely due to the fact that Tomb Raider director Ron Rosenberg completely screwed the pooch when it came to presenting this information. Interviews are tricky, direct quotes are about as first-person as it gets, but they don’t have the tact that a structured press release may have had. In Rosenberg’s place, I wouldn’t have dropped the R bomb in an interview, let alone use it as a trinket or a selling point.

You’re going to tell what is considered a largely male community that they’re going to want to “protect” this new Lara? Are you serious? You just happened to say the one thing that could take the character’s empowerment out of her own hands and instead portray her as someone that needs to be protected? I can understand the outrage with that concept. If I’m playing a video game as the protagonist, it’s patently obvious that I’m going to protect said protagonist; the character’s survival is the driving vehicle behind the progression of the narrative.

Press B to avoid making a complete ass out of yourself.
 

While the content of the new Tomb Raider will not discourage me from trying the game and judging it on its merits as a whole, the presentation of said content to the media is where I feel Crystal Dynamics failed. Tragedy that people can personally empathize with is something to overcome, it’s not the same as Earth being destroyed or Superboy Prime punching and shattering reality. There’s not supposed to be a full on disconnect or a suspension of disbelief, plausible trauma is a way for players to connect with fictional characters. It allows us to feel something for someone that is quite obviously not real.

Using tragedy as a selling point happens to be an unfortunate theme today, as Sony released a new trailer for the PS Vita version of Resistance: Burning Skies, where various gamers are “remembered” with a wall memorial. Unfortunately, this actually does strike me as poor taste on Sony’s part.

It may come across as being on my high horse, but the loss of friends and family in actual wars and the subsequent mourning of said loss is not something to take lightly, let alone something to use as a marketing gimmick. The idea that this ad managed to make it to cut while Six Days in Fallujah got lambasted and accused of making light of an actual event is absolutely mind-boggling. The comparison of respawning headshot fodder to permanent loss is something Sony should have maybe thought over. Or rather maybe they were aiming for the attention, as Resistance: Burning Skies is widely regarded as a horrible game.

One could make the argument that Sony was trying to be tongue-in-cheek with the advertisement, a sort of shot at the people who take these shooters a little too seriously, but I consider it the same as using exclamation points in writing: No one’s going to get if you’re being subtly ironic. If you’re going to do that sort of thing, it can’t be ambiguous. All in all, touchy subject matter is mostly a matter of presentation. Both CD and Sony leave a lot to be desired on that note, and maybe they will take these as a learning experience and move forward from this PR tragedy.

 /  Staff Writer
I'm a twenty-seven year old video game design student from Sunset Park, Brooklyn. If I'm not working or doing schoolwork, I can typically be found on Xbox Live under the name "Red Ring Ryko". I am thoroughly enamored with video games as a means of interactive expression, and am fully dedicated to bolstering the legitimacy of the medium and its culture.