Trigger warning: This piece talks about sexual violence.
*Since writing this post the studio have come out to say that original descriptions of the event in question were misconstrued. I have left the original post as it was but please read it as a general commentary on the theme of sexual violence in games rather than a comment specifically about Tomb Raider, at least until it is clear what is actually being portrayed in the game.*
There are two things you may or may not know about me, number one is that I like to play a lot of video games and number two is that I studied criminology at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, where I focused on gender and violence. You can now imagine my delight at seeing a new, more natural, seemingly kick-ass Lara Croft in the new Tomb Raider trailer. I always though Lara was awesome, she was a smart, fearless woman who went out into the world on her own, solving puzzles and having adventures. My delight at the new game soon turned to despair when I saw how she was to be treated in the game. Beaten-up, starved, thrown out of a plane, her best friend is kidnapped and then, to my horror, an attempted rape.
Since the attempted rape plot point has been revealed the internet has been echoing with the sound of face-palming to the comments made by some of the developers. Supposedly we will not project ourselves into the character but will want to protect her instead (puke) and that when she gains confidence they will tear her back down again (wut?). This is all part of an origins story to show how she becomes so badass. As a result of these comments people are asking why does a female character have to experience some form of sexual violence in order to develop into a strong character? This is a question that I am glad is being asked and I am waiting for a decent answer, but for now this is not the issue that I will address in the rest of the post.
As mentioned above I am a criminology graduate whose research focused mainly on sexual violence and how related discourse can be problematic and result in real world consequences. This is especially true when sexual violence is used as a plot device and it is not something that should be just thrown in for the sake of an edgy, “mature”, dark element to a female storyline. I say female storyline as I am not aware of a male protagonist in a game who faced a similar obstacle but please correct me if I am wrong.
But, some may say, is this not a real world risk for women? Aren’t the numbers of women who survive sexual violence high, so it is only continuing with the gritty real world experience? Rather than an argument for including an attempted rape scene in a game I see it as a reason to not include it, or if the writers think it is an indispensible part of the plot to treat it really carefully and with caution. My primary worry is because of triggers. Sexual violence in particular can have long term effects which may surface when something triggers a reaction in the survivor relating to the attack. This is not always the case but it is quite common with survivors of sexual violence.
So I would like to know what will be done to prevent triggers or to assist gamers if the scene is left in. Will the game include numbers for national rape crisis centres, will the box have a trigger warning printed on it, or will gamers be able to skip the scene with forewarning? Even my Mum’s favourite, Coronation Street, shows helpline numbers at the end of the show for people who may be affected by elements of the plot! Games are so immersive and engaging and this is why I feel that sexual violence may not be the most appropriate way to show the fall and rise of a character bearing in mind what the story could trigger.
What the writer may, or may not realise is that by constructing the plot in such a way i.e. Lara nearly being raped by a group of strangers, they are adding to a type of discourse on sexual violence that is both influential and incorrect.
Time after time in surveys and studies on fear of crime it is shown that women fear crime more than men. When asked what crime they fear the most, rape is the most frequent poll topper, higher than even murder. When fears of other crimes such as robbery or trespass were explored, the fear of accompanying sexual violence appeared again. The fears mostly related to strangers and public spaces when in reality a woman is most likely to be assaulted by someone she knows.
The real-world consequences are significant as it has been shown that women who feared crime in this way limited their interaction with the public sphere as a result. This included not going out at night, not answering their front doors, not going out alone and not going to new places or not meeting new people alone. All of this fed back to that fear of sexual violence and the idea that home is where you are safest.
Now you may be wondering what has any of this to do with Lara Croft? When asked why they fear strangers, sexual violence, and public spaces the women in this research said that it was the message they received from family, friends, the news, books, movies, and society in general. Those stories stuck with them and then grew into worries and fears. Now look at Lara, she goes off to an island to have an adventure and what happens when she meets the locals? They try to rape her. This story has been told and retold time and time again to reinforce this message of “woman go outside, woman get harassed or attacked.” This is combined with the you want to protect her thing and makes it all a bit weird. The writers would not be immune to this bias so I am not surprised that they picked the gang of strangers idea for the attempted rape, I am more surprised that they felt it was suitable for an interactive game.
So overall I am not impressed with the way that this part of Lara’s story is being told and I am not impressed with the explanations that have been given for it. Sexual violence is a serious topic and not one that should be used as a gimmick or as an easy way to traumatise someone so they can rise up and become the hero of the game. Does that mean that the topic should be avoided? No, but it needs to be treated with consideration and awareness of how the plot could affect players. According to Kotaku an executive producer Ron Rosenberg said that “we’re not trying to be over the top, shock people for shock’s sake, we’re trying to tell a great origin story”. I hope he is true to his word and the decision to include the scene was made to tell a vital part of the story rather than just including sexual violence for the sake of it as she is a woman.