Saturday, 9 August 2014

The Do's and Don'ts of Genital Mutilation in Games (with Outlast: Whistleblower)

Apologies for the lack of updates lately. I mentioned in my last blog post that I've been working on a short game for when I go back to college and it's been pretty much non-stop work on that, learning as I go. It's the kind of thing that I would love to be able to share with my readers but with people like Mike Bithell (hi Mike!), creator of Thomas Was Alone, slinging insults at people who disagree with feminism, I think it's best that I keep that type of thing away from prying eyes. It might be needed for a portfolio one day and, with people like Mike in the industry who aren't willing to listen to differing opinions, I feel like posting screenshots here could come back to haunt me.

Anyway, I'm a bit behind on this but Outlast: Whistleblower was the DLC prequel/sequel for Outlast that was released in May. As with the main game, the goal is for the player to make their way through an asylum while avoiding psychopaths who want to kill them. One of these psychopaths is Eddie Gluskin, also known as "The Groom". The Groom has an insane obsession with finding a bride and he sees all his victims as women, even if they're male. One of the ways he tortures and kills his prisoners -- all male in the game, although he apparently had a history of killing women prior to entering the asylum -- is by violently removing their genitals and surgically-modifying their bodies to give them breasts. Some of this "procedure" is seen in-game and is very graphic (but I won't show any screenshots here):

The reason why I'm bringing up Outlast: Whistleblower a few months after it's been released rather than closer to the time is because the genital mutilation is handled about as tastefully as a genital mutilation theme in a violent game can be handled, in that it's clear that the Groom mutilates men but unless you find out all the backstory, it's actually ambiguous to whether any of his victims are female; there's a Female Ward and the breasts and genitals of each victim are often obscured enough for it to be possible that the Groom murdered women as well as men.

It wasn't until I came across this review (Continue-Play.com) a couple of weeks ago, which states:
"Just as it was in Outlast, there are no women in Whistleblower. We’re actually pleased; we’re unsure of how we would handle some of the more controversial scenes if they depicted women as well as men. But if you search hard enough within Mount Massive, you may just find what we did – a single case file explaining why women are not present, despite the female ward that was seen in Outlast. Well played, Red Barrels. Well played."
I took a look at the Outlast Wiki after reading this and found that there were indeed a bunch of notes in the game that explained that the only inmates (is that the right term? I'd say they were prisoners more than they were patients) of the asylum were male. This is most explicit in a document called "Gender Selection in Mount Massive Contractors" but others, specifically about the Groom's victims, can be read here, here and here. I can remember reading most of these but I must've glossed over or misinterpreted some aspects of either the notes or game environment that led me to believe the Groom's victims were both male or female.

Just in case this entire blog will be taken out of context, I have to clarify that I'm not arguing, "why doesn't this game feature the brutal mutilation of women's genitals!?" For one thing, I actually didn't have a problem with Outlast: Whistleblower only featuring violence against men, for reasons I'll come to later on. The double standard of violence against men being considered "acceptable" when the reverse would not be seems to be present

Since the Continue-Play review mentioned how pleased they were that Outlast: Whistleblower didn't feature any women, I took a look at a few other reviews. To their credit, most reviewers took the content very seriously, expressing the kind of revulsion you'd expect. Others, like Jim Sterling for The Escapist, took the opportunity to make light of the idea:
"Our plucky little tattler soon finds himself a video camera, because that's the conceit of the game, and tries to escape with his limbs - and penis - intact. Oh lord, the penis."
[...]
"... suffice to say that men everywhere will be shuddering every time they recall this particular bad guy's scenes."

While GameFront's Phil Hornshaw's attempts at examining the thought process behind the developer's decision to feature the Groom made me cringe more than the genital mutilation did in the game itself:
"In fact, I found the whole section personally uncomfortable on a lot of levels, which is probably the point (it is, after all, a horror story). At this point, I’m torn on the depiction; there are degrees to the idea of presenting a character inflicting this sort of violence on people that feels insensitive to the fact that similarly awful violence is inflicted on people in the real world — especially on women. (Outlast contains no women, a point which is noted in a story aside if you find the right file hidden in The Whistleblower.) Even more than just, you know, murder, this is a deeply horrific thing that feels like it’s being exploited for a shock moment.

At the same time, my own very visceral reaction to the scene — as a male in a country where such a thing is very likely never to happen to me — may well be the point Red Barrels had in mind. The language and imagery used, at least under the immediate surface of blood and death, screams at a presentation of violence against women to be experienced by a male character. And while that’s not to suggest that violence against women must be portrayed in a male way in order to make it “understood” by male players and male characters, nonetheless, the scene presents a very particular kind of menace not often experienced by male players, and which was created by an all-male team at Red Barrels. There’s a predatory man searching for a defenseless character, cooing about love and marriage, bent on rape, torture and murder; it’s a kind of fear that women may be familiar with, but men are infinitely less so. Whether that’s exploited purely for novelty and shock, or something deeper, is tough to say."
There are a bunch of things I would like to tell Phil Hornshaw about real-life violence towards men, from the customary practice of male circumcision in the West and men being more likely to be the victims of violent crime to sexual violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and forced circumcision in Kenya (note that those articles don't feature pictures but do have graphic descriptions of sexual violence against men. The disturbing idea of sexual violence causing male victims to "lose" their manhood is also a theme that crops up in Outlast: Whistleblower, although obviously it's altered to fit a survival horror game and isn't as tragic or depressing as the real-life experiences). However, it's not only the ignorance of the issues themselves that bother me. I feel like Hornshaw's review dumbs-down a lot of real-life issues. I understand that he specified "as a male in this country" when talking about genital mutilation but does he also think that women can relate to the idea of being hunted by "predatory men bent on rape, torture and murder"?

If those are the reasons why Red Barrels -- the developer of Outlast: Whistleblower -- then it's similar to the problem that Far Cry 3 had; diminishing a real-life problem for men for the sake of imitating one for women in fiction. That may not be the case but Hornshaw apparently finds it tricky to see men portrayed as victims because they're male. Just like Jeffrey Yohalem for Far Cry 3, men being victims has to be representative of violence against women.

Personally, I think the genital mutilation in Outlast: Whistleblower is certainly shocking but not really something to be frustrated over. That would be a bit like watching an episode of Jackass and complaining about the "gross-out" nature of some of the stunts. There are all kinds of shocking things to see in Outlast, including naked, still-living people who look as if they've been sewn back together but without any genitals intact. It could certainly be argued that complaining about the violent content is completely different to complaining about the double standard -- the genital mutilation of men in Outlast: Whistleblower while women are unlikely to receive this kind of graphic mistreatment in games -- and if that's the stance you take on it, I understand.

However, in my opinion, it's clear that the double standard itself is to blame here rather than Red Barrels themselves. Look at the response of the reviewers, breathing collective sighs of relief, cracking jokes or trying to justify the genital mutilation just because men are the victims. Even though Red Barrels exploited this double standard, they were developing downloadable content for an already-shockingly violent game and I think to blame them just for adding more shockingly violent content would be a bit like -- if I can use the Jackass analogy again -- criticising Jackass: The Movie for going further than the television show.

The thing is, maybe Red Barrels were just playing it safe, as the Continue-Play.com review hinted at. Hypothetically, assume that someone like Jack Thompson re-emerges and picks Outlast: Whistleblower as a target of his anger, criticising it for violence against women. Maybe he assumes that the victims are all female or, like me, thinks that there's a mix of male and female victims but sees it as anti-woman rather than pro-equality. If this controversy was to crop up, Red Barrels have plenty of in-game documents as a defence against accusations of violence against women, which would make the whole controversy disappear (in a perfect world; in reality, logic doesn't mean anything to people with a vendetta against video games).

It's frustrating that the genital mutilation of men isn't considered a controversy but, again, the real-life double standard is the problem.

You can send me an e-mail at themalesofgames@gmail.com, follow me on Twitter @themalesofgames -- I'm starting to regret that long Twitter handle now -- or leave a comment below.

13 comments:

  1. it makes me think that perhaps women crave seeing men be victims of violence. I've never even heard of a feminist attempting to do something about the problem of violence against men, it's always about women.

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    1. I wouldn't go so far as to say that women "crave" seeing men as victims- just that they prefer to ignore such violence as so rare that any talk of it is almost always a derailment from the "real" issue of violence against oppressed women. It is very often brushed off as insignificant because crucially it is not compounded by a systemic prejudice that turns a blind eye or victim-blames. They seem to overlook the fact that this counter-productive attitude perpetuates a culture where men are encouraged to dismiss sexual assault as not a problem because it can't physically happen to them because, after all, "what kind of man [or boy] would ever turn down sex?". This problem is compunded by the general notion that men, in their position of privilege, are incapable of identifying with anything that runs outside of their own personal experiences. That's without even touching upon the far more 'real' issues of men under-reporting and being taken far, far less seriously in the event of being a victim at every stage of the process if they do seek justice.

      Anyway, as for Outlast and the obvious double standard around depictions of sexual violence towards men- I share the concern that some critics will almost certainly make this an issue about female representation. I fear the way that the villain sees his target as women, and treats them as such, will lead some to say that once again developers are only comfortable when portraying violence against 'women' while simultaenously overlooking 'the real issues of violence against women' by choosing to play things out 'once again' through the male perspective. But we shall see how easy it is to overlook the very astute point that the game is a rare instance of putting the stereotypical audience through the victimisation that women go through in the real world.

      Then again, if the villain itself had been made a female we'd have likely seen criticism that the representation played into pernicious, outdated Freudian attitudes towards women as penis-envying harpies. In the end, I feel the worst stereotypical representation in gaming is actually that of the boorish, vitriolic, overprotective, socially-inept teenage gamer "himself" because not only does it preclude the possibility for gamers to actually be female but it presumes games are predominantly played to satisfy and reinforce gamers' bigotted fantasies.

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  2. When I started to read I thought you were upset they were no female victims, but it seems you are angry against the pseudo intellectualism who tried to turn this into a women issue to look more progressive but they are just exposed their ignorance and stupidity. And the fact violence against men is acceptable. It's maybe it's something people saw as more something masculine so if the victim is a woman they jump to the conclusion it's misogynistic no matter the act made and see a kind of freudian bullshit metaphor of rape. Like Patricia Hernandez seeing the mods allowing to control other player characters as rape.

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    1. Did Patricia Hernandez really say that? That's pretty funny.

      You summed up the problem I have with it exactly. It's the usual portrayal of women being considered perpetual victims and male suffering not being recognised. In a way, Outlast isn't the point, other than being an example of when it's okay to feature only male victims and not be offensive. They even gave reasons for it in the story.

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  3. ehh they are waay more portrayals of gory, over the top violence against ladies than dudes in both video games and popular media and they're often very sexualized. i don't think it's that weird people would make note of the game making a unique choice in only having male victims. i even think it's understandable that some people would even appreciate the way it bucks convention and be relieved that we don't need a female victim to enjoy violent fucked up video games (cuz if we did that would raise some troubling questions). i don't think anybody is under the impression male genital mutilation is anything but horrifying. like if Saw was the first horror movie that didn't have a hot chick as the victim. i'd watch it, knowing it was super fucked up and gross, and likely be impressed that they were mixing it up, but i would never think that running around in a pig mask and playing life and death games with people i kidnapped was a reasonable thing to do.

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    1. Could you give me some examples of female victims of over the top violence in video games? I'm struggling to believe that there are more examples than males ones.

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  4. Please don't use this game as a platform for a discussion about genital mutilation and sexual violence against men and women. It's not appropriate or necessary. The game is meant to incite fear. As a woman who plays video games, I understand and accept that most mainstream video games are geared towards a male audience. But I still enjoyed the game: it was scary, exciting, and disgusting. What may lack in story line it makes up for in excitement/fear. If Eddie's character were a woman, or victims were women, would it really change your experience? Female Eddie probably couldn't overpower the male protagonist as easily, and if there were female patients I'm sure he'd mutilate women just the same. His patient file mentioned possible sexual abuse by male family members and a history of violent sexual behavior and murder, especially that of women. Women were not patients at the facility, so he hunted down men instead of women. And I'm sure you're right, if there were women it would probably be less acceptable to most people, but then again, if female Eddie was attacking female patients, as male Eddie is attacking male patients, would you be as disappointed/upset? As a woman I think either is equally shocking. I just feel like a female Eddie attacking men is less likely due to physical strength of average males and females. But female Eddie against female patients would also be terrifying. I just don't think this is an appropriate platform for the pseudo-socio-emotional-psychological argument you're trying to make. It's a video game. Not social commentary.

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    1. I agree, actually, at least to an extent. Although I disagreed with Phil Hornshaw's article, he was right when he said the reaction to Outlast was kind of the point. I was more critical of Hornshaw's other comments and the double standard itself, rather than the game.

      As for what my experience would be like if Eddie/his victims were female, I think I would be equally as shocked. Probably more, since it's not something you expect to see in a video game and I know that Red Barrels would be running a great risk of a backlash by featuring it (whereas men being hit in the genitals has been done to death. Not to the graphic level seen in Outlast but a lot, nonetheless). I don't know the motives behind Red Barrels' inclusion of Eddie -- if they had any motives other than "this would be kinda cool" -- but I think I'd also my respect for them would increase a bit if either Eddie or his victims were female because, even though it would be horrible, they would be breaking new ground.

      I don't think physical strength really has any bearing on Eddie's sex but I do wonder what other implications there would be if he was a female psychopath instead; if "her" character was exactly the same, the game could receive criticism for featuring a "typical" female character who is defined by how much she wants to be married. Plus, if she wants to make her male victims more like women in order to marry them, there could be a backlash over one of the few lesbian characters in a game being both crazy and villainous.

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  5. I don't quite get your main point (probably my mistake, sorry about that) - are you ranting about the "pretentious" criticisms of the reviewers or do you somehow think it is weird that there isn't any female mutilation in the game (as it's a double standard and hence somewhat "unfair")?
    Or are you just trying to summarise all opinions you've read on the issue?
    Thanks already :)

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    1. Sorry it's taken me so long to reply.

      I think I was a mix of those things. The genital mutilation *does* bother me but the fact is that it's Outlast; it's *meant* to bother me. So I don't take issue with that. The ignorant and pretentious remarks of the reviewer bother me more.

      Thanks for commenting. :)

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  6. That's okay, it was an old article too! But I just recently played it and thus stumbled upon your article. Very interesting, thanks for writing it and replying.

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  7. such people as yourself capable of talking about violence against men only in context of violence against women. it is not "who's dick is bigger" argument. time to understand that, dude.

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    1. Four problems with this:

      Firstly, what's the issue with comparing violence against men to violence against women? Comparing the two gives us a measuring stick and makes the amount/severity of the violence easier to quantify. It also gives a far more broad overview because you're examining the treatment of both sexes rather than just one (which is a criticism against feminist groups who use phrases like "end violence against women" because it appears to disregard violence against men).

      Secondly, no it's not a "whose dick is bigger" argument. That's your own interpretation and I've no idea how you arrived at that conclusion.

      Thirdly, it's very easy to discuss violence against men without bringing up violence against women. Something along the lines of "violence against men is abhorrent, especially the depiction of genital mutilation, but getting offended at Outlast: Whistleblower is pointless because it's intended to shock," etc, etc. But again, see my first point.

      Fourthly, how would you prefer I frame it? Care to suggest something rather than make blanket remarks about "people such as myself"?

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