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 ( 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 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.

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