- Adult Computer Games and the Ethics of Imaginary Violence:Responding to Gamergate from Japan
The threat was real and had to be taken seriously. She had received and read hundreds of similar messages and posts on the internet and social media, but this one included her home address. With the address redacted, it read: "I'm going to go to your apartment at **** and rape you to death. After I'm done, I'll ram a tire iron up your cunt."1 The sender also promised to harm family and friends but reserved an especially imaginative and graphic brutality for her. So it was that Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist critic of sexism in computer/console gaming in North America, was forced to call the police and leave her home in August 2014. Sarkeesian was neither the first nor the last victim of backlash from gamers to perceived attacks on their community and culture, which began with organized campaigns against female game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu and came to a head with threats to bomb and shoot up venues hosting advocates of change in computer/ console gaming. Having risen to prominence with her crowdfunded video series "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," Sarkeesian was a high-profile target, and news of attacks such as the one in August 2014 served to galvanize a counter movement against the gamers harassing her and others. Events were such that the moment was deemed "Gamergate," a [End Page 67] struggle against "traditional, patriarchal, dude-dominated gaming culture," if not also "a battle for our cultural soul" (Dewey 2014). Widely discussed and debated, Joss Whedon, Stephen Colbert, and many others weighed in on Gamergate and spoke with Sarkeesian to get at the issues, which led to taking a stand against gamers. Predictably, gamers and their allies responded by digging in their heels in opposition to "social justice warriors," and name-calling intensified on both sides. By the beginning of 2015, gamers appeared as psychopathic cyber-terrorists and rapists in an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit (de Segonzac 2015).
Amidst all this, Japanese computer/console games have been highlighted as examples of how sexism and sexual violence are normalized, which need to be problematized as part of the battle for our cultural soul. When a Japanese artist known for producing "adult" (read: pornographic) manga was tapped to design the costume of a female character in the fighting game Soulcalibur, for example, a commentator on the feminist website The Mary Sue was fed up with familiar and predictable defenses:
And don't even start with any garbage about "cultural differences" or "freedom of expression" or any of that. […] Geek culture is still largely exclusionary to women, and choices like this only serve to drive away half of the consumers who buy these products. This is especially toxic in the gaming industry, which fosters a culture of violent and terrifying misogyny through its objectification and devaluation of women both in-game and out.(Maggs 2015)
If the costume of a female character raises concerns about objectification and violence, then these reactions are more pronounced in response to Japanese adult computer games. Labeled and zoned for adult consumption, these games can contain explicit and extreme depictions of sex, which is increasingly out of sync with global standards. (For an overview of relevant laws, see Galbraith 2017.) When one such game, RapeLay (Reipurei, 2006), where players simulate raping girls and women, circulated online, it inspired the organization Equality Now to launch a global campaign against "Japan: Rape Simulator Games and the Normalization of Sexual Violence" (Equality Now 2009). In Japan, activists such as Nakasatomi Hiroshi, co-founder of the Anti-Pornography and Prostitution Research Group, agree that adult computer games are part of a culture of sexual violence and should be banned by law (Nakasatomi 2013). If gaming and pornography are what psychologist Philip Zimbardo calls "a deadly duo" contributing to toxic masculinity (Zimbardo and Coulombe 2015, xviii, 20-21, 27-29), then they seem to come together in Japanese adult computer games. Critics have been harsh: such games reveal "a social illness that's embedded in Japanese society" (Alexander 2009) and...