A graphic new video game called Rape Day, set to launch in April, triggered a swift and widespread public outcry.
Created by an independent developer, Rape Day is a set in a zombie apocalypse, where the player controls a protagonist described as a “menacing serial killer rapist”.
Rape Day is a “visual novel” – players choose from a variety of sequences of still images that contain written dialogue options and prewritten story choices.
And the rape of women is encouraged to progress the plot.
Crossing the line
But why do we consider depictions of rape in video games to cross the line, but not other forms of violence?
Sexual violence is connected to a complex interplay of societal attitudes and inequality.
For too long, society’s reaction to sexual violence was to ignore the issue. It is a well-established fact that most incidences of sexual assault remain undetected, whereas homicides are commonly uncovered and perpetrators brought to the attention of the authorities.
Violent video games where sexual assault is the explicit goal should never be allowed.
And some studies found playing video games with sexually violent content was associated with rape myth acceptance: “she asked for it” and “no means yes”.
It is important, however, not to fall into the trap of assuming a definitive cause-effect relationship. Video games like Rape Day contribute to rape culture, but it joins a raft of other cultural influences.
But we’re seeing a global, cultural shift.
The global #MeToo movement resulted in many victims of sexual harassment and violence coming forward. They used a collective voice to speak out against gendered violence, sharing their experiences of unacceptable masculine sexual domination, and continues to be empowering.
Sexual violence has also led to national strategies to influence societal and individual attitudes, including engaging men in the process of changing gender norms and assumptions.
And we see this cultural shift reflected in the widespread public outrage against Rape Day.
The game went online on March 6, 2019, sparking a petition on change.org, which garnered almost 8,000 signatures. It is likely to have contributed to the decision to pull Rape Day from the gaming distribution service Steam Direct.
Steam, owned by a US private company Valve, released a statement on their decision to not distribute Rape Day, saying:
“Much of our policy around what we distribute is, and must be, reactionary – we simply have to wait and see what comes to us via Steam Direct. We then have to make a judgement call about any risk it puts to Valve, our developer partners, or our customers. After significant fact-finding and discussion, we think ‘Rape Day’ poses unknown costs and risks and therefore won’t be on Steam.”
This ban elicited positive comments on the Steam website among gamers. One comment noted:
“Rape is one of the most serious problems in our society and it needs to stop. We cannot normalize gender violence or rape.”
Comments such as these acknowledge the difference between making a game from sexual violence that objectifies women and reinforces sexism, and other violent content commonly present in video games.
There were strong reactions around the world. Not only was Rape Day banned in European countries such as Germany, but politicians in Austria and the UK became involved, calling for more restrictive legislation.
For example, Hannah Bardell, a British member of parliament, described the video game as “utterly perverted”.
Censorship and regulation
When it comes to regulation, Australia uses the Guidelines for the Classification of Computer Games. It indicates that games depicting “actual sexual violence” or where “incentives and rewards” are associated with sexual violence will be restricted.
Given Rape Day’s content, we can anticipate the game will be banned from sale in Australia if the developer submits an application. Consumers can also make complaints to the Classification Review Board about video game ratings or other decisions about games under the National Classification Code.
Censorship is typically not valued among gamers, and according to Kotaku editor Alex Walker, Australia is “famous” for banning games.
Japanese game Omega Labyrinth Z, for instance, is situated within a school setting where players can control a number of young girls battling evil forces. The Classification Board banned the game because of the gratuitous, exploitative depictions of sexual activity with characters appearing under 18 years of age, violating classification rules.
When Rape Day was pulled from Steam, the developer, Desk Plant, acknowledged that the game could be seen as problematic.
“I might agree with Steam that my game is not the right fit for a distribution site that is marketed at the general masses and children… My next move is to sell the game on my own site. Maybe that would have been a better move for me from the start.”
But still, the game will be available to any player choosing to purchase it in some countries around the world, even though restrictions are currently being discussed.
Navigating this space requires sensitive decision-making, not only among overseeing bodies but also video game players. And the widespread statements approving Valve’s decision to distance the company from the game, the petitions, and the global reactions shows us that cultural change around sexual assault can, and does, happen.