Lady Sarkeesian’s Brave Knight, Ben Kuchera

Have you ever wondered if Anita Sarkeesian had a male version?

Neither have I, but we have our answer, nonetheless. Ben Kuchera, from video game web site Polygon, wrote an opinion piece, riding in to be a valiant knight to damsels like Lady Sarkessian. Like any decent knight, he is on a quest to slay a dragon, and he managed to find one. Let’s take a look at this train wreck of logic:

Kuchera starts off with the title, “It’s time to leave the brothels and strip clubs behind when real victims fuel your narrative.” Now, I wouldn’t have as much of a problem if he stuck with this. I haven’t found any convincing evidence that causally links video game violence to real world violence, but I could respectfully disagree, unless he managed to present significant evidence to back up his assertion (spoiler alert: Evidence doesn’t show up in his article), and I would have to reconsider. However, the title itself is misleading. He doesn’t decry the use of violence (in the general sense) to fuel a narrative. He only attacks violence against that one demographic that is least likely to experience violence but is most protected.

Kuchera gives an extensive list of games that include prostitution and/or strippers, and indicates this proves that sex for money of some kind is pervasive, and a tired cliché. Fair enough. It shows up often games, as do many other settings. If the reason for wanting to get rid of brothels and strip clubs is that they are clichéd, then other settings are far more deserving of the cutting room floor.

“The use of these locations as shorthand for “seedy, gritty location where criminals meet” cuts across the genre lines, and the use of sex workers as little more than background imagery is already disturbing.”

Here is where the real issue comes up: It’s not about clichés after all. It’s about “ongoing violence against the female characters in the game, as people you meet in these strip clubs or brothels have a tendency to either be beaten as a way to prove that a male character is uncaring and brutal, or they turn up as corpses.” Therein lies the problem. The reason that Kuchera wants to get rid of these locations is that they depict violence against women. Disregarding for the moment that there’s no mention of just how often such violence is portrayed (he says that the female characters “have a tendency” to be beaten or killed, which is more than a little vague), the real problem is that he singles out violence against women as the reason. Other clichéd locations, urban ruins, bars, castles, and spaceships are often backdrops for scenes of violence, but the violence is against nameless male mooks, so no need to worry. For a guy who started his piece decrying clichés, he sure fell back on a big one. It’s the old “violence against women is worse than against men” cliché.

The next part is also problematic. “This is a shallow way of exploring a very real societal problem. and often unpunished due to the nature of the work and an unwillingness to go to law enforcement. This is made violence against sex workers goes underreported worse when law enforcement itself is part of the abuse. Lawyers have argued that the murder of sex workers is a lesser crime than the murder of ‘certain classes of individuals.’”

Are other “very real societal problems” acceptable to be explored in a shallow way?

War — you know, where mostly men get killed (even though Hillary Clinton doesn’t seem to think men are the majority of victims, though she acknowledges they are the majority of the ones dying) — is pretty real, and is in quite a few games. He states how terrible violence against sex workers is, and backs it up with shaky links. The first is to an article on AlterNet that contains some anecdotal evidence. The last one is about a lawyer trying to get a defendant acquitted for murder by, indeed, claiming, “Shouldn’t that be reserved for people who are guilty of killing certain classes of individuals?” What was left out was how, “Queens Supreme Court Justice Richard Buchter immediately rejected Scarpa’s rationale.” That kinda shows that actually, the thinking of sex worker murder being acceptable is, well, rejected.

Despite Kuchera’s weak support for his claim, the claim itself isn’t the problem. I do agree that violence happens against sex workers, and that said violence is bad. That’s pretty obvious. The problem is that the claim doesn’t really support his main argument. He doesn’t explain why sex workers don’t belong in games. Simply because there is real life violence against them is not enough of an argument, as there is plenty of real life violence against soldiers, and he doesn’t call for war to be a taboo topic for games. His paragraph about sex worker abuse is more an appeal to emotion than an actual support for his point. It’s meant to get the reader to feel, rather than think.

Let’s move on: “These are issues that aren’t often discussed, but games tend to be uninterested in telling the human aspect of this story.” Nice generalization of gamers… I’m sure Kuchera has statistics to back that up somewhere… you know, surveys of gamers so that he can determine how cold and heartless they are.

“These characters exist only to die or be beaten in order to flesh out male villains. It’s a version of the kicking the dog trope, except in this case the ‘dog’ is a human woman.”

There we go. Here is where Kuchera undercuts his own argument. He talks about the “kicking the dog” trope, and emphasizes that it’s a “human woman” who is in the role of the “dog,” in a vague way of suggesting that video game makers are dehumanizing women… saying women are dogs… something like that. He found a way to link women to dogs, and pin it on game designers. Anyhow, the trope in question is one where a character is shown to be evil by doing a blatantly evil action. The “dog” in question is a metaphor (as is “kicking”), and the page he linked to has examples of male humans taking the role. However, the trope relies on the one being “kicked” also being seen as sympathetic — otherwise it really can’t establish the evilness of the kicker. A villain beating on characters we feel nothing for doesn’t cause much of an emotional response. The reason prostitutes, and women in general, are used for this is because the audience already has feelings of protection toward women, and disgust at violence directed towards them. Male victims are very often beaten and killed in video games, but game designers don’t expect players to shed a tear while the entrails of Nameless Male Mook #6,739 decorate the screen.

To use Duke Nukem as an example (and I’m using Duke as an example since it’s been a favorite target for feminists), women characters are killed in the game as a way to show how evil the aliens are, and to give more reason to slaughtering them. Male characters are also killed, either as background, to show that the aliens are tough (classic “redshirts”), or sometimes for comedic effect.

Kuchera isn’t done there. “Player interactions with sex workers can sometimes lead to a ‘health boost’ or some other form of reward within the game. Prostitutes are therefore represented as objects to be exploited for the player’s personal gain.”

And this makes them different from other Non-Player Character in just what way? The old man pacing around the campfire and handing out quests also exists just to be interacted with for the player’s personal gain.

“These women are used as set pieces, objects to keep the narrative flowing. That’s an offensive way to treat a population that is already at such a high risk of violence from their employers, customers and law enforcement.”

Men are also used as set pieces to keep the narrative flowing. In any modern military shooter, your fellow soldiers just exist to add to the narrative, make it feel more like a real battle, and then there are the enemies who exist just to be killed for some reward. I’ll just list the games where the majority of those killed are male:

  • Virtually every single video game involving killing. Ever.

The only reason why it’s so disgusting to Kuchera and those who think like him is that these particular characters are women. Maim and kill all the men you like though.

After beating readers over the head with how bad violence is when it’s against women, and how it’s so bad, that it doesn’t belong in video games, Kuchera ends by going back to claiming it’s really about the overuse of clichés, as though that’s the real reason.“These levels don’t need to be stripped from gaming entirely, but we need to begin to see how tired and lazy they’ve become when used as shorthand for ‘gritty underworld location.’” That’s the reason: people who use strip clubs and brothels are just not creative.

He does end with, “It’s also important to look at the real world cost of normalizing violence against sex workers, or at least responsibly address the fact that designers and writers are using real world suffering as a cheap way to develop their characters. It’s time to find other options.”

The first part of that is nothing I’d argue with. Obviously, violence in the real world is bad. However, if he tries to make it a generalization that if something involves suffering in the real world then it doesn’t belong in games, there is no reason why every single other form of violence also should be removed from games. If it were the case that real-world suffering is taboo, then every game from Amnesia to Zombies Ate My Neighbors should be banned.

But apparently, violence against women is the only kind that is unacceptable to Kuchera.

It’s buried in the comments section where we get what this is all about, by the way:

Kuchera states, “I get that a lot of male gamers can’t / won’t / or don’t see why that’s a problem, or they take that criticism personally, but that’s not evidence that this isn’t a serious problem.”

In his article, Kuchera gets to show that he is a Good Man, and he proves it by showing how much more enlightened he is than all those Bad Men. The other male gamers are all misogynists, but not him. He has an article to prove he’s morally above them.

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