Pushing the envelope? Or tearing it into little pieces?

Posted: December 2, 2009 by Twitchdoctor in Exemplary Games
Tags: , , , ,

(Thanks to Kayla who originally sent me this link).

Some of you may have seen this, during its brief existence on the global web.  The game whose title is also its gameplay directive:

Hit the Bitch.

The game was originally created in Denmark, but has now disappeared for most of the rest of the world.  When you try to click on the game site you receive the following message:

Dear non-danish visitor,

Due to an extremely high amount of traffic “Hit the Bitch” has been limited to only allow users from Denmark.

However, domestic violence is a global problem, so please support the fight against it in your local country.

Thanks for your interest.
Kind regards
Children exposed to Violence at Home

So, let me try to reconstruct for you, as best I can after having played it only once, what this game involved.  It is a Flash game, and it is all in Danish.  One of my goals was to actually get someone to translate the thing when I went back to it, but the site was closed off by that time.  However, to judge from the icons, you are able to control the game either through the mouse or–a more intriguing and disturbing possibility as you’ll see in a minute–a web camera.  Once you have made your selection (I picked mouse because I don’t do the whole webcam thing; no one needs to see me in my tighty whities at 7am searching for navel lint) you are then presented with the head and torso of a woman, rendered in naturalistic video.  The background is otherwise completely black.  In the foreground is a large, relatively realistic, man’s forearm and hand.

On the top left and right respectively are two scoring bars: one is labeled “% pussy” and the other is labeled “% gangsta.”  The woman starts talking at you.  In Danish, unfortunately, but it is clear from her tone and facial expressions that she is not happy.  This is where the kind of international linguistic ability that so many Europeans take for granted would have been really useful.  I’m assuming that what she was saying were insults, some of them impugning my masculinity in general and probably the size of my sexual organs in particular, but that’s just a guess.  Anyway, at a certain point, because there is a forearm just sitting there and it kinda seems as if it ought to be used, you hit her.

There’s a pretty realistic sound of flesh on flesh, the woman’s head snaps sideways, and when she turns back to you there is a welt on the side of her face.  If you look at the top of the screen, you’ll see that your score bar has changed.  Now, instead of “100% pussy” and “0% gangsta” it reads “75% pussy” and “25% gangsta.”  It is also about this time that I realized the game had also disabled the back buttons on my browser, so there was no way for me to back out of the game short of shutting down the browser.  More Danish invective (presumably).  Hit her again.  This time when she turns back the damage to the side of her face is more severe.  Your gangsta rating is now 50%.  Now the insults sound a little different (to my non-Danish expert ear) and the woman’s voice is quavering, and she is tearing up.  Hit her again.  The side of her face is looking realistically really ugly.  Gangsta rating now up to 75%.  Pussy rating down to 25%.  This time the woman’s voice is low, and the words seem to have changed again.  The tone is difficult to pick, but it is something like a mix of fear, resentment. . .and pain, obviously.  Hit her again.   The woman briefly disappears.  Then you hear the sound of her crying, and I mean just sobbing her guts out, and you are treated to the sight of her lying curled up in a ball on the ground.  After a few moments of this a message flashes up: “100% gangsta = 100% Idiot.”

See, the thing about this game is that it  is supposed to be part of a campaign against domestic violence.  You are then presented with links that take you to a variety of materials associated with some kind of anti-violence campaign, most of it in Danish.  If you go the site now, and reach the above message, they actually make sure to provide you with a link in English to some of these materials.

What to make of this?  Disturbing, obviously, and deliberately so.  Certainly thought-provoking, since it is relatively rare to see games elicited in the service of a social cause.  But successful?

On the one hand, the game clearly belongs to the “inoculation” school of disturbing/challenging art.  This is the idea that if you experience either vicariously or in simulated form some form of problematic behavior, it will prevent you from doing the same thing in real life.  There’s also more than a little of the old Aristotelian catharsis idea here as well: the idea that if you experience virtual pain and suffering a) it will (in the inevitable appeal to the dark side of our nature) help you get your ya yas out, and/or b) make you more sympathetic to those who suffer in real life.

I think you could also make the argument that in its very simple nature the game is quite smart in the way it represents a certain kind of masculine socialization.  The fact that your world is divided between two polar alternatives–toughness or weakness– coupled with the fact that you have no conversational options and therefore can only rely on your physicality, that seems to me to represent certain kind of macho cultures very effectively.  As does the fact that the game is basically one of entrapment; you can’t escape from this situation.  The game situation strongly pushes you in the direction of action.  You could just sit there and be insulted.  But there are those beckoning score bars at the top of the screen.  And your right arm is pretty brawny.  So I think the game also models a kind of masculine imperative that exists outside any kind of immediate situational provocation.

However, the specificity of that masculine culture in the game may also be part of the problem.  If this is designed to play a role in an anti-domestic violence game, what purpose is served by portraying violence against women being enacted only by macho rednecks?  The weediest of pencil-pushing poindexters is quite capable of perpetrating emotional and physical violence against women.  The game also seems to set up almost a blame-the-victim situation.  As I indicated above, you could do nothing.  But the woman just keeps talking.  She keeps hurling insults (again, I’m assuming a lot here) at you.  She won’t shut up.  There’s nothing else to do.  She just keeps at you.  Hitting her makes something happen.  You could see this as perhaps representing a certain kind of domestic situation: complete disengagement on one side, and an attempt to break through that which has devolved into nagging.

Part of what concerns me about Hit the Bitch is that while you could read the game in the way I have done above, I’m not sure there is anything in the game that explicitly encourages you to do so.  In other words, the ability to approach the game as a sophisticated metaphor for imprisoning masculinity would depend not simply on you already having some awareness of that perspective, but your willingness to grant that a game, any game, could be read in a less literal, more metaphoric, fashion.  Most people, however, don’t approach games that way.  I wish they would, but they don’t.  I feel that advocacy games in particular need to have some kind of support structure built into the game that encourages reflection rather than pure participation.  The weakest point of the game is the final screen (“100% gangsta = 100% idiot”): that’s the kind of lame move designers often tack on to games designed for four-year olds (and its insulting even their intelligence).  More importantly, this message has absolutely no effect if you’ve just found yourself having a blast beating the crap out of a virtual woman.

My biggest concern, however, is that it is possible to have entirely too much fun with this game.  In fact, part of the problem I saw immediately when I was playing this was that it was easy to get sucked into the game as a game at the expense of what the game was trying to communicate.  Thus, I find it mildly disturbing, for example, that I can tell you that you could only give the woman a slap with the palm of your hand.  There didn’t seem to be any programming support for a really good backhand.  I know, because that was the first thing I tried after seeing the initial slap in action.  Is this because I harbor a secret desire to really crack some sheila upside the head?  I don’t think so.  Rather, I was doing what most game players will do when confronted with a game.  Start to experiment with the game environment, try stuff out, see what is allowed and what is forbidden.  So I quickly figured out that it took exactly four slaps to have the woman on the floor.  I also found that there didn’t seem to be any correlation between the strength of the mouse movement and the force of the slap.  I tried hitting her harder, but the game wouldn’t let me.  Because the game was already hitting her pretty hard. Rather I was hitting her pretty hard.  And in that slippage between “the game” and “I” is the problem.  (I haven’t even touched on the fact that the webcam interface was, I’m guessing, designed so that you could actually play the game with a “realistic” striking motion of your own hand).

Unless a game really sucks you in, really immerses you it is all too easy to take a distanced, calculating approach to the gameplay, where you stop paying attention to the representational content and start focusing purely on manipulating the behavioral rules to ensure the best outcome.  Really good games know this, and if the game is interested in developing larger ideas it will try to gradually work these in from the side, as it were, so that they appear to grow organically out of the experience of playing the game.  (I’ve just finished re-playing Knights of the Old Republic and I’ve been struck once again by how some pretty interesting ideas about the nature of human identity and the perils of self-(re)invention are worked into a thoroughly exciting game: they are there to reflect upon if you want them, or to ignore if you don’t).  But advocacy games don’t want to be subtle.  They can’t afford it.  They want to make a particular point and have you see that point.

So I guess what I’m left wondering is if games are fundamentally incompatible with social advocacy.

Discuss.

Twitchdoctor

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Comments
  1. KC says:

    Thanks for writing about this. Interesting set of questions, and it made me think of a piece in Slate a while ago about that Russian airport terrorist sequence in Modern Warfare 2 (http://www.slate.com/id/2235774/). The author argues that game sequences like that can somehow serve an anti-war agenda, although it’s fairly obvious that the game developers were just going for the shock value.

    I’ve been thinking recently about how one might develop coherent set of critical apparatus for analyzing/critiquing videogames. It’s hard, I think, to read games through the filters provided by literary criticism. For instance, if we agree with the Slate author that what matters is the player’s experience of the game (and not the developers’ intent), then you’re edging toward reader response. But a player is more than a “reader.” Or not “more,” but “different.” One can, as you point out, refuse to play the game on its own terms. You can choose not to slap. Or, as I understand it, you can refuse to shoot civilians in MW2, but the game doesn’t progress if you don’t shoot the guards, etc. Some games put you on rails, and some don’t. If you refuse to ride the rails, can you really be said to be playing the game? Are you “playing” any more than a person who only looks at every tenth word is said to be “reading” a book?

    Anyway, thanks for the food for thought.

    • twitchdoctor says:

      One of my former students also brought up that Modern Warfare 2 example, making similar points. Damn, guess I’ll just have to go out and get that game. All in the name of research, of course. However I think that kind of moral dilemma is only noticeable for some people because it is relatively rare in FPS games. Usually, even if the central character in an FPS is compromised in some way, they are still heroic. But the better RPGs have been exploring these kinds of dilemmas for some time. The Witcher, for example, does a particularly effective job in this area because whatever decision you choose is likely to have both positive and negative outcomes, and you often won’t realize the full implications of your decisions until much later. Very much like life.

      My own feeling is that players are very much “readers,” but only if we acknowledge that what we conventionally regard as a “reader” has always in fact been much more than it has been made out to be by literature scholars. That is why even reader response theory doesn’t cover it, because there is still the deeply ingrained idea of the text as original delivery device of meaning to which the reader, well, “responds.” A couple of things I’ve been working on recently have been exploring the idea that readers have historically been a lot more like “players,” but that literary study has tended to miss that because of its belief that what defines its domain of study is restricted to a particular technology and form: the print book.

      In terms of beginning to develop a critical apparatus to look at games, a couple of excellent starting points are the _First Person_ and _Second Person_ collections edited by Wardrip-Fruin and Harrigan. The full range of disputes within the game studies field is fully on display, but there are also numerous articles that link electronic gaming with other kinds of storytelling, gaming, and procedural traditions. (There’s also a _Third Person_ collection, but I haven’t had time to read it yet).

  2. A.Kumar says:

    Video games are only now being considered an effective medium that is on the same level as books and movies. Using video games as a tool for social advocacy is, from my experience, a recent development. I think flash games are best suited for this purpose. From what i hear, they are relatively easy to make, and more importantly, easy to distribute.

    Last year I spent a couple of hours one weekend (while procrastinating for this writing assignment I had), playing a flash game called Oiligarchy. This was a game created to showcase the evils of mining for oil. While I did not agree with the message, I found myself being increasingly drawn in by the game. I ended up playing the game 3 times from beginning to end, spending a total of about 6 hours on it. As video games increasingly become a greater part of society, we will see more evocative and effective Social Advocacy in games.

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