Part of me hoped that I was able to put beating the living crap out of women behind me, especially as we look to turn the page on this year, but I guess it wasn’t to be. Soon after its sudden appearance and equally abrupt disappearance (due to being blocked for an international audience) the Danish anti-violence gamelet Hit the Bitch was discovered by the mainstream blogettantes and predictable levels of opinionifying ensued. Now, make no mistake, if you’ve read my previous post on the gamelet, you know that I found Hit the Bitch pretty disturbing on many levels and, ultimately, a tragically misguided attempt to mount a provocative intervention in the service of a cause that gets too little attention. You only have to scratch the surface of our society to find some pretty horrific levels of violence against women, and only the fact that most people engineer their lives to skate comfortably across the surface of life and society ensures that this remains invisible.
Therefore, one would hope, as the developers of the gamelet undoubtedly did, that their work would be controversial, that it would provoke discussion. But what has been obvious from the blogosphere’s reaction to Hit the Bitch is how insubstantial and inconsequential has been the nature of that discussion. But that insubstantiality is interesting for a couple of reasons. First, for those of us who study games and gaming this lack of substantive critical appraisal of games (frequently descending to the level of outright idiocy) is nothing new in the mainstream media. The mainstream media is–with only rare exceptions–incapable of discussing anything related to electronic gaming with subtlety, insight and nuance (as is abundantly obvious when the media gears up to wring its hands about gaming violence). Of course, a cynic would say that the same is true of the media’s coverage of anything. However, we are told ad nauseum that the blogosphere is supposedly the new, hip, interactive, penetraing, insightful, engaged, world-saving alternative to the mainstream media. It is, therefore, intriguing to find the blogosphere mired in the same lack of critical nous as the mainstream media when it comes to dealing with game-related controversies. In one sense this is only to be expected. It is hard to sell subtlety and complexity. It is easy to sell controversy and outrage if it’s all presented in an easily digestible package.
The blogosphere’s reaction to Hit the Bitch has followed the predictable mainstream media’s approach: a fixation on representational content, a preference for smug outrage at the expense of analysis, and–more interesting for us here–a complete inability to deal with the implications of a game as something you actually play. All of which have managed, in this instance, to obscure the single most obvious fact that makes this gamelet so disturbing.
To be sure, there are more than a few comments that help to explain why the Danes felt that more confrontational approach might be needed. Here are the first few comments from Adverblog’s brief announcement of the game:
Most fun game I’ve ever played
Posted by: David at November 17, 2009 06:09 AM
Uh, so what is the message? That the more you beat a woman the more gangsta you become? I don’t get it.
Posted by: J at November 17, 2009 09:20 PM
I showed this to my friends at the pub, we had a blast, wish it gave you more options, like slapping the left (her right) side of the face.
Subtitles would be good as well.
Waiting for the sequel.
Posted by: Paul Robertson at November 17, 2009 09:27 PM
That made me incredibly hard. More?
Posted by: Hendrix Jaffa at November 17, 2009 09:33 PM
Of course this is the Internet, so this could mean anything. One of the things the gamelet is trying to tap into is that a key part of violence against women is how men react when they feel threatened, and another element of the whole macho swagger thing is not to admit it when you are disturbed or something has affected you. Laugh it off boys. Or, these guys are just joking (in poor taste, obviously, but–it bears repeating–this is the Internet where taste long ago ceased to be an issue). Or these guys are simply being arseholes. Or these guys could be women.
There is, naturally, no shortage of posts that point out the many blindingly obvious ways this gamelet fails to achieve its objective. My personal favorites, from “Lilah” at Gawker:
Oh, snap! We just called you a 100% idiot! Now all your deep-seated misogyny and anger issues towards women have been obliviated! You’re welcome, Earth.
and “Zombie Mrs. Skittles” at Jezebel:
You know, I think I called my brother an idiot a couple weeks ago.
Little did I know, I was reducing his chances of domestic violence!
In my previous post on this game I pointed out that since I don’t speak Danish I was making (un)educated guesses as to what the woman was really saying. While I still haven’t found a translation, a poster on Jezebel, who self-identified as a Danish woman indicated that the language was pretty strong; she went so far as to describe it as “horrific,” and offered some thoughtful comments about the way this helped to create a “she asked for it” mentality in the viewer/player.
The more substantive (and when we are talking about blogs, generally we need to use that term advisedly) articles focus almost exclusively on the content of the gamelet only and, in fact, treated it as if it were simply a form of traditional electronic media. The Huffington Post encapsulates this idea by referring to Hit the Bitch” as a Public Service Announcement (and, to be fair, this is in large part because Huffington is simply providing a stroke-job for an Alternet piece that employs the same usage). Now you would think that even a little reflection would have shown that a game is not in any sense a simple “announcement.” The PSA genre of static, vapid, do-good-don’t-do-bad moralizing doesn’t in any way correspond to a form where you are an active participant and have to make choices. If this were simply a traditional electronic media PSA it would not be half as controversial (or, likely, as sad as it sounds, controversial at all). Most of the blog articles treat the gamelet as if it is pure content where–with apologies to Freud–a woman is being beaten. But the effect(iveness?) of Hit the Bitch, its shock value, is the result of the fact that you are beating a woman.
The controversy here, in other words, is not created by the content of this representation, but by its form. However, I’ve seen little acknowledgement of that fact, and virtually no analysis of the implications of the choice of the form for this kind of campaign. At least I would have expected someone to pose the question I wrote about: do games have a place in social advocacy? If so, what will be their strengths and weaknesses? Are there particular kinds of social causes that might be a better fit with game-based advocacy? What the insipid response of the blogosphere in relation to the Danish gamelet indicates is that most blog writers simply follow the mainstream media which in turn follows the limited popular intellectual horizon when it comes to media controversy: the inability to talk meaningfully about the formal properties of a representation. I, you, and Joe and Jillian Blogettante can talk until the cows come home about the image content of a representation. Blame it on high school English classes with their insistence on looking for “themes” and “symbolism” perhaps. However, in the long run, representational form is much more influential on perception, reaction, and, ultimately, action.
Some of the commentary in response to the original articles, however, seems to be, in its own way, much more savvy about the issues raised by the fact that this is a game. For example, in response to the Adverblog announcement “Darren Slaughter” posted: “Gotta tell ya, I was a tad offended, then it turned into a video game,” which nicely captures the most problematic aspect of Hit the Bitch: the way in which setting up something as a game tends (without correctives) to push a player toward a focus on the manipulation of pure mechanics. In fact, as another post indicated, what the developers of advocacy games are up against is the legacy of games which have immersed a generation in often-problematic portrayals of women. In a reference to GTA-style games “Mrs. Beeton” at Gawker announced: “I was expecting her to die so you could pick up her money and/or weapons and/or car.”
Much of the discussion surrounding Hit the Bitch has been predicated on the fact that the Danish developers of the gamelet fucked up royally. They miscalculated, in some way. However, I’m starting to think that this was a very calculated move, and as serious as is the issue of domestic violence, the gamer part of me is starting to detest the developers for the nature of the calculation. You want to bring attention to this issue, fine. You want to bring attention to the issue by creating some shock value, fine. If you had simply created a traditional PSA, even one pushing the envelope by showing a woman being graphically beaten, that would not get it done. What the developers seem to have banked on here is the controversy that will be generated by using a game, based on their (accurate) perception that people will feel that a game should not be used for such a serious purpose. I personally am not willing to make that concession, but this move by the Danish developers, which now seems to me one that is deeply condescending and dismissive of games, has made making that argument just that little bit harder.