Why Are Women Getting Raped in Video Games?

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A mysterious assailant known as DEEPER_IN_DA_BUTT has hacked the video game Grand Theft Auto V in order to sexually terrorize fellow online players. “He has his pants down at all times and can butt rape you,” one reported on Reddit. “You cannot kill him and there is nothing you can do about it. Worse, when he’s done, you are stuck doing strip dances.”

Plenty of similar attacks have been proudly documented on YouTube, leading The Huffington Post to declare this week that modifying video games in order to rape other players is “a disturbing new trend.” There’s a certain dissonance to calling virtual rape “disturbing” while accepting virtual murder as a reasonable premise for a video game. Still, HuffPo might be on to something — DEEPER_IN_DA_BUTT is not the only video-game rapist to make the news this year. In March, video-game writer Kim Correa described being virtually raped in the multiplayer zombie apocalypse game, DayZ. Correa says DayZ is a ruthless survivalist hellscape in which players will kill one another for a can opener. Nonetheless, her treatment by a pair of male strangers was startling:

“[O]ne of them made a comment about how I was a girl. One of them said that he hadn’t gotten pussy since the end of the world. He was pointing a gun at my face. I made a disgusted noise over my mic and started to back up and said his friend wasn’t sure if they should kill me or not. I called him a sick puppy. He said that unfortunately for me, he was into necrophilia , and that he wanted to rape my dead body, and then he shot me.”

After Correa’s screen went dark, the two men made moaning noises at her over her headset while she yelled at them. It’s not clear what in-game, post-apocalyptic advantages these two men acquired by humiliating Correa. But they did get her to put down the game for the night. "I definitely don't want to say what happened to me verbally is as important as if it had happened in real life," she later told WNYC. "But it means something. And I'm not sure what it means."

One thing it might mean is that women can never totally shed the vulnerability that comes with their gender, even in virtual realms. (Although the GTA V rapist targeted men, his victims seem mostly amused, not shaken.) The problem of fantasy rapes — different from a rape fantasy, though not mutually exclusive — is not new, nor is it unique to state-of-the-art multiplayer online video games. A 1993 Village Voice article described how a “Rape in Cyberspace” destroyed the community that had arisen in a proto-Second Life “multi-user dimension” or MUD. The perpetrator, a young man on an NYU computer who went by Bungle, wrote a script that allowed him to attribute actions to other members of the MUD, like “as if against her will, Starsinger jabs a steak knife up her ass, causing immense joy.”

And Dungeons and Dragons has long been home to fantasy rape by Luddite creeps. Last month, Vice interviewed a female D&D player, “Lucy,” who abandoned her Brooklyn game after Dungeon Master Jason (whose real-life advances she’d rejected) took the adventure down a path wherein sex with Jason’s character was the only way for Lucy’s character to get rewards. Orchestrating such a “game” face-to-face sounds decidedly not fun. But at the end of the day, D&D, is just a complicated, collectively written Choose Your Own Adventure story. Who’s to say your adventure can’t be a Kafkaesque nightmare of coercive sex? No one, it turns out. A landmark 1983 study found that tabletop role-playing games accommodate the “anxiety and violence toward women” exhibited by some players, according to Vice. “While it is not inevitable that the games will express male sexual fears and fantasies,” researcher Gary Alan Fine wrote, “they are structured so that these expressions are legitimate.”

It’s not hard to see where D&D players might find the inspiration. Outside role-playing environs, fantasy is rife with narratives that legitimize sexual violence. As Arthur Chu wrote in the wake of the Isla Vista shooting, to grow up nerdy is to marinate in rape-ridden mythology, whether it’s a Revenge of the Nerds–style sexual ruse or Mario's woman-as-prize hero’s journey. When the HBO adaptation of Game of Thrones brought the fantasy genre to the middlebrow mainstream, non-nerdy viewers were shocked at how casually the series uses rape as a plot device and, worse, as titillation.

GoT author George R. R. Martin has defended the rape scenes in a way that might sound counterintuitive: The fantasy series needs rape in order to feel realistic. “Rape and sexual violence have been a part of every war ever fought, from the ancient Sumerians to our present day,” he told the New York Times. “To omit them from a narrative centered on war and power would have been fundamentally false and dishonest and would have undermined one of the themes of the books: that the true horrors of human history derive not from orcs and Dark Lords, but from ourselves.” On the one hand, I agree — shows should cover the full spectrum of human relations. But on the other hand, I’m bummed out by the implication of Martin’s fantasy priorities: Readers will believe women can parent baby dragons before they will believe women are sexually autonomous.

I think it’s that hierarchy of unreality that makes virtual rape a little painful IRL. Whether it’s DayZ or GTA or D&D, games offer scrawny male nerds an alternate reality in which they can be axe-wielding, zombie-killing, car-stealing renegades. Women can be all that, too, but they’ll also still be women: extra vulnerable and needlessly sexualized, with the deck stacked against them. That feels too much like real life.