Let's Stop Using Sexual Violence as a Plot Device

Game writers need to stop trivializing sexual violence for the sake of a "mature" story.

I wouldn’t say I was shocked when I first learned that Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes would contain a scene of graphic sexual violence, but I did raise an eyebrow. The Metal Gear Solid franchise is no stranger to depicting violence - usually in over the top and unrealistic ways - but portraying sexual assault, even just through audio, seemed to be crossing a line.

Earlier today I learned that yet another highly anticipated game would include sexual violence. Ubisoft’s upcoming title Watch Dogs deals with human trafficking and in one scene, a female character is pulled into a room where she is violently assaulted. 

More and more game writers seem to be relying on sexual violence as a narrative tool. They use it for character backstories, to move the plot along, as justification for revenge and sometimes simply as shock value. Rarely is it ever treated with the seriousness and gravity it deserves. 

This isn’t a problem exclusive to video games – we see it television and film all the time. But when the gaming industry is already facing harsh criticisms about its inclusion and portrayal of women, why are we continuing to depict them in such violent situations? And better yet, why are we trivializing and exploiting such serious subject matter?

It’s not like there’s a demand for this kind of violence – if anything gamers are rejecting it. Remember the outrage Crystal Dynamics’ Ron Rosenberg sparked when he spoke about Lara Croft’s near rape in the Tomb Raider reboot? Hotline Miami 2 faced similar backlash when an implied sexual assault was included in the game’s demo.

I don’t buy the excuse that these plot points are essential to the game. In Lara Croft’s case, Rosenberg seemed to imply that an attempted rape was the only justification for her sudden strength. Watch Dogs was, for all intents and purposes, finished before its rape scene was added – suggesting that it’s inclusion isn’t necessary.

I’m not saying that we should never allow sexual violence to be addressed in games – but it should serve a purpose much greater than just driving the plot forward. One in three women will experience some form of sexual violence in their lifetime and trivializing these experiences to make a game more mature or edgy is, frankly, insensitive and selfish. 

Featured Columnist

Designer, Dovahkiin, and aspiring Disney princess.

Published Mar. 20th 2014
  • ClintMcBeardy
    The Hotline Miami 2 was a part of a movie in the game , it's litteraly revealed 2 seconds after the "rape"
    And there's an option to disable it , last time I checked , disabling plot devices is not a thing in gaming
  • Godv2.0
    everyone's too sensitive these days. Have a sook its a video game, may aswell get rid of movies which contain the same stuff...if you're not interested then dont play the game. There are a lot more important things to be angry about then violence in games
  • mikey_4943
    virtual murder,kidnapping,assault,robbery,domestic violence,drug manufacturing,animal cruelty....all fine and dandy.....but virtual rape *GASP*....seems like a bit of a ploy to get a pat on the back from the sarkeesians of the world...and why is it only bad in a video game?....should rape be banned from books,movies,and tv as well?...do you write an angry letter to law and order svu every week for their trivialization of rape?...maybe we should just give in already and start a national feminazi counsel where every piece of media can be reviewed before release so we can make sure nothing too mean or sad gets shown to the public ever...its not like we have any laws in this country guaranteeing that people can make art in whatever form they choose or anything....
  • iTrigonometry
    Featured Contributor
    This topic is one that has generated a lot of controversy in forums all over the internet. I suppose it is because of the idea of 'censorship' and that if this becomes the common view someone will take away our videogames. The truth, though, is that any time a game is developed, developers have a target audience. Sometimes they use focus groups, sometimes they don't, but the end results doesn't always satisfy everyone. Like reboots targeting a broad audience and leaving the hardcore fans in the cold.

    I can't help but think that this article is barking at the wrong tree when it comes to the videogames it picked to make it's point. I wouldn't say that sexual violence is being trivialized in these games. It is being used because it evokes emotions of disgust and anger in people, and has been used as a way to make the viewer hate certain characters or organizations. If you want to make a villain unlikeable in a book or a movie, you add rape to his portfolio or something of the sort.

    The newest Thief reboot kills of a female character early and then gives us the possibility that she's actually alive and has been the subject of isolation and experiments to drive the main character to get involved with the plot in the second half of the game. Ride to Hell Retribution has the main character save a woman from being raped, and immediately cuts to a clothes on sex scene in the same room with the corpse probably still there. Everyone knows that attempted rape is what turns women on, obviously. And then there's games like Maiden Rape Assault Violent Semen Inferno, courtesy of the japanese. Yes, that's an actual game title. Yes, it's been released and sold.

    These are titles that trivialize sexual violence, with Thief simply using it as a plot device. I wouldn't say that the way Watch Dogs or Metal Gear handles it is incorrect, and I simply don't know what to say about Hotline Miami since it's story has always just kinda been there, with the focus of the game being bloody over the top arcade violence that doesn't need to make sense.

    All that aside, prepare yourself for the wave of angry gamers who think everyone who is trying to talk about female equality in videogames is a feminist who's trying to ruin the medium.
  • PlayNiceKids
    I agree, and I'm kind of stunned at the knee-jerk responses in the comments presuming your stance or motivations. They go from reasonable to vitriolic very quickly!

    I don't like the frequent and irresponsible use of sexual violence in a lot of media for several reasons. The big one for me is that it's getting to really seem like an easy way to structure a plot around a quest for revenge, and that just makes stories boring and predictable. I also get really frustrated that pretty often those quests for revenge are on behalf of someone else, so someone's victimization is really just a device for telling about someone else--one character's victimization really happens to someone else.

    And I was trying to avoid getting gender politics in here, but you just can't discuss this without doing so: I get really bothered by the fact that these are games that the developers are pretty clearly assuming are going to be played predominantly by male gamers--it just isn't realistic to say that studios that make FPSes are making them with people's middle-aged mothers in mind as target audiences, they're assuming their player is going to generally be male. That means that of the few significant female characters (as compared to male ones), a significant number of them are being portrayed as victims or as something to protect or avenge instead of characters that exist in their own right or to play as with their gender being no big deal. It means that yes, there are female characters in the games...but they exist to drive a male character's motivation or the plot, or they aren't portrayals the average Actual, Real-Life Female would want to identify with, or their gender has attention drawn to it as if to say, "See, we have a female character!" It makes them token characters, in some sense, and isn't really making progress at all. And it lets me, as a female gamer, know that the developers are completely overlooking me as a potential audience member...and that isn't going to be a huge thing I have to deal with or anything, but it gets really boring after a while to have a hobby where all the perspectives available to be experienced disregard my realities. These developers could be getting more creative and bringing in more security to their business by expanding their potential customer base--just by NOT writing off female perspectives (or non-Caucasian ones, or LGBT ones, or those of people with disabilities, ect., ect....)--but they tell stories that are only about a few types of people and then wonder why people write off videogames as a hobby for a negatively-stereotyped set of people.

    Thanks for writing this, you hit on something that's bothered me for quite some time.
  • Tobias_6660
    It is never necessary. Unless you try to portray something that has to do with this specific thing, which no game I've ever known has. But that would go for everything, as well as violence. Violence is a terrible thing, it can traumatize and even end lives. Sexual violence is if anything - milder. I find it interesting to see people get killed/violated/have success stories/you can fill in 1000 pages of words here...
    This is apparently a sensitive topic to some, so if you dislike them, do not buy it, or reevaluate your opinion. No one has been hurt in the making of these games, please do not ask for filters on anything, as artists and views of the world and or fantasies should be able to be displayed freely.
  • Fathoms_4209
    Featured Columnist
    Lauren: It's clear to me that the same person created several accounts just to sign up and be hostile and nasty.

    Take it from someone who has been doing this a long time: When it's so obvious that the comment is only designed to hurt, clearly written by someone who wants to scream and yell rather than discuss anything civilly, ignore them. Don't give them what they want. Either that, or just toss a single solitary barb back their way, and never say anything again. ;)
  • BPA_1900
    I understand you point COMPLETELY... but there are many things to take into account that sorta detriment your argument, for one video games are FULL of murder, brutality and crime in general and im not even talking about the 'bad' guys, best example to give the Uncharted series which realises its own hypocrisy in Uncharted 2: Among thieves, Nathan goes through entire armies of men just to kill one man because he wanted world domination (in simple terms) only to be confronted then reminded, you came all this way to kill me for what i want but how many people have you killed Drake... just today?' To which Nate just stood there staring with a somewhat perplexed look on his face. Mmy point how can there be murder in games to push games forward but sexual violence is doomed as a 'simple tool' its not a simple tool in story telling its PART of the story thats whats supposed to be there if thats whats written. Watch dogs as an example we've known (you recently) that what the main character stumbles across is a secret female trafficking prostitution ring and him coming across that and hacking it results in his family being murdered, but whys that any less an acceptable plot and story then lets say Call of Duty (which isnt even a good story line) having having New York bombed with innocet civilians around think of how many people died then take the mission in MW2 where they let us the player mow down innocent civilians in an airport..? yeah these things ARE for shock value but they also do serve a purpose in their story and immersion into the medium, you're acting like its placed in a game like you're running through the mushroom kingdom in Mario and someones being raped and you cant do anything about it but jump over them or jump on the guys head to stop it which will earn you a secret gold star, when its NEVER handled like that EVER, and why is it not alright to have it part of the industry when we see nothing but over sexualised women in TV movies i mean EVERY James Bond movie doesn't portray women very well but hey... its Bond... To wrap up my argument and im sorry its been so long im just saying where would you draw the line, you cant simply say these crimes and bad things are allowed in a game but this isn't, GTA and AC 4 being the first mainstream games that allows for Domestic animals being killed, The Last Of Us being the FIRST MURDER of a child in a game and it was handled EXCEPTIONALLY 100000% necessary to the story, demonstrated the brutality of humanity and the harsh realities of 'what could be' but children are still not incorporated in games because of course and i agree killing children is never part of a story line (of course excluding TLOU which it was the center of the games universe) i hope you understand my points and im really not trolling anything because i do understand your points and i DEFFO agree whole heartedly but to me it needs to be addressed and used appropriately like any other tool at the disposal of the writers.
  • Lauren Puga
    Featured Columnist
    On your point about the Last of Us - exactly. They handled it really well. I have less of an issue with sexual violence being part of a game if it's TRULY necessary to tell the story AND handled maturely.

    I think there should be some sort of litmus test so writers aren't just throwing it in there just for the sake of drama. If the story can be told without the inclusion of violence - any violence for that matter - maybe it's not worth including.
  • Ben_2717
    thanks for this article. If these folks didn't have it in the game, people wouldn't be asking, "where's the sexual violence? I really missed that.". They same goes for gratuitous swearing. It's just annoying.
  • QuellNort
    There was male on male rape in the past MGS games but that's okay because it wasn't a female. You were forced to play as a naked guy in MGS2 but that's okay as long as it wasn't a female. There's a girl slightly under dressed in the new MGS game? Oh shit! That's terrible! Why are women viewed as sex objects? Oh, who cares about the shirtless men in video games because they're not female. Who cares about Chico, the 13 year old boy is a child solider and was forced to rape Paz. and took beatings.
  • Lauren Puga
    Featured Columnist
    I really only mention women exclusively once towards the end of my article - I'm definitely not excluding sexual violence against men from the discussion.
  • Girlik
    Yes, sexual violence is a sensitive subject but it's the same for any kind of violence. So we should stop to portray psychological violence, physical violence, verbal violence or any kind of abuse, because apparently we were wrong all along. Those Fox news journalists were right, violence in video is bad and is trivializing violent act.
  • Isis_6739
    Please kindly never ever ever try to dictate how someone is allowed to tell a story.

    You're a disgrace to women everywhere.
  • Delta Squad Reaper
    Seriously? Chill out and quit being so ignorantly hateful. I'm sick of seeing this community, let alone our species be so hateful over little things. You're taking this article way too close to heart as if it attacked you.
  • finallyhere
    This is ridiculous.

    Look, I get it. Rape/sexual abuse and sexual violence is bad. Yes, a considerable amount of women experience it. I'm a woman. I have been sexually abused myself.

    But, please, tell me what you think would be a non-exploitative representation of a woman who was raped? What would be a "non-trivial" inclusion of that aspect of the character? What purpose would that information serve other than being a plot device? There is honestly no answer to this question. No matter what scenario or character type you provide; it will still serve as a plot device of some kind.

    My Metal Gear experience is limited. But I grew up around it and have spent time with a few of the titles. And Metal Gear Solid 3 comes to mind. It has easily one of the strongest female characters in gaming who is not sexualized in the slightest. The entire philosophy and plot of the game series is based around her. And yet, you depict the series as "violent towards women".

    Equality will only come for us when violence in both sexual and non sexual contexts can be included in media without anyone raising a fist about the gender of the one abused. To ask video games to "Not suggest that female characters be raped anymore" is just flat out regressive as I noted earlier; does very little to provide an alternative. (That's because there isn't one.)

    Truth be told, this suggests that you're just another writer jumping on board the growing "tumblr-grade feminists as games journalists" bandwagon and that this article exists for no other reason than clickbait. And I really hope that's not the case. Because more so than "less women being abused sexually or non-sexualy in video games", we need stronger female games journalists who can appraise the medium without the need to have it conform to their philosophical ideals.
  • Stenbuck_7369
    As usual, people like free speech until someone actually uses free speech.

    As someone mentioned: it is war, it does happen, it should never but it does. Kids are mercilessly killed in that game, for god's sake. I'd rather sleep knowing there's a hundred thousands of those tapes in a stupid videogame than know it happens for real either on the battlefield or in a military base itself.
  • rance_7064
    How about you don't play it if it makes you uncomfortable? It offends you, and that's fine, I won't pretend to tell you what you're allowed to find offensive. But you shouldn't presume to tell game creators what they're allowed to put into their games. Your criteria for the proper gravitas that sexual violence should be afforded seem to me to be incredibly subjective and the examples you've made here are rather weak. Personally I thought Ground Zeroes had that proper gravitas. The sexual violence there is depicted as exactly what it is, something incredibly horrifying and despicable (it also kind of bothers me that you make it seem like its exploitative of women when a 13 year old boy was also traumatized, but whatever). Watch Dogs isn't even out, yet you're already prejudging a scene you haven't seen. The only one being insensitive and selfish here is you. Again, if it offends you, that's fine, but the world doesn't revolve around you and your sensibilities.
  • Lauren Puga
    Featured Columnist
    I'll quote the article itself: "I’m not saying that we should never allow sexual violence to be addressed in games – but it should serve a purpose much greater than just driving the plot forward."

    And while Watch Dogs isn't out, details about the scene is question HAVE been released.
  • supahotfire_7385
    Ugh! You people are the worst. Would you complain about sexual violence in a well crafted movie or book? No. So, why should videogames have to limit their narratives?
  • Lauren Puga
    Featured Columnist
    I believe I did mentioned that it's also an issue in television and film. I write for a video game site therefore I discussed it within the context of video games.
  • El_1895
    Actually, what we should do is harass and silence filthy SJW feminists who think they have a right to dictate what games will be, inject their filthy misandrist ideology, and use false rape accusation statistics. GTFO.
  • Katy Hollingsworth
    Former Staff Editor
    Statistic was confirmed after a fairly simple Google search.


  • apples_3809
    I love how you don't seem to give a single crap about what Chico, a 13 year old boy, goes through, or the fact that child soldiers have always been a major plot point in the Metal Gear series, and will be a big focus of The Phantom Pain. Or that video games almost always have you mow down legions of men. You're a pathetic hypocrite.
  • Lauren Puga
    Featured Columnist
    If this article was solely about Metal Gear Solid, perhaps I could have discussed all that. It's not. I was addressing one aspect of the game in the context of a larger issue.
  • Astora_8178
    Yes, let's just ignore the fact that there is rape in war
  • Eric_9361
    Yes. Let's pretend things don't happen. That will surely make it go away.
  • load more comments  

New Cache - article_comments_article_13128
More Watch Dogs Content