Content note: This article contains graphic descriptions of sexual violence in video games.
Last week, Target pulled the popular game Grand Theft Auto V from its Australian stores after pressure to do so from a Change.org petition highlighting the game’s depictions of sexual violence against women. The petition invoked gameplay mechanics that encourage the abuse and murder of women “for entertainment,” such as murdering a sex worker in order to get one’s money back. Shortly after Target’s announcement, Kmart Australia pulled GTA V from its shelves too.
After Kmart made its decision, company representatives claimed that they had been ignorant of the offensive content. And indeed, in Australia, the game is rated as “R18” for violence, sexual material, drug use, and language—with no mention of the sexual violence many members of the public found objectionable. The omission is illustrative of a major problem of many game rating organizations, both in Australia and elsewhere: Sexual violence in video games is often overlooked or conflated with “violence” or “sexual content,” allowing horrifying depictions of gendered abuse to remain in material with few, if any, warnings for retailers or consumers.
In the United States and Canada, this oversight seems particularly egregious, given that the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB), responsible for rating all games in both countries, does have a content warning for “sexual violence.” However, the ESRB has not given this descriptor—which it defines as “depictions of rape or other violent sexual acts”—to GTA V. In fact, since that classification’s introduction in 2003, the ESRB has reportedly only put that descriptor on two games.
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And it is not as if sexual or gendered violence is absent in today’s mainstream games. In her video “Women as Background Decoration Part 2,” media critic Anita Sarkeesian documents several instances of violence against women in many of the most popular video games on the market, including some unambiguous examples of sexual assault. Even so, none of the games compiled have received the “sexual violence” content descriptor from the ESRB.
The ESRB is responsible for the small black-and-white letter on the corner of every video game box, which displays ratings such as “E for Everyone,” or “M for Mature.” Much like movie ratings, these labels also feature “contest descriptors” listing potentially offensive material that contributed to the rating, such as “blood,” or “sexual themes,” so that consumers may make an informed purchase.
As a “self-regulatory” organization, the ESRB has no federal oversight through a government body, such as the Federal Communications Commission; game producers voluntarily enter the ratings process and pay a fee that reportedly ranges from $800 to $4,000. Even so, many retailers will not carry games without official ESRB ratings. As such, for the last 20 years, the ESRB has operated as gaming’s moral gatekeeper, righteously touting itself as a wholesome, family-oriented organization. However, this also gives it immense power to shape the content of games themselves—and their reception by audiences.
In a market where many purchases are made by parents for their children, the difference between “T for Teen” and “M for Mature” can be a deciding factor in sales. Therefore, game designers are arguably incentivized to try to achieve as low a rating as possible, while still producing a game that will be considered “edgy” in the industry’s ever-heightening standard for visceral intensity. As a consequence, creators often carefully tailor their games to avoid certain ESRB triggers. For example, enemies may have green goo in place of red blood to avoid having the ESRB’s “blood” descriptor on their games’ packaging; dancers in a strip club may have pasties over their nipples to get around the “nudity” descriptor.
By contrast, the ESRB’s failure to apply its “sexual violence” descriptor has given game designers no motivation to shy away from scenes that may be triggering for assault survivors. Depictions are often included in which women are beaten by men in a sexually dominant manner. For example, in Red Dead Redemption (2010), a scantily clad woman falls to the ground on all fours and squeals in breathy moans as she is beaten by a man and called a number of misogynistic slurs. The scene is both sexually charged and brutally intense, yet the ESRB does not regard it to be “violent” enough to merit a specific content warning.
There are more resources offered by the ESRB than just what can be found on video game packaging. It also provides rating information online that offers a more detailed description of all the examples of offensive content that contributed to the game’s final rating. Too often, however, these summaries still strip the content of its context entirely. For example, as far as “violence” is concerned, ESRB Rating Summaries only list the array of weapons a player has to kill enemies and how realistic or gory those enemies’ injuries are—effectively putting decapitating a monster and beating a woman to death on the same scale.
This extends to its takes on “sexual content” and “nudity” as well. In its synopsis of Watch Dogs (2014), the ESRB mentions that there is a scene where topless women are standing in a room. What is left out, however, is that the topless women are standing on an auction block and being sold as sex slaves. Meanwhile, in the rating summary for Heavy Rain (2010), the ESRB even notes that a female character is forced at gunpoint to dance after stripping. However, the event is only mentioned as contributing to the game’s rating for sexual content and nudity, and not for its violently coercive character. And the ESRB’s rating summary for The Walking Dead (2012) blatantly demonstrates how its rating system reduces the idea of rape to a matter of “sexual suggestion.” It reads:
The game contains some suggestive material in the dialogue (e.g., “Might as well leave a sign out that reads, ‘The men are out, come rape our women and children’”).
In fact, in recent years, 2014’s Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes has been the only mainstream game that warranted a “Sexual Violence” content descriptor. The ESRB’s Rating Summary admitted to there being “an audio file in which a female character is sexually assaulted by male characters.” However, this completely overlooks the full extent of the game’s sexually violent content, which includes a bomb being inserted into a female character’s vagina.
In defense of the ESRB, its representatives don’t actually play the games they rate. Game creators fill out a detailed questionnaire regarding all of the potentially offensive content, for which they must send in video footage. The ESRB then takes all the factors it has been given into account to write the rating. So, it can only rate the content that it is given. However, the ESRB does write the questionnaire for game makers in the first place, which is kept highly confidential—raising the question of whether the organization thoroughly inquires about the specifics of potentially graphic scenes.
By not including warnings about sexually violent content, the ESRB is leaving individual players vulnerable to being caught off-guard by potentially triggering imagery. In addition, it is implicitly endorsing the idea that the abuse of women does not warrant offense, outrage, or even adequate emotional preparation. In this way, sexual violence has become effectively normalized in virtual spaces; as Sarkeesian pointed out in her video series, the casual abuse of women is rendered so common as to be effectively unremarkable. Video games are sold as power fantasies, and why not? It’s fun to embody a super strong badass in a fantastical situation. In a video game, a player can literally be a “God of War.” But with the overwhelming trend of depictions of sexualized violence against women, it seems that the power fantasy has come to extend over female bodies, which are routinely physically and sexually dominated. And in turn, that misogyny often extends to gaming culture as a whole, where women players can face harassment from male gamers or, at the least, be continuously subjected to depictions of female characters as victims or sex objects.
The subject of video game violence (unrelated to gender), and whether or not it contributes to impressionable players becoming more violent in “real life,” is well-tread ground in popular debate. Parent groups—and sometimes even politicians—have rallied around the issue of making games less violent. However, the topic of depictions of violence against women and their potentially harmful ramifications has been given little to no public attention. As the namer of controversial content in video games, the ESRB essentially controls the discourse of that controversy. And as such, the question of gendered sexual violence has been overwhelmingly—and disturbingly—absent from the conversation.
This year, the ESRB is currently celebrating its 20th anniversary of a job well done for being a champion of the public, providing families with the tools to keep them safe. After 20 years, it’s about time for the organization to actually be held accountable and make some progressive change for the better. Right now, the institution is effectively enabling retailers and creators to profit off of games featuring horrifically brutalized female bodies without having to acknowledge it. Words are powerful, and if the ESRB cares about making games safe for everyone, then it must use its power to name violence against women for what it is. Only the organization’s actions, when pressed for change, will reveal where its true priorities lie.