Feminism & Catharsis: The Need for Inclusive Violence

Mass Effect, Rem's Shepard

On any given work day, if you happened to catch a glimpse of me on the road, you might be disturbed by what you see: an otherwise unassuming young woman gesturing and yelling with INTENSITY and ALL CAPS at even the slightest infraction by other drivers. Vehement cursing liberally sprinkled with enough profanities to turn a seasoned sailor blue flow out with a grace and wit that I can never manage in the rest of my daily life. I make faces that could scare a gargoyle. Even if you can’t hear what I’m saying, the feelings seem obvious: an irrational bundle of anger bordering on barely contained violence dressed in a thin gray cardigan.

But the truth is quite different. While the outside is all anger and impotent rage, inside I’m slowly finding a place of collected calm—even happiness. See, I work a service job. I spend most of my day being polite, helpful, and apologetic. My job requires that I suppress my cynical, short-tempered nature in favor of an attitude that will facilitate communication between me and the people I serve. Getting into that mindset can prove difficult some days, and trying to leave the small grievances and petty angers behind before I go home would be almost impossible without a pressure valve.

And that’s what my commute is—a pressure valve where I can air out my anger, frustration, and irrational irritation on the world around me alone in safety. I keep my anger limited to my words; I don’t drive aggressively or endanger other commuters. I might complain profusely about someone’s inability to find their own turn signal, but that’s where it stops. I let every tiny frustration have its own (often loud) voice, and in return by the time I arrive at work or home, I’ve vented enough to regain my normal mellow equilibrium. It’s a good system, and for the most part, it serves me well.

But on days when that just isn’t enough, I turn to video games.

Everybody deals with stress, and finding adequate catharsis is an important part of that process. But there’s an unfortunate gender division that happens in Western society when classifying stress-management techniques. Often, calming techniques like yoga and crafting are presented as overwhelmingly feminine spaces while competitive or violent techniques like sports are presented as masculine. Of course, reality is far more balanced, but the perception itself can be harmful, and plays into stereotypes that foster hostile environments in these spaces or in the reactions of outside observers.

In gaming, this gendered division in media presentation and advertising is even more obvious—many male gamers are quick to dismiss the U.S. statistic of a 48% female audience as almost exclusively casual mobile players, and some parts of the industry still balk at the idea of rocking the boat with their perceived demographic. Talk about how the “target demographic” and “core audience” for high-budget console/PC games is usually limited to white cismale teens and young adult men, despite evidence that those statistics are long outdated. Women, people of color, and sexual/gender minorities are often overlooked as audiences for violent games, but they’re still there. Video games can and do serve a vital cathartic function for women and minorities whether they’re acknowledged or not. Creating safe spaces where everyone can go to blow off steam without harming or being harmed is incredibly important.

So what does this mean for the future of gaming? First, I should clarify what I mean by “violent” games. First-person shooters, action RPGs, and horror games are what immediately come to mind, but a violent game can be anything where the player is put into a position that requires brute force or intimidating tactics to advance. These appear across every platform, and can be simple arcade-style bullet hells to story-rich multi-game series. Violence, for the sake of this article, isn’t limited to Halo-style headshots or GTA carjacking, but includes RPG elements and cutscene depictions as well.

When feminists talk about violence in video games, the issue is often erroneously simplified into feminists against violent games. Of course, the truth is far more complex. Violence in many games is directed at groups that are already at risk or oppressed in the real world. Women, people of color, and sexual and gender minorities already struggle for representation that doesn’t limit us to harmful tropes or continue to support the racist, sexist hierarchy of modern Western society. Feminist gamers are against the use of these tropes because they’re harmful to the player, the game, society, and the industry itself. They are not, by default, against the use of violence in games in general, however. It is absolutely necessary to speak out against the continuing depiction of oppressive violence, especially in a medium that places the player in a position of power over those depicted, as many of the most criticized games often do. But that doesn’t mean feminists advocate the complete removal of violence as a storytelling tool or gameplay experience.

Mass Effect, Rem's Shepard

We frequently talk about creating inclusive games, but often that discussion is limited to creating diverse characters and expanding story types—all important, necessary things, but missing one of the most fundamental aspects of the gaming experience for a significant subset of players: violent catharsis. In discussing feminism, gaming, and violence, few people mention the importance of creating inclusive violence as a thing itself. Inclusive violence is allowing the gamer to experience and enact violence in the game without contributing to the same oppressive systems that harm those gamers or other gamers in real life. We need spaces that give us the freedom of violent catharsis, but we need to make them safe experiences for everyone, not just a privileged few.

The best example I can come up with for inclusive violence in games is the Mass Effect series. Admittedly, this is probably because I’m currently neck-deep in a renegade run, but the example still serves. In Mass Effect, most of the violence enacted by Shepard is rebellious in nature rather than oppressive. Shepard exposes corruption, sabotages enemies, intimidates intimidators, and speaks out against ignorance, injustice, and the abuses and lies perpetuated by people in power. While there are certainly plenty of controversial renegade options, few of them directly place Shepard in a position of abusive authority over the weakest members of society, and absolutely NONE of those options are made mandatory by plot requirements in the main games. Nor are players ever channeled into a single path of action based on previous decisions: even when playing a strictly renegade Shepard, you’ll always have a neutral option in dialogue interactions.

This is, for me personally, one of the biggest draws to the Mass Effect series. I can take immense satisfaction in stabbing Kai Leng without being forced into the far more questionable action of punching Al-Jilani just to get there. Taking out my own frustrations on Batarian slavers doesn’t require that I make Conrad cry first, and my ruthless renegade Shepard can still be a morally-complicated reaper-killing badass without participating in oppressive social structures that have negative effects on real life players. The games aren’t perfect, of course, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction.

Creating inclusive violence isn’t difficult, nor is it regressive. It doesn’t require stripping a story of complex characters or grim situations, sanding the edges off hard choices and making everything PG-13. Nor must every game with inclusive violence feature virtuous protagonists in a strict good versus evil dichotomy. Inclusive violence can have just as many morally ambiguous choices and force the player to address large moral and philosophical questions as other games. It’s been done before, and if developers work at creating diverse games with less sexist, racist, and homophobic content, then inclusive violence will likely develop naturally in the process.

Until then, I’ll probably just keep doing new playthroughs for Mass Effect and occasionally yelling in my car.

Have any games do you think include inclusive violence? Thoughts? Opinions? Disagreements? Good alternatives to the 405 at rush hour? Leave them in the comments and let us know!

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7 Comments on “Feminism & Catharsis: The Need for Inclusive Violence

  1. After a stressful day of being polite at work, there’s nothing better than going home and shooting some geth! Great article.

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  2. Absolutely agree. For a long time my go-to game for working out stress was Red Dead Redemption: Undead Nightmare, because clearing a town of zombies can be VERY soothing. I also often end up playing SWTOR or Saints Row IV, because there I play badass women who don’t put up with any shit, who are powerful and who don’t have to accept frustrating things the way I often do.

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  3. This so much. I dislike that people who say they want more diverse protagonists in games tend to be perceived as necessarily the same people who are pushing against violence in games. I’d love if more shooters gave the option to play as a woman.

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  4. Back in college when I was waiting tables to pay for school I often played Dynasty Warriors when I got off work to help vent my frustrations and calm down enough to sleep. Some sort of a release valve for pent up emotions is something that everyone needs, when I’m frustrated or angry my choice tends to be venting via video games as that release.

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  6. Hyrule Warriors is pretty great. Getting to play as Zelda, Impa, Midna, Ruto, etc. and be super powerful and beat up armies of monsters and stuff is wonderful stress relief. Main villain has a questionable outfit (to say the least) but I don’t think it alone is enough to ruin the entire game for me. Also helps they released a (I think free) DLC costume for her that makes her dress more sensibly.

    Left 4 Dead 2, while perhaps not perfect, let you play as a cool woman of color fighting redneck zombies which is also pretty fun and relaxing depending on the game mode/difficulty

    A lot of games with player customization is also great fun. Saints Row IV and Skyrim are two of my favorites, where I can play as myself and kick ass.

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