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The Mary Sue

So Maybe Including A Shock-Collar-Wearing Female Slave In The Old Republic Wasn’t The Best Idea?

Essay

I tend to think that I’m a nice person. I mind my Ps and Qs. I hold the door for people. I put spiders outside if I find them in the house. I don’t enjoy being snarky. And when I game, I always play the good guy.

Well…most of the time.

On rare occasion, I bust out of my Paragon mold and set the world on fire. I take the “RP” part of RPGs pretty seriously, so if I go bad, I go really bad. I am ridiculously over the top when I assume the role of the villain, in a mustache-twirling, ice-cap-melting-space-laser kind of way.

So when my brother talked me into playing Sith in The Old Republic, BioWare’s recently released Star Wars MMORPG, I knew it was going to be brutal. I was hesitant, at first. Sith? Me? I mean, come on, my housekeys are on a Rebel Alliance keychain, for goodness’ sake. If I had to play Empire, surely I was going to be the bounty hunter with a heart of gold, trying to subvert the system from the inside. But no, my brother was adamant. Sibling assassin team. Totally evil. No compromises.

I’ve been playing a Sith Inquisitor for a few weeks now, and the Dark Side is strong within me. I’ve murdered more innocents than I can count. I’ve planted explosives in Alliance walkie-talkies. I’ve poisoned a water supply. I’ve used Force Lightning on helpless prisoners, good-hearted Jedi, even a bartender I didn’t like very much. I’ve slaughtered jawas — cute, stubby, glowy-eyed jawas.

I’m the bad guy.

And yet, despite all of the destruction I’ve wrought, I found myself deeply conflicted when I read yesterday’s posts on Kotaku and Forbes about Vette, a companion for the Sith Warrior class. For those not in the know, all classes get several NPC companions that aid you in combat or grind crafting skills for you. A companion will also run around with you as you explore new planets, offering commentary and conversation. You can even strike up a romance with certain companions.

Vette, a twi’lek female, is the first companion given to a Sith Warrior. Vette is a slave, and when you first meet her, she’s wearing a shock collar. The player has the option to either remove the collar or leave it in place. If the collar stays where it is, the player has the option throughout subsequent conversations to give her a reprimanding shock (this is accompanied by lines such as, “You will mind your tongue, slave”; the player also receives Dark Side points for such actions, which are necessary for obtaining some of the best gear).

As I watched the Kotaku video of Vette being repeatedly zapped, I felt uncomfortable — but then, I had also felt uncomfortable slipping neurotoxin into a water supply. Was Vette’s treatment any worse than any of the war crimes my character had committed? Was it sexist, or was it just par-for-the-course evil?

I took a step back and looked at Vette purely from a storytelling point of view. In theory, having her as a companion is a perfectly valid plot device: An evil villain controls his/her slave with a shock collar. Sith are bad, violent, cruel individuals, and therefore, torturing Vette is not only in character, but would be so regardless of her gender. As Kotaku writer Mike Fahey mentioned, slavery and torture are nothing new to Star Wars. Those elements have been there since day one. And certainly, Star Wars as a whole is pretty gender-equitable. Women are monarchs, soldiers, military strategists, and Jedi Knights. Looking at Vette in terms of the larger context of the Star Wars universe, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that her gender is entirely incidental.

The trouble is that there are very, very few people who can experience a story without bringing in their own personal context. You’d have to either be wildly imaginative or somewhat delusional to ignore your real-world experiences completely. To show you what I mean, humor me for a moment and imagine that video with a female Sith Warrior. It’s still unpleasant and evil, but I’m going to bet that you feel differently about it. Okay, now imagine it with a Sith Warrior of either gender, but with a male slave. Unpleasant, yes, evil, yes, but still not as squicky as the original, right? Now imagine that slave is a human with dark skin. If you’re like me, your brain just violently recoiled. But why? This is the Star Wars universe we’re talking about. Star Wars doesn’t have institutionalized racism, at least not within individual species. But you still feel that kick, that jolt deep through your brain that forms a deeply disturbing connection between an imaginary circumstance and some historical horror.

That’s the kind of gut reaction I have towards that video of Vette. Imagining a different gender dynamic between torturer and victim makes it feel like an individual act of evil. But coming from a world in which misogyny and violence against women are all too commonplace, it’s almost impossible for my brain to not draw that instant parallel when I see a man abuse a woman, no matter how imaginary the setting.

But not all players feel the same way. There are plenty of folks — both women and fair-minded men — who have no issue with Vette. They’re able to shrug off any negative context with ease. Not all players will play as men, and not all players will choose to leave the shock collar on. This scenario is, after all, something the player has to actively choose. For many Sith Warriors, this element of Vette’s story doesn’t even exist. And hey — if you do play a male character and you did choose to leave the collar on, but you honestly see it in terms of a gender-neutral role-playing decision, more power to you. I recognize that many players will see the opportunity to torture Vette as nothing more than a validation that their character is totally evil. I tend to think that’s exactly what BioWare intended, and truth be told, that on its own is fine by me.

Okay, so if we look at Vette in the wider storytelling context of the game, then maybe she doesn’t seem like much of a problem. But what if we look at her from the much wider context of the gaming industry and the gaming community? Sure, things are getting better for women gamers. Many developers, slowly but surely, are getting the hint that their fanbases are diverse, not just in gender, but in race, age, and sexual orientation. But the market is still over-saturated with female characters in degrading or objectified roles. Women still often have trouble in finding a comfortable place to game. Women are harassed, trolled, and belittled, all for having the audacity to speak over a microphone or tell guildmates their real names. For some of us, it’s hurtful, but easy to ignore or avoid. For others, it’s a reason to stop playing altogether.

Given that, it’s hardly shocking to learn that certain players are really getting a kick out of Vette, not in a mustache-twirling imaginary villain kind of way, but by tacking on some very real-world negative attitudes about women. From the Kotaku article:

General chat would regularly be filled with other Sith Warriors discussing how poorly they treated Vette. They boasted of her low opinion of them, negative numbers on the game’s companion friendship scale.

If you go to the YouTube page for the video, you’ll find comments like “She really does do plenty to deserve all those shocks” and “I think she secretly enjoys it.” These are not in-character comments made in a role-playing context. This is all-too-familiar language that we see used against women — real, non-fictional women — in our daily lives. It’s the kind of cancerous bullshit that permeates our society, and it’s exactly the sort of behavior that can make games an unwelcoming place for women. I mean, if having a gender-specific gamer tag is enough to cause some male players to bully a woman off of a server, is anyone really surprised that there are dudes bragging in general chat about torturing a female NPC, or talking about how cute she is when they shock her? Again, shocking Vette isn’t any worse than the other things a Sith player has to do, but there’s a big difference between laughing about tearing through a camp of jawas and laughing about telling a woman her “place.” In my eyes, the Vette scenarios differ from other evil quest lines in that they invite an entirely different sort of dialogue from certain players, one that has nothing to do with fictional violence and everything to do with real prejudice.

BioWare’s job with SWTOR wasn’t just to create a good story, it was to foster a community. While sexist bullies are hardly representative of the gaming community as a whole, that element still exists, and despite the progress that women gamers have made, those people continue to be a significant problem. I feel that BioWare should’ve anticipated that kind of behavior around Vette, and by giving players a reward-based system for torturing her, they were inadvertently encouraging it. Sexist? Maybe not. But shortsighted, definitely.

Becky Chambers is a freelance writer and a full-time geek. She blogs over at Other Scribbles.

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