Tomb Raider: A gaming industry allegory

Oh Christ, Noelle, ANOTHER Tomb Raider post? Seriously?!

Well, yes, actually. I really felt the need to write this in the aftermath of the latest, and possibly most terrible (to date) “Wominz are the DEVIL!!” furore to affect gaming.

It all started with an attack on game developer Zoe Quinn – for supposedly using sex with journalists to secure good review scores for her game – and then expanded to include Feminist Frequency media commentator Anita Sarkeesian, who is, of course, no stranger to troll targeting.

Various other industry figures, male but mostly female, who spoke out against #GamerGate harassment were also subject to abuse. Things just got worse and worse, culminating with women having to flee their homes because of assault threats. In addition, prominent gaming commentator and journalist Jenn Frank, along with a few other figures, implied that they will be quitting the industry because of the rampant, aggressive misogyny among gamers. They've had enough.

So what does this have to do with the 2013 Tomb Raider reboot?

Well, I believe that the game can be interpreted as an allegory for the current state of the gaming industry – specifically in terms of what female gamers are likely to experience at some point.

Let's look a little closer, shall we?

Lara Croft is a pretty, subdued, fairly normal 21 year old woman. She's a recent university graduate passionate about what she does and ready to make her mark. She's a tad stressed about the task facing her (her first expedition), but nonetheless she's eager to demonstrate her capabilities and earn respect on her own terms.

Even before she reaches her destination though, she's subjected to “What do you know? I have far more experience than you” comments from veteran archaeologist Dr Whitman, one of her professional heroes. Lara is hurt but argues back in defence of her theories. She vows to work harder.

One traumatic shipwreck and near-drowning later, Lara arrives on the lost island of Yamatai. For years it had been the place of her dreams – the place she has always wanted to discover. The reality though is a nightmare.

The island population is all-male. In this place cut off from reality and typical societal rules, women only exist to be used. They're sacrifices. Even the pivotal figure of Himiko, the powerful Sorcerer Queen who rules over the island, is a means to a goal. That goal being to get off the island.

Lara isn't a person – a thinking, feeling individual – to these literal madmen, many of whom have spent decades trying to survive in this harsh environment. Repeatedly, she's labelled an “outsider,” a “little rat.” Over the course of 12-15 hours of gameplay she gets pawed at, dismissed, beaten, shot at, laughed at and told to just go along with what the men want.

Is all of this sounding familiar?

Now Lara could curl up in a ball and cry as a result of this abuse. She could hide out silently in a cave and stay there in the hope of eventually being rescued from this island of misogynists. Certainly her treatment by the island inhabitants knocks her confidence, and time and time again she has to talk herself out of terror-triggered paralysis.

For the record, in case you want to argue that Tomb Raider is relentless misandry, there are good guys in the game too. Three white males do try to help Lara. All three die in the process though.

Two of the three are older father figures; men who view Lara as a surrogate daughter and want to protect her. The third is a different kind of White Knight – the type you are very likely to encounter in the gaming community every single day. Alex Weiss is around Lara's age, her friend and a computer nerd. He wears glasses, has an Esc key t-shirt, likes comics and conspiracy theories, and clearly he has designs on dating Lara. To this end, he decides to impress her with a little heroism of his own. Sadly, his efforts are misguided, cause more trouble than good and end with him dead. He does get a peck on the cheek out of it though.

While the men do help her at pivotal points, ultimately it's up to Lara save herself. She is transformed by her experiences on the island. There are some negative effects of course. The simple, innocent excitement she once had for her profession is forever tainted. “I hate tombs,” she grumbles. Her personality darkens and she becomes more prone to violence and vengeance. Still, she doesn't give up. She takes all the abuse, the pain and the frustrating feeling of impotence at continually being victimised, and she funnels it into action.

Lara Croft takes a lickin' and keeps on kickin'.

Gratifyingly, Lara defeats her detractors through stealth, resourcefulness and cunning. Oh, and being a crack shot. From mocking her; refusing to take her seriously, her enemies come to fear her, shouting warnings to their brethren and fleeing on sight. Lara emerges from her Yamatai experience battered and scarred – but she's also finally unlocked her steely Survivor model and is ready for her next adventure.

With all this in mind, Tomb Raider 2013 can easily be interpreted as a satisfying empowerment fantasy for anyone frustrated by the continual escalating harassment of women online.

Through the game we follow a bullied young woman as she discovers her inner strength, grows in confidence and gets her own back against the men who continually put her down. It's massively cathartic for the player to be in Lara's shoes, and I don't think there's any coincidence either that the only members of Lara's ship crew to survive are minorities – namely a Maori man, an African-American woman and a Japanese-American girl. If you choose to read the game through this specific filter, Tomb Raider 2013 is all about sticking it to the white male majority whose voices remain loudest in gaming.

So yeah, next time you're feeling worn down by sexism in gaming, and the hurtful, demeaning comments that sprout from such an attitude, I recommend loading up last year's Tomb Raider for a bit of Napalm arrow and grenade launching relief. Not to mention inspiration.

Meanwhile, I hope that Zoe, Anita and the like are able to take the hatred thrown their way, cash in the experience gained and use it to unlock their very own Hardened Survivor mode. Keep going, ladies.


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