The Microsoft customer-support employee who had a rape joke told at her expense in front of a massive audience at the E3 video-game conference and an even bigger crowd online has clarified that she did not take offense, which does not change the fact that Microsoft prominently featured a rape reference at the company's biggest presentation for one of its biggest products ever, the Xbox One. And it doesn't appear to be changing the gender roles in the gaming industry either.
"The demo included friendly ad-libbed banter and there was no ill intent," Ashton "Vulcan" Williams tweeted several hours after the Monday exchange on stage in California. "Torin and I are friends," she added, referencing her fellow player in a live demo of Killer Instinct, who, while beating her in the fighting game, said the following: "Just let it happen. It will be over soon." While Williams, a community coordinator for Microsoft, says she doesn't mind the rape joke — she even played along, returning a "Wow, you like this" from her male counterpart by saying, "No, I don't like this" — the smear on Microsoft's year-long campaign for its new gaming console remains.
At the very least, we're learning on the day after the incident that the rape references weren't written into Microsoft's run of show. "The comments during the KI demo were not scripted," Williams tweeted. Microsoft clarified further in a statement sent to The Atlantic Wire on Tuesday afternoon and attributed to a vice president named Phil Spencer, which reads in part: "[o]ne of our employees made an off the cuff and inappropriate comment while demoing 'Killer Instinct' with another employee. This comment was offensive and we apologize."
Microsoft may not have completely lost its sense of sensitivity — "Bullying and harassment of any kind is not condoned and is taken very seriously," the statement continued — but the nature of the exchange and the alarming reaction to it continues to reveal how rape "jokes" unfold in public, especially in the context of gamer culture, and why that problem is far from solved.
Yes, this is a rape joke. Many who picked up on the Xbox exchange, including commenters on an early story at The Atlantic Wire, still failed to see how the main phrase in question — Just let it happen — constitutes a rape reference. "Cannot see how this I was rape joke. I do believe you are reading way too much into this," wrote one of our commenters, Mighty Viking Hamster. Allow us to explain: One person trying to convince an unwilling person to have sex with them frequently tells the victim to "let it happen" and stay quiet — it's a common enough term that it's often used alongside the "Rape Sloth" meme. That reference, re-blogged again and again, features captions that often contain "alarming threats that are meant to disturb the reader," according to Know Your Meme, "on a similar vein to the Prepare Your Anus and You Gonna Get Raped image macros." In other words: it's linguistic sexual harassment put next to pictures. Here are some other classics from the sickening sloth meme, including "you better stay quiet you slut."
Yes, gamers talk like this all the time. Others responding to the Xbox exchange, particularly on Reddit, note that gamers — even girl gamers — tend to use similar phrasing all the time while playing, which by their logic makes the E3 incident acceptable. Redditor Delta_Hedge writes:
This is considered rape jokes now. they should hear me playing.
- "im gonna rape you so hard"
- "youre getting raped"
- "you just got raped small son"
Another Redditor, also a woman, added: "It's a game... Am I actually planning on raping someone? No. Hopefully most people could fight off a 115lb girl if I decided to. Am I afraid of being raped? Absolutely not."
Just because people talk like this all the time does not make it okay — this kind of "smack talk" not only alienates female would-be gamers but also mimics the rampant sexual harassment in gamer culture. Even worse, the Xbox incident unfolded, however off-the-cuff, during a professional presentation for one of the biggest technology companies on earth at the gaming industry's biggest expo. One of the biggest names in gaming should not further alienate woman at a live, recorded event, which brings us to the next point.
Yes, sexism is still a huge problem in the gaming world. Gamers and the game they play already alienate, harass, and exclude women, something Williams, who did not respond to multiple interview requests from The Atlantic Wire, acknowledged on Twitter:
It was an honor to be one of two females on the stage today at the Microsoft briefing. Excited and pumped for the show tomorrow! :) #E3— Ashton(@ashtonisVULCAN) June 11, 2013
Williams was one of two women both physically and virtually present at the Killer Instinct demo. Not a single Xbox game featured a female protagonist, as Feminist Frequency pointed out. What's more, a tweet saying as much drew the responses like "stop being retarded and bitchy," "in general men are better at battle rolls and other type battle stuff that (sic) why tomb raider sucked," and "stop pushing your feminist agenda on video games." So maybe Ashton Williams doesn't mind the rape joke because she's so used to putting up with that kind of stuff just to make it in the gamer world.