Commentary Media

Video Games Can and Should Talk More About Real Issues—Including Reproductive Rights

Shonté Daniels

A new video game focused on an unintended pregnancy shows the potential for tackling heavier topics in games, but it also illustrates how game developers often succumb to stereotypes that can do more harm than good when attempting to educate players about real-world experiences.

While most video games today mimic the real world more closely than games of previous generations, they still tend to negotiate realism in order to prevent mundane game mechanics. Most protagonists can forgo eating or sleeping, for example, since those aspects are not necessarily fun to do in a virtual world. Similarly, no female protagonist has to worry about her menstrual cycle or getting pregnant. Of course, there are exceptions, but in many cases where pregnancy is considered, the actual period of being pregnant is cut short to keep the game moving along.

In the action role-playing Fable series, female protagonists can get pregnant, but the pregnancy lasts as long as one cutscene. Then the characters are back on their feet and ready to fight again. Children survive without the player around, and will occasionally ask for toys. Even The Sims franchise, a series of games designed to simulate life (even the mundane parts like going to the bathroom), strips pregnancy down to a three-day event (72 minutes in real time) of morning sickness and fatigue.

I don’t expect every game with a pregnant playable character to fully explore gestation. Pregnancy is not the main theme for most, if any, of these games. But I do think video games can do more to show the ups and downs of real scenarios women and girls might face without succumbing to stereotypes that will do more harm than good. Video games are a maturing art form; artists are creating more games that focus less on common game plots like saving the world and more on actual human experiences. Games, like movies or literature or music, can tell important stories, but only video games can let other people inhabit different worlds through the characters they play. Perhaps “living” through someone else’s pregnancy, albeit briefly, may help change the way people stigmatize pregnant people.

Popular games that do focus on pregnancy vary from strange to unintentionally harmful. There was the unlicensed game featuring a pregnant Anna from Disney’s Frozen, where the player had to deliver Anna’s baby. Tools included magic glowing orbs and a scalpel. The closest thing to blood was hot pink fuzz on Anna’s abdomen where the player “cuts” her to deliver the baby.

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That game is designed to be light and fun, and not an accurate representation of the trials of giving birth, but there are other games, like the recently released Pregnancy, that offer a more harmful glimpse into the experiences of pregnant persons. Developed by Brazilian team Locomotivah, Pregnancy is an interactive narrative about a 14-year-old girl in Hungary who discovers she is pregnant after being a victim to rape. As Lilla Sandor’s conscience, the player helps her decide whether or not to continue with the pregnancy.

Interactive narrative games like Pregnancy focus on stories (think about them like the Choose Your Own Adventure series) and making life decisions. Elitist gamers who think there is no place for storytelling in games often attempt to discredit these kinds of games because of their simple mechanics and emphasis on narrative, but games are not defined by how many buttons to push or how interactive they might be.

When I first found Pregnancy, I was pleasantly surprised to see it. Unlike other games, this short narrative—which costs $1.99 at the Locomotivah sitedoesn’t revolve around the main character attempting to save the world. Sandor is a girl who was raped, and is struggling with very real problems people face. Unfortunately, its novelty quickly wore off after I realized how things would play out.

Pregnancy relies on stereotypes about both rape victims and pregnant teens, and presents more myths than facts about these scenarios, potentially misguiding players rather than educating them about the gravity of these situations.

The game doesn’t work to show the seriousness of rape. Instead, Sandor’s assault is used as a plot device—the scene early in the game in which Sandor interacts with her rapist is a clear indication of that. The scene is minimal, since the game’s visuals are still images. The player sees an image of a woman with hands around her neck, while the dialogue between Sandor and her rapist plays out. The rapist repeatedly calls Sandor a “little bitch,” and laughs occasionally. She is trapped, and he finds all of this amusing. After that scene, we never see or hear from him again. He isn’t depicted as a human, but as an evil being who disappears into the night. Even Sandor shrugs the incident off; when asked multiple times how she’s feeling, she consistently says she’s fine.

From the start, the game’s narrative is questionable. For example, it wasn’t the most representative choice to have Sandor be sexually assaulted by an unknown criminal, since only about 7 percent of all sexual assault victims are attacked by complete strangers. The game perpetuates the idea that most sexual assault perpetrators are unknown people who jump out at you from the shadows, rather than known acquaintances or family members.

Further, the game doesn’t give any resources for victims of rape. Early on, we learn Sandor has been seeing a psychologist for four months to cope with the incident, but the most advice the doctor gives her is that eventually life will return to normal. The game never says how far along in pregnancy Sandor is. Sandor mentions to the player that she’s been throwing up, and her aunt says Sandor is looking bigger, but that isn’t enough to indicate how long she’s been pregnant. And when Sandor tells her doctor about her pregnancy, the doctor says she is sure Sandor will do the right thing. So much of the dialogue in the story between Sandor and the other characters is unhelpful and ambiguous that it seems impossible for Sandor to ever get the help a real person would actually need to make an informed decision about a pregnancy. Learning of an unintended pregnancy, especially due to rape, can be emotionally devastating, and Sandor didn’t seem able to express her likely fear and anger to her doctor or family members.

Another issue is that the game provides very little information about abortion. The first time abortion is introduced, it is Sandor’s closest friend, Melinda, who mentions it. Melinda knows of an older girl named Niki who had an abortion. Sandor describes Niki as “the busty girl”; the short scene comes across as a way to slut-shame Niki as someone who is expected to have sex because of her breast size. What’s worse is that Niki, it seems, is only mentioned in the game to briefly acknowledge abortion as an option—we learn nothing about who she is beyond her physical traits.

Other options, such as adoption, are mentioned briefly but never enough for a full discussion about the complexities involved in making such decisions. There is no mention of any organizations that could help Sandor become more informed, and no one in her support group asks her important questions about whether or not she thinks she can handle raising a child at 14, or about child-care options for when she is in school. Pregnancy only focuses on the immediate situation and ignores what Sandor might face months or years ahead.

The strangest part of the game is the end. One positive thing the game does is allow Sandor to make her own decision. No matter what options the player chooses, Sandor will always pick the opposite of what the player wants. If the player chooses “pro-life” oriented options, such as telling Sandor she has no choice but to have the baby, Sandor will decide to end her pregnancy, and vice versa. There’s no explanation as to why the game does this, but I suspect it plays out this way to give Sandor agency and the chance to make her own decision. Still, it’s interesting to have Sandor actively seek advice from the player and her family and friends only to have her completely ignore it.

The end also feels too neatly resolved. Sandor thanks the player for helping her, and that’s it. The game doesn’t address the fact that Sandor might not have access to reproductive care. The reality is that many women and teen girls are faced with choices not based on the full spectrum of health care, but on laws created by anti-choice politicians. Not all women live near clinics or have the money for abortion or prenatal care, nor do they all have the money or resources to have and raise a child.

I emailed the developer but never heard back, so I don’t know whether the game is meant to come across as neutral on the issue of choice. At the end of the game, there’s an information page that includes links to the anti-abortion and abortion rights Wikipedia pages, as well as the NARAL and National Right to Life websites. This is the most amount of information provided in the game, and it doesn’t come up until after the game has ended. The text on the page gives me the impression the developer doesn’t quite understand the burden placed on rape victims who become pregnant.

Video games have a reputation for being childish, silly things that are meant to be nothing more than fun. So I can understand why it would seem as if games couldn’t successfully tackle heavier topics. But many people, especially among marginalized communities, are creating new ways to show that video games can and should talk more about the real world and those who inhabit it.

More successful games include Anna Anthropy’s Dys4ia, which depicts a character who experiences hormone replacement therapy; Nicky Case’s Coming Out Simulator 2014, which covers the hardships of Case coming out to his parents; and Hurt Me Plenty by Robert Yang, a game that digs into consent and intimacy within the BDSM community.

Additionally, the Jennifer Ann’s Group, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of teen dating violence, launched a video game competition in 2008 designed to challenge creators to make games about the dangers of teen dating violence using facts and statistics. Ultimately, the group hopes games created through the annual competition will educate players about the seriousness of this type of violence and turn players into advocates for those who have suffered from teen dating violence. Last year’s winner, The Guardian, is available for purchase on Android devices, and winners from previous years are available (for free) here. This year’s competition started on February 13 and ends June 1, and participants have been asked to make a game about teen dating violence without any violence in their actual game.

Games are art, and game creators and activists are coming together to tell more stories. The influx of games about sex and sexuality gives me hope that pregnancy and sexual assault will no longer be used just to advance plot in games, but to inform, and tell the stories that have been previously ignored or inappropriately told. I believe there is space for games that explore human hardships, both the challenges and the triumphs.

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