For a brief window in the mid-2000s, video games became politicians' favorite piñata. Joe Lieberman and Ted Kennedy spoke out against 2004's JFK Reloaded, a game that let you re-enact the Kennedy assassination. The "Hot Coffee" modification to Grand Theft Auto—which allowed players to (poorly) simulate intercourse with in-game girlfriends—left Lieberman and Hillary Clinton in a huff in 2005. That same year, the Illinois Legislature (among many others) banned the sale of violent games to minors, with then-Gov. Rod Blagojevich sending a message to "the parents of Illinois" pointing out that "98 percent of the games considered suitable by the industry for teenagers contain graphic violence."
The last couple of years haven't been as fruitful for video game scolds. Jack Thompson, the longtime face of the anti-game-violence movement, was recently banned from practicing law in Florida. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals just ruled that a California law banning the sale of violent video games to minors was unconstitutional. There is a Wii in the White House. With America's pro-gaming forces gathering strength, crusading politicians must now journey beyond our shores to find games to rail against. Enter New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, who has joined with the New York City Alliance Against Sexual Assault in calling for a stateside ban of a Japanese "rape simulator" game called RapeLay.
Quinn is half-right about RapeLay. While the council speaker is right to say that the Japanese title is deeply disturbing, talk of a ban is just grandstanding—the game has already been barred from Amazon and eBay, and it isn't available in any brick-and-mortar stores in the United States. Like every other illicit entity in the universe, though, RapeLay is available online. Thanks to an elaborate network of software pirates, persistent copy-protection hackers, and devoted fan translators, a free, fully functioning English-language version of the game turns up after 30 seconds of Googling. In fan forums, the feedback on RapeLay is as creepy as the game's premise—"hours of fun," one user posted.
After downloading and playing the game myself, I would have to disagree with that review—a more accurate assessment might be "hours of getting depressed about the fate of humankind." The game begins with a man standing on a subway platform, stalking a girl in a blue sundress. On the platform, you can click "prayer" to summon a wind that lifts her skirt. She blushes. Once she's on the train, the assault begins. Inside the subway car, you can use the mouse to grope your victim as you stand in a crowd of mute, translucent commuters. From here, your character corners his victim—in a station bathroom, or in a park with the help of male friends—and a series of interactive rape scenes begins.
Early on, RapeLay operates like a visual novel—the exposition comes via text that scrolls over a series of static images, explaining your character's plan to enslave three women one by one, and his eerie delight in the premeditation. Although the interactive assaults are difficult to endure if you have a conscience, the game's text actually provides the most unsettling material. RapeLay relies on the horrendous, wildly sexist fantasy that rape victims enjoy being attacked. After the exposition, the game essentially becomes a simulator of consensual intercourse. There's kissing. The women orgasm.
It's an old cliché that the more repressed a society, the more extreme its pornography—but more upsetting than RapeLay is the social environment that birthed it. The premise here is that a wealthy man is out for revenge against the schoolgirl who had him jailed as a chikan, or subway pervert. The epidemic of chikan is an enormous problem in Japan, particularly in major cities, where trains are so crowded that it's easy for predators to conceal their crimes. In Declan Hayes' 2005 book, The Japanese Disease, the author describes a community of salarymen who organize online "groping associations" and subscribe to publications that suggest ideal train lines and timetables for attacks.
In an oft-cited 2004 survey, 64 percent of Tokyo women reported that they'd been groped on a train. While Japanese women are frequently too ashamed to report attackers, the country's legal system does boast a high conviction rate, so the chikan who are charged generally do jail time. Male commuters fear being accused by mistake; a 2007 movie called I Just Didn't Do It, based on a true story, follows the legal battle of an innocent man accused of groping. * Though there's no question of the groper's guilt in the game, this social conflict is RapeLay's backdrop.
Although many violent Japanese sex games feature happy endings in which formerly victimized women end up as fulfilled, adoring wives, RapeLay allows only for dark outcomes. The first possible conclusion has the original subway victim stabbing you to death during sex. There's also the possibility that you can impregnate one of the victims. If the player doesn't force her to have an abortion, the game's protagonist, fittingly, throws himself under a train.
While the moral outrage from the New York City Council and Web sites like Jezebel and Shakesville is obviously well-placed, there's little hope that legislation or activism can stem the perversion. Not only is RapeLay rooted in a social illness that's embedded in Japanese society, it's just one game in a niche industry that's more closely related to the porn business than to the video game world.
Risquè PC games, or eroge, are big business in Japan, and legions of Japanese software-development houses are devoted to churning them out. They're usually sold alongside glossy comics, figurines, and animated smut in shops that cater to a common fetish for animated women; they don't share shelf space with Super Mario and Halo. Eroge enjoys a broad, if underground, following in Japan, and titles with violent subtexts are actually in the minority. More common are gauzy high-school dating stories, standard soap-opera melodrama that prioritizes narrative, and plenty of oddball pap starring cat girls and alien maids.
The Japanese government has never placed restrictions on eroge themes, though they are subject to censorship laws. The absurd result: games in which violent sex scenes feature genitalia that's tastefully obscured. When resourceful software pirates funnel eroge to Western audiences, they can implement hacks that remove the mosaics—which means the version of RapeLay that I saw is actually more graphic than the Japanese intended. Nevertheless, RapeLay can actually be called tame compared with its more extreme peers. It's almost insultingly nonviolent for a game ostensibly about a brutal act. The idea of a "rape simulator" is repellent—what's worse is that the game trivializes the reality of rape.
Considering the impossibility of policing the Internet, as well as the availability of English RapeLay translations and forums for years before any politician caught wind of the game, it's unrealistic to think that the game could be banished from America. Very few Japanese developers make an effort to sell eroge to the West, and those that do, like Peach Princess and G-Collections, make content modifications to suit foreign norms and laws. (For example, all underage characters' ages get rounded up to 18, no matter how young the character looks.) These Westernized versions are sold in the United States via import sites like J-List and Play-Asia. Neither company sells RapeLay, but they do offer the popular eroge Yume Miru Kusuri. That game, while more edgy than it is violent, does focus on sex-crazed, underage-looking high schoolers with drug problems and suicide fetishes. RapeLay is appalling, but titles like Yume Miru Kusuri—sold in America after being unconvincingly modified so the protagonists are "18," making it tough to peg the games as outright illegal—would make far more constructive targets for political outrage.
Correction, March 12, 2009: This article originally mischaracterized the 2007 Japanese movie I Just Didn't Do It. While it's based on a true story, the film is not a documentary. (Return to the corrected sentence.)