Video Game Lets Women Fight Back

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Street harassment is something that many women have encountered. Now, a new video game titled "Hey, Baby!," offers fantasy revenge for women who are sick of catcalls. Game creator Suyin Looui and Emily May, executive director of Holla Back, an online community aimed at ending street harassment, talk about the power of digital revenge.

(Soundbite of music)

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Now we turn to our segment we call The Next Big Thing. Thats where we try to clue you into whats new and happening. And we want to tell you about a new video game.

Now, you might think about video games as mainly well, guys blowing stuff up and shooting anything that moves. Well, there's a new game that is a twist on that scenario, and frankly, it plays to a common experience for most women.

Now picture this, youre walking down the street. Youre minding your own business. Maybe youre alone or with a friend or even with your kids, and then you hear something like this.

(Soundbite of video game)

Unidentified Man: I like your bounce, baby.

MARTIN: Well, what do you do? Do you quietly walk away, hang your head, say something? Well, in this new video game you can answer like this.

(Soundbite of gunshots)

MARTIN: The game is "Hey, Baby," and its the creation of Suyin Looui. She joins us by phone from London. And for additional perspective, we also called Emily May. Shes the executive director of Holla Back, thats the group that encourages women to report incidents of street harassment online. Presumably, not to mow the perpetrators down in a hail of bullets, but we thought wed like to hear her perspective too. Shes here with us from New York.

Ladies, thank you for joining us.

Ms. EMILY MAY (Executive director, Holla Back): Thanks so much for having me.

Ms. SUYIN LOOUI (Creator video game, "Hey, Baby!): Yeah. Its great to be here.

MARTIN: Now Suyin, I can imagine what inspired this game because so many of us have had this experience of having unwelcome verbal attention on the street. But just tell us your story.

Ms. LOOUI: A few years ago I was on the subway, just on the platform and it was just a really cold winter day, totally bundled up in layers and someone said hot ching chong.

MARTIN: Whats that?

Ms. LOOUI: Ching chong? Its a C-h-i-n-g, c-h-o-n-g.

MARTIN: Yeah.

Ms. LOOUI: Its a really racist term that people call Chinese people.

MARTIN: Oh, okay. I'm sorry.

Ms. LOOUI: Yeah. Thats okay.

MARTIN: My racist lexicon is probably out of date, so I apologize. Okay.

Ms. LOOUI: Thank goodness for that. So that was the moment when I decided that I was going to make this game and it would be an ode the young man on the subway platform in New York. The next two years it just became this other thing this project about how to create conversations around the whole issue and just how its a very difficult topic, just how people engage in a really different way around it.

MARTIN: Well, engaged in a different way is one way to describe mowing somebody down in a hail of bullets.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOOUI: Definitely.

MARTIN: Was that something that came out of this fantasy that you figure a lot of women probably have, even if they dont want to admit to it or not, that this kind of tossing people in the air and that kind of thing.

Well, Emily, what about it? As we mentioned, you have a website where people can report this kind of stuff online as one way to kind of deal with those feelings. What did you think of the game? You played it.

Ms. MAY: I did. And, you know what? I think it really honed in on this idea that when youre street harassed there's no good response to street harassment. And thats actually why we launched Holla Back is we felt like when we walked on we felt weak, when we yelled at the guys the situation escalated and the police didnt care and we were tired of being silent and we wanted to come up with a response to street harassment that mattered. And so we put the blog and the cell phone camera together in 2005, and really started to encourage women to report it and then since then its really evolved into a worldwide moment.

MARTIN: Suyin, the range of what men say in your game is wide. Now some of it is so obscene we really cannot repeat it here.

Ms. LOOUI: Yeah.

MARTIN: But some of the comments in the game are things like: excuse me, do you have a boyfriend and God bless you. And maybe its the version of the game that I played, but the only available responses are thanking them and blowing kisses or shooting them dead.

Ms. LOOUI: Yeah.

MARTIN: Do you think those are the only choices?

Ms. LOOUI: Well, its definitely the extreme. And I really like what Emily said about you never really have a great response. Either you provoke them further or you walk away silently, and in your mind theres all of these imaginary, you know, scenarios that are playing out. But I wanted to be clear when I was making the game, that it was a really wide range of behaviors that happen in real time, real space and that women really choose to deal with it in different ways. And their strategies, you know, range, you know, from putting an iPod on to, you know, changing their outfit everyday. I thought it was important to at least have that range in there to show that it was a real world example.

MARTIN: There are women who, from what I observe, seem to actually enjoy it. Would either or both of you think that that might be true?

Ms. MAY: I think that when youre talking about women who are enjoying certain comments on the street, youre not talking about street harassment.

Ms. LOOUI: Yeah.

Ms. MAY: Street harassment really is something that makes you feel scared and thats where that line is. If a comment isn't making you feel scared then its not harassment.

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about a new video game called Hey Baby, where women can literally well, in the game - shoot down virtual street harassers. Our guests are Suyin Looui, who created the game, and also with us is Emily May. She runs Holla Back, thats a group that uses Web technology to confront street harassers in real life.

Now I have heard people defend some of this on cultural grounds. So what do you say about that? Suyin, Ill ask you this question first.

Ms. LOOUI: Okay.

MARTIN: Because one of the things youve talked about here is the kind of the racial aspect of it. In fact, one of the harassers in the game says I hope you like black men.

Ms. LOOUI: Yes. And theres another harasser in the game, he says the comment that triggered everything, which was hot ching chong. And I do think they're huge cultural differences. But the thing that is really clear is that no matter, you know, your background, your age, your race, you get that kind of attention and you give that kind of attention, you know, as a male. So just to be really conscious of the way that you interact with people in public spaces is really important.

MARTIN: Emily, what do you think?

Ms. MAY: I would to actually disagree that its a cultural thing. Theres no data out there that shows that its cultural. And oftentimes, women who are scared by comments like hey baby, I like your smile; or hello beautiful, or things that are a little bit more benign have a history of sexual violence. And when youre talking about a world in which 25 percent of girls are sexually assaulted before they turn 18, theres a lot of women running around the city and around this world who have experienced sexual violence and street harassment feels like ripping the scab off.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, Emily, and Suyin, I'm going to ask this question to you also. You know, there are those who would argue that kind of visual violence, game violence, television violence, that media violence in general just perpetuates a culture of violence. And while there's no data that show that sort of a heavy user of video games is going to go out and commit violence, there are those who would say that you just adding more violence to the culture doesnt even if its a fantasy doesnt really help us very much.

Emily, what do you say about that? And Suyin, I want to hear your perspective too.

Ms. MAY: One of the things that really struck me about the game is that it does feel and did emit the same kind of emotions for me, personally, that being street harassed did and it made me feel very scared. And it made me wonder if I made a wrong turn or if I got stuck in a back alley that perhaps, it would escalate to assault or even something worse. And, you know, I think that, you know, replacing violence with violence isn't the answer, but I think at the core of what Suyins trying to do is that shes trying to create a response to street harassment that feels empowering. And thats a challenge. And thats something that we really work hard to do at Holla Back, as well.

MARTIN: And so you didnt like it?

Ms. MAY: No, I did not like shooting guys at all. I will be totally frank. It totally freaked me out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LOOUI: Wow.

Ms. MAY: I would much rather have a bar of soap to go around washing their mouths out with than I would a gun.

MARTIN: Well, thats an idea, Suyin. That could be the PG version of it.

Ms. LOOUI: Yeah. I definitely had women saying, you know, why dont you try hugging them or how do you what is a way that you could actually flip it around so they become embarrassed? For me, in particular, I really wanted the violence to be so ridiculous and sort of over the top gory, that people would know that it was a joke.

But I do understand and it was one of the huge things when I was making it to make sure not to give points for everybody that shot someone. I didnt want to advocate that violence was an appropriate response in any way.

MARTIN: Okay. Well, any response so far, other than Emilys? She said it freaked her out, but what other responses are you getting?

Ms. LOOUI: Thats certainly been interesting from the gaming community in particular. A male game blogger, who actually got so many comments, because he wrote a satirical response to Hey Baby, that he had to close that particular post. And then he wrote another post that was about, you know, this game should exist and as men should understand why it exist for these different reasons. Which I thought was - there was no better response. I couldnt have asked for anything better than that.

MARTIN: Well, if you want to find out more about the video game Hey Baby, and he work of Holla Back, you can check out our website. Thats the TELL ME MORE page of npr.org.

Suyin Looui is the creator of that new video game Hey Baby She joined us by phone from London. And Emily May is the executive director of Holla Back. Thats a group that uses the Internet to fight street harassment and she joined us from New York.

Ladies, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. MAY: Thank you.

Ms. LOOUI: Thank you. Nice talking with you.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. Im Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Lets talk more tomorrow.

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