On first blush the game appears to be a revenge fantasy developed for embittered, sexually harassed women seeking a cathartic outlet.
But the game is not for women. It is actually an interactive artwork and social commentary designed to develop male empathy — and it appears to work. New York Times games reviewer Seth Schiesel offers an interesting account of his experience playing. Initially he was offended by the idea that saying "wow, you're so beautiful" to a woman, should give her licence to kill you. Schiesel also points out that it would be "culturally unthinkable" to have a game in which a man can only shoot women.
But as Schiesel played on he claims he developed "a swelling appreciation" for the game and for the daily lived experience of women. As Schiesel writes: "I came to realise that it is unrealistic and absurd to suppose that saying, 'Thank you, have a great day' is going to defuse and mollify a man who screams in your face, 'I want to rape you'."
The other interesting thing about the game is that while the men can never actually hurt you, there is nothing you can do to ever make them stop coming. The game itself has no end — the men, comments and threats just keep coming — forever. Sensibly, violence is also exposed as being an unhelpful response.
After hours of playing Schiesel found himself throwing up his hands in frustration and saying: "Well what am I supposed to do? Which is, of course, what countless women think every day."
He continues: "I doubt any non-interactive art form could have given me as visceral an appreciation for what many women go through as part of their day-to-day lives. I have never accosted a strange woman on the street. After playing Hey Baby, I'm certainly not about to start."
This is not the only empathy-building exercise used to teach men to critique street-based sexual harassment. One particular sexual ethics program directed at football players asks them to write on whiteboards what they do each day to avoid being sexually harassed. Most stand around scratching their heads.
Random women are then brought into the room and asked the same question. Furious scribbling ensues. "I stand at the back of the lift to avoid being pinched on the bottom." "I sit in the back of the taxi and pretend to be on a mobile phone." "I always scan the train carriage and try to sit with women." "I wear baggy jumpers and pants when walking my dog — even in the heat of summer." And on and on it goes.
The women are usually shocked to realise the extent to which they have internalised sexual threat as inevitable and omnipresent. The men are shocked to realise the extent to which women have learnt to manage their safety — almost unconsciously.
The exercise exposes how men and women experience public space in very different ways. For many males, public space is either something they feel an entitlement over, or something that is neutral and to be simply travelled through. For almost all women (as well as many gay men, and men from other minority groups) public space is loaded with threat that must be managed.
Of course, wolf-whistling or cat-calling a woman is very different to sexually assaulting her. But sexual harassment and sexual violence fall on the same ugly continuum. Yelling "hey baby" or "show us your tits" from a moving vehicle merely reminds women that some men feel entitled to map their sexual desire onto women's bodies (and onto public space) with little or no regard for whether that woman wants it, or for how it might make her feel — not just in that moment, but in relation to her ongoing social positioning.
It is true that some women claim to enjoy being wolf-whistled at (in circumstances where they feel safe and unthreatened) but most street-based verbal advances are experienced as unwanted, intrusive and sometimes threatening. They are also deeply predatory. I know this because I have never been harassed or whistled at when I am with other males — it only happens when I am by myself and more vulnerable.
Street-based sexual harassment differs from workplace sexual harassment in that there is no possibility of legal recourse for anonymous "surgical strike" like advances.
How we convince young men that it is not "complimentary" or "flattering" to yell sexual requests at women from moving vehicles is not as easy as one might think. But positive male role modelling and empathy building exercises might help.