Friday, 6 July 2012

Game Feature: Sexism in Horror Video Games (NSFW)

"Of course they see me as a piece of meat...they're zombies!" - Sexism in Survival Horror & Zombie Games

Gaming in general has been accused of objectifying women pretty much since the introduction of the first female protagonist into arcades. In 1982, Ms. Pacman was introduced as ‘the new femme fatale of the game world’ on a poster which features the lady herself, a highly made up ball on legs. While the Pacman games are hardly known for an engaging storyline (or any storyline at all), players of Ms. Pacman were treated to a closing scene showing Ms Pacman’s reward for completing her trials, as having a family. The world of gaming has changed colossally since the eighties, now volumes of games of all genres are available for the different home consoles. The perception of women’s roles has also changed, however sexism is still apparent and perhaps more widely in gaming than in any other medium. There are many different genres which are guilty of sexism to varying degrees and perhaps one of the worst is the survival horror/zombie game, after fighting games of course. 

Team Ninja's highly sexualised fighter 'Dead or Alive' series

While it's debatable whether or not Resident evil created the survival horror genre, there's no arguing it made it popular. On first glance, the Resident Evil series could be said to be one of the lesser offenders. On the surface, the original Resident Evil even seems to be a champion for the cause, allowing players to choose between male or female characters, Chris and Jill. However, after deeper analysis we see that the game is much easier while playing as Jill as she is given two extra item slots in addition to a lockpick, allowing the player to avoid the tedious key collecting required to progress through the Chris game. This is completely independent of the difficulty setting, as you choose that separately before you begin the game. There are two possible occasions in the game whereby Jill can find herself being rescued from danger by the NPC Barry Burton. In one situation a trap is activated and the ceiling starts to descend threatening to squish the player, and the other involves a giant blood-thirsty mutant plant. Meanwhile in the Chris story mode, no-one ever comes to his rescue should he find himself in danger. Instead of Barry, Chris' companion for the game is the young Rebecca Chambers, the medic of Bravo team. She does not engage in combat, merely waiting by her teammate Richard while Chris explores the mansion and requires the player controlling Chris to rescue her at one point in the game.

The prequel, Resident Evil 0, also offers a male/female character choice, though this time in an ongoing manner using the 'partner system' where by the character not chosen by the player is controlled by the game. This time the pick is between Rebecca of the first game and escaped convict Billy. Rebecca is equally as drippy in this game as she was in the original, coming away with such dialogue gems as 'Don't call me princess' in a high-pitched nasal tone. Resident Evil 4 features the defenceless Ashley following Leon around, having been rescued multiple times by him throughout the game and in the end asking him for some very suggestive 'overtime', and sporting a cleavage heavy bonus costume after beating the game.

Was this really necessary?

The other two female characters on the other hand, seem to be far less stereotypical. Hunnigan has little to do in the grand scheme of the game but does turn Leon down when he asks for her phone number which is slightly refreshing after Ashley has been pining after him for the whole game. Ada is a far more developed character with a rich back story and more than once through the game she saves Leon's life. In fact, at several points throughout the games she is show to be cunning and quick witted, frequently outmanoeuvring her male co-stars. Yet, it is not enough for her to be clever and resourceful. For Resident Evil 4 Ada's outfit was given a more sexualised upgrade, with a high slit in dress and less coverage on her back. Besides Ada though, most of the female characters within the Resident Evil canon are only there in relation to men or to play stereotypical roles. Rebecca is looking to recapture Billy; Claire is looking for her brother and along the way mothers Sherry and Jill spends the duration of Resident Evil 1 searching for Chris.

If the lack of independent, fully characterised women in the Resident Evil series is disillusioning, that is nothing compared to the Dead Rising series. Resident Evil could be accused of tokenism and less than fully developed female characters, whereas Dead Rising is filled with blatant, old school sexism. In both Dead Rising 1 and Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, you can gain experience points by taking pictures of various targets which come under the headings of Horror, Outtake, Drama, Brutality and Erotica. In order to score highly in the Erotica category, it is necessary for protagonist Frank to try and get snaps of scantily clad legs, cleavage and upskirt shots. In the original, survivor Cheryl actually asks Frank to take Erotica pictures of her.

Dead Rising 2's protagonist Chuck is a more respectful character, but the women featured in the game are still generally helpless. Three missions require you to carry next-to-naked women back to the Safe House; one of whom wearing a mermaid costume she won't take off because she isn't wearing any underwear. The main female characters Stacey Forsythe and Rebecca Chang are portrayed as strong intelligent women, at least at the beginning of the story. Off the Record is virtually the same game remade with Frank West of the original, so all the sexism of the photography feature combines with a storyline made even more sexually charged. Rebecca Chang becomes Frank's love interest and requires Frank to come to her rescue at various points throughout the game.

Other games that have stirred up controversy include the likes of Dead Island, which included in its code a skill ever so subtly called 'Feminist Whore' and the newly released Lollipop Chainsaw, whose heroine is a big busted blonde bombshell, who slays zombies in a miniskirt and crop top like a soft-core pornographic Buffy caricature.

No points for guessing who this was marketed towards?

Onechenbara: Bikini Samurai Squad is not unlike Lollipop Chainsaw in that it's a Japanese developed zombie killing game starring a scantily-clad, busty protagonist. However unlike Lollipop Chainsaw it saw poor reviews due to lacking any real enjoyable or compelling gameplay. In an interesting provoked publicity stunt, the games publisher D3 supplied naked pictures of the main protagonist to world renown Playboy when requested for their review of the game.

A poor 'by the numbers game' with breasts as the main selling point

There are the likes of the Left 4 Dead games which don't appear to be sexist at all, but still suffer from what 'Feminist Frequency' dubs the Smurfette Principle, where the female characters appear in an ensemble of men, special infected included. It could be argued that in the case of Left 4 Dead the vast majority of players are male and so may want to play as male characters. However, although not Zombie games, the protagonists of the Metroid and Portal series are female and these have proved popular regardless of that fact (although in the original Metroid it is not apparent that the character of Samus is a woman until the credits at the end of the game).

Slightly less revealing than the previous image

In light of what is stated above, it could be said that there is a lot of work to do in the portrayal of women in survival horror/zombie games and in gaming more generally. The current female characters are under developed and overly sexualised and this detracts from the authenticity of the scenario. As it is, there are and have been many fantastic zombie games which are hugely entertaining (including most of the games mentioned above) but until there are richer characters of both genders, they will fail to fulfil the potential they have to make dramatic impact.

By Emma-Lee Davidson
Co-written by guest writers Rhiannon Davidson, Connor Keegan and Sean Keegan.


Nice piece, just missed mentions of Silent Hill and Haunting Ground.

I like the focus on this subject. There are so many examples to be brought up but I think you got some really valid points in there. I remember very well how there was always a fight between me and my sister who would get to play the only female character in a cartoon or game when we were pretending. There was usually only one, typical Smurfette. -__- As a game developer and story writer I have made it my mission to change things at least on my tiny corner of the game making community.

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