Let's just be real here: Talking about sexism in gaming sucks. Witnessing it, hearing about it, and hearing people continue to dismiss the realities of it suck too. It's all far more exhausting than it has any right being, it shouldn't even be an issue in a supposedly advanced 21st century society, and it tends to push the video game community to its most fiery and divisive limits. Instead of coming together as a community over our one common love, the debates (or, more accurately, shouting matches) over the state of women in games only seem to foster rational, helpful dialogues a fraction of the time.
But, the way I see it, the problem of ingrained sexism in gaming remains real, and it doesn't look like it's going away anytime soon. And with the release of Resident Evil 6 sparking some interesting discussions on the horror game genre as of late around these parts, now seems like the right time to focus on sexism's place in horror games in particular. So, with cautious optimism, let's talk about it. Again.
Horror games, like horror films, are one of the few genres that may actually feature more women in leading roles than they do men. Resident Evil, Silent Hill, Dead Rising, and Fatal Frame are just a few examples of this. As such, the idea that these games treat women more fairly than other genres, as a result of them simply being there more often, is alluring, but not entirely accurate.
Let's look at Resident Evil. With characters such as Jill Valentine, Claire Redfield, Ada Wong, and Sherry Birkin, the RE franchise appears, at first glance at least, to be something of a pioneer of gender equality in gaming. And while the games should be commended for putting as much of an emphasis on female characters as they do on male ones, some unfortunate—but not entirely surprising—stereotyping issues appear in them when examined beyond a surface level.
We've discussed this more extensively in articles past, but one central issue Resident Evil's women deal with is their frequent inability to fight for themselves as well as their male counterparts. For every man like Leon Kennedy, who can kick zombie ass and take care of business entirely unto himself, there's a woman like Ashley Graham, who's pretty much useless as a combatant, is near-constantly in need of Leon's rescuing, and is even given a busty bonus costume after the game is completed. Put these things together, and it's difficult not to think that the "default" audience Capcom had in mind when creating games like RE4 was a male one.
The original Resident Evil lets players choose between monster killing as Chris Redfield or Jill Valentine, which, again, seems like a noble choice for a game to make in 1996. But a closer analysis of each character's play style reveals that going through the game as Jill is easier than as Chris. She's given a lock pick that theoretically allows her to bypass combat sections, as well as two extra item slots. Chris, meanwhile, is expected to fight his way through enemy after enemy, and is much more durable in terms of the damage he can take. There are even a couple of sections where Jill potentially gets rescued by fellow S.T.A.R.S. member Barry Burton, while Chris never needs such saving. His companion, the medic Rebecca Chambers, doesn't fight at all, and even needs Chris' help herself at one point in the game.
I'd be remiss not to mention Ada Wong too. While by far the most self-reliant, fully formed woman in the Resident Evil canon (and possibly the entire survival horror genre), even she gets sexualized from time to time. Look at her costumes from Resident Evil 4 and 6 for examples of this. She's not nearly as bad as Ashley and company, but there are still notable flaws in her characterization to be recognized.
I'm sure there are plenty of Resident Evil fans out there willing to make valid (and many invalid) arguments about why each of these characters acts this way. But just on a general level, how long can we chalk things up to mere "coincidence" before we acknowledge that maybe gender plays at least a teeny factor in how female characters are presented here? Why is it so difficult to get a woman in horror games that isn't either helpless, motherly, or sexualized at any point during the game?
There are countless other examples of the helpless, victimized woman in horror games. But even in games where women are presented as stronger and more capable, the potential exists for unfortunate treatment of gender. Look at Zoey or Rochelle from the Left 4 Dead franchise for examples of this.
Yes, even Left 4 Dead, a game with seemingly nothing to do with gender whatsoever, suffers from what's commonly known as the Smurfette Principle. Coined by critic Katha Pollitt and named after the popular Smurfs cartoon, the Smurfette Principle is popular media trope that sees only one female character in an otherwise entirely male cast. Zoey and Rochelle, despite being quite capable of kicking major zombie ass, fit this idea precisely.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Zoey and Rochelle as characters, but the fact that they are each "The Chick" in their respective games strongly suggests that the Left 4 Dead series is, like so many others, being marketed toward men more than towards women. Regardless of whether or not that assessment of L4D's target demographic is correct, it's still a little strange to see such a male-dominated environment set as the standard. This worldview is misleading in today's increasingly diverse gaming landscape.
This is only a brief sampling of the issues found when examining women in horror games, but a significant one nonetheless. The problem of sexism in gaming, as always, isn't confined to in-game specifics; it's far more general, and it's practically ingrained within the way game companies and many gamers look at the industry as a whole. All of this is just to say that women play games too. That shouldn't be so hard to remember.
Date: October 15, 2012
*The views expressed within this article are solely the opinion of the author and do not express the views held by Cheat Code Central.*