How We Kill the Sexes in Video Games

by Anthony Murray

One day, a colleague asked me this question out of the blue:

“Apropos of nothing, do you know of any games where the low-level enemies (not the main boss or anything) are female?”

I kind of cringed a bit, and then asked her to define what “female” was. Her guidelines were “having a body shape which clearly denotes them as not male.”

At first I was like “Sure!” in my head. I thought about MMOs and a small library of games where there were some vaguely feminine low-level enemies. In MMOs, “feminine” enemies will spawn constantly depending on the area of the map you’re on, and you can kill them for loot/experience. But in everyday games, low-level female enemies are a minority relative to their male counterparts.

I knew the reason for this disparity, so I replied:

“It’s hard because the idea of killing waves of women-like enemies casually is kind of a big deal.”

In fact, I can easily think of games that made explicit design choices to limit/minimize violence depicted against women; God of War comes to mind first. But her response to that was:

“… the whole ‘don’t hit women because they’re the weaker sex’ is sexist to begin with, you know?”

She was absolutely right.

Because we’re so sensitive and selective about this topic, we create a weird circular discussion. By saying that women can’t be killed arbitrarily en masse like their male counterparts, we’re saying women are sacred and untouchable for some “unexplainable” reason. This feeling is evident because anyone who would approve killing massive numbers of women in games would become known as the most sexist monster in our industry. Through such perceptions, we unconsciously reinforce the negative stereotypes of women in most media; they are valuable because of their biology and are restricted to being pretty, submissive, pure, and protected because anything else would be absurd!

Even though there have been many people screaming for “equality” in games, I haven’t seen anyone brave enough to address something as simple as killing a multitude of female enemies in a mainstream game. I don’t blame developers or publishers entirely for this; I mean hell, who wants to be that guy/gal who approved the “woman slaughter simulator,” even if the violence were “balanced” among the sexes? So we take very small steps. Sure, she’s a female enemy, but she’s also a seductress, monster, ghost, possessed, indoctrinated, or something that allows players to justify her death, thus feeding off bad stereotypes about sexuality. In our attempts to take one step forward, we unconsciously take two steps back.

We do support one type of thinking, though; we have the guts to kill women for “narrative reasons” to motivate the player/character to go on their journey. And only recently we’ve begun talking about this and caring about that specific representation. Does anyone see how sexist this is to women and men? Doesn’t anyone remember that equality comes with the good and bad of being treated the same and that you can’t pick and choose?

For example, why aren’t males killed for narrative reasons nearly as often as women, especially early on in games? The only games with this dynamic that I could think of are war fantasy games — your Call of Duty or Gears of War-like games. War has always been a niche that appeals to a lot of males, not just because of the nature of its violence or tactics — war fantasies allow males to be honest about how they feel and to have a sense of meaning. If you can kill your enemies, work cooperatively with others, and die with honor on the battlefield, you have value. You can cry for your comrade who died without fear of judgment while simultaneously honoring their sacrifice through battle. It’s the fantasy of being broken down and reminded of your lack of value/status, only to be built up to rightfully earn it.

The war fantasy tends to be innately powerful and impressionable upon males, especially young boys. Like little girls who worry about their weight and are measured against unrealistic standards of beauty, little boys worry about their usefulness and value to society and are measured against unrealistic standards of doing something to prove that they matter. So the issue isn’t solely that women are commonly stereotyped as prizes, achievements, and cheap plot devices in games; it stems from something deeper than that.

As a society, we’ve internalized the idea that a male without status is a male that is disposable. If an unnamed male dies arbitrarily, we rarely have the same innate gut reaction as we would if an unnamed woman dies. We subconsciously think to ourselves that if he wanted to live, he could have tried harder. Sure, his family and friends would feel devastated, but in the eyes of macro-level society (and the player that wants to progress), who cares? If we need another hero, another soldier, or more cannon fodder, some other dude will gladly replace him — period. I mean, aren’t males supposed to be built for war, violence, and death? What does this say about us and the gendered stereotypes we subconsciously transfer into our works?

That’s why we can have games with endless waves of “male” enemies and not bat an eye. This idea has become so normal that no one really cares if men or women slaughter other males arbitrarily. We may say that the encounters are boring, repetitive, uncreative, or even interesting and exciting, but at the end of the day it’s not about the maleness. However, change the sex variable, and all of a sudden many would be up in arms. “You can’t kill women like that,” they may say. “Killing women carelessly is only feeding into male-power fantasies and sexism,” others may say, without realizing what’s wrong with their statement. A woman should have the choice to be anything she wants to be, whether she is a low-level enemy fighting to defend an evil empire or a strong, resolve-driven hero taking up a sword and shield because she wants to save the world. Her sex, gender, looks, or anything else should not matter.

So let’s throw these things away. If we have to create, destroy, sympathize and be heroes, villains, allies, or enemies, let me experience it through the lens of men, women, LGBT, minorities, or whoever else in games from both sides. And if you have a problem with any human being in particular dying arbitrarily, or suffering through their experiences based on surface things and not due to the reasons the game decided to pursue certain mechanics, themes, or situations for needless killing (i.e., throwing characters under the bus to drive its experience forward for the sake of doing it), we have a problem.  A problem that will hold us back as developers, players, and as an industry that’s working toward fully embracing everyone and treating everyone the same.

Anthony “Mister Armory” Murray is a game designer with a fascination for all things game development. His goal is to provide practical pieces of information to aspiring game developers and to lend a helping hand to those that he can as he moves through the industry. Follow him on Twitter (@misterarmory) and check out more of his writing on his personal website.

 

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4 comments

  1. I don’t think absolute equality is a good goal, though I would never suggest one sex is superior to the other. Does that make sense? Men and women are different. True, we have been moving closer and closer to a place where the individual can do anything as the basic unit of society, as opposed to a structure traditionally built around the idea of a family unit of society.

    There’s a difference between demanding waves of female enemies and demanding more equal representation of females in games. Lets talk realism. Most military games are based around what we know of war. The men went off to fight each other. Women and children stayed home. Now if you’ve got a futuristic game as you mentioned, maybe I’d expect an army more balanced between the sexes. It’s stupid to demand an army of nazi women zombies and start rewriting history. Dunno if you were aware, but there are female zombies in the Black Ops series. They’re mixed in with male zeds. The way that game mode works, you just have to kill em all, and fast! There’s no time for misogyny.

    Me personally, I’ve always been aware on some level or another of the loss of the “grunts” in game. Now I see it more as “let’s remind the player of the danger they’re in, raise the stakes” in a campaign. When I’m slotting an opponent, their in-game avatar is not so much a person as a marker to prove either my skill or theirs. If its a female, then sure there’s another dimension added, since its no longer just “you and the guys” just like in regular societal interactions.

    I don’t expect drastic change towards “equality” right away in the industry. Girl gamers or whatever sexual attraction gamers are still a minority, vocal though they may be. I think “sexism” is a bit broad a complaint to make regarding games. I’d love to see a shift away from the ridiculous sexual objectification of women in games, but I don’t think women should be on the front lines in war unless absolutely necessary. I think there should be a more nuanced approach to the problem, but I’m glad to see it being addressed seriously.

  2. I like saving women in my video games not lopping their heads off, why can’t women just let men enjoy their bloody fantasies? I don’t demand that Romcoms cater to my tastes but women have to force their ”equality” concepts into everything.

    If women have a problem with our games then maybe they should invest more time playing games that aren’t Candy Crush? Because as it stands women are a tiny minority in gaming (48% being bollocks when you take away casual games like Candy Crush, the actual number being closer to 10-13%ish, so why cater to them?).

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