An Honest Look into the Representation of Women in Dystopian Games
Let’s Explore the True Differences in Portrayals of Women in Dystopian Games
The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist dystopia, otherwise known as a bad place for women, has caused quite the frenzy. And, you know, rightfully so—the adaptation captures an anxiety many women face in an extreme patriarchal world: the right to control her own body. I won’t spoil too much for you, but the cinematography and light/shadows are strategic, designed to demonstrate all the ways that women’s bodies and subjectivity are under siege. There are many interesting and important feminist dystopias in written and television/film form, which I absolutely love, but also as a lover of video games, I tend to wonder about the representation of women in dystopian games and feminist dystopian video games. What’s the difference between the two? Why does it even matter?
Let’s consider the BioShock series. It’s a great game, but the women are marginalized in many ways. I mean, c’mon—in BioShock, Tenenbaum is a brilliant scientist and independently wealthy, which gives her significant subjectivity, but she’s relegated to the sidelines, and her presence as a strong woman is rendered meaningless: she exists to serve Jack and nothing more. This is a prime example of the negative representation of women in post-apocalyptic video games.
Similarly, in BioShock Infinite, Elizabeth is as Anita Sarkeesian claims, a ‘helpful damsel’: she is more active than Tenenbaum, but she too only exists to serve the player/player character. Sure, the dystopian societies in BioShock are bad places for women, but because the women aren’t characters in their own right or at the center of the narrative, it’s not a feminist dystopian game. While I will always love the BioShock series, I think it’s important to note how women are relegated to the sidelines and patriarchy really goes unchecked.
True Representations of Women in Feminist Dystopian Video Games
As a point of comparison, let’s consider Broken Age, a game that has a split narrative between Vella, a young girl and Shay, a young boy, both living in different sorts of dystopias. Unlike BioShock, I consider Broken Age to be a feminist dystopian video game because Vella is a main character, possesses meaningful subjectivity, and can save herself.
From the beginning of Vella’s narrative, it’s clear that this society is a bad place for women: completely against her will, Vella has been chosen by the society to be sacrificed in the Maiden Feast, an annual activity— not unlike the Reaping in Collins’s The Hunger Games or the lottery in Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”— that’s designed to bring peace and prosperity to their village. Apparently, the mayor is only interested in sacrificing young women, rather than young boys. The player, via Vella, has absolutely no choice to protest her sacrifice—in fact, it’s worse than that: the narrative will not go on until Vella, the player, actively participates in her death party. Her mother, for some reason, has lost the ceremonial cake knife and asks Vella to find it.
There’s no way out, which demonstrates the serious lack of agency Vella has as a woman in this environment. As the player, via Vella, searches the room for the knife, they have the option of verbally protesting Vella’s oppressed position as a woman, such as pointing out how unjust her circumstances are. It demonstrates that Vella, despite her horrible circumstances, does not identify as a victim, but a fighter, empowering herself by drawing attention to the injustice of her situation. Even during the Maiden’s Feast, when Vella’s lower body is baked into a pink cupcake, she does not give up hope of escape, which she achieves through an elaborate and intelligent series of actions. The game mechanics during the Maiden Feast escape, seem cumbersome at first that is, if you don’t do the required actions in the exact order, Vella cannot escape. This is important because it demonstrates the cumbersome lengths women must go to circumvent patriarchal control. Because of her strength, intelligence, and persistence, Vella escapes, saving herself. This trend continues throughout Vella’s narrative—she problem solves, climbs, barters, and can hotwire robots. She’s a strong and empowered young woman. Total bad ass.
The Importance and Brilliance of Feminist Dystopian Video Games
Unlike novels/short stories or television/film, video games are unique because what the player does, their participation in the narrative, is absolutely crucial and can facilitate different ways of thinking about something. In this case, Broken Age, a game I classify as a feminist dystopian video game, allows players to experience simulated female oppression. The way that Vella is oppressed in Broken Age completely differs from the way Shay is oppressed.
This does not mean that one person’s oppression is better or less than another’s oppression, but it does remind players to consider, though play and doing that patriarchal societies oppress women in very different ways than men. We always have to keep in mind that sexisim even in video games is very real.
Many recognize Commander Shepard of mass effect as the ideal female character in Dystopian games. This character is strong, powerful, and self-sufficient. However, we need more feminist dystopian games like Broken Age a woman is not only at the center of the narrative, but isn’t sexually objectified, has her own subjectivity, and the game mechanics allows the female character’s agency to push back against the patriarchal forces that try to oppress them. I feel empowered, don’t you?
Meghan Hurley, Guest Contributor
Megan is currently a PhD student at Indiana University of Pennsylvania focusing on feminist dystopiashttps://www.gamerwomen.com/dystopian-games/https://i1.wp.com/www.gamerwomen.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Commander-Shepard.jpg?fit=655%2C368&ssl=1https://i1.wp.com/www.gamerwomen.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Commander-Shepard.jpg?resize=150%2C150&ssl=1FeaturedUncategorizeddystopia games,dystopia video games,dystopia women in video games,dystopian games,dystopian story ideas,feminist video games,futuristic games,gamer girl,history of video games,post apocalyptic games,post apocalyptic video games,sexism in video games,utopian and dystopian fiction,Women in gaming,Women in video games,women representation in video gamesLet's Explore the True Differences in Portrayals of Women in Dystopian Games The Hulu adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, a feminist dystopia, otherwise known as a bad place for women, has caused quite the frenzy. And, you know, rightfully so—the adaptation captures an anxiety many women face in an... Gamerwomenco@gmail.comAdministratorGamer Women