If Valve Avoids Horror Film Tokenism but No One Gets it, Does it Count?

I really like the GiantBombCast. The guys are pretty funny, though the Joystiq crew has a much closer taste in games to my own. But not a week goes by when Jeff Gerstmann doesn’t say something casually sexist, which is like sudden sour note in an otherwise fun song.

Last week, in talking about Left 4 Dead, he described the characters as your typical survivors of the zombie apocalypse: “the old veteran, the businessman, and the girl.” Whoa, what? The GURL? Her distinguishing characteristic is that she’s female?

The problem is that, while this may be the treatment of women in many horror films, this is Valve we’re talking about, here. These are the people behind Half Life 2 and Portal. Even working within the “three dudes and token woman” format, Zoey has a personality and background just like the others; she’s NOT just “The Girl”, she’s a student, a slacker, a horror flick buff, in the same way Louis isn’t “The Black Guy” (another token in horror films–also notice “The Girl” is always white unless noted otherwise), he’s the IT technician frustrated with his job. So this is a criticism of peoples’ perceptions rather than what the developers of the game did; in this case the developers actually made an effort to elevate their characters above the typical horror film stereotypes while still working within that framework, yet that framework made it very easy to fall back on the genre’s sexist tropes when thinking about the characters.

(Let’s leave aside for a moment the fact that that the only “super-zombie” that is female is called The Witch and sits around crying. She’s also the deadliest, but there are still no playable female zombies; apparently when women become zombies they’re either in the horde or sit around and cry. This feels silly to complain about–rest assured I am dying (*groan*) to play the game more–but also it’s kind of baffling.)

I’m not really sure what my point is here. I guess that it’s frustrating when a developer does some things right but people just go with their preconceptions.

While I’m at it, I don’t think this warrants a whole new post, but I just finished Prince of Persia and what the heck is up with The Concubine? The token female enemy (yet again one of four) and she’s the “Scorned Lover”? This is the motivation of like 99% of female villains. Quite unoriginal for such an overall unique game. Why couldn’t The Alchemist have been female as well? Or do women only have motivations relating to love and sex? I’m really frustrated with so many female characters being pigeonholed into roles that focus on their sexuality.

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One thought on “If Valve Avoids Horror Film Tokenism but No One Gets it, Does it Count?

  1. In regards to the Prince of Persia: I haven’t played it, but I’ve found that Ubisoft is recently taking two steps forward and one step back with gender and race issues. Far Cry 2, Assassin’s Creed, etc. all contain parts that show such a great understanding and have great potential, but then they need to throw in a cliffhanger ending, or marginalize the female characters for some reason that probably came from marketing. Ah the french, such a mastery of theory and a misery of practice 🙂

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