Games Need To Provide Escapism for Women, Too

Horizon Zero Dawn starts with such promise. It seems to give a breath of fresh air for those of us dealing with sexism every day. In the starting area, women and men are considered equally able to fight or sew. They wear similar clothing. There are female military leaders, traders, and explorers. Ladies are allowed to be reckless, angry, impulsive, pioneering, caring, and everything besides. Yet as protagonist Aloy travels beyond the safety of her home, misogyny becomes rampant, preventing the game from being effective escapism for women who play it.

Other groups prevent women from being warriors, preists, or hunters. One woman states that she left her village so that she could “own property, not be property.” Women (and children) are consistently kidnapped to cause the plot to move forward or provide motivation for the male characters that surround Aloy.

Aloy fighting glinthawk

[Spoilers for Horizon Zero Dawn]
[Content warning for discussions of slavery, rape and sexual abuse]

In one particularly upsetting side quest, Aloy must rescue a woman who has been kidnapped to be sold into slavery. There are other captives – men and women – but two guards are discussing this woman specifically. One makes it clear that he would like to rape her, but cannot because it would damage her market value.

Now, these are slave traders. Of course they’re going to do terrible things. But it’s such a drag, as a woman, to never be allowed to forget that there are men out there who would do me harm. That the odds are stacked against me for my gender.

I’m tired

There’s a certain subset of gamers who will cry that politics should be kept out of games altogether (though this is in and of itself a political statement, making this something of a Catch-22). This is, unequivocally, not that. I want my games to be political: to push against the status quo and to ask players to think about topics like oppression and privilege.

The difference, in short, is that they are asking for games to never challenge their damaging assumptions. I am asking for games to occasionally let me forget that people hate me.

Aloy with tallneck

And how frustrating that Horizon Zero Dawn did this! Its matriarchal group invited us to think about alternative power structures and gender relations, whilst also letting female players breathe a little easier for a while.

Then it flipped the script and incessantly reminded us of the deep rooted unfairness of society.

And how deep rooted. I previously praised A House of Many Doors for questioning what social biases needed to be carried over into a fantasy worldHorizon resoundingly fails to do that. Most people in its world are either actively or underlyingly sexist. It suggests that structural misogyny is so widespread and entrenched that even after the fall of human society itself, it will remain. And isn’t that just depressing?

It’s not just Horizon, or just women

This is a widespread problem. In Fallout 4, playing as a female character will net you gendered insults like “bitch” that aren’t applied to male characters. There’s an NPC who disapproves of a female Shepard in Mass Effect 1. In Batman: Arkham City, enemies make violent threats against Batman, and sexual threats against Catwoman. Female armour in a wide swathe of games is a sexualised version of the male equivalent.

Moreover, it does not only apply to sexism. Native players do not get to experience Horizon Zero Dawn without seeing words that have been used to demean them for centuries used as though they are devoid of harmful cultural context, and world building lifted directly and without credit from their real lives. Black players must witness faux dreadlocks on white characters in another stark reminder of cultural appropriation and a lack of care about real-world issues.

Trans people have to flee the galaxy to transition, even in the far flung future of Mass Effect: Andromeda. Homophobia exists even after the nuclear war of Fallout: New Vegas. They find time for that in The Witcher 3 too, despite being under attack from both soldiers and monsters.

It is those of us that face oppression that need escapism most, not those with privilege who don’t want to be challenged to think about said privilege. Yet the scale tips in the opposite direction.

What could have been

I don’t remember the last time I was allowed to forget society’s problems by diving into a story based game. And Horizon showed so much promise. By the end, which I won’t spoil, I felt empowered for my gender as well as exhausted by it. Yet the vibrant story about incredible women who had no need to overcome said womanhood contrasted sharply with the same old dreary misogyny found elsewhere.

That sexism was absolutely not needed. It lent nothing to the game’s narrative, themes, or atmosphere that could not have come from more imaginative world building.

In other words, Horizon Zero Dawn could have been – should have been – pure escapism for women. And we deserve games that will give us that.

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Jay Castello

Jay is a freelance games writer specialising in intersectional feminist critique, how to improve games and use them to improve the world, and cute dogs. She loves inhabiting digital spaces in all their forms, and being constantly surprised by just how weird and wonderful games can be.


28 responses to “Games Need To Provide Escapism for Women, Too”

  1. iEatNapkinz Avatar

    I just don’t get it…..why does it matter that Black Players have to witness white characters with “Faux Dreadlocks” ? Is that insulting someone for some reason?

    No matter what developers do, there’s always going to be someone that finds something wrong and says “that isn’t enough” or “they did it all wrong” . I felt like it was very empowering being a female lead character going along with this story and proving that she can do it better than everyone else. There were plenty of male characters that showed her respect in every way possible but no one wants to mention that….

    Everyone needs to stop being so damn sensitive to every little thing and start worrying about something more productive.

    1. damn right. There is no obligation for game developers to be part of SJW. Creating a game where there are no tensions between people is unreal idea, and no one would believe such setting.

      We got one of the best game available, with great character, with strong women and men surviving in apocalyptic word. Pretending that there would be no people trying to take advantage of other would be laughable. This game is overall a tribute to women, which have most of the power in their hands, yet someone comes with stupid article trying to belittle it. Author should go to Saudi Arabia and do your work there, I’m sure he’d find there much more things to fix.

  2. I am very disappoint. I was told this was “extreme feminist rambling” and yet nary a man was punted off a cliff and the Down With Cis bus was nowhere to be seen.

    Shame, Jay. Shame.

    1. J.j. Barrington Avatar
      J.j. Barrington

      To look so hard into the game to find things to be upset about, and then complain that it wasn’t good escapism… is pretty extreme.

    2. Yojimbo Avatar

      I agree. This article is entirely based on feelings with ZERO logic. HZD is a futuristic game where man has regressed to a more low tech lifestyle. This means humanity behaves in a more primitive fashion. How did man govern in primitive times? Male dominated patriarchal style of leadership. HZD simply having a female main character is bith diverse and respectful of women IMO. However, with radical femnists nothing is good enough. They are unhappy internally and looking for external excuses for this feeling anywher they can find it even if they have to make stuff up!


  3. Lucien Wyatt Avatar
    Lucien Wyatt

    I don’t understand. You either want games to provide commentary on society and have a strong protagonist who excels despite the world surrounding them, or you want a safe space that pretends that none of these things exist, which in itself would probably net a complaint because it “ignores” the issues.

    I don’t go actively looking for things to be exhausted by. I myself embrace when my culture is recognized, and I’m sorry, I’m not offended, I’m a black person who is delighted that a mainstream character in a game is not only female, but sporting a hairstyle I’ve had for 17 of my 30 years of life. I LOVE the representation. I love the attention to detail, and I have several friends who feel the same way.

    With all due respect, perhaps you should stop looking for things to be actively offended by, and embrace the positives.

    1. Molly Dyer Avatar
      Molly Dyer

      To help with the confusion, consider this: making a world in which sexualized violence against women is not the norm is itself a political statement

      1. J.j. Barrington Avatar
        J.j. Barrington

        Wouldn’t that only make sense if that defied the world we live in?

        Sexualized violence against women is not the norm now. It happens, and too frequently; these things do not make it “the norm.” To create such a world in a game- or book, or movie- doesn’t make a political statement at all, particularly if there’s no in-world reason for it to NOT exist. And should such a thing be missing, you can bet the same types of people who complain when it IS there would complain that it WASN’T. If everything else were realistic, but that one aspect was left out, it’d be just as negative.

        Why is this political? Why isn’t it just being decent to other human beings? And why is it that any fictionalized depiction that includes people NOT being decent to each other- in other words, doing what they do in real life- is subject to such criticism as this article?

        You didn’t help with the confusion at all. You’ve only helped to raise more questions, notably about the validity of the stance within the article.

        1. Molly Dyer Avatar
          Molly Dyer

          Since other people are arguing that sexual violence is natural or part of human nature, I would say that yes, a world without it would be defying the world we really live in. I think you severely underestimate the rate of sexual assault and the number of female gamers who have personally been sexually assaulted.

          1. J.j. Barrington Avatar
            J.j. Barrington

            It’s not the norm. I’m not severely underestimating anything.

            I do get it, though. I frankly do not expect that my words will have any weight here, because I’m a male and so know nothing of discrimination or sexual violence, except as a perpetrator.

          2. mythreefuzzy cats Avatar
            mythreefuzzy cats

            THANK YOU! By minimizing sexual assault, and ignoring the realities of life, how can progress toward equality be achieved? Not to mention many countries marginalize women and in some cases, ignore sexual and physical violence, perhaps even encouraging it.

  4. Gizensha Avatar

    Entirely understandable that sometimes someone would want a popcorn, escapist, experience and other times an examination of the real world. Shame that this game seemingly signaled that you were getting one thing and then switched to give the other part way through (Which I think is fundamentally different from some of your other examples which give a different experience for playing as a male protagonist as a female one – commentary […of a sort? If you squint? Maybe?] on the one hand and escapism on the other, but instead signalling it’s going to provide one sort of game experience and then… Not doing that…)

  5. J.j. Barrington Avatar
    J.j. Barrington

    If you want escapism, stop injecting games with your real-world drama.

  6. Kageyama Avatar

    One of my most favorite games ever is Parasite Eve. The protagonist in this game is a woman but I’m a man… How does this work?

  7. Waitaminute Thatcard Avatar
    Waitaminute Thatcard

    “I am asking for games to occasionally let me forget that people hate me.”

    *repeated, affirming finger snaps*

  8. The_Shepard Avatar

    “By the end, which I won’t spoil, I felt empowered for my gender as well as exhausted by it.”

    Is this an actual thing? Who male/female plays video games to feel “empowered for my gender”, who does that???

    Did you have fun with the game, yes or no? Gaming is about fun man, forget all this other BS.

    1. J.j. Barrington Avatar
      J.j. Barrington

      It’s an actual thing because the NEW thing is to dig until you find political statements in everything… and if there isn’t one, to CREATE one.

      That’s exactly what this is.

  9. J.j. Barrington Avatar
    J.j. Barrington

    Deleting comments you don’t like is most definitely not the way to further your cause.

    1. Feel free to review the commenting guidelines.

      1. J.j. Barrington Avatar
        J.j. Barrington

        Reviewed, not that it was needed. Care to explain what guideline wasn’t followed?

      2. J.j. Barrington Avatar
        J.j. Barrington

        So nothing, then? It’s just as it appears: deleting comments that don’t conform to your viewpoint?

        Got it.

  10. While I don’t agree with all of your points, I certainly respect your insight. A solid opposition view to the article.

    Also, for some reason Disqus auto-marked your post as Spam, which is really strange!

    1. thanks for letting me know! Very much appreciated.

  11. This is actually a pretty good point even though for me personally I like this nonsense in my games. I guess for me it feels great when I can find prove them wrong or put them in their place. For me one of my favorite things in the sith warrior quests as a female is some imperial questions your ability to fight because you are female, and the fact that you can just force choke him felt so good even though I was playing a light side warrior. But it is true that there should be more games that let people escape from the realities of our not so nice world.

  12. Changer The-Elder Avatar
    Changer The-Elder

    I do get the point of critique, I swear I do. It’s very much okay to push for progress, to strive for going the extra mile next time. But do tell

    me, why on Earth or any other planet is it that every time anyone actually does their best to try and be progressive, they’re treated as worse offenders than those who couldn’t be bothered to progress their way out of a paper bag? Why is it that instead of finding complaints on games and films and books that are basically stuck in the stone age when it comes to women or LGBT rights or cultural appropriations, I constantly find people grinding on and on on those who actually did try and feature women, did try to include minorities or majorities, all kinds of peoples and beliefs and partner preferences?

    I’m not entirely sure of the accomplishments here. If you’re an author, seeing these makes you afraid to create… pretty much anything. The “Catch-22” you mention, if you will. On one hand, if authors don’t include these topics today, they’re considered ignorant or idiots. When they do, it’s appropriation, because how dare they write about something that’s not “theirs”, that they don’t experience!

    I’m not saying an attempt at something should make you immune to critique, especially if we’re dealing with difficult subjects. But… Do you realize what kind of a message are you sending here? Not just you, personally, ms. Castello, but articles such as this one? Instead of talking about a game that offers a strong and likeable female protagonist who is written like a solid character instead of a bland cardboard cutout “insert hero #21385732, just with boobs”, that delves into differences between matriarchal and patriarchal societies without glorifying one or another, all I see is complaints about how it’s not enough, and how the authors are horrible human beings. (By the way, the whole cultural appropriation is wobbly at best as well, since the only term that’s at least disputable is “Braves”, the rest have never been exclusive to Native American culture). Wow, is the protagonist a woman? Shame! Why isn’t she a woman of color! Do we have (quite a lot) female NPCs with interesting stories who are positive and capable women in their own right? Shame! Let’s focus on the male NPCs, they’re still there! You are, quite literally, asking for no adversity for these characters to overcome (and there are various adversities, not just “rape or kidnapping to develop a male NPC”), thus making them as interesting as a blank piece of paper (and yes, males work exactly the same, so no point telling me “Oh so you’re not interested in female characters unless there’s something happening to them, perv!”). I can’t speak for others, but if I were a developer, constantly seeing this kind of complaining would make me quite a bit jaded. “Why try and do right by you when all you do is whine about it afterwards”.

    (Not to mention the quite blatant cherry-picking that tends to be present in such analysis. How about male NPCs whose only sole purpose is to die and propell you, a female character, forward? There’s quite a few of them here, too. I know, I know, Aloy IS the protagonist, so that is okay, but if she were Alan instead and the characters dying would be female, you know you’d never stop complaining about it.)

  13. Meghan Avatar

    I came here for some angry man-hating feminist curmudgeoning. I have been disappointed.

    Just kidding though, good article and good points. This is basically the reason I don’t play video games as much as I could. The sexism is either gratuitous or subtle enough to shock you when it pops out of the woodwork at a convenient time (usually when the presumed male player can use it to feel more heroic). The immersive element really doesn’t make it any better, lol

  14. AA_Hill Avatar

    Video games ARE the ultimate escapism. Which is why I’m surprised you don’t understand what that exactly entails.

    Perhaps the reason why you’re so tired of video games not giving you escapism is because your version of escapism is rather narrow-minded. What exactly is “escapism for women” in video games? That’s a rhetorical question, of course. The answer is ALL video games are escapism for women. The entire point of video games is to be able to escape into worlds that aren’t your own and play as characters who aren’t yourself. You only count video games with female protagonists as your potential escapism. But that’s antithetical to what video games are.

    Think of it like this. Transistor is one of my favorite games of all time. I’m a guy. And Red’s journey was insanely fascinating for me to play through. But I didn’t relate to her. I didn’t find common ground with her. She’s so different from me, I couldn’t tell you one similarity we have other than both of us being human. And yet, I put myself into those shoes regardless. Because that’s what video games are. They’re the ultimate journey into the unknown. Transistor is escapism for me, because it’s so NOT me.

    It’s not like movies or tv shows, where seeing people like you on screen is important because you’re a passive observer, not a participant. But video games ask you to truly engage in ways no other art form can ever replicate. Participation is key and there’s no point in playing video games if you’re unwilling to engage. I’m not saying video games shouldn’t have female protagonists or people of color as the heroes. Developers should make however many games with those characters as they wish with no complaints from anyone. But one of the many great things about video games is that they’re not about you. They’re about who you’re not.

    Perhaps video games can tone down on the misogyny and sexism. But there are plenty of games that don’t feature those things. Their protagonists just happen to not look like you. Just don’t let that stop you from experiencing the escapism they provide.

    1. Helen L. Avatar
      Helen L.

      Super late response, but I wanted to add my two cents: yes games technically provide escapism in that they allow you to live out another person’s life, but the value/effectiveness of that escapism is dependent on one’s lived experiences. Theoretically, if I came across a protagonist whose life was somehow very similar to my own, then it’s not going to feel like I’m escaping my reality; it’s going to feel like I’m playing my own life and being reminded of stuff that I don’t necessarily want to be reminded of when I’m playing video games. Of course, that’s an extreme example, but I think a similar logic can apply here. For those who have been sexually assaulted in real life, onscreen sexual assault might feel too reminiscent of their own lived experience, even if they’re technically playing as a different person who has lived a different life.

      I think there’s also something to be said about narrative patterns and the frequency with which you see some tropes versus others. If a female gamer feels as though she is constantly running into games that feature females who are raped or sexually assaulted, and rarely finds games with prominent, well-written females who aren’t assaulted in some way, then one could make the argument that video games as a whole are poor at providing escapism for female assault victims. (I myself don’t necessarily believe this to be the case, but as someone who has never been assaulted, it’s possible that I just notice it less than other people.)

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