Zombies & Gender Equality in Video Games

The Walking Dead has taken on many iterations since it’s debut comic in 2003.  Said comic spawned an enormous following which produced an award winning television series, web series, and multiple video games including the episodic video game series by publisher Telltale Games which will be the focus of this analysis.  The Walking Dead video game does not adhere to the social constructs of gender roles as set forth by the patriarchal ideology that governs media, but rather establishes that all characters are equal.  This equality is visible during gameplay because a character’s gender is never brought up but rather what skills, like hunting and leadership, the individual can bring to the group are in order to achieve the goal of survival in the zombie apocalypse.  The men are just as fragile and susceptible to being zombie fodder as the women are, leaving everyone on equal grounds.

Women are constantly negotiating their role in media and with the rapid advancement of technology there are always new media outlets to analyze.  In recent years there has been a rise in popularity of digital media such as the internet, social media, and video games.  Much like other forms of media, computer games were invented by men and the gaming industry “consolidated very quickly around a young male demographic – all the way from gameplay design to the arcade environment to the retail world” (Kearney, 2012, pg. 695).  The video game industry quickly became a multi-billion dollar market and socially relevant which is why it is important to analyze how women are being portrayed in this

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The Walking Dead is one of the most popular series on television

medium.  More specifically, The Walking Dead is relevant because of it’s immense popularity in the current social sphere and the critical acclaim is has received since it’s release in 2012.  The Walking Dead: Season One won 90 game of the year awards and sold 1 million copies in 20 days.  It’s successor Season Two was met with just as much fanfare because it continued the story.

The Walking Dead: Season One and The Walking Dead: Season Two invite the player to take control of African-American Lee Everett and 10 year old Clementine in the midst of the zombie apocalypse.  The game plays much like a television episode of The Walking Dead would and focuses on character development and the choices one must make to stay alive rather than the typical action tropes seen in other zombie-based video games.  The role playing game requires the player to make major decisions such as who should get their ration of food for the day and how should go without in order to make sure the food lasts.  Each decision the player makes as a lasting impact.  Non playable characters, or NPCs, will remember what you said to the be it kind or rude and it will change the events of the story.

It is established that “media provides support for hegemonic power structures” (Harp, Loke, & Bachman, 2011, pg. 204).  Essentially, dominate groups by gender, race, and class control the way society interprets and talks about media.  The medium of video games is no different.  The dominant group, or the privileged, consist of men who have the ability to set the status quo of society through constructs like gender roles.

Gender roles are behavioral aspects of being a man and a woman.  These aspects are a social construct of patriarchal ideology and can be seen in media outlets like video games.  In video games women are depicted as highly sexualized while men are shown with exaggerated strength and a lack of emotion.  The genders are shown as being either appropriately masculine or feminine and this “indicates the norms of social interactions” (Rose, Mackey-Kallis, Shyles, Barry, Biagini, Hart, & Jack, 2012, pg. 591). 

There were few early female video game characters but as the target audience expanded from all male to both male and female the amount of females in video games increased.  Some notable females include Samus Aran from Metroid (1986), Chun Li from Street Fighter

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Chun Li from the Street Fighter series

II (1986), Laura Croft from Tomb Raider (1996), and more recently Clementine from The Walking Dead (2012).  The depiction of women in video games has undergone a change that correlates with society’s opinion on women because media directly reflects the values of society of that time period.  For example Chun Li was the first female character in the fighting genre which spawned a trend to include at least one female fighting game character in other games.  Other females like Mileena from Mortal Kombat (1992) and Nina Williams from Tekken (1994) came after and boasted precise and complicated movesets for players to master. Players began to prefer to use female fighters because even though they were difficult to master they were very powerful.  The female fighter was “slowly becoming the avatar of choice; not because of appearance, but because of ludic gain” (Kearney, 2012, pg. 697).

Society, and its views about women has progressed and continues to and in turn the current media landscape reflects that.  The Walking Dead video game has allowed for Clementine to evolve from a defenseless child in the first game to a self sustaining

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Clementine from the Walking Dead Telltale Series

individual who can take care of herself in the zombie filled world.  She becomes a strong female lead in Season 2 who is not portrayed as a damsel in distress or a sexual object in contrast to how many female characters are portrayed like Laura Croft who is over sexualized.  Many NPCs in the game choose to turn to Clementine rather than another adult for guidance which shows her strength.  Gender roles in The Walking Dead are not relevant to the gameplay and story so therefore do not present itself in a traditional sense.  Clementine’s gender, while important when looking at the game in this light, matters very little in the game itself. You are never presented with a place where Clementine’s gender comes into being a major issue.  The patriarchal mentality that women are weaker than men and must be protected is pushed to the side and a new survivor mentality reigns supreme.  This survivor mentality puts everyone on an equal playing field because the only concern the player has is staying alive and protecting the group.

In conclusion, The Walking Dead video games series breaks away from the traditional patriarchal social constructs of gender roles in favor of a more progressive portrayal that depicts men and women as equal.Screen Shot 2016-03-11 at 2.25.19 PM


References

Gurer, D. (2002) Women in computing history. SIGCSE Bulletin, 34(2), 116-120.

Harp, D., Loke, J. & Bachmann, I. (2011) More of the same old story? Women, war, and news in Time magazine. Women’s studies in communication, 34(2), 202-217.

Kearney, M. C. (2012) The gender and media reader. New York: Routledge

Rose, J., Mackey-Kallis, S., Shyles, L., Barry, K., Biagini, D., Hart, C., & Jack, L. (2012). Face it: The impact of gender on social media images. Communication Quarterly, 60(5), 588-607.

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