Now you might be asking yourself, “Doesn’t having female enemies in a game perpetuate violence against women?” And that’s a good, fair question. When we refer to depictions of violence against women, we’re generally discussing situations in which women are being attacked or victimized specifically because they are women, reinforcing a perception of women as victims. Such scenarios are very different from those in which women are presented as active participants. In the Street Fighter games, for instance, when Chun-Li and Ryu fight each other, this isn’t considered violence against women, because the two characters are presented as being on more or less equal footing, and because Chun-Li is an active participant who isn’t being targeted or attacked specifically because she’s a woman. Similarly, the waves of male attackers players face in so many games are typically not passive victims. They are active participants in the conflict, and importantly, the violence against them isn’t gendered. Players fight with them because they’re on the opposing side, not specifically because they are men. Unfortunately, when female combatants do appear in games, they are often presented in sexualized ways which inevitably lend the player’s attacks an air of gendered violence.
In Saints Row The Third’s so-called “Whored Mode,” for instance, players must defeat waves of sexualized women, sometimes beating them to death with a large purple dildo. In the 2009 game Wolfenstein, the Elite Guard are a special all-female enemy unit whose absurd uniforms sexualize not only the female characters themselves but also player’s acts of violence against them. Similarly, in 2012’s Hitman Absolution, the Saints are a special unit of female assassins who wear latex fetish gear underneath nun’s habits. It’s a ludicrous design choice that is transparently intended to sexualize these enemies. And in Metal Gear Solid 4, the Beauty & the Beast unit is an enemy group made up of five female soldiers that players fight over the course of the game. At a certain point during these encounters, each boss sheds her armor and appears as a woman in form-fitting attire. “It’s all so funny.” If players then avoid the Beauty’s deadly embrace for several minutes without killing or neutralizing her, the game transports them to a white room where equipping the camera results in the character making sultry poses. Funny how that doesn’t happen with the male bosses in the game. Whenever female combatants are dressed in sexualizing attire, it sets them noticeably apart from other enemy units. It’s intended to make the player’s encounters with them sexually titillating and that’s particularly troubling considering that those encounters often involve fighting and killing those characters.
Violence against female characters should never be presented as “sexy”. The way for games to handle female combatants is not to present them as sexualized treats for the player. Rather, it’s to present them simply as combatants who happen to be women fighting alongside their male counterparts on equal footing. For all of its many, many problems one thing Bioshock Infinite did right was to include non-sexualized female officers on Columbia’s police force. And in Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, both the player’s gang and the enemy gang have rank-and-file female members who fight alongside the men. Despite the presence of female combatants in games like these, there is still a tendency for game studios to treat female representation as some kind of extravagant goal, rather than simply treating it as standard in the same way they handle male representation.
The excuse that I hear most often for the absence of female combatants in games is that players wouldn’t believe it. But games, even ones that draw on historical locations or events like the Assassin’s Creed series, create their own worlds and set the tone for what we will or won’t believe. To participate in the worlds games create, we happily accept time travel, superpowers, ancient alien civilizations, the ability to carry infinite items, the idea that eating a hot dog can instantly heal your wounds, and a million other fictions. It’s certainly not too much to ask that these fictional worlds give us believable female combatants too. The media we engage with has a powerful impact on our ideas of what’s believable and what’s not. Games like Assassin’s Creed Syndicate demonstrate that when the existence of female combatants is presented as straightforward, normal and believable, players have no problem believing it. And they shouldn’t, since, unlike those magical healing hot dogs I mentioned, female combatants actually exist.