Presence of Female Enemies in Video Games (or Lack of)

There usually are not female enemies in video games. By that, I mean the nameless grunts that the player kills by the hundreds over the course of a game. This is not a good thing.

This lack of visible females among the grunts is most likely because, among other things, our culture finds the depiction of violence against women more wrong than the depiction of violence against men. While it might seem like a good idea to not portray violence against women, portraying violence against only men lends credence to the terrible idea that men are more disposable than women. Don’t get me wrong, violence against women is not something to be taken lightly, though really, violence against anyone should not be taken lightly.

Many developers, perhaps in order to be somewhat inclusive, make a special grunt that is female. However, the concept of having a “special” female grunt is an extension of the idea that males are the default. This in turn leads to othering of females and makes being female seem like a special trait that the grunt has, which leads to problems for both genders. These problems include the undervaluing of males and defining female as abnormal, both of which are bad. Being a woman should not be a defining trait of a grunt, or any other character for that matter.

A good example I’ve found of female grunts is in Saints Row 2. With respect to the ratio of female to male grunts, it is by far the most gender equal game I’ve ever seen. There are just as many female police officers and female rival gang members running around the city of Stillwater as there are males. All of them treat the player the same, regardless of their gender. To me this was rather refreshing. Not to say that I got more enjoyment out of brawling with women, just that it showed that females existed in this world as something other than the civilians on the street. The women were just as likely as their male counterparts to make choices for their future career, in law enforcement or illegal gang activities, and were just as capable of taking care of themselves and fighting back.

System Shock 2 is a entirely different example as it arguably uses its female enemies to tell you more about the enemy you are fighting, as well as tying into the message of the game at large. The Many are the major enemy for most of the game and has corrupted crew members through telepathic mind control. In discussing the game with others, and reading various articles, I came to the realization that the Many could be compared to a patriarchal organized religion. When playing the game, there are many references to this, with characters quoting biblical passages and speaking about how nice it is to be part of a larger group. One of the first humans to succumb to the Many says: “Glory to The Many. I am a voice in their choir”, which seems to me to be designed to make the player think of a religion. Of the enemies that are part of the Many, only the Cyborg Midwives are obviously females.

The Cyborg Midwife from System Shock 2.

Although the game indicates that the ‘Hybrids’ used to be both men and women, they appear to have overtly male physical traits and thus are not what I’m looking for here. There is a sub story, told through audio logs and emails, about how the Midwives were created. One of the male crew members was corrupted by the Many and decided to make cyborgs out of many of the female nurses aboard the ship to look after the eggs of the Many. The game pretty clearly sets up the notion that the Midwives are the result of one sexist male’s idea that women are the most nurturing. Analyzing them out of game, the Midwives are the result of females that join a patriarchal organized religion, and find themselves reduced to stereotypes. However it should be mentioned that the Midwives alone do not make this a good example. System Shock 2 has, and needs, many female characters with their own motivations and desires in order to provide a juxtaposition to the player. For example, the head nurse attempts to take revenge for her murdered coworkers and appears to die in a shootout with the male crew member. These other women make a necessary foil to the ones that the Many reduced to nothing more than midwives. Without the comparison, there would be no starting point to see how capable the women were before their transformation. The midwives add to the aesthetics, story and atmosphere that the game projects; one of subjection, despair and corruption, of fitting people into molds rather than letting them find their own way.

There are a number of games with poor examples of female grunts, but one that I’m more familiar with is Quake 2. It came out two years before System Shock 2 and also has one specialized female grunt.

The Iron Maiden from Quake 2.

In Quake 2, the enemy is the Strogg, an alien race that ‘recycles’ the players fallen comrades into enemies through cybernetic implants. So most of the grunts in the game are cybernetically enhanced, brainwashed former comrades. Sort of like System Shock 2. Quake 2 also has only one grunt that is obviously female: the Iron Maiden. Unlike the Midwives in System Shock 2, I cannot make sense of the Iron Maidens within the context of the game. Why would females be recycled into only one type of grunt while the males get changed into several different types? From an in game perspective, it seems incredibly inefficient to me. From outside of the game, I see that the women are being treated as “special” by the developers.

Women exist in all worlds. Arguably, grunts are the non-playable characters that the player will encounter the most and women will be the least visible if they are absent from this group. Lack of visibly female grunts also perpetuates harmful stereotypes that women are fragile and cannot or will not fight alongside men, despite evidence to the contrary. This also implies that women have less volition and competency than males. Women should be free to choose their own path: whether that be becoming a bandit, a guard, or whatever else they choose. The lack of women entities are often brushed off as a lack of resources or time. To me, this is not a good excuse as all it says is that females are not a high enough priority and that they are something extra to be tacked on rather than a representation of half of the population.


Further Reading:

Representation of Women in Popular Video Games: Rediscovery Through Cultural Proximity by Nicolas LaLone

The Girl Who Wanted To Be God by Kieron Gillen

  • AndyB
  • Andy B has an Anthropology-Computing background and as such, is accustomed to bridging the gap between social issues and technology.