Doctor of Philosophy
This dissertation analyzes gendered death animations in video games and the way games thematize death to remarginalize marked characters, including women. This project combines Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel’s work on the human subjection to death and Georges Bataille’s characterization of sacrifice to explore how death in games stages markedness. Markedness articulates how a culture treats normative identities as unproblematic while marking non-normative identities as deviant.
Chapter One characterizes play as a form of death-deferral, which culminates in the spectacle of player-character death. I argue that death in games can facilitate what Hegel calls tarrying with death, embracing our subjection to mortality. I examine marked and unmarked player-character death to explain how deaths endorse values like resilience. However laudable those values are, they often rely on sexist assumptions and imagery that crucially limit games’ potential to encourage tarrying with death. Chapter Two uses Bataille’s concept of sacrifice to frame the relationship between the player as a sacrificer and the player-character as a victim. Applying Bataille’s model of sacrifice to explicitly feminine player-characters shows how games continue to characterize feminine-coded vulnerability, suffering, and death as aesthetic spectacles. I examine the iconic player-character Lara Croft from Tomb Raider as a “sacrificial woman” whose marked deaths reflect mainstream game cultures’ lingering tendency to see women through the lens of the ‘damsel in distress,’ who must be rescued from sacrifice. Even when those women are player-characters, traces of the damsel mark and undercut their agency. Chapter Three examines the sex-specific depiction of sacrifice in dad games, a genre that uses heroic fatherhood and self-sacrifice to mark the previously unmarked. Dad games draw attention to qualities like whiteness and masculinity—which typically go unmarked—to present them as under threat and in need of defence. However, this defence uses images of feminine-coded suffering to express and allay anxieties about the perceived passing of patriarchal power. Ultimately, this treatment reflects online harassment campaigns like Gamergate’s staging of women’s real-life suffering to silence progressive and alternative voices in games. Gamergate’s performative sadism is another expression of how mainstream game cultures articulate masculine anxiety through feminine-coded suffering.
Summary for Lay Audience
This dissertation is about how player-controlled characters die in video games. These deaths reinforce gender stereotypes and remarginalize groups already treated poorly in games. These groups include women, people of colour, and anyone who does not match the ‘standard’ player, who is white, male, heterosexual, and cisgender (meaning one’s gender matches the identity assigned to them at birth). Some scholars say death in games is uninteresting or misleads impressionable players into thinking death is not real. I look at iconic, commercially successful games that assume a binary view of gender that characterizes people as only male or female. Games often present deaths differently for male and female player-characters. Historically, most player-characters have been male. Recently, many games allow the player to choose whether the player-character is male or female. However, the same games usually treat these player-characters as male by default. Those characters’ deaths have a broad emotional range: they can be funny or sad or frightening. Exclusively female player-characters are much rarer. They often die in ways that display their pain, as if the player would enjoy seeing them suffer. That presentation often extends from exclusively female player-characters to important female non-player-characters who are controlled by the game, rather than the player. I look at games in which the male player-character is also a father to a non-player-character daughter. I compare how games present the father and daughter’s pain and death. Fathers’ deaths often characterize them as stoic and strong. Daughters’ deaths theatrically display feminine pain. These ‘dad games’ use death to reinforce normative stereotypes that non-mainstream game makers and critics have started to challenge.
It might seem obvious that video games have a serious problem with sexism. However, examining how this sexism works in death animations and game narratives helps show how game creators can change these harmful patterns. I believe that games can help players explore thoughts and feelings about death. However, game creators, particularly those in the game industry, cannot realize the potential to facilitate tarrying with death until we understand persistent problems with how the industry presents death in games and explore less harmful alternatives.
Adams, Meghan Blythe, "Exquisite Corpses: Markedness, Gender, and Death in Video Games" (2020). Electronic Thesis and Dissertation Repository. 7414.
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