Across every genre, horror is one of the few anomalies otherwise dominated by men that we, as an audience, are regularly exposed to. When you think of horror movies, a series of scrappy women likely parade through your mind. Many of the most famous horror movie franchises feature women at the center: Halloween, Scream, Alien, Friday the 13th, The Silence of the Lambs, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, as well as foreign films such as The Ring and The Grudge, just to name a few. In fact, horror is one of the few film genres that produces more movies with women leading the narrative than men.
Yet, for whatever reason, this preference for women is not as readily apparent in its sister medium: video games. Though by no means devoid of women, there is a clear tendency toward men in many of the most popular horror games.
For instance, last year, GamesRadar compiled a list of the 20 best horror games of all time, and only four out of the 20 had leads who were explicitly women: Alien: Isolation, Resident Evil 2, Fatal Frame II, and Until Dawn. Even then, only two of those four games had a protagonist who featured a woman as its sole lead, and the other two games split the narrative between a woman and a man.
The protagonist is often a man even in first-person perspective horror games that feature a lead with no character design or voice actor. For instance, the named protagonists of the popular Five Nights At Freddy’s games are men, and even the unnamed protagonists are implied to be men.
Interestingly, film adaptations of horror games tend to embrace women as protagonists more often than their source material. Take the popular Silent Hill franchise, which only featured one leading lady from a total of seven games (including Origins, Homecoming, and Shattered Memories). In comparison, both Silent Hill movies starred women. Likewise, among the main numbered entries of the Resident Evil franchise, only Resident Evil 3 features Jill Valentine as its sole protagonist. All six Resident Evil movies star Milla Jovovich as the character Alice.
It’s difficult to see this as anything but further proof of the implicit gender bias that seems inherent in the video game industry. However, I think the real question is: why does this discrepancy exist in the first place?
First, it’s important to note that although horror movies feature a comparatively high quantity of women as protagonists, the quality of these representations is often poor. As most horror movie directors are men, the camera lens inevitably depicts many women through the filter of the male gaze. After all, horror movies with leading ladies only exploded in popularity upon the advent of the slasher flick, a subgenre that is infamous for rewarding women who are virginal and punishing women who are not.
In many societies, it’s also generally considered more acceptable for a woman to be shown screaming, crying, begging, and displaying obvious fear or weakness. This perceived vulnerability is a large part of the appeal in utilizing a leading lady in horror movies.
On the other hand, there’s a big difference between watching a woman versus inhabiting a woman. In contrast to film, the interactivity of games removes the distance between the viewer and the horrors occurring on-screen to the extent that, in many ways, the player becomes the playable character. Instead of experiencing horror through the eyes of a fictional character, video games allow players to experience the horror directly. In games, there is less need for the protagonist to emote fear — and it shows.
Many horror games — including the recent and massively successful Resident Evil 7 — adopt a first-person perspective, which hides the facial expressions of the protagonist from the player. Even third-person perspective horror games often feature protagonists who barely react to their surroundings. There is little to no need for the playable character to react with fear, and thus (in the eyes of some), there is little to no need for there to be a woman as the protagonist.
Moreover, if a horror game’s target audience is men, the developers might act on the assumption that an audience of men would be averse to inhabiting a woman. To this day, many men exhibit a strong reluctance to identify too closely with femininity, and in a medium as dominated by men as video games, men are not often asked to do so in the first place.
This is not to argue that horror games are incapable of change. After all, films have existed for much longer, and it is only in recent decades that we have begun to see more nuanced and complex leading ladies in horror movies. As participants of a relatively young industry — and one that is often perceived as more niche than it truly is — video game developers might need more time to fully realize their potential for diversity and inclusivity in the stories they choose to tell.
In regards to the horror genre specifically, there are many stones that video games have so far left unturned. After all, the best horror concerns itself more with subconscious, psychological fear rather than the immediate threats to one’s life, and there are many deeply-ingrained fears that women experience more often than men.
So to the horror game developers of the world: I wish you luck. I have no doubt there are many, many scary stories waiting to be unearthed, if one only has the courage to dig.