Playing science fiction horror games through
a swedish gender theorist’s eyes
Hirdmans Gender Theory
Yvonne Hirdmans gender theory is the first official Swedish theory regarding gender and the first stated theory on gender as a concept. And by that I mean the first to mention gender as a social thing rather than biological. It’s the difference between gender and sex. Her theory has two parts: (1) The separation of gender: Men and women are split up in society by jobs or status, consciously or unconsciously men and women are put apart, it might be the way we think of jobs and hobbies or occupations as “for females” or “for males”- such as nurse as a job for women and sport as a thing mostly practiced by men. Then there is (2) The male dominance: The theory that in situations where men and women are not split up, men are still dominant – given more attention, listened to, relied upon or put in a higher position than women because one believes men handle situations better. Examples of this could be literally speaking : A movie where the main character is a man and female characters are not as important to the story. Or it could be in a broader sense where men are seen as more important in society because they contribute more or differently from women.
SOMA is a Science Fiction survival horror game. It is about a man who wakes up years in the future (y2104) after a brain scan in 2015. He is faced with the end of the world, the question of what the definition of a human is, rogue Artificial Intelligence and the task to save the ARK – the last remains of humanity. He constantly asks himself where the line between human and inhuman lies and to what extent a human can survive without it’s humanity. He travels through an underwater facility where he meets robots who think they’re humans, humans who’d rather be robots (or dead) and a cute little helper robot that helps him through struggles without words. The game was made with consciousness as a theme and is developed to explore the nature of free will and the self.
Motive and Hypothesis
I want to see if Hirdmans gender theory could apply to SOMA – a game that shows different sides of humanity and has many characters with close to an equal number of men and women. It shows humans at the end of their time and under stressful situations that in reality would bring out the true nature of them. I’ll go through the two parts of the theory and view the applicable parts of the game to see if they sync. Because of the reasons stated above I don’t think it’ll be a clear line between men and women and an obvious difference between gender. I feel it could be a case of a well planned game – gender wise. But on the other hand, since it’s a constructed scenario, it’s all up to the writers of the story if the theory would apply or not.
Separation of gender
In SOMA’s future there’s only a few specific people still alive and these people live underwater. The surface has been wiped out by a comet and only the people in the underwater facility survived. We learn the story of their fate through recordings and emails as we play a man who comes to this world when it’s already on the brink of total destruction. Since the surface was wiped out there are mostly scientists and doctors left because the underwater establishment – PATHOS II – was a research facility. The scientists were stationed at PATHOS II since before the comet. Of the scientists we get to know, most of them seem to be women, including the scientist whose work shows to be most important to the plot – Catherine Chun. She is introduced to the story some time into the game and then becomes a companion – a brainchip in a door opener – but till we meet her we are basically alone and male. Aside from the scientists there are security people – in charge of the facility – and one or two technicians. These are all pretty much divided equally by gender. Though the highest security officer is a man – Strohmeier, there is not anything overly separate about the ranks given to males or females. They weigh up. Having almost all humans wiped out shifted the gender equality slightly and as a result the remaining men and women are at least respected equally. There is no mention of “You can’t do that since you’re a woman” or “You should be fine, since you’re a man, this should be easy for you”. Everyone respects each other’s ranks and work.
Men in focus
It’s not obvious in a way that disturbs the game but there is a small case of “men in focus” in the game. Not only because we play as a man and watch the world with his thoughts and through his eyes. But also in the way characters are introduced. As mentioned earlier there is a relatively equal amount of male and female characters, but some seem to bear more weight to the story than others. It’s mostly in the details:
A long way into the game we only hear the female characters. We listen to them through recordings left in the facility, but we never meet and actually talk to one of them. Until we encounter Catherine there are very few characters we meet that we can interact with. But when we do meet someone it’s a man. A man trapped in a robot but still a man.
And then when we finally find a woman, she’s hooked up to a life respiration machine that drains the system of power. The only thing to do to move forward is to detach her from the machine and kill her.
It may not mean much but it’s symbolism – the woman is just in the way. It may not be what the game developers thought of when they created the game. Just playing the game we may not even notice it, but looking at it through Hirdman’s theory makes it obvious.
Also: The monsters. As this is a horror game you can’t avoid mentioning the monsters and just as an observation – all of the monsters are men. A few of them get backstories – how they ended up being deformed beings on two legs trying to kill everything they see – and some are just obvious by the character design. A hint: Not all of them wear proper clothes.
This may also not be anything that the game makers made a throughout decision about but it puts men in focus of the story. And as Hirdman’s theory is about the views of gender as an unconscious thing we do in social situations, the fact that it was thought of or not doesn’t really matter. Even if it’s the act of running away from someone, you’re now actively thinking of that character and so that character is important to the game. Many of the monsters carry information that move the story forward. Some of them are necessary to defeat to continue. They are important to the game. The fact that they are men just adds to the fact.
Aside from Catherine who becomes a somewhat constant companion after her introduction, there are very few female character that are necessary for the movement in the game.
The game is created so that you could either get the full experience: action, monster chasing, story and adventure. But you could just as well chose to run through it all, guns blazing and not collect a single piece of backstory to anything. If you play the game this way there will only be three women in the whole game that really matter. Four if you count the girlfriend of a male staff that you need to use against him to get a necessary code, but we can can play the game without her. The three are: the girl you need to kill to get back power to a part of the facility, Catherine and the last pure human on earth: Sarah Lindwall. She is the one who has the ARK- the drive with the brain scans of the last people on earth in it. She dies after a conversation that leads up to her begging you to kill her, but really, everyone dies in the end.
Still, except for these three women the key characters are all men. The doctor that scans your brain in 2015, the robot who introduces the problem with minds inside inanimate objects, the man who holds a certain code you need to proceed and also introduces you to what a copy of a person’s brain can mean on a more emotional level. The creatures that hinder and chase you through the underwater facility, the “ghost” of a man that helps you on the right track towards the end and you. You are the last human on earth when the ARK is shot out in space and the door opener’s batteries die and take Catherine down with them.
There is no hint of “men being more important” or them being “superior to women”. But it is certainly a story that puts male characters in focus.
Hirdman’s gender theory is applicable only on one part of the two. The separation of the genders in the game is not obvious or troubling. I would even say it’s better than most situations in reality. There are women of higher status. As mentioned before: most of the scientists are women, and those are the people who matter in this apocalyptic world. All characters are presented with names and most of them with titles. That itself is a way of putting men and women together and not separating them based on gender but rather on actual capability. Based on characters, there are also not many female characters who are not “smart”. A common thing in movies and games is to have an emotionally oriented female character who makes “stupid” decisions based on her feelings rather than logic. We thankfully do not meet such a character in this game and so there is no division between men and women based on knowledge either. They’re all humans – they think and behave like humans, and with the first part of the theory in mind, this works to make them equal.
As for the second theory: The male hierarchy, I would say it’s properly applicable. As a story that revolves around male characters and that even if the female characters build onto the story, puts men in focus. In that way maybe the separate theory would apply too: the male and female characters have importance in two different parts of the game. The female in the story part and the male in the visual, the action part. As said earlier, you could play the game without the story and so the “female part” is not as important. It’s not necessary in the same way. You can have the action without the story but not really the story without the action that wouldn’t be a game.
And thus the theory is applicable, but only to some extent.
As an afterthought: if all roles had been switched, would the reaction to the game as gender neutral or not still be the same? If you played as a woman and looked at the world through her eyes, would the game still be the same? Would you still enjoy it in the same way? Even as a female gamer, does this way of building a story contribute to the experience of the game?