Sirens, Gorgons and Harpies (oh my!): a discussion on female monsters in video games

Photo by: Charlie Martin

From 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 27, Dr. Sarah Stang will be hosting a talk in room GLB335 of the International Centre, discussing the topic of mythical female monsters in video games.

Dr. Stang is an assistant professor in Brock’s digital humanities department. She was invited to give this presentation by Dr. Adam Rappold, a professor in the classics department, after a conversation where they discussed the similarities between classics and video game monsters.

This talk is centred on how the mythical female monster has manifested in video games — focusing primarily on those drawn from Greek mythology — and explores how misogyny gets embedded in video games when both seductive and grotesque female monsters are positioned as enemies for the player to fight and kill.

Dr. Stang noted that, while all monsters are monstrous, feminine monsters reflect harmful gender stereotypes that are hardly seen in masculine monsters.

“Games rarely sexualize male monsters,” she said. “While there are plenty of examples of problematic male monsters, they’re usually not made monstrous in relation to their sexuality, reproductive processes or age — the most common tropes for female monstrosity. So you’d be unlikely to find a male equivalent of a seductive femme fatale siren, a monstrous mother who spawns horrific offspring, or an ‘evil old hag.’”

She also argues that video games actively worsen the misogyny found in the classic myths by positioning players as the righteous hunter of these monsters.

“The player must adopt the role of the violent monster slayer — the ‘hero’ who murders these monstrous women,” Dr. Stang said. “They are of course rewarded for this violence by gaining experience, loot, progressing through the narrative, etc. Like the myths these games draw from, the player is meant to identify with the — usually male — hero and feel nothing but hatred, fear and revulsion towards the enemy monster, especially if she’s a major boss. In this sense, games allow players to virtually enact gendered violence, making them complicit in it and perhaps encouraging them to internalize these harmful messages.”

However, she does believe that games can do better, and have potential to combat these same harmful ideologies.

“I do think games also offer space for different kinds of storytelling and new ways to think about mythology,” she said. “Because they can be so effective in terms of identification and empathy, games could, for example, instead allow players to become the monstrous being themselves and experience the world through the eyes of the ‘other.’ Some games do this, though far more games follow the traditional player-as-monster-slayer route.”

Looking at the games industry as a whole, and especially the major releases, Dr. Stang believes that this change isn’t happening just yet.

“Although we have plenty of female protagonists in games now, the design of monsters isn’t really improving,” she said. “Instead it’s just women murdering other women. In many ways this speaks to the enduring appeal of mythical monsters, yet it also means that these tropes reappear again and again. However, there are many independent games that feature more positive portrayals of monsters in general, so just as we’re seeing other media that ‘rehabilitate’ or ‘reclaim’ the monstrous, we’re seeing this happen in indie games. The mainstream game industry, however, tends to stick to a more familiar, ‘safe,’ tried-and-true formula.”

Outside of this seminar, Dr. Stang has mentioned several courses that touch on this subject.

“In the Department of Digital Humanities,” she said. “I teach a graduate-level seminar — GAME 5P71 — where I teach a bit on monstrosity-as-representation. And next year, I’ll be teaching a 4th-year special topics course — IASC 4V70 — where I will teach extensively about the design of monsters and monstrous characters. Outside of my department, Dr. Cristina Santos teaches a couple courses related to female monstrosity: SCLA 5P73 and SPAN/WSGS 4P60.”

Those interested in attending this talk are encouraged to RSVP via the event’s ExperienceBU page.

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