A couple of weeks ago, I was lucky enough to be at the Zombies! Run panel at the Nine Worlds Geekfest. Mostly I was there to fangirl the game that turned me from somebody who could barely run for 30 seconds without dying into someone genuinely considering doing a 5K. But during the panel, I actually learned a lot about writing a truly balanced and inclusive game.
In short, good intentions are not enough. All of us have internalized sexism and racism and many other isms, and so we can’t simply trust ourselves and our inclusive leanings to get it right.
Many people are now familiar with the study from the Geena Davis Institute that found that women only make up 17% of the people in crowd scenes in movies. Viewers have therefore been trained to see a split of 17% women and 83% men on screen (or in person) as 50/50, and a presence of 33% or more women as women dominating the space.
Which leads to a rather unnatural-feeling conclusion. As creators (and maybe even as viewers), we have to feel like there are “too many women,” like female characters are dominating the story, in order to have anything close to equal representation. We have to feel like we’re being too feminist, and allowing female characters to take over the story with our feminist agenda, to even see close to as many female characters as male ones. And that is uncomfortable and challenging, even for the most determined among us, but it needs to be done.
So Zombies! Run headwriter Naomi Alderman literally counts the women in this game. And when she finds out that there are more male characters than female ones, as is often unintentionally the case, she flips the gender of originally male characters until the split is equal. And, interestingly, she changes nothing else about the characters except their gender. She doesn’t change their role in the story or their personality or background. She keeps all of their relationships exactly the same. She just changes “he” to “she,” and finds a good female voice actor to bring the character to life.
The result is not only a stronger presence of female characters, but also more varied and well-thought-out female characters, along with the extra bonus of more same-sex relationships into the mix. Because again, for all a writer’s good intentions, it can be far too easy to let internalized sexism influence characters, especially when it comes to background and their role in the story. In fact, Zombies! Run writer Rebecca Levene revealed that she finds it helpful to write characters as male and then flip them on purpose, as way to get around all that internalized BS.
I have to admit, I hadn’t realized how many of the voices in the first season of Zombies! Run are female until it was pointed out to me. And that’s probably a sign of how well the game has been handled. The writers take the responsibility to make people feel safe in the game environment very seriously, and so inclusiveness, including a gender neutral perspective, is their main priority. They didn’t want to have your radio operator be the stereotypical flirty female voice, so they made sure the radio operator was male. They didn’t want the typical “one man, one woman” radio show setup for their Radio Abel feature, and so they made them a gay couple. And in response to all of these male voices, they made pretty much everyone else in the first season of the game female, including the Major, the doctor, and the fellow runner who’s scarily handy at dealing with zombies with a shovel. And it just works.
Or mostly works. Apparently the game developers have received many emails from male players saying that they seem to have downloaded “the girl version,” because the radio operator was a man and they picked up sports bras among the other supplies they collected on their runs. Because even running from zombies must be gendered, and if girls are included, it must instantly be something solely for girls, right?
And I have to admit, even I am sometimes surprised by how “girl-oriented” this gender neutral game really is. With “girl-oriented” actually meaning “not solely male-oriented,” when I think about it more carefully.
Which is depressing, but I think ties back into that first point. Good intentions are not enough. Trusting yourself to be a good judge of balance won’t cut it, and feeling inclusive and being inclusive are not necessarily the same thing. Our internalized sexism can trick us. And so we need to start by counting the women, and relying on fact, not feeling, to move us to a more gender-balanced place in our stories.