Games and Why They Matter
Video games are an increasingly important medium of entertainment. In just a few years, video gaming has become one of the most valuable entertainment industries around, with a projected value of $138 billion by the end of the year, which is more than double the value of the movie production and distribution industry which sits at $68 billion. The stories told through the medium are consumed by the children, teens, and adults who play them. Considering the extreme bias towards the perceived target market of young white males, video games have often been problematic in their depictions of race and sex. The medium of video games will only continue to grow and further inform children on these topics, so it is important that intersectional and counter-hegemonic ideas are cooperatively incorporated into gaming narratives. This idea of cooperation with industry leaders on race and sex issues is often met with skepticism. Some believe that, since the target market is seemingly young white males, white-male-centered narratives, which often feature sexism and misrepresentation of races, must be necessary to make a profit. This does not have to be the case, however, and Dutch game developer Guerrilla Games proves this with the astronomical success of their diverse and female-led flagship title: Horizon Zero Dawn. This game demonstrates that video games don’t need to conform to hegemonic ideas to be successful and beloved by fans.
Horizon Zero Dawn’s Success
Horizon Zero Dawn was released in February of 2017, and is now lauded as the third highest selling Playstation 4 first-party title, selling 7.6 million copies. The unique blending of artistic styles and heavily progressive cast and themes may have caused apprehension in the minds of the developers pre-release, but the astronomical success of the game has lead to rumors that a sequel could come as a launch title on the Playstation 5, an incredible achievement for a game so heavily rooted against hegemonic ideas.
The Setting and Context
First up- SPOILERS! In Horizon Zero Dawn, exploration and the uncovering of secrets is a big part of the story, Expect much of that to be spoiled here. If you care about that, we highly suggest you play the game for yourself before reading further!
To understand the themes and characters of the game, we first must understand its setting. Horizon Zero Dawn is an open-world role playing game (RPG) in which the player controls Aloy (pronounced A-loy, not Alloy), a young female hunter seeking to uncover the mysterious circumstances of her past amidst a vast, robot-inhabited, post-apocalyptic world. In Horizon Zero Dawn, nature has reclaimed the Earth, and humans have forgotten their past, reverting to a tribal state. Living alongside the tribal humans are mysterious beat-like robotic machines resembling horses, giraffes, bears, and even dinosaurs, among many others. Aloy hunts and is hunted by these machines as she travels between the primitive tribes of the new world amidst the ruins of our modern civilization; namely Colorado and Utah.
Aloy discovers that in the 2060s, an American weapons manufacturing company, “Faro Automated Systems,” created robotic war drones (The Faro Swarm) that could self-replicate and consume biomass as fuel. Their ability to replicate proved apocalyptic, and in the final months of life on Earth, a brilliant female scientist, Elisabeth Sobek, put together a team of the smartest people from around the world (a notably diverse group) to create Project Zero Dawn, a system of Artificial Intelligences (AI’s) headed by a super-intelligent, emotion-capable AI, GAIA (who is portrayed as a black female). GAIA and her subordinate functions waited until the Faro Swarm ran out of biomass to fuel themselves and the Earth was stripped bare, all life extinct. Then, she awoke and began to rebuild the planet. GAIA seeded the Earth, terraformed the atmosphere and the land (doing so through the animal-like robots described previously). Once the Earth was ready, she began to plant fabricated human embryos on the planet to start anew.
Here is where things get interesting for race in Horizon Zero Dawn. Due to circumstances that made GAIA unable to teach or guide the humans she had created, they found themselves with no knowledge of their world, and entered a tribal state. Each tribe developed their own cultures and customs, as well as beliefs about their relationship to GAIA’s animal-like machines. Since these tribes were purposefully populated by GAIA, she decided to grow embryos of varied genetic makeups in each geographic location. Therefore each tribe is comprised of many races, creating a seemingly ‘raceless’ world.
Pictured: Elisabet Sobek, GAIA, and some of the Zero Dawn team. Source: Horizon Zero Dawn
A Fresh Start for Humanity – Horizon’s ‘Raceless’ World
Due to the intentionally mixed-race populations of the tribes in the new world, the player quickly notices a strangely diverse population in Aloy’s tribe, the Nora. Until GAIA’s hand in the population is revealed, the player is confused by the extreme racial variety in the small tribe, which consists of no more than a few dozen people despite its long history. For example, the War-Chief of the tribe (who acts as a general, not quite a ruler) is named Sona. She is a black woman who commands a disciplined troop of Nora “Braves”. Sona’s character is in many ways counter-hegemonic as a black woman; she is intelligent, athletic, a fierce leader and has great agency in the tribe. Plus, as a woman, her position as a powerful leader goes strongly against the hegemonic tendency for men to be in positions of power and war. As the Nora is culturally structured, however, these traits have less to do with her race as we see it in our modern times, and much more to do with her position as a respected member of the tribe itself. In fact, the Nora tribe is matriarchal, with female leaders and goddesses; a culture in direct opposition Western hegemony.
Pictured: Sona, powerful War-Cheif of the Nora. Source: Horizon Zero Dawn Wiki
The white female lead Aloy lives alongside Sona, as well as other white, Asian, and black Nora tribe members. Within each tribe of Horizon’s world, race is not seen with skin, but with tribal alignment. A white member of the Carja, a Nora rival tribe, is likely to have a poor opinion of Nora tribes-people, but not of a black or Asian Carja member. In fact, each tribe within the world- Nora, Carja, Banuk, and Oseram- all feature white, black, Asian, and Middle-Eastern members at all levels of their cultural hierarchies, never acknowledging skin-based racial difference. Notably, the diversity in the game is never tokenized or present for diversity’s sake. The nature of GAIA’s involvement within the world means the diversity of characters is an intentional aspect of the game’s plot, another remarkable departure from typical video game representational practices. Aside from the matriarchal Nora, however, many of the tribes are sexist.
Pictured: Some of the diverse faces of the game. Horizon is unique in its determination to create numerous unique faces; most video games recycle a few presets save for the essential main characters. This artistic choice makes the world feel truly diverse. Source: Dan Calvert, Art Director
Aloy: A Fantastic Female Hero
Pictured: Aloy, the playable character. Source: Wikipedia
The sexist patriarchal tribes and tribes-people Aloy encounters serve as a constant motivation for counter-hegemonic action on Aloy’s part, who is consistently defying the prejudice and dismissal of male oppression. Within the context of video games, having a female hero is quite rare. According to research published in New Media & Society, female leads in video games account for only 14.77% of leads in games that sell well. This is compounded by the fact that only 10.45% of primary characters and 14.65% of secondary characters are female as well- this means there is a consistently high 80% presence of male characters in games, nothing close to the almost 50-50 split in global population. Notably, Aloy is voiced by mixed-race voice actor Ashly Burch (Thai-East Indian and white) which bolsters her unique position as lead.
In addition to her mere presence as a female lead in a massively successful title, Aloy is also a counter-hegemonic character in many other ways. She is intellectually and emotionally intelligent, able to commandeer the technology of the Old World with ease, and always willing to challenge authority and stand up for what she believes in (often literally dismantling or calling into question the hegemonic structures of each tribe she encounters). She is a fierce warrior capable of taking down any opponent that defies her, be it machine or man. Her position as a female in gaming is also further counter-hegemonic due to her not being overly sexualized. Women in games are often treated as prizes to be won (think Princess Peach in the Mario games) or overly sexualized objects to hold the attention of the perceived young white male demographic. Aloy’s costumes are appropriate to the context of the world and her character. She is never put in compromising or objectifying sexual scenarios, and even turns down the advances of a powerful man in the story- the King of the Carja tribe. Aloy’s body is also athletic and lean, a sensible choice considering her extreme athletic ability and going against the grain for women in gaming. Research published in Sex Roles found that “Female characters are more likely than male characters to be portrayed as sexualized (60% versus 1%), scantily clad (39% versus 8%)” (Dill, 851).
Shown below are Aloy’s “default” traditional Nora look, along with some other outfits. Shown last is the most “sexualized” outfit the player can equip. An important distinction is made between this outfit and traditionally sexist outfits in gaming- it has narrative purpose. The outfit is from an in-game culture known for working with dangerous flames and hand-to-hand combat. Their clothing is sparse and metallic to prevent it from catching fire or giving something to grip in combat. Note additionally that the outfit shows no cleavage and that the outfit is never required to be worn; it is merely an option for protection against fire hazards, or if the player wishes to aesthetically fit in within that tribe. These clothing decisions go against the hegemonic tendency for women to have their bodies objectified or gratuitously sexualized in video games.
Pictured: See above. Source: In-Game Icon Files
Cold Killer-Robots and Complex Human Villains
Horizon Zero Dawn has no shortage of human and robotic villains, but it takes steps to insure the motivations of of the human villains are human in nature, in great juxtaposition to the cold killer-robots that are the true enemies. One of the first villains Aloy encounters is Olin, a Middle-Eastern man, whose introduction to Aloy leads to the massacre of many of Aloy’s young Nora friends. Upon meeting her, he unknowingly tipped off a rogue subroutine of GAIA, HADES (the main antagonist), of her existence, which HADES perceived to be a threat to his rising killer-robot empire. Olin was an agent of a cult worshiping HADES, and is the first target Aloy needs to track down. Initially, the choice of a Middle-Eastern man as the game’s first antagonist seemed to fall within the realms of typical Western media practices, but upon Aloy’s investigation of Olin, Horizon does the unexpected and humanizes him.
Aloy discovers that Olin was, in reality, an artifact hunter, not some criminal mastermind. His wife and child had been taken hostage by HADES’ cult (led by white-skinned cultists), and he was forced to act as their agent against his wishes. Upon realizing this, Aloy is given the choice of what to do with him and (canonically) spares his life, agreeing to help him rescue his kidnapped family. Upon their safe rescue, Olin is devastated by the atrocities he was forced to commit and asks Aloy to assist him in defeating the cult. Aloy declines, insisting he remain with his reunited family.
This character arc is heavily counter-hegemonic, completely mapping out the motivations of a male Middle-Eastern villain and even allowing for the redemption of the man. According to Home, Land, Security: What We Learn about Arab Communities from Action-Adventure Films, Western media have consistently “presented Arab characters more as villain than as victim or as hero”, a notion clearly flipped on its head by Horizon Zero Dawn (Wilkins). Typically, Western media dehumanizes Middle-Eastern villains, but in this game, the only villains dehumanized are literally robots.
Pictured: Olin, the redeemed ‘villain’, and Helis, the cult leader. Source: Horizon Zero Dawn
A White Man’s Apocalypse
Horizon Zero Dawn has no shortage of rich characters diverse in sex, gender, race, and ability. People of all kinds command positions at all levels of cultural hierarchies except for one- villain. In the game, all true villains are white men. Elisabet Sobek’s diverse team of intellectuals and their black female AI GAIA may have given humanity a second chance, but white men were the ones who destroyed it in the first place.
The CEO of Faro Automated Solutions who ordered the creation of the swarm of killer robots that caused the apocalypse was a white man named Ted Faro. In Horizon Zero Dawn Faro represents the vices of modern Western civilization. He is a businessman with more power than most modern countries, and makes his fortune selling technology and robotics in a hyper-capitalist manner, saturating the world with his influence. Eventually, his greed and war-mongering economic tactics lead to the creation of his “peacekeeping” robots, the entire context of which is eerily reminiscent of the American Military Industrial Complex. This concept is bolstered as stated by David Leonard of Washington State University, who points out that “the history with colonization, imperialism, and exploration, […] and the efforts to legitimize power/privilege are all present in many video games”.
Pictured: Ted Faro and a robot from his Faro Swarm. Source: Horizon Zero Dawn
A “glitch” causes Faro to lose control of the swarm, and the robots begin to consume all the resources and life on the planet. His corporate greed led to the downfall of not just his nation, but life on Earth itself. This narrative is clearly analogous to the resources-stripping colonizing tendencies of the white man historically. An accomplice of his was American General Herres, another white male who deceived the dwindling population of humanity into fighting the robots long enough to allow Elisabet Sobek to create Zero Dawn. Though he supported Zero Dawn in the end, he was part of the team that built the robots with Faro.
In the new world, GAIA’s subroutine HADES is the primary antagonist of Aloy. HADES was designed to exterminate all life if GAIA’s terraforming gave sub-optimal results. Unfortunately, GAIA lost control of HADES and he threatens the existence of the new diverse human tribes on Earth. HADES is depicted with the voice of a hyper-masculine white male. In a way, HADES and GAIA are directly oppositional to one another as hegemonic and counter-hegemonic respectively. GAIA is a black woman, a mother by proxy to a new age of humanity- an age of diverse peoples and rebirth. HADES is a relic of white supremacy, a hyper-masculine threat designed to conquer, kill, and consume. In the game’s expansion side-story, the antagonist AI is also a hyper-masculine white male named HEPHAESTUS in conflict with a nurturing female AI named CYAN. In both cases, destructive white-male caricatures held in constant battle with powerful female protectors. This is an incredibly counter-hegemonic theme for a video game to position. Since the characters discussed here are the most powerful forces in the game, Horizon Zero Dawn seems to have an overarching theme of toxic (white) masculinity versus intelligent feminine resolve. Destructive, rash male characters clash against intelligent and protective female characters throughout.
A Colorful New World
The are many more instances of Horizon Zero Dawn’s counter-hegemonic practices; many other characters represent progressive ideas in meaningful ways. There’s Varl, a black man who is Aloy’s first hinted love interest (making for a possible interracial relationship). Varga is a brown-skinned female engineer who created some of Aloy’s most powerful equipment; engineering of weapons and tools is certainly a counter-hegemonic position for a female minority to fill. Talanah is a skilled female Asian huntress who usurps a male patriarch from his seat of power. The list goes on.
Pictured: The characters named above in order. Source: Horizon Zero Dawn Wiki
The examples depicted in this text are just a few, Horizon Zero Dawn is filled with feminist and counter-hegemonic racial ideas and encounters. At every turn, Horizon Zero Dawn is not only an achievement of quality game development and narrative, but a monument to the possibilities for successful intellectual property in the gaming world. As video game narratives continue to be read by the children of the world, further stories like Horizon Zero Dawn will aid in the dismantling of harmful hegemonic ideas.
Williams, D., Martins, N., Consalvo, M., & Ivory, J. D. (2009). The virtual census: Representations of gender, race and age in video games. New Media & Society,11(5), 815-834. doi:10.1177/1461444809105354.
Dill, K. E., & Thill, K. P. (2007). Video Game Characters and the Socialization of Gender Roles: Young People’s Perceptions Mirror Sexist Media Depictions. Sex Roles,57(11-12), 851-864. doi:10.1007/s11199-007-9278-1
“Chapter 2: Fearing the ‘Other’ in the Name of Security.” Home, Land, Security: What We Learn about Arab Communities from Action-Adventure Films, by Karin Gwinn Wilkins, Lexington, 2009.
Leonard, D. (2003). “Live in Your World, Play in Ours”: Race, Video Games, and Consuming the Other. SIMILE: Studies In Media & Information Literacy Education,3(4), 1-9. doi:10.3138/sim.3.4.002