On Gender: Plants vs. Zombies

Posted by MatthewGuzdial on Tuesday Mar 12, 2013 Under Gender, Race & Representation

I first played Plants vs. Zombies years back when it came out for Mac OS X, and I absolutely loved the charming silliness of it. In the game you play as a homeowner bent on protecting his home (and brain) from pillaging hordes of zombies. But the real originality of the game arises in the way in which you go about defending yourself namely, with plants. Plants vs. Zombies fits within the tower defense game genre, with the plants acting as your towers, but it includes a variety of other mechanics and game modes for a very diverse play experience (Wikipedia 1).

Recently, I downloaded the IOS version of Plants vs. Zombies for my iPhone, and immediately found it as satisfyingly silly as I did before. Furthermore, I found I now enjoyed an even deeper experience of the game, due to a greater understanding of game creation and a variety of cultural issues. The most glaring issue that stood out to me now was that, despite the fact that the game’s style seems to be gender-inclusive (collecting and creating are primary goals), a number of elements of the game lean it well into the bounds of traditional “male” gaming (Pearce).

In many respects, Plants vs. Zombies stands as an excellent example of a gender inclusive game. The art style alone, at least on the side of the plants, fits well within the “beautiful/cute” category, with ever smiling sunflowers and adorably grumpy squashes (Pearce). The game further allows for a great amount of collection in the first stage with collecting sunshine to buy to plants, and allows for collection of coins in later stages. Furthermore, the various different zombies and their unique behaviors, require understanding said behaviors to know what plants to utilize. All of these various factors fit well within play styles that girls generally enjoy (Pearce).

Despite a variety of fairly unusual or quirky mechanics by video game industry standards, the majority of the gameplay still revolves around traditional game mechanics. As with all tower defense games, players create structures to destroy enemies before they can reach a goal point. The game similarly utilizes a variety of projectiles, either catapulted or shot from different plants, a traditional fixation of “boys games” (Fullerton 2). If nothing else, the core struggle of the game places it well within the male sphere, with the player having to either destroy the zombies or be destroyed by them.

While the core of the game appears clearly male, the rest of Plants vs. Zombies stands on much more complex ground. Take for example the space in which the game takes place. While, from a narrative perspective, the game still stands as unarguably male, the mere concept of zombies lying well within the bounds of masculine narrative, the setting saves it from this strict gendering(Fullerton 3). The main battleground, and point of defense, is the player’s own home, a domestic area traditionally aligned with the feminine (Jenkins par. 53). However, the action itself takes place everywhere but within the house, including the front yard, a pool, and even the roof of the house. In fact, the game ends if a zombie ever enters the house, signifying that the game takes place well outside the bounds of the traditionally feminine, along with serving as an apt metaphor for the current Hegemony of Play that thinks that economically speaking, the feminine is equivalent with death (Fron 1).

Bizarrely, not a single female character exists in Plants vs. Zombies. While all the plants stand as clearly androgynous, with one notable exception, all the zombies are male, as is Crazy Dan, the only other human character. Even the player character, while unseen, lets out a blood-curdling, but definitely male scream upon death. As if the scream alone was unclear, text appears reading “Zombies ate your brains”, to clarify that the player played as the now dead man. Girls playing the game, right up until the very end appear devoid of anyone to emphasize with, a common case in modern video gaming (Jenkins par. 83). However, accompanying the credits of the game a sunflower sings “Zombies on Your Lawn” a song written and performed by Laura Shigihara, allowing for at least one female “voice”. The song and video furthermore indicate that at least some of the plants may be female, allowing for a much more female inclusive atmosphere, assuming one has watched it.

While PopCap Games, the creator of Plants vs. Zombies, acknowledges that women make up 54% of its audience, they still allowed for players to only play as a male character, an unfortunately common practice in the video games industry, in which male is seen as the default (Griffiths 2, Fron 1). PopCap claims that they don’t attempt to “pigeonhole” their games, or actively address a particular audience (Graft par. 27). Despite this the game still makes use of a number of standard game conventions, created in the early boy’s club days of the video game industry (Fron 2). While Plants vs. Zombies serves as open enough ground to allow for entry by non “hardcore gamers”, many games and the gaming conventions within them serve as a turn-off to non-gamers, particularly women (Fron 2).

Imagine for a moment that Plants vs. Zombies had attempted to focus more towards a particular audience, in this case, girls. Not in an attempt to make the game a “girl” game, but merely as an attempt to make it even more gender inclusive. By far the most obvious thing to first remove would be the male death scream, or at least the text reading “Zombies ate your brains”. Without the text, the scream becomes more ambiguous, perhaps indicating the player’s death, but perhaps indicating the death of a brother, father, or husband. Furthermore, some slight attempt at story could have done much for the game. Presently, the game ends with the introduction, and subsequent surrender of Dr. Zomboss, apparently the individual responsible for the zombies attacking your home. While presently shoehorned in at the end, a game that weaved the looming threat of Dr. Zomboss to you, and your loved ones, would serve as a more interesting alternative to the present version to female gamers (Pearce).

Fron, J., Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) “The Hegemony of Play.” In Situated Play: Proceedings of Digital Games Research Association 2007 Conference. Tokyo, Japan, September 2007.
Fullerton, T., Morie, J. & Pearce, C. (aka Ludica) (2007). “A Game Of Ones Own: Towards a New Gendered Poetics of Game Space.” In Proceedings, Digital Arts & Culture 2007, Perth, Australia, September 2007.
Gaft, Kris. “Analysis: The Universal (Brain-Eating) Appeal of Plants vs. Zombies” Gamasutra 2009. Updated: May 20, 2009. Retrieved: March 11, 2013. From: http://www.gamasutra.com/php-bin/news_index.php?story=23678
Griffiths, Daniel. “Women in Games, and the Cost of the Clubhouse.” Forbes 2011. Updated: December 16, 2011. Retrieved: March 11, 2013. From: http://www.forbes.com/sites/danielnyegriffiths/2011/12/16/games-women/2/

Jenkins, Henry. (1998). “Complete Freedom of Movement” Salen, Katie and Eric Zimmerman (Eds). The Game Design Reader: A Rules of Play Anthology. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Pg. 330-361
Pearce, Celia (2013). “Identity, Representation and Gender”LMC 4725 Lecture. Febuary 21. 2013.
Wikipedia. “Tower Defense” Updated: Febuary 25, 2013. Retrieved: March 11, 2013. From: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_defense

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