Fatherhood in Video Games
This has been a passion project of mine for a while, and I have submitted a chapter to be published in a book collection on this topic (I’ll provide more info on that when I have it myself). Specifically, I’m looking at the portrayal of father-daughter relationships in a selection of acclaimed video games, which all set this relationship against a backdrop of social disintegration, extreme violence, and chaos. I will be looking at 4 video games: The Walking Dead (2012-14), BioShock 2 (2010), BioShock Infinite (2013), and The Last of Us (2013).
There will be major spoilers for each game.
Apocalyptic or dystopian settings have been particularly popular cinematic backdrops for paternal narratives, especially those of redemption. Amidst the chaos of social disintegration, the father figure must redeem himself from his past sins – either his past failures as a father, or some other traumatic event that has broken him or coloured him as unworthy – by protecting his children. Films which have been recognized as part of this cycle are War of the Worlds, The Road, Signs, Minority Report, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Skyline, and so on. This theme has continued into the realm of video games, which is no surprise considering the popularity of dystopian and apocalyptic video game narratives. These are usually narratives of social breakdown set in worlds in which violence is the only viable currency. These games allow for mature themes of redemptive, protectorate fatherhood while still offering the player the pleasures of exercising extreme violence. The player-characters are all traumatized men with violent pasts whose actions deeply impact their young companions. While each portrayal of a father-daughter relationship is problematic in some way, I argue that The Walking Dead is (relatively) positive/progressive. Each game I discuss after it, however, gets progressively worse and worse…
So some of the feminist critiques I will be making have to do with idealized, heroic masculinity being coded as paternal + the removal or vilification of mother-figures + daughter-figures being portrayed as moral compasses, helpful tools, and means for paternal redemption.
Alright, now for the video games.
The Walking Dead
I should start by saying that I love this game (both seasons) and I hold it up as a progressive example of a father-daughter relationship set against a backdrop of extreme violence and trauma.
The Walking Dead is an episodic point-and-click style adventure game based on the comic book series of the same name. Telltale Games has released two seasons so far, with each season divided into five episodes. Set in the same world as the comic book series, events in the game take place in Georgia shortly after a widespread zombie outbreak. The player adopts the role of Lee Everett, an African-American university professor who has recently been convicted of murdering a state senator for sleeping with his wife. The game opens with Lee being transported to prison though he quickly gains freedom due to the chaos brought about by the zombies. Shortly after, Lee encounters a young girl named Clementine and joins up with her in order to protect her and find her parents. The relationship between Lee and Clementine is one of surrogate father-daughter and the game makes it clear that Lee’s main motivation throughout the game is to protect Clementine at all costs. While violence is certainly ubiquitous in the game, it is never the central focus of gameplay. Rather, making difficult survival decisions, managing interpersonal relationships, and mediating conflicts is what this game is all about. As Toby Smethurst and Stef Craps (2014) point out:
“In much of the best zombie-themed media (e.g., The Walking Dead TV series, George A. Romero’s Dead series, Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later), the undead are not necessarily the primary antagonists but can instead function as a catalyst for conflicts between the survivors, thus exposing the barbarism of human beings toward one another when they are put in life-threatening situations.” (p. 11)
As Lee encounters other survivors and attempts to keep the group intact, the player is forced to make decisions about Lee’s behaviour, which in turn influence how others behave, who survives and who does not, and what kind of a person Clementine develops into.
The game is unique in that it tailors itself based on player choice. Many of these morally-questionable decisions must be made within a matter of seconds, and each major decision leads the player down specific branches of decision trees, thereby granting the player the responsibility of deciding what kind of role-model he or she wants to be for Clementine. The quality of the writing is such that the feelings of protectiveness and concern for Clementine, as well as the guilt over causing her to be afraid are real sensations experienced by many players. Reports of “real-life” emotions in response to the consequences of player choice in The Walking Dead have been explored in the microethnographic studies conducted by Nicholas Taylor, Chris Kampe, and Kristina Bell (2015a & 2015b). The authors observed the choices made by male and female players with different gaming experiences and different backgrounds and asked the participants why they made certain choices in sequences that were deemed challenging, stressful, or morally heavy. The authors observed that players entered into the role of protective, surrogate father-figure, stating that they were able to see an enactment of mature paternal identity in the play of their participants: “a conscious shifting of thought and behavior as they become more focused on Clementine, and express emotional openness, patience, compassion, and selflessness” (2015b, p. 15).
Because every action has unforeseen consequences, it is difficult to play this game as entirely cruel or entirely heroic. Rather, Clementine functions as the player’s moral compass, as she is consistently repulsed by cruelty and violence.
Lee is not rewarded for his role as father-figure for Clementine, as he dies at the end of the game regardless of the choices made by the player. Rather, Lee’s actions prepare Clementine for a world without him, a violent world in which she must struggle alone. The second season of The Walking Dead stars Clementine as the player-character, and it is clear that Lee’s actions in the previous season – such as cutting her hair short, teaching her how to shoot a gun, and bandaging her wounds – have prepared her for survival. Although Lee can be more or less kind depending on player choices, these moments of caretaking are not optional.
Again, this game is what I’m holding up as a positive example of father-daughter relationships in video games. Not only does it challenge stereotypes of African-American fathers being absent, it reinforces the fact that empathy, kindness, and compassion are vital for a healthy father-daughter relationship.
Let’s now take a look at a less-healthy father-daughter relationship… in Part 2
Bell, K., Kampe, C., & Taylor, N. (2015a). Me and Lee: Identification and the play of attraction in The Walking Dead. Game Studies, 15(1).
Bell, K., Kampe, C., & Taylor, N. (2015b). Of headshots and hugs: Challenging hypermasculinity through The Walking Dead play. Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, 7.
Smethurst, T. & Craps, S. (2014). Playing with trauma: Interreactivity, empathy, and complicity in The Walking Dead video game. Games and Culture 10(3).
Telltale Games. (2012-2014). The Walking Dead. Microsoft Windows.