Zombies never used to scare me.
I watched the first few seasons of “The Walking Dead” with my family, and old horror movies were more of an opportunity to riff on the bad acting with my siblings and friends than anything else. I’ve seen most of the classics, plus newer films like “Zombieland” and “Shaun of the Dead” and “28 Days Later.” I’ve had all the “how to survive in a zombie apocalypse” conversations.
But these days, I find that I can’t even think about zombies for more than a few minutes without having nightmares. I’ll probably have zombie nightmares tonight because I’m writing this article. I don’t follow “The Walking Dead” news (though it’s ubiquitous), and I avoid looking at images of zombies whenever possible, no matter how silly. Plants vs. Zombies-level portrayals are about my limit. (I’m trying out iZombie for exposure therapy, since Liv Moore is cute, but we’ll see how it goes.)
It all started with the Walking Dead game.
I played the Telltale take on the series about two years ago, right around Halloween. While playing, I found that I couldn’t get to sleep at night. I would lie in bed imagining scenarios over and over. Things like how I would get out of the situation, what I would do if I looked out my window and saw a “walker,” and—probably the worst of all—how I would end it all in a way that would keep me from becoming a zombie myself.
It was thoroughly unsettling and quickly descended into nightmares once I fell asleep. I finished the game, though; it was beautifully written and fun to play, and besides, I needed to know the ending!
The Walking Dead game was scary, of course, but I’m confident that the reason it lingered with me was that it was a game, and not a movie or TV show. It’s one thing to watch another person enter into horrifying situations, and it’s quite another to be that person, even through an avatar. I’d watched Let’s Plays of other zombie games, but I had no idea I could ever be so badly affected by zombies until I myself played a game featuring them. (The problem with hating zombies is that zombies are in a lot of games. They kind of tend to show up. Even Call of Duty has zombies now).
I’m sure I’m not the only person who’s experienced this kind of anxiety after playing a game or a certain kind of game. I know other people who can’t play FPS because they find it too stressful, and others still who dislike games with domestic violence or sexual assault.
Game communities are traditionally not great about boundaries. Gory videos and screenshots from violent shooters rarely come with any kind of warning beyond maybe an age-gate, which only tells you that the game is rated M, and we all know what a range in content that can be. You can look at the ESRB ratings for a game, but they tend to be pretty vague, and understanding the rating takes a lot of forethought.
More to the point, other gamers are not typically willing to give any leeway to personal preference. When I say I won’t play a game with zombies in it, the most common negative reaction is “but it’s not that scary” or even “but zombies aren’t scary.” Newsflash: yes, zombies are scary. That’s kind of the point of them.
Either way, it shouldn’t matter, though—I drew a boundary for myself, and I’d like people to respect it.
It’s not just the overt disregard for my well-being that gets to me. I also really worry that my dislike of zombie games is being interpreted as “women are too weak to face zombies,'” or “women don’t play horror games.” Obviously that’s not true, but I do feel some pressure to get over my fears for the sake of my gender, which is pretty unfair in the grand scheme of things.
A lot of women who are deep in game communities feel this kind of pressure—to like certain types of games, or, like me, to not dislike certain types of games.
My advice to others is to respect your own boundaries above all. Decide not just what you’re willing to put up with, but what you actually want to put up with, and don’t let anyone badger you into playing something you don’t want to play. That goes for zombies, but it also goes for shooters, or games with sexual assault in them, or hey, games with bunnies, if that’s your nemesis.
And don’t ever feel like you’re making the situation uncomfortable—the situation was already uncomfortable, because you were uncomfortable.
And I know how useless it is to say “don’t let it get to you” when sexism comes into play. But if those who dismiss your personal boundaries as Something Something About Females don’t respect you for not liking a certain kind of game, they’re not worthy of your time or energy in the first place. (This is a reminder to myself as much as it is to anyone else.)