Friday, March 8, 2013

Tropes vs Women in Video Games: Damsel in Distress Part 1

The first video in Anita Sarkeesian's Tropes vs Women in Video Games series has been released, and can be viewed below. It's the first part of a discussion of the gaming-incarnation of the "damsel in distress" trope, and is a fascinating watch. This entry effectively canvases the use of the trope in the Zelda and Mario series, as well as the transformation of Rare's Dinosaur Planet into Starfox Adventures. Check it out, it's worth your 25 minutes!

In case you weren't aware of the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series before checking out this video, you should know that the newly-launched series has already been the subject of much controversy (all of which kinda makes a good case for the series' existence). Sarkeesian has been making her Tropes vs Women videos for a while, but for the video games extension of the series she turned to Kickstarter to get funding from fans. For reasons that (frankly) allude elude me, this was seen as some sort of irredeemable transgression on her part, and attracted the collective hatred of misogynistic gamers from the depths of the Internet. Slate's Amanda Marcotte sums it up nicely:
Sarkeesian's story is a doozy, by the way. She started a Kickstarter page to raise money to make a documentary about the tropes used by video game designers to portray female characters. She hadn't expressed an opinion about video games yet, but simply by stating that she would at some point in the future do so, she had to endure an absolute avalanche of misogynist abuse from men who hoped they could silence her before her too-scary-to-be-heard opinion could be voiced. Every access point they could exploit was used to try to get to her, especially her YouTube page. Her Wikipedia page was repeatedly vandalized with lies, links out to porn sites, and pornographic pictures. Eventually, Wikipedia shut it down.
Wow. Sarkeesian asked for a paltry $6,000 from fans to make a series about videos games and the roles of women within them, and just for that she was viciously attacked. Helen Lewis at the New Statesman canvases the harassment and intimidation tactics Sarkeesian was subjected to, and it's a pretty harrowing read. Thankfully the story at least has a happy turn in that Sarkeesian was able to raise over $150,000, and will be putting out follow ups to the video above.

So now we have a solid video series examining gaming with a critical lens that is sorely needed. We also have a moment of shame in the gaming community that can be pointed to as evidence that there is something tangibly wrong with the way (many) gamers think about gender and deal with other people. I'm at a bit of a loss trying to conceive of how anyone thought it would be reasonable to harass anyone the way Sarkeesian was harassed, much less for the mere prospect of having an opinion, but clearly that was the case for a great many people out there. Again, this kind of thinking within the gaming community is precisely the reason why we need these kinds of videos, as the only way to make any sorts of changes to these phenomena is discussion and education.


  1. The reasons "elude" you. They don't "allude" you.

    As for her video, I didn't get much from it. It's just bits of trivia strung together with fairly obvious observations. I guess I should wait for part 2 in her series, because going after games from the 1980s isn't terribly useful to anyone. These games were made by non-english speaking developers during a time of strict technical limitations, with all of their attention focused on everything but story. 

    Sure, many series are long running and continue to get remade and updated, but the remakes and updates are trying to recapture that 1980s simplicity, right down to the idiotic "get your girlfriend back" motivation. If theatres were showing modern shot for shot remakes of early films, we would think of them as quaint and anachronistic in the same way.

    She's not saying very much, but the story of "Anita versus the angry gamers" is self perpetuating at this point.

  2. *face palm* Thanks Guest, editing has never been my strong suit.

    It's very Lecture 101 style in approach, granted, but that's partially part of Anita's style and partially something that's needed for the gaming community. Simplistic as these observations are, they're still coming as something of a shock to many who have straight up never considered the implications of Zelda's role in the games that share her name. It's also worth noting that she's not just talking about the originating games from the 80s, but also the more recent entries in those franchises that have continued to rely on the same basic story framework. It's true that the context of technical limitations and Japanese developers is absent from Anita's discussion, but I don't think she's trying to talk about the old games as much as demonstrate the damsel in distress trope through them and then move the discussion forward to more modern games. I'm hoping we'll see more of that in the next entry, though I'm still expecting it to be a broadstroke approach.

    Yes, you're right that we would (and do) look back on films with that lens, but I don't think gaming is generally approached the same way from a narrative perspective. Most of that kind of reflection is focused on gameplay design and technical evolutions. Narrative has by contrast received relatively little critical attention and in many cases has failed to evolve at the same pace. That wouldn't be a problem if it were absent entirely, but as it has continued to become a greater focus by way of the general trend of gaming becoming more cinematic, the fact that it's failed to develop is notable and problematic, especially in light of the approach to gender that Anita identifies. The point being that I think it's important to shed some critical light, however broadly and simplistic, on the implications of narratives that we continue to live with in gaming today. The context behind using the damsel in distress trope may have been technical in the past, but continuing to use it today when that simply isn't the case any longer is not acceptable, we should be expecting better from our games and better from ourselves as consumers.

    I'd compare the approach to narrative in modern Mario games to Mad Men, in that both are influenced by/attempting to replicate stories and narratives from an earlier time period. With Mad Men it's a show about the 1960s whereas with Mario it's a modern incarnation of a classic game about trying to save a princess from a fire-breathing turtle-monster. The major difference (besides the obvious) is that Mad Men actively critiques the values of the time period it's portraying, and audiences are invited to engage in the same critique as part of their reception. It calls out things like the gender inequity of the time and brings such issues to our attention by doing so. By contrast, Mario relies on the damsel in distress trope because it's a link to the earlier games in the franchise, has elements of nostalgia that satisfy its audience, etc., but nothing in the games critiques that reliance on an old and problematic story mechanic. It's on the audience to do so and that's exactly what Anita's trying to do, and the reaction seems to be split between those who think it's obvious and those who think it's sacrilege.

    She's not saying very much, yes, but she's saying something that hasn't gotten enough lip service and needs to be said, and that's been demonstrated by the response.

  3. From the perspective of an educator, videos like this are great for media classes and social studies classes. They give an historical context for these narratives that kids are only now just starting to consider and critique. I can show this to a class of grade 7s and they actually stand a chance at getting it! They also give meaning to topics like feminism because they already have an investment in video games but not necessarily the politics of gender.
    It frustrates me that the criticism now is centered on the fact that she isn't saying anything new. I don't want new, I want videos that a 12 year old will get! I really appreciate that so far she doesn't assume an established background in the subject so they can be used in a classroom and I'm looking forward to the next video in the series.