Anita Sarkeesian’s follow-up to her first video, Damsel in Distress: Part 2 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games, is out this week and the debate about the portrayal of women in video games rages on again. But does that mean we should demand that future video games refrain from using particular tropes because they are offensive?
I would like to impress upon you to watch Anita’s videos, because as a writer and as someone who is deeply interested in stories and story-crafting I find her examples damning, not for reasons of feminism but for us as video game consumers.
Violence against women is still a serious threat the world over and this shamefully includes a Western culture that flatters itself as being civilized. That an insidious disregard for women (and people of different color and sexual orientation) is prevalent in western culture and as a result has a presence in video games is therefore not surprising.
I find the notion of insinuating blame on the stories and the storytellers, for the acts and attitudes impressed upon our culture through thousands of years of institutionalized misogyny, troubling in itself. Especially in a very new medium like video gaming.
I am also troubled by the generalized label of “video games” Anita is using in her video. As much because it undermines her message by allowing a very easy counter-argument: What about RPGs? What about Sim-games? Or puzzle-games? Most if not all of these genres do not employ the “Damsel in Distress” trope because it doesn’t fit the genres. For example in RPGs (role playing games) it is hard to employ a “Damsel in Distress” tale if you don’t know what gender or race your player will pick to play. That’s not to say it doesn’t occur at all, only that it is noticeably less prevalent than in for example Action and/or FPS (first person shooter) games. Without making that distinction at all, Anita tars all games with the same brush.
There is, however, clearly a lot of games in which the trope has been used. Watching the video you get the sense that every video game throughout time since Mario, has copped out to this simplistic method of creating an emotional response in its player. If true that would indeed be outrageous. Any gamer would tell you it is not the case but what is more interesting is why the trope is being used in the first place.
If this trope is more prevalent for a certain genre or grouping of games, then it follows that it is being employed for specific reasons. One of those reasons could be that the target demographic for FPS and/or Action games has been young, Caucasian males for the past few decades. With the sales numbers that for example Hitman can boast of (Hitman: Absolution had sold approx. 3.6 million copies by November 2012 according to Square Enix), the product has certainly been wedded very successfully to its target demographic.
It would not make a lot of sense, if you are trying to evoke a feeling of outrage in your player, to use the tale of the main character’s girlfriend being hurt, abducted or killed, if you expect your player to be a straight woman. Likewise it wouldn’t make a lot of sense that your protagonist doesn’t reflect the gender of your target demographic. With those premises in mind it is safe to say that most FPS games are crafted for a male audience. As such they will feel exclusionary to a female gamer. No doubt about it!
I suggest that most straight males might feel that the majority of romance novels is not written for them either and also often have portrayals of men that are generalized, idealized and/or objectifying to some degree. Should we then demand that all future romance novels be more inclusive and more tolerant of the feelings of men? Of course the issue in video gaming is intensified by the fact that women don’t have a lot of alternatives, especially in the FPS genre, to the testosterone-laden violence orgies. I can say from a personal perspective, however, that it doesn’t follow that women dislike the point-and-shoot game mechanic. So if, in a crazy turn of events, the next few years present us with a rash of shooters that allow for a mixed demographic, would that then alleviate much of the ire that Tropes vs. Women parts 1 and 2 stirs up?
Not if we are to believe Anita when she asserts that the use of the trope furthers and expands the attitude, that women are less worth than men. But in order to do so we would also have to allow that violence in video games expands and furthers violent behavior in real life. And although this idea has been revived many times now, lately by a US gun control lobby that is uncomfortable with having weapons of violence linked to violence, it has never been proven that what you consume in entertainment, shapes your personality.
Another reason we employ a trope like the Damsel in Distress is the way we write stories now, as opposed to how we wrote them a few hundred years ago. As an example The Count of Monte Christo, has a few examples of damsels in distress and hero-loses-woman-goes-on-vengeance-spree. The Count loses his love, Mercedes and years of his life as well as his job and good name and he seeks vengeance on the enemies that caused him this grief. If you can seriously claim that Mercedes is nothing but a prop in that story put there to evoke feelings in the reader then I’m afraid I can’t help you. But Dumas was writing in a climate where the story’s build-up was supposed to be long and explanatory. Not only would that type of story be impractical to graft onto a video game it would also be perceived as boring by today’s standards. Imagine an episode of CSI: Miami where the actual murder doesn’t occur until 30 minutes into the show. The Damsel trope puts the action and the distress right at the beginning with little need for explanation, because your audience (the Caucasian, straight male) already understands that losing your beloved (girlfriend) is a terrible loss.
The damsel trope is not a very imaginative method to evoke emotion in the player, in fact, it’s pretty boring since it’s been used so much. But I don’t think we can hold it up as an example of how misogyny is perpetuated in video gaming. I fear it is mostly a symptom of a certain breed of video games having too little time and too little need to write creatively. You don’t get to sell millions of copies of rehashed stories if your audience doesn’t shell out the money for it. I find it probable that the many uses of the tropes like the “Damsel in Distress” is symptomatic of an undiscerning customer base that cares more for the games mechanics than for its story. So long as that is the case I see no reason why FPS developers should put more effort into its writing.
Would I personally prefer protagonists with more interesting stories and motivations than “Captain Knuckle-dragger Revenges Lost Girlfriend With Mass Slaughter”? Yes, emphatically so! But does that mean that the Revenge of Captain Knuckle-dragger (you are welcome to use this idea, Square Enix) should be banned or censored? I don’t believe so. Obviously that variety of games has a large audience. I may think less of a person who professes to enjoy this variety and quality of story, but just because we’re all gamers doesn’t mean I have to invite every gamer home to meet the parents. But it is still his (or her) choice what type of entertainment he wants to enjoy and the moment we start saying one type of story is alright but another isn’t, we are traveling a road of censorship that only leads to stymied, uncritical minds that are never challenged.
Anita Sarkeesian. Feminist Frequency. “Damsel in Distress: Part 2 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games”. May 28, 2013. < http://youtu.be/toa_vH6xGqs >
Square Enix. “Briefing Session of Revisions to Consolidated Results Forecasts“. March 26, 2013. < http://www.hd.square-enix.com/eng/news/pdf/130326slides.pdf >
Image: Kristen Archer. “Revenge of Cpt. Knuckle-dragger”. June 02, 2013.