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Co-Op Ed: Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

Anita Sarkeesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Videogames” is a Kickstarter project that reached its funding of $6,000 in 24 hours. It aims to discuss video games in a feminist context, citing examples and data to provide a perspective rooted in power and gender relationships. Interested parties increased its funding to $160,000 at the end of its run. This project drew a deluge of sexist harassment from angry Internet folks. Ranging from your typical DDOS and doxing, to Wikipedia vandalism, to a uncomfortably realistic browser game where you could physically assault an avatar of Sarkeesian herself, this project and its proponent has become the go-to punching bag of collective Internet women hatin’.

Obviously, Sarkeesian’s views and insights are open to criticism, but this kind of backlash is completely undeserved and is indicative of the beastlier underbelly of videogaming culture. This is a different kind of violence from what we’ve talked about before, and from how it has affected the collective opinions of some Internet subcultures (4chan and Reddit, specifically), this anti-women frame of mind is more prevalent and ingrained.

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Click for Mix's secret origins!All these hateful reactions to Ms. Sarkeesian’s video make me real sad, guys. But as the beautiful and wise RuPaul once asked her bickering drama queens, “Did she lie?”

I played the classics, the same 8-bit games by brother enjoyed. Bomberman, Super Mario, Popeye. I never really gave much thought to the fact that these characters were guys, or that it was always girls that needed saving. But I’m starting to come to terms with the disjoint between the gaming experiences of guys and girls.

Why exactly does Super Mario fight to save Princess Peach? It took me nearly two decades to realize that Mario wanted a kiss from Peach. That was Mario’s motivation– he wanted something from the girl, that’s why he saved her. There was an implicit agreement between these characters. “Listen here, Missy. I’mma kill these goombas and we’re gonna have a nice time, you and me.” And here I was, thinking that I was trying to save Peach simply because she’s been kidnapped by Bowser. I never needed your kiss, girlfriend. I wanted to save you because you were in trouble.

The video game player is encouraged to step into the character’s shoes. You are Mario, or Snake, or Altair. I assume that this must be easier for guys, because these characters are guys. As a female gamer, the suspension of belief has to be doubly-stretched: I’m not just an assassin, you see. I’m a dude assassin too. I have to walk around with this crowd of hoes so the guards don’t spot me. Okay, I guess I can handle that.

There was not much surprise to me when Samus was revealed to be a girl in Metroid. There was no “OMG, I’m a girl?!” moment. Probably because I really am a girl, 24/7. Can’t escape that.

coop4 samus

Now I have a love-hate relationship with Lara Croft. Her earlier conceptions with her double-D rack was one of the most uncomfortable and distracting things to ever hit games. She was like those Tekken girls whose breasts jiggle in the wind, even when they themselves were not moving. What was the point of that? Titillation for dudes, probably, but you guys know that boobs don’t really move like that, right? Right?

That particular age of video game girls was rough for me, because the message that it drove through my pubescent mind –whether intentional or not– was that we girls were not complete human beings with our own struggles, goals, and motivations. We’re a collection of attractive parts and pixels that jiggle.

Even modern Lara who has apparently had breast reduction surgery still pretty much serves the male gaze. Notice how Lara gets all muddy and dirty as she crawls through caves? Have you ever seen Snake or Altair that filthy? Nope. This is the new and improved Lara Croft– her breasts aren’t so grotesque now, but she looks like a lady mud wrestler.

coop4 croft

So I steered away from playing as female characters. I preferred to play as male characters because they seemed more real and relatable. And when female audiences can’t even relate to the female characters of a particular medium, that’s a symptom of something immensely wrong.

Something interesting though– I love Dishonored. It’s on my top three favorite games of all time. The one complaint I have about it though is its lack of female characters. Seriously, that game is a sausage fest. There are maybe five female characters with speaking lines in the entire game, and one of them dies in the first five minutes.

coop4 this lady

The women of Dunwall don’t wear dresses. It’s all ankle-length slacks or trousers tucked into boots. I’ve been told this is because skirts are a lot more difficult to animate, but the way I see it, the women were being smart. Wearing skirts in a city overrun with plague rats is a recipe for a bad time.

Anyway, I read this article that stipulates that Dishonored can be read as an incredibly feminist game. Despite its lack of active female characters, the game uses unequal gender roles to tell its wonderful story. The women in the game silently seethe through their existence in this patriarchal world, but the game allows the player to listen to their secrets and aspirations. The meek chambermaid, for example, has this particular secret– “She dreams of freedom, and the decks of whaling ships fast after the beasts of sea. But alas, she is a woman.”

That, I think, is the secret to creating fully-fleshed out female characters– in video games or in any medium. It’s more than just letting guys pretend to be Lara Croft or Samus. We first have to realize that women are more than the sum of our parts, that we have our own aspirations, and obstacles, and drive to action.

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Click for Lukas's secret origins!

Part 1 of the first episode of Sarkeesian’s series was eye-opening in many ways. I learned things I had never known about the games industry, such as the true origins of Star Fox Adventures. Many of my longstanding hesitations about certain video games were reinforced– what is up with those two extra Toads in New Super Mario Bros. Wii and U? Why is Zelda powerless even when she is empowered? How did Metroid: Other M even become greenlit?

The damsel in distress trope is an easy path to take– it gives simple, easy motivation in games where story isn’t a particular issue and mechanics take center stage, like Nintendo’s titles, for example. But when these games are among the best-selling games of all time, what message does that propagate to female players, and for that matter, the current majority demographic, males?

coop4 lair

As the completely disheartening fallout from the video shows, it creates an audience who are either overtly or covertly misogynistic, so entrenched in “the way things are” that they cannot, or refuse to see, well-communicated, well-researched points when they are presented in a very straightforward manner, as Sarkeesian has done.

And this is how bigotry and hypocrisy are born. Keep fighting for “men’s rights”, you guys.

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Click for Joseph's secret origins!

Like any rational person, I try to see both sides to an argument to get a clearer picture of the issue. So I decided to check out this video response to Sarkeesian’s first part of her Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.

I planned on just watching it through, and maybe start taking down any worthwhile points. First retort in about Marian’s portrayal in Double Dragon Neon, I felt like I had to write a reply. So I paused the video, and I started typing.

“Bringing up the end of Double Dragon Neon doesn’t negate what happens in the rest of the game where Marian IS the damsel in distress. In fact, it only highlights the problem of the trope wherein she still manages to get kidnapped in the first place when she seemingly has all this power anyway, and that this scene was only possible through the male heroes beating up the  big bad boss and finishing the entire quest that revolved around freeing her.”

Afterwards, I continued watching, but I had to pause again soon when the guy started bringing up the same sorry excuses that those games were made “not to subjugate women” but “to make profits”. I then typed this up:

“The thing is, intention isn’t the issue. It’s how these portrayals and their pervasiveness have become accepted as normal depictions of women. The goal of making a profit doesn’t excuse it at all. The ignorance about how damaging these portrayals can be to the psyche of women (reinforcing the idea that they are powerless, they are goals to be won, and that they are nothing without men) actually shows a selfishness on their part, pursuing money in exchange for reinforcing damaging cultural norms.”

Then he brings up two more excuses; that the game’s plot being told in 7 seconds means that 1 dimensional characters was to be expected, and that Billy and/or Jimmy trying to save Marian is what’s to be expected in a healthy relationship.

coop4 ddn

Obviously, that’s when I started to lose it.

“Then there’s the excuse for the original DD game for having a 1 dimensional plot, and the bringing up of actual relationships. Those are what strawmen are. Why not come up with another story line that doesn’t involve the woman getting beaten up and kidnapped (and inother versions, have her panties shown)? If it’s not going to be a serious plot, why not come up with a justification that doesn’t depict women in such a light?”

Continuing further into the video, you actually start equating what you already admitted to be a 1 dimensional plot with ideas of a man’s expression of love and commitment? Holy shit that is an insane tangent to make in justifying the simple portrayal of Marian as the hostage, and Billy and Jimmy as the heroes.”

I was already getting riled up by this time, but I just HAD to press play again. If you managed to last 5 minutes in, you’d know that “Thunderf00t” is already making connections with hospitals and empathy. By this point, I was already chortling like a madman, but crying on the inside. I couldn’t continue.

I am just baffled.

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Click for Job's secret origins!

You can like something and still be able to see its flaws.

I paraphrase a bit, but this was Sarkeesian’s sentiment at the beginning and end of her video. In a perfect videogames world, even her most ardent of critics would see this as a democratic gesture, as a sign to leave your personal feelings at the door, find a nice seat, and get your discursive swag on. Because, well, she’s just like us. But we don’t live in a perfect videogames world. We live in a videogames world where it’s acceptable to make an uncomfortably realistic simulation where you can physically assault someone and pass it off as social satire.

“Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” is important for many reasons. It’s educational, it’s entertaining, and it legitimizes a medium once thought of as idle pastime by deeming it worthy of deeper thought. It’s not just escapism and power fantasies anymore, people! It’s gender dynamics, and dichotomy deconstruction, and critiques on agency. For anyone who truly loves video games to be turned off by something that, I dunno, moves the medium forward is an indication of an ingrained backwards way of thinking.

The video is valid, measured, and well-researched. People flinging mud at its overt simplicity and how obvious and surface-level the critique is need to take off their smart person hat so I can hit them with it. It’s called education–you know, that thing directed at people who don’t know jack so they can prevent themselves from turning out to be really dumb in the future? That one. What is obvious to the incredibly erudite gaming crowd isn’t as apparent to a young woman wondering why Donkey Kong doesn’t flip the script and have Pauline save Mario.

coop4 pauline

Can’t we all just stop being horrible people? Sure, her work is open to valid criticism. Of course. I’ll concede that some of her arguments were a bit raw. That one about the old Christmas song that unfortunately sounds like a prelude to date rape? Well, apparently it’s about a couple of consenting adults having a good, if naughty, time. To be fair, the interpretation does hold validity in this day and age. Eternal Sunshine‘s Clementine is a manic pixie dream girl? From what the movie to express, Clem’s serving as an inversion of that very trope. While it’s true that Y: The Last Man had its population of militant feminists, it did include several character examples from feminist schools of thought that didn’t espouse cutting off a boob.

Great, we have verified that she is human and makes mistakes. Let’s not discount the entirety of her arguments just because of  those errors. Her latest video is decked with a wealth of information and a point of view different enough that it stirs up a hornet’s nest of discussion. Sure, the discussion is not without its loud and obnoxious voices, but it’s there. It’s still a bit rough and tumble, but it’s happening.

Now if we can all get out of this without hating each other, we may actually learn something. Because this is an age where we have to first preface criticism as “reasonable” to get people to care.

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This entry was posted on 24 March 2013 by in Discussion and tagged , , .

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