By the horns: Tropes vs Women

Setting things straight.

Everyone who follows gaming news knows the Anita Sarkeesian story. Prominent feminist crowdsources funding for a series on video games, gets comments which might normally invoke police protection. Cue lots of sad head shaking and self reflection on news sites. Such a lamentable indictment of male gamers. They have a lot of growing up to do.

Well, a year of simmering debate and social activism later, and the silent observer, the ‘can’t condone it but wouldn’t fund it’ sympathiser surfaces with mask set aside. Suddenly gender and race representation in games is a slavish consort of the PC brigade, a bout of moral crusading designed to distract EA from making real games. Because hey, you clearly don’t play games much, do you? Peach has been a character in Mario Kart since 1992!

You’re the problem. You, who dismisses the female 50% as Sims players. You, who champions a few character customisable RPGs as evidence of inclusivity. You, who bemoans the notional prospect of a gay transgender Afro-Chinese female space marine as you siphon the Daily Mail into a syringe. Representation in games is a fucking massive issue, and I want you to understand why.

The innumerable podcasts, blog posts, panels and articles following the Kickstarter were pretty passively shrugged off. People don’t like being attacked, particularly not a group as historically maligned as gamers, so any criticism is hard to shoulder. But male commentators and games journalists do, however reluctantly or however much you might dispute it, represent figureheads to a lot of people. If someone that heavily invested in games recognises a problem, people will grudgingly accept it.

At the same time, they usually have the sense to see what their audience wants, and what will earn them precious hits. Or at least, their bosses do. So most outlets will neglect from waging any sort of protracted campaign or series of discussions, where they will happily dedicate a week to say, the Metal Gear series.

That’s not to undermine the attention either Tropes or representation in games have received. But the slow burn of coverage, disparate and uneven, has made people question whether it’s really such a big deal. Do those statistics you’re touting hold up? Isn’t this just a distraction from the creeping tendrils of big publishers?

So when Sarkeesian returns a year later with Damsel in Distress, you have someone who not only embodies everything you’re sick of hearing about, but is immediately more open to criticism. It’s Youtube, so she isn’t going to call out your comments as a writer on any games site might. And so many people already hate her that your considered criticism looks positively moderate. Questions about how her Kickstarter funding is being spent, fair but issue irrelevant, open chinks in the armour. Her argument is undermined by the sheer weight of people arguing against it. Congratulations, you’ve found a straw (wo)man.

But what about that argument, Alex? Well, let’s get to it.

The central notion of Damsel in Distress is that in a majority of games with women in a major role, their primary function is as a plot device. Point to The Longest Journey, Metroid, Mass Effect, Beyond Good & Evil, Mirror’s Edge, Tomb Raider, Bayonetta or Gravity Rush, and you’re still citing a 10,000-1 minority, and a flawed one. Metroid has its Other M. Bayonetta is overtly sexualised. And, ahem, Tomb Raider’s problems are pretty well documented.

For forty years, Damsel has been the go-to story trope, the narrative equivalent of Lorem Ipsum filler text. The male protagonist’s love interest is kidnapped, imprisoned, wounded or otherwise rendered helpless, and you’re tasked with rescue or revenge.

Here’s where you butt in and try to tell me that the desire for protection or revenge on the part of a character’s girlfriend is a positive trait, that this was traditionally a simple story set-up in times where consoles couldn’t carry a tangential narrative. If you’re really feeling plucky, you’ll posit that women generally can’t protect themselves from big bad monsters and muscley Japanese blokes with guns. The Damsel trope is, therefore, a perfectly reasonable story type.

There is no reason that games should be so overwhelmingly focused on male heroism beyond either the lazy adoption of traditional stereotypes, or the notion that everyone who’s going to be playing games is male. I cannot put it more plainly. Nobody is trying to outlaw the rescue story, or to retroactively berate the games that have used it, as once great actors or films become pariahs for period racism. I’m asking you to look at those games objectively and say, “it doesn’t need to be like that.”

Games, like all other media, are not bound by realism, but grounded in it. The presentation of female characters as consistently being weaker than a given man, incapable of independent thought, escape or guile, victims of poor writing and characterisation, not only represents the gulf that still exists between games and movies, but constitutes a dangerous misrepresentation of society. The perception of the male market has allowed developers to essentially whitewash women in stories, creating a gross caricature of the real world.

Nobody is trying to outlaw the rescue story, or to retroactively berate the games that have used it, as once great actors or films become pariahs for period racism. I’m asking you to look at those games objectively and say, “it doesn’t need to be like that.”

Even if you suggest that gamers typically were male for several decades, it clearly didn’t have to be that way. Pong arcade units famously attracted couples in droves, because apart from being fun, it represented a completely level playing field. The creator of Pac-man, however cynical his motivations, made the game deliberately gender-neutral, so as to entice women into arcades. And we too often forget that it worked. In 1982, games magazine pioneer Joyce Worley documented an emerging trend: “Take a trip down to your favorite arcade and look around. If you can tear your eyes away from those rows of throbbing, pulsating machines, check out some of the players. Women have officially arrived in the world of electronic gaming.”

Our gender bias has perpetuated itself through the decades, but only because men have continually developed for men. We can blame this on the infancy of the medium, with people sticking to what they knew, but I am yet to hear a convincing argument as to why games should present a mechanical obstacle to women. Women traditionally did not play games because developers chose to channel their own fantasies. Games could be gender neutral and fun. But the pre-disposition has always been for war and high fantasy.

How much has really changed? When Thunderf00t’s much-viewed riposte points to the ending of Double Dragon Neon, he conveniently excludes the portrayal of the female character he champions – a blond in a skimpy dress, wailing on a downed victim. The faux action girl. And you know what, maybe this was a step forward, twenty years ago. Tomb Raider did empower young women. Lara Croft was also a male designer’s wet dream. Measures of progress can not be pointed to as evidence that there is no problem, that designers are trying. Try harder. Almost every game that’s held up as an example of realistic, let alone playable female characters not only has its own problems, but stands as evidence of its own rarity.

The suggestion that women should cater to themselves and create their own games is not just a fatal misunderstanding of what people actually want, its symptomatic of a bafflingly defensive attitude. This isn’t a battle that should need fighting. This seemingly prevailing attitude, that women should be left to struggle through a famously male-dominated industry to get a game published which treats women fairly, is the exact bloody reason why it’s so inhospitable in the first place. As long as the target audience perpetuates the notion that they couldn’t possibly play as a female character, crying misandry in the fight against inclusiveness, that industry will continue not to act. The time is now.

There’s a huge potential audience out there even if you don’t think it exists yet. Gamers are always so keen to prescribe to the ‘build it and they’ll come’ philosophy when it concerns the niche game, the seemingly unmarketable indie with the mad ideas, but refuse to believe that the audience exists for female characters. It’s an audience which I consider myself a part of. I talked a little while ago on my personal blog about gender roles in RPGs. One of the things I most admire about Bioware’s oeuvre is the effort they put into characterisation. It’s great that you can choose to play as a woman in a game like Dragon Age: Origins, but its strength isn’t customisation, it’s the Morrigans and Lelianas, complex characters whose motivations shroud and shape the story. Talk about measures of progress; we’re not even in a position to ask for great female leads when female supporting characters are so rare and badly executed.

We should want to improve the accessibility and quality of this medium. Storytelling and writing should be a general point of focus, but it’s in the interest of both the developers and the industry to at least consider gender and race representation where it’s relevant to a game. I’m not trying to instigate some ‘woman quota’; nor should female characters be shoehorned into stories which weren’t written for them. But even working with the assumption that existing male writers would somehow feel uncomfortable with or incapable of writing significant female roles, there are a wealth of great historical stories to draw from. One of the numerous female pirates would surely make for a more subversive and equally swashbuckling Assassins Creed IV, for example. Perhaps the Vita’s Liberation is progress. Or perhaps it’s a sign that women are still seen as incapable of fronting a flagship title.

The release of Capcom’s Remember Me is encouraging, and looks a damn good game, but it’s in the unenviable position of possibly defining a decade to come. If it succeeds, with a proper marketing budget and in spite of the impending new console generation, it and others – Beyond: Two Souls, The Last of Us – could signal the end of this unique inequality. If they fail to reach expectations, and there is reason enough not to, it could ruin everything that so many people have striven for.

tropes vs women by the horns

BY THE HORNS is an opinion column by Alex Bullock, grabbing the latest and greatest issues in gaming and giving them a right good seeing to.




5 Comments on this Post

  1. Great article 😀

  2. Daniel Tripp

    In the words of my sister, ‘I am impressed that you somehow found the one anita sarkeesian related article on the internet where the comment box wasn’t overrun by idiots.’ Great article as well, looking forward to more from this column!

  3. Give it time. :) Thank you.

  4. What an unmitigated load of bullock’s. Stop trying to outlaw distressed titties and retroproactively degrading games with glorious cleavage that real women would never bring within motor-boat distance of you. Just look at your inverted dick objectively and admit that it doesn’t need to be like that.

  5. Someone’s mad because I didn’t PM them back promptly. You were right about the Pac-man line though, made it sound like I meant the character rather than the gameplay. And high fantasy was a barrier when it was being written by engineers; I’d say the D&D mythos being convoluted didn’t help, but fucking Neverwinter Nights.

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