I’ve got some bad news: video games are traditionally pretty sexist. Shocking as it may be, a medium dominated by the masculine middle classes panders to patriarchal ideals – and it just so happens that video blogger Anita Sarkeesian has noticed.
The fruit of the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games Kickstarter, which beat its funding goal 26 times over, this refreshing series of videos looks at games, their culture and their roles as social commentary from a distinctly female perspective. The results aren’t exactly pretty.
The most recent of these videos saw Sarkeesian call law enforcement following death threats made against her and her family – for daring to claim that video games rely on outdated, sexist tropes.
The “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games” issue was always going to be a contentious one, but the trend was there in plain sight for anyone to pick up on. Anita Sarkeesian just happened to be the vehicle for a message that even the most vehement of her critics has trouble denying: the portrayal of women in video games has been unacceptable since video games existed.
Some very scary threats have just been made against me and my family. Contacting authorities now.
— Feminist Frequency (@femfreq) August 27, 2014
It’s perhaps a sad inevitability then that when someone threatens the status quo, some see it necessary to do anything in their power to stop or discredit them. This has led to Anita being threatened with death, rape and having her online identities constantly probed by hackers. Some went as far as to upload a game called Beat Up Anita Sarkeesian to Newgrounds, others created and circulated illustrations of her being sexually assaulted.
I watched a bunch of women get sliced up in video games and now I'm watching it on my twitter feed. @femfreq is just truth-telling. Deal.
— Joss Whedon (@josswhedon) August 27, 2014
These extreme examples have done nothing but highlight the validity of Anita’s cause. She has even been accused of not being a games industry “expert” – which completely ignores the fact that you don’t need to be an “expert” woman to weigh-in on sexual discrimination. Each attempt to smear, label or somehow drown out her viewpoint only lends more credence to her message: misogyny and oversexualisation of women in video games is a very real problem.
Tropes vs. Women In Video Games
There were initially 12 Feminist Frequency videos planned after the Kickstarter project destroyed its funding goal, though it’s not clear if this is still the plan or not. Head over to the Kickstarter page for the full list.
Damsels in Distress
Split into three parts, Damsel in Distress examines the portrayal of women in games as victims. Anita opens each of her videos with a wonderful bit of advice that appears to have been ignored on a mass-scale: “Remember that it’s both possible – and even necessary – to simultaneously enjoy media while also being critical of its more problematic or pernicious aspects.”
So begins an in-depth look at where the “damsel in distress” trope came from, and how it has appeared in games over the past 30 years or so. Donkey Kong and Mario are first examined for their use of “the girl” as a prize, but in total more than 183 games are shown or featured in some form across all three films.
The series moves on to the darker and more sinister examples of this trope in the second video, exploring the normalisation of violence against women in games and also how developers have “spiced up” the damsel in distress formula for greater impact. Finally the third part, above, flips the formula on its head somewhat by examining “dude in distress” role reversal and retro-inspired “ironic sexism” in some of today’s indie titles.
Ms. Male Character
Pac-Man is one of the most iconic and addictive arcade games of all time, and its influence cannot be denied – even people who don’t play video games know what Pac-Man is. It’s probably pretty damning then that such an influential game tried to further its appeal to female gamers not by creating a Pac-Woman, but using a “honey don’t you know, I’m more than Pac-Man with a bow” Ms. Pac-Man instead.
Women as Background Decoration
The world’s first commercially available video game was a 1971 arcade cabinet called Computer Space, a pixellated monochrome multi-directional shooter that had you avoiding incoming missiles and shooting flying saucers – but it was marketed using “sex sells” female imagery. Of course, sex seemed to sell everything in the 1970s – but the commodification and portrayal of women as peripheral to the core activity spilled over into the games themselves.
A frequent core difference between male and female characters in video games is that much of the time females exist as non-playable characters (NPCs), while the hero is nearly always male. These films explore how the common female video game character was reduced to little more than a walking, talking decoration – too often scantily clad and much of the time fulfilling a disposable, ancillary role.
I’d love to be able to share Anita’s upcoming films about women as a reward, the “Mrs Male Character” conundrum, how unattractive equals evil and the bound-to-be-exciting “Top 10 Most Common Defenses of Sexism in Games” – but they’re still in production at the time of writing.
Instead, subscribe to Feminist Frequency on YouTube and check out some of Anita’s other videos while you wait for the completion of the series.
The point Anita Sarkeesian is making with these videos is that women’s portrayal in video games – frequently by men – is unacceptable. This has been endemic in cinema, and it’s a reality for video games too. This has nothing to do with how men are portrayed – it’s not an inclusionary critique of violence in games, but a look at females their use as a device in the games industry.
What did Feminist Frequency teach you?