This is a conversation I had with another member of the A Podcast of Ice and Fire forum, in the lead-up to Feminism in Geek Culture. We didn’t really focus much on video games during that episode, so I thought people might find this exchange valuable. Alias raises a lot of excellent points, and I hope we can have him on for a for a followup podcast on feminism.
Valkyrist: It might be worth looking at how femininity is constructed in video games and video game culture. As people have mentioned, gaming is very male-centered and male-focused, and in most cases the gamers avatar is a male, with female characters depicted as objects to be rescued, guarded or conquered. The two most famous exceptions of female protagonists—Lara Croft and Samus Aaron—probably reveal a lot about the attitudes of the culture. Where Lara is hyper-sexualised and fetishised, Samus is almost like a repression of femininity, wherein the vulnerable female form is contained within masculine armor and weaponry. Of course, there is progress. I think the female characters in Half-Life 2 and The Last of Us are very interesting, well-rounded, pro-active representations of women.
Alias: You make the mistake of assuming that there’s a widely proliferated “Princess Peach” stereotype. The games of 20 years ago that emphasized their visceral and highly entertaining gameplay experience aren’t the main or even an important cause in the modern day issues of women in nerd culture, from my perspective. I highly doubt that any of us impressionable kids looked at Princess Peach or any of the other examples and thought “well that’s what I think of women from now on”. We probably didn’t even care about her or Mario or any of the “characters” because we had no reason to. We just liked the jumping puzzle.
Valkyrist: Yes, but all of the gamers in their 20s, who are having this discussion over representations of women in video games, all grew up playing Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, so it certainly contributes to their/our early conception of gender roles. I think for many kids, the simplistic coding of male as player and female as object would definitively have contributed to their adoption of traditional gender stereotypes, and emphasized video games as a male-focused, male-exclusive framework.
Alias: I challenge you to name one game or game developer that looked at Mario or any of the other games that Anita lists and said “there’s my benchmark for how stories and characters should be written”. Mario set the standard for the platformer genre, not video game storytelling. 20 years ago there weren’t many people who even considered video games a means of storytelling at all, just a cheap arcade experience. The mindset is radically changed today.
Valkyrist: Well, I think The Legend of Zelda has perpetuated that thesis every 2 or 3 years. The last one was released in 2011. Resident Evil 4 also springs to mind, in which you have to rescue the president’s daughter, and continually protect her, and hide her from enemies whenever they approach.
Alias: It’s worth noting that those games are Japanese creations and while they are obviously a major player in the video game space, I think that when we bring in critique of a wholly separate culture and its apparently represented attitudes, it can muddle the issue a great deal. Again, I like to focus on the present issues, in our culture and our world. Which exist and are extremely problematic and should be addressed.
Valkyrist: Ah, that’s a good point. I should say, I’m a huge Nintendo fan. It wasn’t until 2010 that I bought my first non-Nintendo console, and so my perception of western gender representations in games might be distorted by Japanese representations. It’s strange though, since the damsel-in-distress narrative seems more closely aligned with Western mythology. I wonder if this trope might in fact be what the Japanese perceive Western audiences will latch onto, and it seems they were correct in their assumption. Indeed, the original Mario game is a direct emulation of a famous American film – King Kong. So even though the damsel-in-distress trope is not necessarily perpetuated by Western developers, it is certainly consumed by Western audiences, and is thus part of the culture.
Alias: It’s entirely possible that developers worked under that assumption, but to say that “they were correct” because those games achieved immense popularity just doesn’t work for me. Mario was a pop culture-defining, smash hit because of its gameplay and for no other reason. I can’t stress that point enough. I doubt that there are any people who would say “Mario? Yeah, if it didn’t have that whole plumber eats mushrooms then saves the Princess story, I wouldn’t be interested”
Valkyrist: Well, I agree that gameplay is fundamental, but I think the way a game is presented is also important (both in advertising and graphics). Plenty of poorly designed games sold well in the 80s and 90s, purely because they had great box art, or advertising, or movie licenses. Kids crave a story, a motivation to complete a challenge, or reach a flag. And even if it seems arbitrary to us, it might have seemed really important to a 5-year-old. As you say though, in most cases that trope is contained within a pretty thin story, and acts merely as an objective to drive game-play. I can’t speak to how that may or may not subconsciously effect children’s orientation of gender, but I think it contributes to/affirms an already existing social thought-process, rather than making an argument in its own right. I think there are probably genres of gaming that are more relevant to a discussion of culture, such as FPSs, which emphasize the exclusion of femininity as weak and transgressive, and express masculinity through aggression, and verbal abuse.
Alias: Precisely! This is the point I’ve been reiterating. The FPS online community is a prime example of the inhospitably of the online world for women. But again, I don’t personally feel that the game itself is to blame. To me, that’s a deflection and shunting of blame that only gets in the way of coming to terms with the real core problems, which are much harder to subvert. The aggression, verbal abuse, and projection of ideas such as “the exclusion of femininity as weak and transgressive” doesn’t come from the game, it comes from the people playing it.
Valkyrist: True, but you might argue that the game perpetuates these attitudes by only allowing the gamer to play as a male character/avatar.
Alias: The upcoming release of Call of Duty: Ghost, being a part of the most widely played multiplayer shooter franchise to date, and its option to play as a female soldier will be an interesting litmus test to see if it has a positive impact. I certainly hope so.
Valkyrist: Hmm, that will be interesting. I might give that game a rent just to hear some of the headset chatter.
Alias: I’m still not convinced that the male subject/female object dynamic that shows up in certain games is the real culprit here. To me that seems like a pretty pronounced shirking of blame when some real accountability is needed.
Valkyrist: Yeah, I mean, it’s just a theory. I don’t have any psychological data to back it up. My opinion, however, is that the more women are represented as actual people in games/movies/comic books, rather than sex objects or props to motivate the male protagonist, the more inviting some of these mediums will seem to [some] women. Or rather, the less male-dominated, male-centred the fandoms will seem. I also think it will simply make stories more interesting if we explore perspectives outside the straight white male. And obviously there are exceptions to this gender binary, but I still think it is the dominant framework for most mainstream movies and games. And maybe that is purely an economic function. After all the most prized demographic is 16 to 24-year-old males. Who knows what the solution is? The only advice I can offer is to be civil, and try to be empathetic.
Alias: Of course. Does that even have to be stated? 🙂 I honestly think we’re on a sloping upward trend with all of this. I see the same thing occurring on a much smaller and accelerated level in nerd culture that happened with overall cultural patriarchy. Slowly, but surely throwing off the influence of a past male-dominant society in favor of something more balanced. Most gaming is a personal experience and I think that it’s a given that more women will become interested in it as time goes on. Which will of course shift the demographic. And while gatekeeping happens in communities, I do think things are more positive on a micro-level on the whole, but again, anyone is free to enlighten me if I’m missing clear instances of micro-level persecution. Maybe my perspective doesn’t let me see just how bad things really are, but I like to be optimistic.
Valkyrist: I hope so. As I said, I’ve never attended a convention. My pessimism comes more from reading people’s comments on message boards and YouTube, and just feeling the hatred and anger that drips from their words. Online anonymity might certainly account for that lack of social filter, and I’m sure there’s a healthy dose of trolling mixed in there, but still… Setting aside all of the purely sexist comments (“get back to the kitchen”/”tits or gtof”/”she just needs to get laid”) negative reactions to Anita Sarkeesian tend to fall into three categories: (1) Denial: It doesn’t exist, it’s not a problem, and feminism is a lie!; (2) Dismissal: Oh, it’s just video games, who cares?; (3) Equivocation: Men have it just as bad! I’m not saying Anita Sarkeesian’s videos are above rebuttal (far from it), but these reactions simply evade discussion.
Alias: If you base your feelings on YouTube comments and responses to a polarizing issue, you’re going to have a bad time. Anger occurs all over the internet in those sorts of forums.
Valkyrist: Good point
The transcript has been condensed, but you can find the original thread here.