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Why You Should Watch Tropes vs Women in Video Games

Updated on September 18, 2014
M. T. Dremer profile image

M. T. Dremer has been a gamer for more than 20 years, with a preference towards adventure games like the Legend of Zelda and Tomb Raider.

This is actually the first time my ‘why you should watch’ series has featured a web-based program. But, considering how important the subject matter, I felt it was the perfect opportunity to break that trend. I first heard about Anita Sarkeesian’s project from gaming website IGN. In my teen years I was what you would call a ‘hardcore’ gamer, in the sense that I would clock ridiculous hours in games, fight to unlock everything and pre-order new installments just to get that exclusive art book. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve taken on the ‘casual’ gamer mantle, not playing ‘triple A’ titles until years after they’ve lost relevance. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to stop playing video games. They appeal to a core nostalgia and sense of fun that I think can be tapped into for anyone who grew up with these kinds of games. And that is one of the reasons why Tropes vs Women in Video Games has resonated so much with me. Not just because it illuminates a subject I was only passively aware of, but because Ms. Sarkeesian’s portrayal of the topic is sincere and conveys her mutual love of this corner of the entertainment world. She isn’t some feminist who went out in search of something to attack; she’s a gamer who finally had the courage to speak out about one of the most disturbing trends the gaming world has yet to fully address.

(Please note that the videos included with this article contain language and images not suitable for children.)

What’s going on?

When I first heard about these series of videos, I assumed what most casual gamers would probably assume. Which is that sexism in games most commonly comes in the form of scantily clad ladies. One of the most lampooned corners of this is the female avatar in most massively multiplayer games. Countless comics poke fun at how armor, when put on a female character, suddenly becomes the equivalent of a chainmail bikini. I also expected to see games like Grand Theft Auto, for their depictions of hookers, or games with an anime style depicting buxom-baby-faced mascots on the box covers. So, you can imagine my surprise when her first video (damsel in distress) pointed to the Mario series (among others) as a purveyor of a sexist trope.

In the case of this Nintendo classic, the woman was boiled down to a trophy that must be won by the male character. At first, I thought that Peach (the princess in Super Mario Bros.) was a character that was fairly well represented. I mean, she was playable in a few Mario games, participates in all of the sports/party games and even starred in her own adventure on the Nintendo DS (which the program addresses). But one of the most startling things wasn’t necessarily a single game’s depiction of the damsel in distress, but rather how many games do it. She lays out one game after another until the once nostalgic storyline of saving the princess has become a grotesque cliché. I don’t think anyone would say that the damsel in distress, as a storyline, is inherently wrong, but when these games are examined as a whole, it looks like the gaming industry has a serious deficiency of ideas. One could argue that they just do what sells, but when such a concept (a woman as a trophy) is repeated so frequently, it can create an unconscious misunderstanding of those who play the game.

How bad is it?

The first three entries into the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series are relatively tame, in the sense that they highlight sexism that is subtle but not immediately offensive to the person walking by a store window. One might argue that is more damaging that something overt, but I only frame it that way because her later entries (women as background characters) gets considerably more graphic. I think most gamers out there are aware of some extreme game here or there that ‘goes too far’ to warrant a purchase. But one of the most shocking things about these more violent depictions of women is that they occur in what we consider ‘triple A’ titles. Games that get the proper development time, advertising, and critical acclaim of a blockbuster movie.

Games like Assassins Creed, Dragon Age and Bioshock are but a few great games that, unfortunately, include some depiction of violence against sexualized women. One of the most common arguments to the contrary is that these sequences are done in the name of realism (like if the character is inside a brothel). But, as Ms. Sarkeesian points out, none of these games deal with the repercussions of such violence and if gamers can suspend disbelief for things like physics and infinite lives, why can’t they suspend disbelief for a world without such over-sexualized violence? But, before you form any sort opinion about the topic, I urge you to watch the Tropes vs Women in Video Games series. Talking about something that happens in a video game does not compare to seeing it. And, I must admit, I was thoroughly horrified by some of the things I saw, and that’s coming from someone who is no stranger to M rated games and R rated horror movies.

How can you help?

When Ms. Sarkeesian first introduced the idea for this series in a Kickstarter campaign, she received no shortage of opposition. Hate mail, and even death threats, weren’t just common in the beginning, but they continue to happen with each successive installment of her series. I admit that it’s hard to hear criticisms of something we love, but that isn’t an excuse to turn a blind eye to it. And, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person if you played one of these games in the past, either. These videos aren’t attacking gamers as sexist, rather, they’re shining a light on one aspect of a complex form of entertainment. An area that has, until now, been largely in the dark. All I ask is that you watch the videos and give consideration to her examples. If you agree with what she says there is a direct way to support her by donating to her website. However, the whole point of her videos is to spread awareness of the issue, which means watching it and sharing it with others.

What is your opinion of the depiction of women in video games?

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    • M. T. Dremer profile image

      M. T. Dremer 3 years ago from United States

      minababe - It's a good point; she does seem to focus on specific kinds of games in each installment (the damsel trope seems to be big in action platfomers whereas the background decoration seems more so the shooters). Which would mean that the issues of one genre aren't necessarily the issues of another. She has pointed to a few games, throughout the series, that are positive examples, but I think some of the ire she receives might come from a lack of representation for other positive examples.

      If she highlighted more games that 'do it right' the argument might feel a little more focused or balanced. I would definitely like to see her do an installment that just covers games with positive representations of women. But, anyway, thank you for the thoughtful comment!

    • profile image

      minababe 3 years ago

      As a female gamer, I don't agree with Sarkeesian at all that there's a huge problem with sexism in video games. (I voted the 3rd option in your poll.) In specific genres of gaming? Yes. When we're talking about crime dramas and sci-fi MMORPGs, there is no doubt that there is a problem, especially GTA.

      But is this problem endemic in gaming? Of course not. It's like Sarkeesian based her conclusions based on GTA-style games and Everquest clones and didn't take into account that these types of titles only comprise a small part of gaming. To me, that's about as intellectually dishonest as claiming that the fact that the black person always dies first in cheesy B movie horror films is proof that the entire movie industry on the whole is racist, when it's the B movie horror genre that is the issue.

      I also don't agree with her that the damsel in distress trope is a sign of sexism in gaming, just more of a lack of imagination. Every time something becomes huge in the gaming industry, it gets replicated ad nauseum. That's why the damsel in distress trope is used so much, as well as the anti-hero trope.

      In spite of my differing opinion, I nevertheless appreciate the debate that her video series seems to have sparked in the gaming world. It seems to have gotten people to talk about the role of women in video games, and that's a good thing, regardless of whether people disagree with her about it or not.