Tropes vs. Women in Video Games

I’ve been meaning to write about sexism in games for a while, but today I came across a YouTube video essay More than a Damsel in a Dress: A Response by Commander Kite Tales. This a response to Damsel in Distress: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games by Anita Sarkeesian.

But first, a bit of history.

On May 17th, 2012 Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter campaign to improve the Feminist Frequency video web series of essays on problematic gender representations. The first of the new series came out recently in March 7, 2013, Damsel in Distress: Part 1 – Tropes vs Women in Video Games. It is well worth watching.

Alas the campaign and Sarkeesian were attacked systematically; see, for a brutal example, the Amateur game invites player to beat up woman. The obscene and hateful attacks have been documented by columnists like Helen Lewis in the New Statesman article, This is what online harassment looks like. What did Sarkeesian do? Lewis puts it succinctly,

She’s somebody with a big online presence through her website, YouTube channel and social media use. All of that has been targeted by people who – and I can’t say this enough – didn’t like her asking for money to make feminist videos.

So why did all these trolls attack Sarkeesian? 4Chan seems to have been one site where they organized, but what bothered them so much about her campaign? Sarkeesian’s interpretation is that they made a game of harassing her. As she puts it, “in their mind they concocted this grand fiction in which they are the heroic players in a massively multiplayer online game…” She goes on to describe how the players of this “gamified misogyny” were mostly grown men, they used discussion boards as their home base for coordination and bragging, the setting of the game was the whole internet, and the goal was to silence the evil Sarkeesian to save gaming for men. The trolls would go out, harass her, and come back to their boards to show off what they had done. It was a particularly nasty example of an internet flash crowd organizing to silence a woman. It was also an example of how the internet can amplify behaviour and provide haven for misogynist communities.

Sarkeesian’s video essay wasn’t even an attack on men or games. It is clearly the work of someone who likes games but is critical of the repeated use of the “damesel in distress” plot device and other sexist crap. The video essay is, however, effective at challenging the uncritical consumption of cliched tropes in games using a medium commonly used in gamer culture (short video essays that show game play and comment on games.)

Now, back to More than a Damsel in a Dress: A Response which argues that Sarkeesian didn’t look at the evidence with an open mind and that the princess in distress in both the Mario and Zelda series of games should be seen as brave individuals dealing bravely with distress that also represent the peace of their kingdom. While I find Kite Tales’ argument somewhat sophistical and mostly answered already by Sarkeesian, we should probably welcome responses like those of Tale that don’t attack the messager, but try to respond to the argument in some fashion; and there are quite a few responses if you care to work through a lot of poor arguments. It would be nice to say that video essayists are modeling how a conversation on these issues should take place rather than hurl abuse, but the medium doesn’t really lend itself to conversation. Instead we have isolated video essays with lots of comments. Not exactly a dialogue, but better than abuse.

While I’m on this issue of damsel’s in distress like Princess Peach, Ars Technica has a story about how a Dad hacks Donkey Kong for his daughter; Pauline now saves Mario. Alas, it too got abusive comments, the worst of which have been compiled into YouTube Reacts to Donkey Kong: Pauline Edition. The compilation focuses on the sexist and homophobic comments. If you scroll through the comments now you will find that they are mostly supportive of the Dad. The good news seems to be that the sorts of comments Sarkeesian faced are being shamed down or being reflected back.

As for Anita Sarkeesian, her Kickstarter campaign raised much more than she asked for and she now has the funds and attention to do a whole series. I look forward to the next part on Damsel in Distress that promises to look at more contemporary games.