Tropes vs Women in Video Games: Why It Matters
Video games are more important than ever before, and so is cultural criticism of them.
by Paul Dean MAY 31, 2013
Video games are more important than ever before. They’re travelling further, they’re making more money, they’re reaching more people and they’re telling us more stories. Their influence upon society is more significant than it has ever been and this is why one of the most important video game Kickstarters of last year wasn’t a video game itself, but something that set out to examine the medium, taking a close and critical look at the characters that games portray and the tales that they tell.
Last summer, amid all its indie experiments and old-school revivals, the crowdfunding website played host to Tropes vs. Women in Video Games, which aimed to raise just $6,000 to fund a video series examining how games depict women. Its creator was the feminist and critic Anita Sarkeesian, and these videos would become the next season of Feminist Frequency, an ongoing web series that “explores representations of women in pop culture such as TV shows, movies, comic books and video games.”
Feminism still remains a word and a subject that’s all too often misunderstood or misrepresented, when it’s simply the ongoing effort to establish equal rights and representation for women in a world that remains profoundly unequal. “In the United States specifically the statistics are grim,” Sarkeesian explains. “Sexual assault and violence against women is still at epidemic levels affecting about 1 out of every 4 women and girls. On the economic side, women still face significant social and systemic barriers; only 15% of property is owned by women and women still only earn 77 cents on the dollar compared to men. In the gaming industry in particular only about 11% of developers are women.”
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And so Sarkeesian started Feminist Frequency in 2009. Her mission: to make feminist theory more accessible. “I was frustrated with how academia tended to present feminist theory in disconnected or inaccessible ways,” she says. “I wanted to try and bring a sociological feminist lens to the limited and limiting representations of women in the media and then share that with other young women of my generation. YouTube was the perfect medium.”
Over the next three years, Sarkeesian would look closely at depictions of women in a wide variety of media and highlight where they were represented unfairly, stereotypically or as inferior characters. Her aim wasn’t just to spotlight the sexism she found, but also to explain in clear and simple terms why and how it was wrong. “I focus specifically on deconstructing recurring patterns that tend to reinforce or amplify pre-existing regressive notions or attitudes about women and women’s roles,” says Sarkeesian, who hopes to swing things in the other direction. “The power of pop culture stories should not be underestimated and there is an enormous potential for inspirational stories that can have a positive, transformative effect on our lives.”
Come 2012, the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games project was her chance to do the same in the field of games. “I’ve been looking for an opportunity to devote the time and energy to the analysis games deserve,” she says. “When I decided to do a follow up to my 2011 Tropes vs. Women series, I noticed that many of the tropes I wanted to include (like the Damsel in Distress) permeated many gaming narratives and so it just made sense to do a gaming centric series this time around.”
Gaming was a hobby Sarkeesian had enjoyed since she was young, but in it she too often found sexist and stereotypical depictions of women that left her “disappointed,” and which she wanted to clear away. Her backers agreed and her Kickstarter was an incredible success, eventually raising over $158,000. But it was also the target of a sustained and vitriolic campaign of organised harassment when hackers who didn’t appreciate her efforts attacked Sarkeesian’s website, attempted to distribute her personal information, flooded her social networks with abuse, emailed her pornographic images and tried to discredit or misrepresent her work by falsely attributing quotes to her. “These types of attacks are certainly not unique to my situation,” Sarkeesian explains. “Over the past year we’ve seen a number of cases where high profile women were targeted by a similar backlash including Bioware writer Jennifer Hepler, Aisha Tyler, and Felicia Day.”
Damsel in Distress: Part 1 -- Tropes vs. Women in ...
But none of this stopped her. While the level of harassment was extraordinary, the sustained attacks that were supposed to shut Sarkeesian down (some of which are still ongoing) only drew more attention to both her work and the sexism that she campaigned against, bolstering her support, drawing thousands of new backers to her campaign and helping her towards that enormous final total. Tropes vs. Women in Video Games not only went ahead, but Sarkeesian was able to take the project to the next level, turning it from a five part series into a far more extensive twelve part one, and producing a free classroom curriculum alongside it.
Now, it’s out: the first video in the series, which analysed the stereotype of the Damsel in Distress: Part One, released on March 7th and provided Feminist Frequency’s most in-depth analysis to date. The second part came out just this week.
It’s alarming in its clarity. Sarkeesian finds so many examples of the same depiction of passive and often completely helpless female characters that they begin to blur together.For some gamers, her first analysis of sexism in games may be difficult to swallow, as might be the thought that there are more of these to follow. Most of us play to enjoy ourselves, to have fun and to unwind. We wouldn’t be comfortable with the idea that we might be engaging in a game that marginalises its female characters or portrays them in a poor light but, as Sarkeesian reminds us, we can enjoy the hobby but still criticise what it depicts. “Don’t get me wrong, I love gaming, but the seriousness of the gender problem really cannot be overstated,” Sarkeesian says, “The good news is that it doesn’t have to be this way!”
And it’s important to remember that Sarkeesian isn’t attacking gaming, only the “disappointing” stories it sometimes tells. She performs such a thorough examination so she can explain how entrenched a problem this can be, so much so that we might have begun taking it for granted, glossing over it. The stories that our games relate are being passed on to our next generation; they’re giving us (particularly our children) cues as to how we should behave and what our expectations are. The trope of the Damsel in Distress is not a healthy or pleasant thing to pass on because, as Sarkeesian says in the video, “It’s not just a synonym for ‘weak.’ It works by ripping away the power from female characters, even helpful or seemingly capable ones. No matter what we are told about their magical abilities, skills or strengths they're still ultimately captured or otherwise incapacitated and then must wait for rescue. Distilled down to its essence, the plot device works by trading the disempowerment of female characters for the empowerment of male characters.”
Damsel in Distress: part 2 - Tropes vs Women in ...
It’s also important to remember that we challenge such representations and fix such problems by first identifying them. That’s step number one on the road to fairer representation in gaming and, let’s not forget, to better storytelling too. These stereotyped characters are both sexist and also boring, the result of lazy writing that doesn’t challenge how we think about ourselves, and gamers should never have to tolerate what is boring.
I’m sure that with the next videos in the series, Feminist Frequency will continue to ask more difficult questions and raise further uncomfortable issues, but it’s doing so in an attempt to raise awareness and, ultimately, make gaming a better place. It’s working to be a force for good in the gaming community, a reminder that, if gaming is all about enjoying ourselves, then it should matter to all of us that it be inclusive and representative. I myself have donated to the show because I believe that gaming is about playing fair, much like feminism has always been about striving for a fair deal. I’d urge you to tune in to Feminist Frequency and to spread the word. Let’s get more gamers on the same wavelength.Paul is a freelance writer who covers games of all sorts, whether on consoles, computers or the living room table. He's the co-creator of the board gaming site Shut Up & Sit Down and the writer for the indie game Maia. You can find his blog at paullicino.tumblr.com or follow him on Twitter and IGN. Disclosure: he chose to contribute to Feminist Frequency.