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    Future Sex: How Tales of Damsels in Distress Came to Dominate Video Games

    Written by

    Colin Snyder and Kelly Bourdet

    This week's Future Sex is a collaborative effort, co-written by Motherboard's resident videogame expert, Colin Snyder

    I'm sure we all remember the particular brand of internet rancor Anita Sarkeesian's video series about women and video games and, in particular, its Kickstarter provoked. But even amateur games where players could beat her senseless didn't deter her, and Sarkeesian launched the first episode of her controversial series, "Tropes vs. Women in Video Games," was released last week. The particular trope investigated in this first episode, "The Damsel in Distress," as portrayed in most of Nintendo designer Shigeru Miyamoto's franchises, including Super Mario and Zelda.

    It's also one of the laziest devices to propel any sort of narrative, and its overuse in videogames can be attributed, in part, to the fact that the final objective of a game doesn't always matter all that much. The point of a game is often to play the game; you want to survive and win, but the actual gameplay can be divorced from what you "win." Putting a girl in a castle beyond the final level is an easy thing to do. We understand what the "damsel in distress" trope entails, and Sarkeesian's video definitively showcases its prevalence. But why it exists is more important. 

    Men play more video games than women today, and games' overwrought masculine themes are often attributed to this fact. But this hasn't always been the case. There seems to be this threshold through which games passed through where it became a predominantly male interest.

    Early games were more popular with women, likely because they weren't so gender specific–Pac-Man creator Toru Iwatani said he designed the character for women, and Pong creator Nolan Bushnell has said both that women were better at Pong, and that the push toward violent, sexualized games like Street Fighter pushed them away. There is a correlation between the rise of the representationally-human protagonist and the gender polarization of the medium.

    The beginning of human representation, and the beginning of authorial story in games, has its roots with Super Mario, in Shigeru Miyamoto's 1981 hit Donkey Kong. This is the first game in which gameplay was used to tell a story, the type of emergent narrative completely unique to games, with the kidnapping and subsequent rescue of Jumpman's (a carpenter who would later be named Mario) girlfriend from the titular ape.

    Mario, Donkey Kong, and "Lady" (later, Pauline, the proto-Peach) have their roots in Popeye cartoons specifically. Via Etsy

    Miyamoto had obviously taken in influences from film and cartoons, both animated and print-based. Naturally, there are elements of King Kong, but having an Everyman hero character and comical tone comes directly from the Popeye cartoons.

    (In fact, Nintendo pursued a licensing deal with King Features, who owned the Popeye intellectual property at the time, and were rejected. Super Mario would not exist had King Features agreed to license their character.)

    Miyamoto relied on the characters of his childhood, like Disney cartoons, Popeye comics, and monster movies to craft his characters for Donkey Kong, but these are the more contemporary influences. It's a look back at representations of age-old themes and mythologies that is perhaps more telling.

    Sarkeesian spent a lot of time discussing the fact that the damsel in distress trope exists, and discusses a few cultural and mythological precedents. But she failed to give an explanation as to why they might exist or why it is an issue (outside of not having a female playable character) that women are all passive in Miyamoto's work. Her focus on the damsel being problematic to the Mario and Zelda worlds is contentious because it misses some valuable context.

    Damsel in distress motifs can be traced from modernity back to countless folk and fairy tales, to Arthurian legends of chivalric origin, through Catholic apocrypha's St. George and the Dragon. Reaching back to classical Greek myths, Sarkeesian details the story of Andromeda, from the Greek myth of Perseus, in which he rescues the Aethiopian princess from a sea-monster. Analogically, the Shinto myth of Susanoo, the god of storms and sea, includes the slaying of Orochi, an 8-headed dragon who devours maidens.

    Even more ancient origins within mythology contain female deities portrayed as the personification of beauty, love, purity, and life. This is how winter is explained as the absence the goddess Persephone as she is annually kidnapped by Hades in the myth of seasons, and the many tales of the male Olympians' lustful aggression and subsequent reaction to rejection, where Zeus would often transform into a beast of some kind to conceal his identity (and thus, his humanity and his marriage) to satisfy his sexual desires.

    Freud would attribute these to super-ego and id; whereas the male gods are often instinctively unjust and self-serving, the women are represented as the ideal figures to which the disappearing goodness of life must be attributed to their absence. (By the way, Jonathan Blow still thinks you don't understand Braid.)

    My theory is that having interactivity, your agency within games, is a representation of Freudian ego. Gameplay is often a series of actions and reactions; decisions the player makes will result in a win state or failure. And while this is not gender specific, our heteronormative tradition seems predisposed to attribute these three roles to their mythological origins. While men can be represented by both id and ego, it is the super-ego that feels reserved for female characters almost exclusively in the videogame narrative structures of Super Mario and Zelda, perhaps because these are games with lore created entirely by a male author.

    The civilizations in these worlds were brought together by women, a pretext that is anything but passive.

    However, in Miyamoto's work, which is the focus of criticism in Sarkeesian's first video, I do not see a repression caused by gender roles or sexualization of the damsel, but rather a reverence or idolization of the feminine qualities of purity, love, and in Zelda's case, wisdom. Both the Mushroom and Hyrule Kingdoms (not to mention Kid Icarus' Angel Land and Metroid's Zebes, though they're not Miyamoto's creation) are matriarchal, with Hyrule's entire cosmology being centered on goddesses. All of the fairy fountains and most of the sages–all in Link to the Past, five of seven in Ocarina of Time–are all sources of power, and they are all feminine sources.

    The civilizations in these worlds were brought together by women, a pretext that is anything but passive. While Mario games have chosen to give a heterosexual romantic connection to Super Mario and Princess Peach, the Zelda series often excludes this. I don't think a Zelda game featuring a female Link would be odd at all.

    It is this reverence that makes the damsel in distress an anomaly in Miyamoto's work. The heroic rescue seen in these games, with the comic tone of Super Mario and the epic tone of Zelda, is about a normal, everyday person rising to the challenge of saving the world that has been corrupted by the masculine id by awakening feminine personifications of love, justice, and civilization in order to create romantic intrigue between these personifications of humanity's goodness.

    Of note in the case of Mario and Zelda is that both damsels are often seen frozen, transformed into stained glass or encased in crystal, as the qualities that they represent are taken away from their kingdoms by the evil forces of the unconscious, unenlightened monster demon kings of Bowser and Ganon.

    Compare that to the writhing sexualization in the fetishized Andromeda tradition, which we see in the work of Rembrandt, Titian, Rubens, and Doré; and which is exemplified further by both Daphne of mythology and Daphne of Scooby Doo, pulp melodrama like the Perils of Pauline, bondage pornography, or the countless damsel reiterations in nearly every videogame from the decade following Super Mario's release.

    For the record, New Super Mario Bros. Wii and its console sequel had no excuse not to include Princess Peach as a playable character. A press release after the original game's release said Peach was not playable "because they were having trouble getting the physics right in her dress," which is a bullshit excuse from Miyamoto.

    While Sarkeesian may have missed some of what I believe is the the wholesome intent behind Miyamoto's games, there remains an important need for female protagonists that aren't just exaggerated one-dimensional feminine caricatures, including Super Princess Peach's emotions-based gameplay, pre-2013 Lara Croft, and the countless other tropes Sarkeesian is going to be talking about in this series.


    Peach has had some active roles in the past, but they seem to come infrequently, and never for main entries in the Mario canon.

    The most obvious argument against Miyamoto's idealization of women in his worlds is that, no matter how well-meaning or reverent his intentions, the end result is still passive women. Even if they imbue the world with a sense of purpose or righteousness, they lack purpose themselves -- principally because they are never playable entities. And though they embody goodness and wisdom, they are often presented as 2-dimensional characters nevertheless -- there's no particular reason to be grateful that a woman has been reduced to a Madonna rather than a whore, both are equally restrictive.

    A woman's dissonant experience when she enters a masculine game world likely drives some of the gender gap in gaming. If when entering the fictional world a woman is forced to identify as a male character, then further forced to identify with a heterosexual male's goal of saving a damsel in distress, then often she will likely feel that game isn't for her. 

    These issues are addressed in a variety of ways by game developers, but this usually entails painting everything pink. While there are many female protaganists in "not marketed towards girls exclusively" videogames, not many of them can avoid hypersexualization and other tropes you can bet Sarkeesian will be bringing to your attention in further entries in the series. While the Nintendo princesses have been generally well regarded if not pigeon-holed for the Mario and Zelda series, a few hack-savvy dads have been re-writing several games, like the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker and Donkey Kong to reverse gender roles for their young daughters, making the ladies the heroes for a change.

    A prominent issue is the fact that these games are the creation of a heterosexual male, and the audience is still predominantly heterosexual males, and these are multimillion dollar projects who's heterosexual males behind the curtain are conservatively trying to make as much money by playing to their established audience. The videogame industry's lack of creative orator diversity is pretty steep.

    If more games are being created by women, by people of color, by homosexual and queer designers, you will see a proliferation of new characters, new ideas, and ultimately new playable heroes. You will see a wider audience interested in games. While we may have lost our earliest female orators like Roberta Williams and Dona Bailey to other fields of interest, there are a rising number of designers who are creating games from their own perspectives, a welcome change that will have a big effect on the medium of videogames.

    Follow Colin and Kelly on Twitter.

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