There have been two notable events lately as regards the portrayals of women in videogames.
One is the launch of Anita Sarkeesian‘s video series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games, the first episode of which covers “damsels in distress.” You may recall Sarkeesian as the person who launched a Kickstarter for funds to make this video series, and was promptly attacked in vile ways, up to and including threats of violence. (This would be why comments are disabled on the video, I presume, though that hasn’t stopped the nastiness from returning in a number of comment threads all over the Internet).
The other is the story of game developer Mike Mika, who hacked Donkey Kong for his three-year-old daughter, so that she could play as Pauline instead of Mario. This has resulted in lots of accolades for “best dad ever” all over the Internet.
Pauline is of course a prototypical damsel in distress — as Sarkeesian points out, one of the very first in videogames. From time to time, games have subverted the damsels in distress trope in various ways (in Karateka, the princess seems like a damsel in distress the whole time, but at the end, if you approach her wrong, she kills you; in Metroid, the protagonist famously turns out to have been female the whole time, concealed in battle armor). But by and large, it’s alive and well.
So lots of accolades for Mika, and a lot of vitriol for Sarkeesian. And along the way, a lot of apologia for the damsels in current games. We’ve seen people saying that rescuing women is a male instinct driven by hindbrain biology. We’ve seen the argument that it just costs too much to provide alternate gameplay modes. We’ve seen the case made that games already have a predominantly male market, and that’s why the games are designed the way they are, to maximize revenue — essentially a tautology (and one that ignores early games like Ms. Pac-Man, not to mention the enormous boom in the female audience that came with more casual play). And of course there’s the fact that it is undeniably a classic plot device used in many classics of literature.
My wife Kristen is an as-yet unpublished romance novelist. She’s got one novel out there right now being looked at for full-length publication (e.g., she got past the query and sample chapters). She’s been working on this stuff for years… and I first started paying attention closely back when I did that Love Story Game Design Challenge at GDC back in 2004. And I think there’s a lot we can learn from romance novels — and it doesn’t mean that the plot device has to go away. Continue reading »