Driven by data; ridden with liberty.
Feminist Anita Sarkeesian has undertaken a Kickstarter project, entitled Tropes versus Women in Video Games, revisiting her 2011 series. The first three videos focus on a plot device called ‘Damsels in Distress’, where “a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own and must be rescued by a male character”.
Sarkeesian claims the trope “disempowers female characters and robs them of the chance to be heroes in their own right”. The plot device’s common origin cannot be reasonably interpreted as about female disempowerment: the story of Saint George. The Libyan town of Silene is attacked by a plague-carrying dragon, cutting off their water supply. To appease the dragon and access water, the townspeople feed the dragon with people chosen by lottery. When the daughter of the town’s king is picked, Saint George cripples the dragon and saves the princess. In some variations, the princess leashes the meek dragon, leading it back to the town. Saint George then slays the dragon in return for Silene’s conversion to Christianity. The story’s main interpretations are of Christian expansionism, the obsoleteness of human sacrifice and the futility of appeasement. It is a compositional fallacy to assert this trope is inherently sexist, as Sarkeesian accepts:
I am not saying that all games using the damsel in distress as a plot device are automatically sexist.
This begs the question: what makes a game sexist?
Sarkessian’s central thesis is the plots of these games should be surgically excised from their own universe and implanted into the wider cultural context: “a real-world context where backwards sexist attitudes are already rampant”. Sarkeesian asserts these games act as patriarchal beacons, transmitting “extremely toxic, patronising and paternalistic attitudes about women”. This is a standard ‘media effects’ argument. In both America and Japan – where most games come from – there has been a consistent march towards egalitarian views of women.
Each player has their own interpretation of a game, and each player responds: creating a multi-furcating tree of possible responses. Sarkeesian believes the ‘sexist’ interpretation is correct, and that it is being received and, almost thoughtlessly, accepted by others. A person may believe a game is sexist, but also be so revolted that they produce their own web-series highlighting their belief.
There are smaller problems with ‘Damsels in Distress’. The original Dinosaur Planet contained a male playable character called Sabre – with a mechanic to switch between Krystal and Sabre – and a plot involving saving a princess. Sexual dimorphism in humans means claims about sex and strength cannot wholly be “a deeply ingrained socially constructed myth”. No trend of this trope’s use is demonstrated, nor can the Super Mario series be said to have “essentially set the standard for the industry”: less than 300 examples in an industry that has produced over 10,000 games is not a ‘standard’.
It would be absurd to claim that there is no sexism in computer games – any platform can publish any view – but its quantity and effects are greatly exaggerated.