Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Sorry, Mario, but Your Princess is in Another Castle

At the dawn of video game design, there was no story; from Pacman to Asteroids to Pong, the burgeoning field of entertainment focused solely simplistic play and plot. However, as technology and the art form developed, the need for a plot-driven narrative arose in order to captivate audiences and to give them incentive to play through their games. The motivation to save a princess, the so-called “damsel in distress,” became a driving trope, among others such as hyper-sexualized physical depictions, behind female representation in video games, creating a lack of strongly written realistic portrayal of femininity that stretches even to today. 
No sexism here!

 Perhaps the most classic and most recognizable example would be of the Mario franchise. You have Mario, the burly (if diminutive) plumber, as he ventures through the mythical Mushroom Kingdom to save the forever imprisoned Princess Peach. This is the sole motivation that drives the player through almost every title in the franchise. The same can be said of other titles in the same era. In the Legend of Zelda franchise, the player (Link) must battle the forces of evil to save Princess Zelda. Dragon’s Lair (1983) has Dirk the Daring face off against the evil denizens of the evil wizard Mordroc’s castle and Singe the dragon in order to rescue the Princess Daphne. In Double Dragon (1987), fighters Billy and Jimmy crush hordes of generic thugs to find their mutual love interest, Marian (the epilogue actually pits the two against each other for her favor).  Unfortunately, the trend continues even to today.

Long has this trope been employed in stories, even prompting Russian scholar Vladimir Propp to categorize the “princess or prize” as one of the seven iconic character archetypes in all storytelling. However, through the turn of the 20th Century to the modern day, feminist movements to redefine female portrayal in the media have all but failed, as the trend is only just starting to be broken, especially in games.

In a 2012 study conducted by Electric Entertainment Design and Research, referred to as EEDAR, concluded that in “a sample of 669 games that had protagonists with discernable genders, only 24 had exclusively female protagonists.” This included games that gave the player options to choose gender in a character creation. That said, the woman continues to be the object of desire or weak, as opposed to an empowered protagonist in a mire of hyper-masculinized leads.
This is generally what happens.

In Resident Evil 4 (2005), the President’s daughter, Ashley (of course in sweater and miniskirt), must be saved from the parasite-ridden Ganados. She is largely absent for the first half of the game, whereas the latter portion is comprised of an extended escort mission, protecting her from the hordes of enemies as she does little but hide. The developers of the most recent Tomb Raider reboot designed the character around the idea that male players would want to protect her. If the character isn’t created as an object or to the point of  being defenseless, she is sexualized to the point of absurdity, which brings these unrealistic portrayals full circle from social to physical issues.

If the female character is not kidnapped, then she is most likely physically capable, but she may have Barbie-like proportions or at least a skimpy outfit. The most infamous example of this, in addition to the probable origin of this trope, is the development of the Lara Croft from the original Tomb Raider. In the initial creation of the character, designer Toby Gard desired to depict a more realistic female body, but accidentally increased the breast size to 150%, which the rest of the design team argued to keep. This set the standard for myriads of other female character designs.

Fighting games are quite probably the worst offenders in this type of sexist portrayal. The Mortal Kombat franchise features characters like Sonya Blade in short-shorts and a tank top, in addition to many other skimpy outfits that reveal lithe figures and large busts rather than features that might befit anyone who routinely has to fist-fight to the death. Soul Calibur is another huge offender, especially in the case of Ivy, whose breasts are so large, it is hard to think that she could comfortably walk, let alone fight. Her outfit is another issue entirely. It is difficult to even call a singlet given how much skin it shows, especially in comparison to the fully-clothed and sometimes armored men.

Who wouldn't want to fight in that?

While the depiction of women historically has been absurd in games, there has been a refreshing trend of change recently. The Mass Effect trilogy not only allows for the choice between a male and female protagonist, both are equal amounts of badass, trouncing aliens and generally being the most un-killable death machines in the galaxy regardless of gender. It should also be mentioned that the proportions of Lara Croft in the reboot have been altered back to a somewhat believable state (it seems like that entire franchise is bogged down with these issues). Many writers are calling out this entire travesty in outrage, which is thankfully holding the industry responsible and putting on the pressure for change.

Now men and women can rock the steely gaze and armor that makes sense.

 While this change is long-coming and a slow process, a start is a start. Many facets of character design are mired in this concept of sexist depiction, and so it must be an industry-wide revolution. Video games, as a medium, are still young, though, so even though it is necessary that these changes be made, the fact that is starting to occur quickly in comparison to other media is wonderful. Video game companies are finally being held accountable for their actions thanks to critics, and so, while it is only just starting to emerge, hopefully more games will provide a more realistic approach towards women in their scope. The historic record of women in video games is atrocious, but up-and-coming titles will have to fight this trend in order to give women a fighting chance in the traditionally sexist and patriarchal world of video game narratives and design.


  1. Jon,

    What an awesome topic. What an even more awesome final product. This is such a relevant piece since video games have increasingly been coming under scrutiny for promoting all sorts of violent, sexist, racist, and classist images. Well done.


  2. So happy to hear someone your age talking about this! Great post Jon.

  3. Just so you know, you make your mom prouder every day! Great post, J. Love you!

  4. I found this really interesting to read, even though I never play video games. You made the topic accessible and enjoyable for any reader. I've always had a problem with how women in video games, especially when the games are so geared towards boys, which reinforces sexist notions and you articulated all of this really well.

  5. Another thing of note: the recent Bioshock: Infinite is a great example of a game that subverts these tropes. When first fighting with Elizabeth, a text display of, "Don't worry about Elizabeth, she can take care of herself" shows up. Great stuff.