Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Damsels in Distress

Posted by Rampant Coyote on September 1, 2014

Even with my various quibbles over her “Tropes vs. Women” videos, Anita Sarkeesian managed to open my eyes. It’s hard to watch her videos and not feel like we need to do better as an industry. I worry about creating a lens through which you are viewing everything looking for offense (because you will find nothing BUT offense if you do that), but as a male gamer and game developer, it’s easy for me to overlook something that might make women feel less included as a member of the audience. Sarkeesian’s videos do an awesome job of pointing some of those elements out. The compiled videos of some of the worst offenders, pulled from the wide history of gaming (and sadly, usually not obscure titles), can be a little stomach-churning.

Yeah, guys, we can do better. As developers, we can create better. As gamers, we can demand better.

No, not to the point where we forbid large swaths of storytelling possibilities, or where we grade games based on their inclusiveness (okay, someone is certainly welcome to do that, but I’d consider it a useless measure. I’m all for games with niche appeal, but I want a wider representation of niches). I am not a fan of people screeching injustice just because a game doesn’t address the needs of one segment of the market or another. (There’s a difference between complaining about a game not meeting your needs / desires as its potential audience – which I do all the time – and taking it as an offense / affront / wrong. The latter closes minds, the former opens up devs to the marketing / sales potential of addressing a wider audience…)

But it seems to me that there’s a pretty commonsense range between “insensitive” and “oversensitive” and that Sarkeesian’s videos have caused some dialogue and helped move things back from the former direction. If nothing else, as a designer, I’d rather not sin in ignorance. And for that, I thank her for her videos.

Now, one of the points I discussed with a friend of mine many months ago was her “damsels in distress” trope. My friend, something of a literary connoisseur more than he is a gamer, noted that the trope has existed in stories for a very long time as a way to teach boys about the proper use of strength. It’s a basic biological fact that in terms of raw physical power, men have a clear advantage over women, and this has often been used as a tool of oppression. You need look no further than Syria and Iraq today to see how disgusting and barbaric this oppression can really become. While there are some unfortunate side-effects of these stories (treating women as prizes to be won, specifically), the “damsels in distress” trope exists to teach some very basic rules:

The man who kidnaps / imprisons / threatens / forces his will upon a woman through his advantage of might / political power / etc. is the villain. The bad guy. The one who deserves his comeuppance at the end of the story, even to the point of his death at the end of many tales.

It is the responsibility of those of greater strength / power / etc. to use these advantages to protect, defend, and rescue those who are oppressed by such villainy, even to the point of risking their very lives to do so. “With great power comes great responsibility” and all that.

I think with the events over the last couple weeks involving Zoe Quinn and Anita Sarkeesian, it is clear there are many disgusting trolls out there who never learned this lesson. Or perhaps they relish being the villain. Regardless, no matter how much you might disagree with somebody, attempting to silence them via threats, intimidation, force, cyber-bullying, hacking, etc. is not only an act of evil, but also probably means you’ve lost the argument.

Might never did make right. Online harassment is evil. No matter how worthy one might think one’s cause might be, stooping to such disgusting measures only pollutes whatever it touches. If the video-game fan community doesn’t want these wretched sacks of crap to represent us, we need to be intolerant of their views. Yeah, I’m preaching intolerance. Tolerance of evil isn’t a virtue.

Now I’m gonna get back to making and playing games.

Filed Under: Geek Life - Comments: 18 Comments to Read

  • Jacob said,

    I think it’d be interesting if you could play with that trope a bit by altering the end-state reward. If the person rescued couldn’t be seen as a prize, that’d change things fundamentally and highlight the virtue of the hero while it was at it. What if the one you saved from evil was already taken (married, committed, or blood-kin for example)? Or an unsuitable partner (i.e. male or incompatibly alien)?

    Yeah, the woman in the refrigerator is done-to-death and we need better themes. But I would hate to lose the theme of freedom vs. oppression altogether and liberation as motivation is still an awesome concept/virtue to base heroic action on.

  • Dataferret said,

    The romance novel genre as I understand it has managed to keep the damsel in distress trope but augmented it to be more equitable/empowering. The exemplar is a two-way rescue where the damsel is typically rescued, but in turn, the hero is shown to have a vulnerability and allows himself to be rescued in turn by the heroine.

    Just changing the end state without giving agency to the damsel merely turns the hero into a selfless white knight and the damsel back into an altruism vending machine.

  • K said,

    Anita Sarkeesian opened my eyes too. When I first saw her kickstarter, it had already raised way more money than it needed. I bookmarked her site because I was interested in the project and kind of excited to see what she had to say. After her harassment, I was reading articles about it, and I noticed a lot of hate in the comments COMING FROM WOMEN. I was really shocked at that, especially since from my point of view most of the comments were supporting Anita. I thought maybe they were just angry. I saw complaints about “mansplaining” and a lot of jargon I had never heard before. I did a lot of research, because I honestly didn’t understand what was going on, and I just really wanted to know why people were acting that way. Long story short, with the exception of a handful of people, I can’t in good conscience support anyone who labels themselves as a feminist or advocates “social justice”. I agree that we shouldn’t tolerate harrasment of anyone(that includes Sarkeesian, as well as TotalBiscuit, JonTron, and one “geek girl” that I won’t name that was in tears, begging to be left alone, on YouTube due to harassment from self proclaimed feminists because she dared to poke fun at the “Quinnspiracy”). I also believe that we shouldn’t tolerate people who seek to exploit being a “victim” or the corrupt gaming media that propogates it. With 5 different articles last week on the same day attacking “gamers” from the gaming press and no mention of harassment that was going on of anyone that wasn’t in the “in crowd”, I have lost all faith in the game industry. Jay, I hope that you promote any indy devs that have interesting games coming out here, because I won’t be going back to any regular gaming news sites.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah, although in fairness, this is a general storytelling problem in games (not gonna speak for romance novels) – the villain is often just as much of a 2d prop as the rescuee. We’ve gotten better at making the villains more interesting and involved in the story. So that much is good. The challenge is similar – the villain is tucked away at the end of the game as a final challenge blocking the final goal (the rescuee). But we’ve found ways of working around that.

    Even in 1977, Star Wars had the princess take some role in her own rescue.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    It’s one thing to express an opinion, or to oppose an opinion. The vast majority of us can do that without resorting to hate or attacks. There’s harassment and attacks on both sides, and the majority of us who simply want to enjoy games and enjoy a non-hostile community should refuse to tolerate it. The ends do not justify the means.

  • Dataferret said,

    K, avoid Internet Feminism and just stick with reading the academic papers. At the risk of mirroring the whole ‘what is a Gamer’ debate, there’s a pretty strong analog in the feminism world – with it’s extremely loud and obnoxious 5% who you really want to just yell ‘shuddap already, you’re not helping’ 😉

  • Mephane said,

    ” with it’s extremely loud and obnoxious 5% who you really want to just yell ‘shuddap already, you’re not helping’”

    Yeah, I had been fooled by the vocal idiot minorities on both sides for much too long until I learnt to ignore them.

    The worst thing, which I realized that way, is that those very minorities constantly fuel the type of man that harasses feminists (or women in general); they really believe what they are doing is rightful and just, they don’t consider themselves evil at all.

  • Modran said,

    As for the Damsels in Distress trope, yeah, it has been going for a long time, yeah, male strength bla bla bla.
    BUT these past years, physical strength is much less important than it had been at a time. From a simple gun to a tank, there’s a range of tools that put almost everybody on a par physically.
    I’ve also seen recently a video of a petite brunette doing a sort of strength race with obstacles that was incredible, so even on the topic of agility/platforming, women can give men a run for their money.
    Finally, go see Frozen if you haven’t already.
    All that to say that there are other stories to tell. And if the DiD trope was to teach responsability because of power, I’m preeeetty sure that it’s just a powerfantasy in most games using it :).

  • Adorna said,

    I can only speak for myself – but I grew up on older fantasy books that usually had male protagonistst and when I started gaming – that was a male thing too – but I never feld out of place. Its actually a really good feeling to skip into someones head – all the more interesting the more different he is from you. That isn’t to say I don’t get the creeps for some games or stories, but I think the real issue is not one story (wichever story or game). Back in the 80s/90s works stood mainly for themselves. Richt now, with all the social meadia and a lot more interaction between gamer/readers/authors/publishers and fans among themselves, the community and its view has a whole new importance. And teh discussion culture around video games is very male and very toxic.
    Everything from forums to youtube comments is usually like wading through a night train full of drunken hooligans. Full of topics like “I could never identify with a female protaginist” too “… Boobs!!” ands my examples are only so tame becasue I won’t try and remember more offensive stuff.

    Yes, having a few more games, that have awsome female protagonists would be great. Having more and more varied stories and characters in general would be great!
    (Less soldier type main heros that shoot verything in sight and get fast cars and pretty women as a prize wouldn’t hurt though)
    But I think one main issue is a fan culture that is right now so unwelcoming and frankly ugly that all “fan feedback” is skewerd to a very stange side. And since catering to “your fans” or “the audience” is the holy grail right now, this affects the whole gaming scene.

    (BTW.. I think every women I know that played more games then the occasional round of a match3 clone has played the older Final Fantasy games. Whenever they come up on a gaming website comments are sure to go the way of “Can’t they stop making sulky teenage protagonists? Why can’t they make kick-ass Protagonists for the next game?” and I can’t help but think that having charcters with flaws to overcome – that think about their decisions and their life and take things to heart is what draws most women I know to there sorts of games. Not gender – but a different way of thiking and problem solving. So please don’t do away with young protaginists and coming of age storylines – there are enough “kill-em-all-ha-ha-ha” types..aren’t men sick of them too by now?)

  • ogg said,

    Very interesting points. I wonder if in the case of games uisng this trope, if adding or swapping in “assist” to the “protect, defend, rescue” mindset while brainstorming might help with loosening up the thinking so as to weaken the objectification and suggest to the designer ways of maintaining the agency of the rescuee.

  • ogg said,

    Also perhaps if it fits something like the “meanwhile..” that comics use, gameplay surrounding the villain and rescuee’s interactions might be usefull at times. I understand Paper Mario does a minor sort of this, playing as the princess and undermining Bowser from captivity.

  • morteng said,

    It’s obvious to a man that women are inherently desirable, but outside of other stories, I don’t see much to indicate that the opposite is true. If I were to write a story where a man and a woman got together (keeping it all consensual), I would need to come up with a reason the woman would be interested. Enter damsels in distress.
    This predicts that the extent to which you can allow the damsel agency, depends on your target audience’s level of agreement with the premise. So if you’re targeting young men, she’ll be crying in a corner. If you’re targeting older men*, she gets to spit in the villains face a couple of times, maybe a failed escape attempt. When targeting women*, she’ll be waiting by the bleeding corpse of her captor when the dude finally shows up.

    This is probably testable in a lab. Any takers?

    *Assuming the opposite is in fact true, despite appearances.

  • Lara said,

    You are aware that they are being ironic and making fun of crazy post-feminists?

  • jwmeep said,

    I fully agree the harassment is wrong. On all sides. And should stop. Also agree we should just be allowed to enjoy games. Some are painting the whole of gamers as monsters due to the role of a hateful, vitriolic minority. I disagree with this assessment.

    But like Jay said, both sides are engaging in unfortunate behavior.

  • CdrJameson said,

    The problem is not the ‘in distress’ part, it’s the ‘damsel’ part. Why is it so often a woman? Why not a child? Or an elderly person? Or any meaningful category of ‘less powerful’ person?

    Why would the distressee be female? It makes no sense, unless you can equate being female with powerlessness. Which is why it’s sexist.

    Mind you, probably says that in the video. Haven’t watched that one yet (or read it – extra kudos for having transcripts available).

  • McTeddy said,

    Actually according to Sarkeesian’s putting a man or even a puppy in that position isn’t “Good Enough”. It’s still sexist because people know that’s the core of the trope and is worse because now women are so meaningless that they were just replaced.

    I could have that reasoning off a bit because I stopped watching her a while back. I have issues with the way she cherry-picks data and twists everything into “It’s Eviiiil”.

    Hell… I feel like Jack Thompson was reborn.

  • Cuthalion said,

    The bile every time a woman has an opinion about games is sickening. I’ve not really watched Sarkeesian’s show, but I think it’s laughable when people claim that she’s oppressing me.

    Sure, feminists ought to extend the same courtesy to others, but I can’t help but think they’re usually on the receiving end of the anger. Doesn’t make it ok when they’re bullies, but it doesn’t mean we should ignore the bigger bullies either.

    Anyway, it’s interesting how surprised and slightly confused I feel when I see game material (or most other entertainment, really) that has a roughly even distribution of gender, ethnicity, build, age, etc. Reminds me that what I’m used to isn’t as even as I assume.

    Also, Jay, that’s an interesting point your friend brought up about the more positive purpose of the damsel in distress trope.

  • Maklak said,

    It was worth watching to finally understand what “objectification” means and some of this stuff was insightful, but meh. She over-focuses on her main topic and even uses examples such as dragging along bodies and shooting females in FNV. You can do that to males too and there’s actually more of them, I think. Even so, I must agree that having dozens of playable characters, all different and one female (whoose defining characteristics is that she is female) is bizzare.