Tropes vs. Women in Video Games released a video recently and highlighted – effectively I might add, with blatant examples that are impossible to disagree with and ignore – the way non-playable women are used in games. Not only was it met with the most sexist, hateful responses you could possibly imagine, but mindbogglingly argued against, with some saying a game world without the sexual abuse and appalling treatment of women would result in an “unbelievable game world.”
I’ve played video games for the majority of my life, and not once did I ever play a game and think, “You know what this is missing? A woman getting abused, then swept under the rug and forgotten. Because without that, I wouldn’t understand how cruel this fictional game world really is.”
In hindsight I’ve realized even the first games I ever played fell victim to the damsel in distress cliche or an even greater form of misogyny.
The following spiel looks at two of the games I played early on as a kid and how the women represented in those games evolved over time in their respected franchises.
Prince of Persia and the damsel in distress
Much like the Mario games, a game that represented the start of many people’s path to gaming, Prince of Persia fell victim to one of the oldest gender-related cliches in the book; the damsel in distress. It was essentially the first thing that introduced me to the overused story-telling tactic.
And I loved it. The game, of course.
It was beautifully animated, the combat was fast and fluid and the puzzles were a joy to resolve. The colour palette was gritty and helped add to the overall sense of despair. I was a lonely wanderer in a dungeon trying to get out, and I had to fight a bunch of guys armed with swords. Every time I entered a new location, my heart would skip a beat as I discovered a baddie standing confidently on the other side of the screen, waiting for me to approach him. Other times, I would find a series of bizarre blades shaped like razor sharp teeth chomping at anything that dared to pass through. Then near the end, seeing my doppelganger materialize out of the magic mirror was one of the most intense moments I ever experienced while playing a game. These emotions flourished as a result of a game that used an ancient form of animation, some gritty colours and occasionally, a perfectly timed “duuuuun.”
As noted by Anita Sarkeesian, who talked about this in another video, the princess I’m rescuing is at least “a pawn in someone else’s game.” This is no reason to celebrate, of course, and is just as bit of the systemic problem that has resulted in today’s normalization of women being represented as sexual playthings or victims to violence.
However, Prince of Persia was the first of its kind, and though the princess that needed rescuing was there as a result of the patriarchy that has been in place in society for far too long, the game was still charming, fun, and had atmosphere. The latest reiteration of the long-running franchise created by Ubisoft in 2008 is an approachable and fun action/adventure title that successfully ditched this cliche. Nothing about it is ground breaking, but interesting alterations were made to its main pillars of gameplay – platforming, puzzle-solving and combat – which resulted in a fresh experience. The princess this time around tagged along while wielding some impressive magic and was also an integral part of the story. As mentioned before, nothing ground breaking here, but the game evolved and left behind the idea of having a princess that needed to be rescued (a concept that still lingered in previous entries of the Prince of Persia series) and replaced it with something unique and interesting.
Duke Nukem can last forever, but not like this
The Duke Nukem 3D demo was another title I played until my eyes were crossed. When compared to Prince of Persia, its gameplay elements were elevated in every imaginable way. It had a new perspective, vis-a-vis first-person, better graphics, better sound, guns, monsters, explosions, puzzles, secret rooms, and strippers, strippers and more strippers. I don’t fully remember how I obtained the demo, but believe it or not, I knew nothing of the dancing women prior to obtaining the game, and they interested me very little once I discovered them. Finding the secret locations, especially the ones that had a hidden weapon, were what I craved. Oh, and blowing the enemies up with an RPG was amazing. The game delivered some shock value, but to me, is ultimately remembered for its fast-paced action that was perfectly balanced with puzzle-solving moments and hilarious one-liners.
I remember entering the strip club on the second stage for the first time, and immediately assuming the dancers were some form of actual wallpaper. Largely because of their lack of movement, but even more so because they were in the MIDDLE OF A WAR ZONE. They can’t be real can they, I had thought to myself. Get out ladies! What the hell are you doing?? I walked up to one, hit the space bar, and handed over some cash. I was old enough at this point to understand they were strippers, that I was giving them money for their services, and even though I wasn’t aware of the fact I was living in a male dominated society, this part of the game felt mighty unnecessary. The dancers just stood there and took the money or an unlucky hail of gun fire. I got over this awkwardness pretty quickly however, and proceeded to the next level, (the demo allowed me to play until level three I believe).
I totally understand that Duke Nukem is the epitome of testosterone-fueled penis attracting action, which is why I partially think Duke Nukem Forever failed so hard when “The King” made his supposed triumphant return in 2011. No, we cannot forget the technical atrocities that plagued that game from start to finish, the fact that Duke was suddenly limited to two weapons and not 10, and how the uniqueness that was Duke Nukem was now some piss-poor cookie-cutter first-person shooter. However, we also can’t ignore the fact that DNF had wall boobs.
It’s quite obvious DNF scrapes the bottom of the shit barrel largely because of its shortcomings in the presentation and gameplay department. It isn’t considered to be a terrible title because of the wall boobs or the Holson twins who get “fucked” by aliens seconds before being blown up into giblets. I’d be interested to see if the game faced angry protest or low review scores if those highly-offensive scenes were still present, but the rest of the game knocked it out of the park when it came to actually feeling like a game and being fun. DN 3D managed to get away with it because there actually wasn’t much emphasis on those “shocking moments,” they were instead sprinkled throughout the game, which played a helluva lot better than DNF, and tried to reinforce Duke’s mission to save the women of this world. Women weren’t being blown up, and when they were, it’s because you shot them, in which case shame on you. DNF could have kept that strip bar scene to establish his manliness, but beyond that things would have had to change big time because women being blown up is no longer even considered shocking today, it’s normal, and there’s no need to push that normalization further.
If you take a look at the comments under DNF reviews, you will notice a disturbing trend that includes praise being given to a game which some believe is still quirky and unique, despite the abysmal treatment of women. They often counteract any argument that says these parts of the game overwhelmingly contribute to the normalization of women being abused, and believe DNF is some type of blast from the past, something we should accept as quirky and funny.
They also hilariously get upset about the fact that YouTube is trying to censor breasts.
It’s also disheartening, though not surprising, to see people searching for the Holson Twins’ death scene more than anything else that has to do with them.
I think there’s room for any character to grow and adapt, even Duke. What if he was eventually partnered up with a woman halfway through the game who was just as much of a badass as he was? He would try and hit on her every chance he had, but she would tell him off. Duke Nukem would realize that he isn’t the god he thought he was, and what he was missing in his life up to this point was a powerful woman who would show him the error of his ways. Sure, hardcore Duke Nukem fans will want my head on a spike for saying something like this, but after 12 years of waiting, why not make something that’s different and unexpected. Keep Duke’s one-liners and the ultra-violence in there, you can certainly remind us at times what he thinks of women and how much they mean to him, but then surprise us with my aforementioned award-winning story line. I’m not saying Duke Nukem is the worst of the worst when it comes to women being treated like wallpaper, but it’s pretty damn close, and people saying, “that’s the point of this franchise,” is missing the point entirely. Those women trapped on the alien ships in DN 3D in the late nineties was shocking imagery back then, but it wasn’t a focal point of the game, nor was it constantly shoved in our faces. They were there, we then gasped, and moved on. It was wallpaper material unfortunately, but like Prince of Persia, the game was the first of its kind, and there was a noticeable amount of effort put into the rest of the game that had genuinely fun action, platforming, and puzzle-solving sequences.
Gearbox, and whoever else worked on this game, (the list of developers is lengthy) obviously tried to showcase that same shock in DNF. It failed. It failed so hard. No one was shocked by wall boobs or aliens impregnating women, we were instead sitting on our couches with mouths wide open because everything from the gameplay to the attempted “oh my god” moments were done so distastefully.
Needless to say, Prince of Persia and Duke Nukem are franchises on entirely different wavelengths, but I brought them up because they were a couple of the first games I ever played and on the heels of the backlash Sarkeesian received this week, it made me realize the problems she talked about go far back. The more disturbing part is very little has changed. In fact, it has gotten worse. Each of these games had an element of the patriarchy – one obviously slightly more extreme – but where one game successfully removed it and did something interesting with the cemented princess in distress cliche, the other just embraced it, made it even more awkward, and released it upon us like some untrained dog that knows it’s in the wrong house but poops on your carpet anyway. DNF is so blatantly offensive and degrading to women, and any argument that tries to push this obvious fact is too often counteracted with, “oh you’re just trying to censor everything.” No, it’s not about censorship. It’s just a mighty shame that the sight of women being battered and slaughtered without any context is required to convey a sense of hopelessness in a game world. Games should be treated as opportunities to move away from what society unfortunately considers normal, and should channel talented people’s creativity when it comes to designing a game world that is asked to portray a sense of despair.
It baffles me that games today use women’s pain and suffering as a way to essentially set the mood within a game world. Technology has come so far. It can be utilized to create amazing things. I know it can. I’ve walked through the eerie camps off the coast of Peru in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory, I scoured the wastelands of Washington in Fallout 3, an experience that conveyed terror and hopelessness in countless ways. Toppled buildings and abandoned shelters, mutants, raiders, abandoned children. Those things made me feel. My friends and I were sort of scared as we walked through the woods in Slender (really though, if you turn the lights out and the mood is just right, that game can be creepy). There are so many ways a game world can deliver a disturbing atmosphere, and its been successfully done in the past.
What a week. It was marred by a series of events that highlighted the worst the culture of video games has to offer. An industry, that for the longest time, has been this awkward, dysfunctional entity that many people have smeared with misogyny and outer-worldly behavior. This hobby that many crazies believe is being ruined by people like Sarkeesian who bring important issues to light are sadly engulfing it in so much negativity, and if it wasn’t necessarily elevated to another level recently, it was simply showcased in one massive wave of hatred that I don’t remember seeing before.
As mentioned in the article by Chris Plante in the previous link, video games are no longer designed for a “niche group of young men,” and despite the mistakes games occasionally make that further counteract this truth, I hope this week spearheads a turning point in gaming. I know wall boobs happened years ago, but we still have games like Watch Dogs forcing us to watch domestic disputes play out before we can intervene, while forgetting to implement any type of preventative measures players would want to use in these situations.
Time to make myself feel better. Time to play Pokemon for a while.