Some Thoughts on Tropes Vs Women in Video Games: Damsels in Distress Part 2

The biggest component missing from Tropes Vs Women in Video Games is a counterpoint. A lot of this owes to direct opposite opinion being a fairly abhorrent one. In my mind though there’s a lot of room for dialogue and discussion and I’ll attempt a bit of that below.

First, if you don’t know about Tropes Vs Women in Video Games, the video series written by/starring Anita Sarkeesian from the blog Feminist Frequency, you should probably google yourself up to speed at some point (believe it or not, TV Tropes has the most dispassionate reporting of the facts I’ve seen so far - but it’s short on details).

For the purposes of this article, I’ll be limiting myself to discussing this video specifically:

Player Agency vs. Character Agency

“Agency” in this context refers to definition #2 in Merriam-Webster: “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.” I point this out because, while this usage of the word “agency” is totally correct, it may not be the one you’re used to or expecting.

Player agency is a term that usually refers to the degree of control that the GM gives to the player in an RPG session. This type of agency (the ability to exercise power or control) is only applicable in any real sense to the player - the player may act but NPCs only ever follow scripts.

Character agency, near as I can define, is the presentation of a character as though he or she has agency within the fictional universe. A character that dies as part of the narrative will always die as a part of the narrative - the question is whether or not that character appeared to be a person who acts instead of a cardboard cut-out that is acted upon.

Character agency does not necessarily mean giving the character the ability to exert power on the game world in any real sense. A character does not have to be a sidekick on a co-op mission to have agency - a character merely needs to be shown making choices and affecting the story through his or her actions.

When Zelda assists Link at the end of The Wind Waker, she’s exhibiting player agency - having an effect on the game itself. When Sheik fleshes out the plot and otherwise advances the plot in Oracle of Time, she’s exhibiting character agency - giving the illusion that the character is a person making choices that affect the game world.

Revenge as Motivation

I could think of one counter-example to the revenge trope (Guile in Street Fighter II, wherein Guile seeks revenge for the death of a man) the old saying holds true - if you can name the exceptions then there aren’t enough.

The real point I’d like to make here, though, is that I dislike revenge as a motivator in general, not just with regard to gender stereotypes. Using revenge as a motivator places the player in the position of doing very bad things for a very bad reason while thinking they’re wholly justified in doing so.

In most video game revenge stories, the “hero” shows less regard for human life than the villain does at his most villainous. Ezio Auditore’s family may have been executed for being on the opposing side of a long-running holy war, but can you honestly feel that justifies killing every random rooftop guard in Venice?

While Sarkeesian focuses on the victim when discussing sexism here (it is a “damsels in distress” video, after all) I believe that there’s plenty of room to discuss some double standards regarding revenge takers as well. It’s a little hard to compare (as it’s hard to find any story of a woman seeking revenge in a video game) but compared to Hollywood’s track record (,2518/) my first impression is that men are typically portrayed as being more justified in their revenge seeking, with far less thought going into the ramifications of so much murder.

Video games not only give the very bad impression that violent revenge is a good thing, but through their exclusion of women they also give the impression that it’s a uniquely male experience - that anger and rage when attributed to men are a good thing (for the archetypal example, see Asura’s Wrath).


“The Damsel in a Refrigerator”

Of all the tropes Sarkeesian points out, this is the one that irks me the most (not her pointing it out, the trope itself). There is, at the very least, some reasonable explanation as to the assumptions we make about sex and vulnerability. Women are, on average, shorter and less muscular than men, and the idea that a woman might be overpowered by a man is certainly plausible (though it should not, by any means, be assumed).

In this trope, however, many of the damsels in distress are killed early on and it’s their eternal souls that are in jeopardy.

Why should I assume at all that a woman would be weaker than a man on a spiritual plane? How is it even remotely okay that even after death that we would be bound to the stereotypes of the bodies we’d been born into? How would a man be any better equipped to combat a soul-stealing demon than a woman? Why isn’t his soul in equal jeopardy?

It’s also a little disturbing that so many of the examples of this trope are so over-sexualized. I’m not really a prudish person - but these characters aren’t putting on attractive outfits as an expression of their sexual agency. These characters are often having their clothes stripped away or torn to tatters in the act of being murdered. That’s awful on the face of it, but it’s also disturbing to be presented as what is supposed to be an object of sexual desire while being told simultaneously that she’s dead.

Is it just me, or is that too creepy?

“The Euthanized Damsel”

This is one of those things where I can see what some of them wanted to achieve, and yet fall so laughably short every time.

For 99% of the game, the damsel in distress has been an object of the story, not an actor.

In half the games described, maybe someone on the staff says “hey, I don’t like that our one and only female character hasn’t done a damned thing” so they give her a plot-pivotal role to play. She’s going to sacrifice her life for the common good.

In contrast to going down with the ship, or going out in a blaze of glory, the damsel doesn’t actually do anything. The hero must take action - and that action is to kill the damsel.

In the other half of the games called out - the ones where the damsel becomes evil somehow - I assume the only thought from the developers is that they wanted a Shocking Twist™ and not a happy ending.

Either way, once you look at this through the lens Sarkeesian provides (that the damsels are among the hero’s possessions) you can see that the greater implication is that the real sacrifice here is the hero’s sacrifice - that he gives up the happily-ever-after with his damsel.

Another common theme you’ll see with the euthanized damsel is a significant physical transformation. The women usually become grotesque and misshapen monsters before you kill them (and, when possession is involved, transform back right before dying). In some cases, the women become hyper-sexualized or sexually aggressive versions of themselves before being put to death (e.g. Anette in Castlevania: Dracula X Chronicles).

In either event, the transformation into something other than a pristine virginal beauty leads to a death sentence which is inevitably welcomed.

When Violence is the Only Gameplay Mechanic

One point where I disagree strongly with Sarkeesian is in how much slack she’s willing to give game developers on this one. The argument is that when violence is the only gameplay mechanic, the only meaningful interaction the player could have with a damsel in distress is to inflict violence upon her.

While there’s an inherent logic in that train of thought, I think it’s too much of an easy-out for developers. Games are rife with mini-games, alternate missions, dialogue trees, QTEs, etc … that even in games that are ostensibly about shooting stuff with guns you still spend a significant amount of your gameplay time doing not that.

Even if I were on-board with violence being the only gameplay mechanic, inflicting violence on the damsel is only one way to use violence. There are any number of scenarios where a hero could use violence in defense of a damsel, or once freed the damsel could become an equal partner in violence (or, being a game where all glory must go to the player, provide cover fire).

I also challenge the notion that it’s possible for the player to have any meaningful interaction with a damsel in distress at the end of an average-length game. It’s not reasonable to expect the player to have any significant feelings for someone they’d seen very briefly more than 8 hours ago. They’ve practically just met.

In movies where characters are supposed to have formed a bond that the viewers could feel anything about, there’s about an hour of relationship building ahead of that.

Male Centered Stories

There is a certain air of unavoidability that when you have a male-centered story then the female characters will be one-dimensional. There are a handful of examples that show that this a trend, not a rule.

The Last Story manages to balance male and female characters fairly well, despite being largely about a single male main character. The game does this by making characters that all have their own motivations and personalities and by having them interact reasonably with each other. Though women are still a minority in this game, the 5 female characters are competent, believable, and heterogeneous.

There’s no reason why stories that are centered around a male main character can’t have very strong female characters throughout (and not only as love interests). When you’re talking about anywhere from 10 - 40 hours of gameplay, there’s no reason they can’t all have fully fleshed-out story arcs. 10 hours is an entire season of Star Trek - and if Deep Space Nine could do an entire episode about Morn, surely game makers can find time to give depth to background characters.

What makes the damsel in distress insidious is not only the fact that she's just a cardboard-cutout of a character, but that she’s usually wholly defined in her relationship with the male protagonist. You often know nothing about them besides “the hero’s wife” or “the hero’s girlfriend.”

A Sense of Failure at Discharging Patriarchal Duties

This point is hard to argue against. Whether correct or not, pretty much every man in America has been raised with the notion that he should protect the women in his life. A quest for redemption can make for a very compelling narrative, and needing to redeem yourself for your failings makes for a solid story.

In my opinion, I think this is why so many games give you just enough control at the beginning of the game that you believe you could’ve saved the damsel. If only you’d been faster. If only you’d been stronger. Etc … And so the quest begins to get faster, stronger, more powerful in order to redeem yourself.

I disagree with Sarkeesian, however, when she says that this represents a loss of masculinity. I think that most men understand that a woman can also be a powerful protector. Having failed in your duty to protect someone would not make you more feminine - as women also have a duty to protect.

The loss, I think, is a loss of manhood - the converse of that not being womanhood but rather boyhood. The traits that would prevent a man from protecting his loved ones - irresponsibility, poor planning, naiveté, or impotence - are traits men associate with childishness, not with femininity.

I also believe that this is one reason why games appeal so much teenage boys - it gives them a chance to play out a story of growth from the impotent, confused children they were to the powerful, competent men they hope to be.

Sensitivity Regarding Violence Against Women

Sarkeesian ends the video by calling for a level of sensitivity regarding violence against women, and that this shouldn’t be taken as a call for censorship.

The fear of censorship is a strong one, and frequently given as one reason that (ridiculous) people give when they’re asked why they hate Tropes Vs Women in Video Games. For them, though it’ll do no good, I’d like to point to race as an example of where to go from here.

Video games don’t handle race very well. Most don’t handle race at all. However, game developers and publishers are at least somewhat aware that there are stereotypes and pitfalls that need to be avoided when dealing with race. It's absolutely no secret that race is a sensitive topic and that it must be handled with care.

Likewise, there are also pitfalls and issues to be avoided when dealing with the intersection of violence and women.

So let’s start here. Writers: look at each point in your story where a woman dies, is kidnapped, or is injured. Ask yourself these questions (and then more - but these are a starting point).

  1. Was she harmed because she’s a woman? (You can say yes to this if she’s harmed because she’s in a romantic relationship with the main character.)
  2. Would you inflict the same harm on a man in this situation? Would your hero react the same way?
  3. Is the violence being presented in conjunction with sexuality? (e.g. clothing ripped off, threats of rape, placed in sexual positions, vaguely rape-y behavior from the villain)
  4. Is this the only female character in your game? (fair or not, intended or not, when you only have one female character she becomes a symbol for woman-kind)

The trick to it is that you can argue intent until the cows come home - but if your work offends someone then they actually, genuinely feel like shit. The only way to protect against this is to question your own work, answer honestly, and try to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.