Damsels in Distress: Sexist Portrayals of Women in Video Games

The first time my brother allowed me to play Mario Kart with him on his Nintendo 64, I immediately selected Princess Peach as my player character: the character who I was choosing to control and represent me in the video game. Peach’s shiny hair, princess gloves, and pink dress made me feel as though there was a character just for me in a game that my brother had made seem was just for boys. But as I played the game more I stopped selecting Princess Peach–or any female character. Through strings of losses I learned that my brothers masculine characters, just as they appeared, were in fact faster and more powerful than the feminine characters I was choosing.

Choosing Princess Peach based on her appearance was not an uneducated decision on my part; in versus and battle games in which the operator selects a character based solely on the images presented on the character selection screen, it makes sense for the appearance of each character to represent their personality and skillset. Video game designers therefore costume their characters with an appearance or accessories that reflect their unique abilities.

Character Selection Screen from Mortal Kombat 1 (Source)

One of Mortal Kombat’s more popular characters, Scorpion is costumed with a ninja mask and a jagged sword that communicates his skill in armed combat. Sonic the Hedgehog wears red sneakers and an aerodynamic mohawk to suggest his speed and swiftness.

Sonic The Hedgehog (Source)               Scorpion (Source)

Princess Peach? She wears a gown, dainty gloves, and a clueless expression, which imply nothing as far as skill and ability, unless you consider her special attack: a dimpled, smiling heart that protects her cart.

 Princess Peach (Source)

This is a very basic example of the over-feminized female characters in video games that are patented by features and abilities that are, in the context of the game, disadvantages to those of male characters. (Even the Baby Mario character of Mario Kart releases a ball and chain as his special attack.) New or old-school, hero or sidekick, female video game characters like Princess Peach are too often designed as stereotypically feminine. We most often see female video game characters featured in dresses, skirts or skimpy clothing, wearing bows and make-up, and maintaining dainty, delicate, or over-sexualized dispositions. These features make any character disadvantaged in race or combat. Such stereotypical signifiers, which were specifically drawn into the design of the characters, are then mechanized as disadvantages. These characters not only stereotype women, but also send the message that qualities specific to females are limitations to a character’s ability.

Tina Armstrong (Source)

We see this heuristic in detail in games that include history and backstories when introducing each player character for the operator to choose from. Tina Armstrong, a player character in the Dead or Alive fighting game, is described to have joined the fighting tournament in hopes of becoming discovered as an actress or supermodel. Not only does this description make for an over sexualized and unfavorable player character for a combat game, but Tina’s character is a legitimate disadvantage in the second round of the game, where her father joins the tournament to defeat her and put an end to her dream.

Ayane’s backstory in DOA includes little more than her having been raped by male character Raidou, and her jealousy and hatred toward her more attractive older sister. Meanwhile, male players such as Jann Lee and Bayman are depicted as brave and skilled fighters with backstories that praise their years of discipline and success in mastering specific fighting styles. Again, we see absurd stereotypes designed into female characters as disadvantages, crafting them to hardly be playable and reverting them into side stories that exist only to ‘spice up’ the DOA backstory with sex and farce.

According to Electronic Entertainment Design and Research, the lack of strong female characters present in video games is due to the fact that “there’s a sense in the industry that games with female heroes won’t sell”. However, it seems that this is only true because of the manner in which female video game characters are designed. It is less the female character that wouldn’t sell, but what is currently designed as the female character. The predominantly male (88.5%) and heterosexual (92%) community of game developers designs their female characters as weak, distracted, and as having vices. Male or female, it is obvious that such a hero would never sell. By lifting the ‘damsel in distress’ heuristic from female video game characters and designing female characters that are as capable and badass as are present in real life, women could easily take the role of the hero- and could absolutely sell video games.

By Eugenia Zobel De Ayala, Contributor 

For further discussion of the Damsel in Distress trope, check out the in-depth, 3-part video series on Feminist Frequency.

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