Tropes Against Video Games

Back in mid-May of last year, Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter project to help fund her video series on portrayals of women in video games called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games”. Her initial goal was set at $6000 for a planned goal of making 5 videos (or so I can gather from the Kickstarter page), meaning that she wanted approximately $1200 per video. Her project ended up being funded at close to $160,000 and her intent grew to creating 12 videos. This means that, currently, she has successfully netted a little over $13,000 per video she intends to eventually release; an impressive feat. Her first video was released a few days ago (a few months late, relative to her stated delivery, but here nonetheless) and, hot-button topic that her project was, I felt inclined to watch it and see what $13,000 a video buys in terms of research quality, methodology, and explanatory power. From my impression of Anita’s first video, were I to work under the assumption that she was making a reasonable amount of money for her time, effort, and conclusions in this project, I think I could be so bold as to suggest that I’m wildly underpaid for what I do in terms of research and writing.

I may not be as well-paid, but I make up for it in smug self-satisfaction.

Since Anita suggests that it’s important to think critically about the more problematic aspects of things (in this case, the “damsel in distress” story found in some video games), I’m sure she would agree it would be important to think critically about what she presents in her first video, so let’s do just that. The gist of the video appeared to be that, as noted, women are sometimes portrayed as being placed into peril (typically by a male character) from which a male character saves them. How common are such portrayals in video games? That’s an excellent question; perhaps Anita could have mentioned some data that bear on the point. Are these portrayals more or less common in video games, relative to other forms of media, and have they been getting more or less common over time? Those are some other excellent questions, but you won’t find any discussion of them either. Of course, this was only part 1 of the video, so maybe Anita’s saving all of her research findings for part 2. After all, it would surely seem peculiar if, after asking for several thousand dollars to make these videos that she claimed would take her a substantial amount of time and research, she ended up releasing videos stating her preexisting opinions about the matter, putting very little actual research in. Peculiar indeed.

The first set of points that I would be critical about when evaluating this video, then, is that, in the roughly 25 minutes of it, she presents almost nothing that would typically fall under the umbrella of what many people would consider research: there’s no methodology mentioned, no data presented, and there’s no discussion of how she reached the conclusions that she does. What she does present are some anecdotes and a few assertions. Here’s a good for-instance: Anita notes that the theme of “man-saving-woman” is at least several thousand years old. Despite noting this, she then goes on to suggest that, in 1933, there were two things (Popeye and King Kong, apparently) that led to this theme becoming a foundational element in video games 50 years later. Is this theme a foundational element in gaming? Maybe, but from what Anita presents in her video there’s no way to know (a) what she means by “foundational element”, (b) whether she was correct in that assessment, or (c) whether her posited causal link even exists. That is, if Popeye and King Kong never existed, would video games have come to represent this damsel in distress story line as frequently or infrequently as they do? Given that this theme is at least as old as recorded history accordingly to Anita, one could reasonably suggest that Popeye and King Kong did very little stage-setting at all.

What is notably absent from Anita’s video – on top of any mention of methodology or data – is any attempt at an explanation as for why this theme appears to be relatively ubiquitous. Lacking anything resembling a formal explanation concerning this theme’s popularity, much less any attempts at ruling out alternative explanations, Anita sticks largely to just noting that the theme exists in some unspecified proportion of games and that she doesn’t seem to like it very much. So, to recap, that’s no mention of a method, findings, or an explanation of the topic being investigated. Of course, I’m not here to just be critical of the fact that this video likely cost her backers approximately $260 per minute to make, by my estimation, and ended up with nothing of value to show for it; I also want to see if whether, in a few minutes, I can do better than Anita in discussing important questions, analyzing data, and explaining the issues.

“On your mark, get set…Hey, how come only men are racing in this picture?!”

So why might it be that it’s typically men who are portrayed as the saver of the woman, rather than the reverse? Why might it be that men are portrayed as predominately trying to save women, rather than other men? In order to answer those questions, it is helpful to first consider a third question: why is it the case that when a species of animal has one sex that displays a costly ornament – like peacocks – or one sex that engages in costly competition – like bowerbirds or rams – that this sex is most frequently the males? Here’s one candidate explanation that doesn’t work: peacocks have evolved such decorative plumes that they display for peahens in order to reduce the peahens to mere objects. The display itself serves the function of reducing peahens to powerless objects so that male peacocks can thus be empowered protagonists in their own male power fantasies. Though this explanation might sound silly on the grounds that you think that peacocks and peahens don’t think that way, there’s a better reason for discounting such an explanation: objectifying one sex to empowering the other doesn’t do anything biologically useful. As the explanation stands, it’s incomplete at best. Rather than explaining the phenomenon in question, the explanation phase is just pushed back one step to: why would peacocks benefit by objectify peahens? Where’s the reproductive payoff for a psychology that did that?

Here’s an altogether more plausible alternative explanation: peacocks have evolved this trait and display it because peahens were more inclined to mate with males that had larger, costlier, and harder-to-fake signals of phenotypic quality (Zahavi, 1975). Peahens favored such males because these costly signals served as viable reproductive guarantees of healthy offspring, and male behavior and physiology changed to suit the preferences of females so as to capitalize on the increased potential for reproduction. Peacocks behave this certain way, then, to attract mates; not to objectify or disempower them. To couch this in terms of a specific video game example Anita mentions, Mario doesn’t rush into Bowser’s castle in order to reduce Princess Peach to a helpless object; he does so because, by doing so, he’s increasing the chances he’ll have the opportunity to have or maintain a relationship with her (though whether or not this is his conscious motivating drive is a separate question).

With this explanation in mind, let’s do our best to imagine that peacocks and peahens decided to do distinctly human-like things, such as fantasizing and telling stories. What would the content of such things tend to be,? It seems that the sex of the individual in question would matter a great deal: the males might be enthralled by imagining tales of conflicts between other males with impressive ornaments, both displaying them for a desired female, and fantasize about displaying such an impressive ornament that the female who observed it couldn’t help but fall madly in love with him. Females, on the other hand, might find stories about other females deciding between their various competitors to be altogether more engaging, fantasizing about the social intricacies of deciding upon one male or another. You could think the distinction being something along the lines of the peacocks enjoying movies more along the lines of Die Hard and peahens being more inclined towards Twilight. Both stories involve a good deal of male-male competition, but the focus of the story would either center on the male or female perspective in that competition.

Let’s finally assume that this species of bird came across the technological capabilities to translate their fantasies into video games. Arguably, it’s easier to translate certain aspects of the the typical male fantasy into something resembling a video game that’s entertaining to play. While one could easily imagine a game where a peacock moves from level to level by out-competing his rivals, it’s less easy to imagine a game centered around female choice of partners (more succinctly, while Twilight might make an appealing series of books and movies, it might not make a good video game). Tying this back to Anita’s video, she seems to suggest that male video game designers are trying to tap into male power fantasies to sell more video games and, importantly, that they do this to the exclusion of women. What she did not seem to consider are two alternative explanations: (1) how easily are typically male and female fantasies turned into entertaining video games and/or (2) are the people making these games simply expressing their own preferences for what they find appealing, rather than trying to explicitly appeal to the preferences of others? Regarding that second point, imagine asking men to write a story that they were either trying to sell or not sell: would the content of these stories between the two groups differ significantly in terms of major themes, like the use of a damsel in distress? Certainly an interesting question: perhaps it’s one that Anita might have considered answering…

Or, you know, she could just take pictures in front of video games; that works too.

So we now have the beginnings of a plausible explanation for understanding the first question (why are men typically rescuing women, rather than the reverse) and have considered some alternative explanations as to why such a theme might be as common as it is across time and genres. It might not be too much, but it’s at least a start, providing us with some considerations that help us interpret the meager amount of information Anita offers.

To conclude, let’s briefly consider further why some of Anita’s beliefs about the motivations of male video game characters and designers, are, at the very least, likely in need if revision. There is another research finding that casts severe doubt on the “men view women as helpless objects in need of saving” angle that Anita seems to favor. When a mixed-sex group of 3 people was made up of 2 men and 1 woman, men were found to universally volunteer and end up in a role that caused them discomfort; what awful paternalistic sexist crap, right? Surely women could handle that discomfort just as well as the men, so men must be pushing women out of the hero role to fulfill their own power fantasies. By contrast, however, when then groups were made up of 1 man and 2 women, men ended up in this “protective” role at chance levels (McAndrew & Perilloux, 2012). So unless the hypothesis is to be amended to “men tend to view women as powerless and in need of rescue but only in the presence of other men (or, perhaps, when women are relatively scarce); oh, and also women tend feel the same way about the whole being protected by men thing”, one could conclude there’s likely some wrong with Anita’s hypothesis. If only she had done some kind of research to figure that out…

(I’d also like to note, as a bit of off-topic point, the apparent contrast between Anita’s proposed videos #4 and #9. It looks like she’s exploring the trope of women being sexy and evil in 4, and the trope of being unattractive and evil in 9, both of which are apparently unacceptable. Damned if the villainess is attractive; damned if she isn’t. But hey, only an approximate $260 per minute for this knowledge, right?)

References: McAndrew, F.T. & Perilloux, C. (2012). Is self-sacrifical competitive altruism primarily a male activity? Evolutionary Psychology, 10, 50-65

Zahavi, A. (1975). Mate selection—A selection for a handicap Journal of Theoretical Biology, 53 (1), 205-214 DOI: 10.1016/0022-5193(75)90111-3





15 comments on “Tropes Against Video Games

  1. If your peacock theory is correct, men shouldn’t be making themselves all sweaty and unappealing by doing stuff. I mean, ew. They should wear pretty clothes, put on makeup, and dance for women’s enjoyment.

    Obviously, human men are doing evolution wrong. Evolve correctly, you guys!

    • Jesse Marczyk on said:

      I’d rather replace bars with headbutting competitions like rams, but that’s just my preference.

  2. If you think you can do better and should get paid for your blog, it’s within your power to make your own kickstarter and video series. That’s the thing about kickstarter – anyone can do it! Or you could just keep complaining. Lots of people have claimed they could make a better analysis of these tropes than Anita, but have always backed out when asked, which makes them look like liars. Are you going to be better than that?

    • Jesse Marczyk on said:

      I had debated starting a kickstarter for my responding to each of her videos in turn, but I didn’t have an employer identification number which you need for amazon to pay for you it. I just didn’t much want to register for it just for that.

      • There’s more crowdfunding sites than Kickstarter, a quick google will bring you a plethora of options for fundraising.

        • Unending Improvement on said:

          I think you’re missing the point. There would be nothing financially lucrative in Jesse posting videos.

          On the other hand, there is plenty of money available to be donated to advance feminist causes.

    • I think he just did

  3. Unending Improvement on said:

    Beyond all this, I would be willing to allege that Anita is not fulfilling the terms by which people donated money to her.

  4. Horse Whisperer on said:

    I think Mario wants Princess Peach’s eggs. He wouldn’t be so keen to rescue her if she was old and her ovaries were empty. A young virgin female full of eggs is a prize worth risking your life for.

    • Jesse Marczyk on said:

      That is a very good point to make, though it’s generally not all that specific to women. In the vast majority of video games, you’ll see relatively young, attractive women being rescued by relatively young, attractive men. In other words, people who are often at or around the peak of their sexual desirability engaging in costly displays of mating effort. Yes, there are of course exceptions, where you play as slightly younger or older characters, but these are far less frequent (or so my anec-data suggest). Geoffrey Miller expressed a very similar idea in a number of places, but here’s a good one: specifically, the section on “Darwinian demographics of cultural display”

      [EDIT]: I should add that, even if the story doesn’t directly involve saving women (as many games and stories certainly do not), they also mostly contain costly, heroic, or otherwise dangerous acts (such as fighting off alien hordes, killing supernatural beings, killing other, very human, enemies, and in many cases, the ones doing the killing and being killed are both men), which can similarly be the result of sexual signaling. They can also be the result of other things, such as avoiding being killed oneself, but the point remains all the same in many cases; that is to say, not many games are entitled “flee from your attackers”.

      • Moiphy Pendleton on said:

        Generally, games that involve lots of running away and that sort of thing exist to deconstruct the kind of fantasies humans naturally have. Those games are usually survival horror games, the goal of which is to unsettle the player and make them question themselves. It would seem that this kind of game would be the most appealing to Anita…except that some of the best have very prevalent themes of “sexual horror,” which I’m sure she would find some way to interpret as misogyny. Plus, something about the way she presents herself leads me to believe that she couldn’t handle a trip to Silent Hill.

  5. Anonymouse on said:

    “Mario doesn’t rush into Bowser’s castle in order to reduce Princess Peach to a helpless object”

    Aren’t you misrepresenting the argument here? Sarkeesian isn’t saying that the male characters are objectifying the female characters, but that the game’s designers are doing so.

    The Mario games’ tendency to follow this trope would be much less of an issue if, for example, the princess repeatedly escaped at the end of each world and Bowser chased her onward to the next world’s ending, with Mario in pursuit the whole way. At least then her character would exhibit something resembling agency, instead of being just a static object at the far end of the game.

    • Jesse Marczyk on said:

      In the case of Mario, and many other games, I don’t think the plot device is problematic in the first place, as it seems to have been added as a nearly-instantaneous way of giving players some reason, no matter how small, for the game play. I found this video on the subject to be an excellent response.

      • seymour on said:

        yes, but why is it so often men saving women in videogames? it really doesn’t have to be so, especially today. relying on sexist shorthand to justify game play is ridiculous.

        anita points out that by having women so often as the saved and men as the savior creates a giant mosaic image of women as powerless which is false and unfair.

        • Jesse Marczyk on said:

          I wouldn’t call that storyline sexist, nor would I say it is in any way unique to video games. In fact, I don’t know of any evidence, nor does Anita present us with any, to suggest it’s even particularly common there, relative to other mediums like movies or books (whether marketed towards men or women). Anita indeed asserts something along the lines of it making women seem powerless; she also asserts all sorts of other things, one of which being that there’s no difference in strength between men and women, which is patently false. I don’t find her assertions to be particularly compelling.