A retrospective on the evolution of feminine characters in virtual worlds

Media critic Anita Sarkeesian, who uploads videos under the name FeministFrequency to YouTube, started a series titled Tropes vs. Women in Video Games. The series analyzes the roles of female characters in video games, with a central focus on the recurring “damsel in distress” trope.

The website TV Tropes provides the definition: “a trope is a convention. It can be a plot trick, a setup, a narrative structure, a character type, a linguistic idiom… you know it when you see it.”

Sarkeesian describes this specific trope as “a plot device, in which a female character is placed in a perilous situation from which she cannot escape on her own, and must be rescued by a male character, usually providing the core incentive or motivation for the protagonist’s quest.”

Examples of damsel characters include Princess Peach from the Super Mario Bros. series and Princess Zelda from the Legend of Zelda series.

However there are many more, and Sarkeesian states that the prevalence of this storytelling device is problematic because “at its heart, the damsel trope is not really about women at all. She simply becomes the central object in a competition between men.”

“Damseled women are being acted upon, most often becoming or reduced to a prize to be found, a treasure to be won or a goal to be achieved.”

Sarkeesian’s analysis of the prominence of damsels in distress in video games got me thinking about my own interactions with female characters in video games as I was growing up.

DISCOVERING VIDEO GAMES IN CHILDHOOD

My first experience with video games happened when I was five years old. My grandparents in Saskatchewan had an original Nintendo Entertainment System from the 1980s and I used to spend time playing Super Mario Bros. 3 on the console.

I don’t have any memory of Princess Peach in that game, most likely meaning that as a character I didn’t find her presence in the story to be important or meaningful. This marks my first experience with the “damsel in distress” trope that Sarkeesian explores in her video series.

Years later, when Pokémon Red and Blue came out for Nintendo’s portable Game Boy system, I saved until I had enough money for a Game Boy Pocket and a copy of Pokémon Red. When Pokémon Gold came out, I saved to buy it as well.

One thing that I noted, even at a young age, was the lack of female protagonists in these games. This didn’t really bother me however, since my sights were set on becoming the best Pokémon master of all time.

In 2001, Pokémon Crystal was released, and with it came the option to choose the gender of your character. Each new addition to the game series has allowed the player to make this choice ever since.

GROWING UP WITH GAMES

As I grew older, my taste in video games expanded to include many games, but my favourite characters appeared in the Legend of Zelda series, the Golden Sun series, Final Fantasy, Silent Hill and Diablo.

I played almost every Legend of Zelda game that was released for every console and handheld platform up until 2007. The main motive for the adventure in the majority of these games remained the capture and imprisonment of a female character close to Link.

However, the role of female characters in the series has grown over the years. In TheOcarina of Time, there is a female bodyguard who orchestrates the princess’ escape. In the same game, Zelda assumes the secret identity of Sheik and helps Link throughout his quest.

I found Tetra to be the most interesting incarnation of Zelda. A hotheaded, fearless and bossy pirate captain, she appears as a main character in two games in the series.

My interactions with female characters in games included more than just damsels in distress. There are five major female characters in Golden Sun and Golden Sun: The Lost Age, developed by Camelot and released for the Game Boy Advance in 2001 and 2003 respectively.

The trope Sarkeesian describes appears in the game, as part of the protagonist’s motivation to go on their adventure is the rescue of childhood friend Jenna. However, a female healer character is part of the main party.

More interestingly, one of the major antagonists in the first game is female. She was the first extremely powerful female character I encountered in a video game and I found her to be the most fascinating.

Women’s roles expand even more in the second game, where two interesting, complex and powerful female characters join the group.

I have mixed feelings about the female characters in the Final Fantasy series. On one hand, there are a lot of them – and they’re some of the most well-known characters in the video game world.

However, I can remember talking with a friend about the release of Final Fantasy X-2, when her little brother interrupted to tell us that it was a game for guys only, because of the scantily-clad outfits worn by the female protagonists of the game.

Similarly, when you get the option to play as a female character in Diablo 2 you get the choice between playing a sorceress or amazon, both scantily clad in the official artwork for the game.

Silent Hill 3, released in 2003, is one of my favourite games and also happens to be one featuring a complex, realistic female protagonist. Heather Mason is a hotheaded, stubborn teenager who struggles her way through the horrific alternate world of

Silent Hill to exact revenge on the woman responsible for killing her father.
I looked up to each of the characters I mentioned above, despite in some cases never being able to live up to the ideals they represented, because they were examples of women with active roles in a game.

THE PRESENT LANDSCAPE OF THE GAMING WORLD

A quick glance at the world of video games today reveals that the representations of women in video games are changing. Popular games such as Skyrim and Diablo 3 allow the player to choose the gender of their character and I’m encouraged to note that the character design in Diablo 3 is more realistic now.

The release of Final Fantasy XIII made the determined female character Lightning the protagonist of the game. The reboot of the Tomb Raider series redesigned sex symbol Lara Croft to look like a normally proportioned woman.

However, there are still very few games centred on female characters, in comparison to the vast amount of male-centred video games. Sarkeesian recently tweeted that Microsoft’s Xbox One event featured no female protagonists in the games presented at the E3 conference.

Despite this grim note, I hope the video game landscape will continue to evolve to the point where young girl gamers have an abundance of female protagonists to look up to in the future.

ksaretsky@cjournal.ca