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Searching for the Other Castle: Women as Objectives
by Mark Filipowich on 02/21/13 03:34:00 pm   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


In light of the fast approach of the release of Anita Sarkesian’s “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games,” series, concern about sexism in video games is a sleepless dog ready to get back to barking soon.

In recent years, there has been an increasing outcry against the sexual harassment that inundates the industry and community, it’s something that more and more people are paying attention to (no matter how hard they try not to). But curiously, no matter how fiercely critics react to the poor treatment of women, the portrayal of female characters in AAA games seems actually to be getting worse. Women are almost entirely unrepresented, and when they are represented, they exist only as a player objective.

The problem is different than in film. In film, when women are objectified, they are reduced to a good or service for the consumption of a male protagonist. The problem with portrayals of women on the silver screen is that they exist in service to male characters. Everything a woman in a film thinks and does is in response to a man, and without a man, she’s unable to think or do anything.

At the very least, though, she has thoughts and actions. These may be entirely in response to the male lead, but at the very least, there’s some acknowledgment that there’s something resembling an identity somewhere beneath her hormones and vanity. There’s no doubt that that’s a problem, but women in films are, again,at the very least, given some human characteristics—even if they are characteristics that serve a man.

In video games, however, women aren’t even given that much. They aren’t reduced to an object for consumption. They’re reduced to a win-condition. In a video game, women are not just objects, they’re objectives. This is different from being an object. An object gets screen time. An object is shown to have some use. If there’s a woman in a video game, she’s a princess in the last of a series of castles.

The princess is there to be pursued and, when captured, to conclude the story before she’s given the chance to really exist as anything other than something that the male hero wanted. Because games often focus so much more on a conflict than the resolution or consequences of a conflict, a woman is usually just the arbitrary reward that flashes by the protagonist before the credits roll.

This kind of portrayal can’t be chalked up to a handful of characters acting according to individual and discrete personalities because there’s such an established pattern of their existence in games. The problem is that the princess in another castle trope is depended upon so often and so heavily in video games—to the point that when a woman doesn’t fit this trope she is considered exotic. She’s a high-score screen in pink dressing used to motivate players.

The player lacks the coveted princess at the start menu, and when they’ve recovered her, the game ends. Women aren’t just things to be possessed. They’re carrots on the ends of sticks. Ultimately, women in games can’t even be owned because the second that they’re acquired there is no longer a story to tell. If the rescue fails, then the player returns to a checkpoint and tries again. The hero never really owns the princess because she isn’t even a thing to own. She’s just a figure to desire.

There’s no indication of what life is like with the princess or why the hero pursued her in the first place. There isn’t even a reason for the princess to be captured. The princess is just there because, well, the hero needs something to chase after. There’s seldom any explanation for why Peach or Zelda are ever abducted. They don’t have any apparent political value, they aren’t visionaries needed by their people, they don’t appear to be responsible for anything, and they’re MacGuffins.

Zelda almost never has any personality, goals, desires, wishes, fears, flaws, quirks, responsibilities, or anything to make her into a believable human being. The few times that Nintendo has put any effort into developing her character, they erase her humanity the second that she discovers her destiny and dons her pale pink captivity gown.

And while Nintendo may be responsible for the prototypical princess, they’re certainly not the only offenders.  Shadow of the Colossus, for all its artistry, follows the exact same template: a male hero surmounts a number of obstacles to earn himself a woman. In Bioshock, the hero is ultimately either rescuing Rapture’s little sisters or killing and harvesting them for their power. In either case, the little sisters are rewards at the end of the journey.

Dom of Gears of War is motivated by the search for his wife. The player never sees Maria or hears her speak for herself other than in one dream sequence in which she hands Dom some orange juice. The only thing that establishes that Maria and Dom were happily married is Dom’s word. But when Dom finally finds Maria injured in a POW camp, he puts her down like a lame bitch. Dom, a private with no known medical background, shoots his traumatized, malnourished wife in the head and leaves the rest of the camp imprisoned rather than calling in backup. Yet the supposed tragedy of the scene is that Dom has found his princess in a state in which she is not of any use to him.

Now THAT'S commitment

Alan Wake, Limbo, Shadow Complex, Kingdom Hearts, Ghosts’n Goblins, Resident Evil 4, and Double Dragon are all games about men chasing princesses from castle to castle. These are all good games with a lot of merit to them, but these games all fall into the same trap in which their female characters serve as distant, impersonal win-states. In these games, women are things to desire and when the male hero earns possession of them, everyone may live happily ever after. If they fail to possess them (as Dom does), then their lives are over and we’re left to lament the character’s itch that will never be scratched. The princess is never a person. She’s barely the idea of a person.

Not every game must include a well-rounded female character as a mark of quality. Not every game really even needs to include women (if anything, it’s better not to include a character at all rather than to force an offensive or superfluous token character into a plot), but every failure adds up. Every title doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and every time a game excludes or dehumanizes women by making them objectives, it’s another example of gender bias in the medium.

Each game that designs its female characters around the “Princess in Another Castle” model reinforces the stereotype. It’s the prevalence of the image that’s the problem. The problem with Ico isn’t that the boy leads the girl, the problem is that there are already so many games about active men leading passive, incompetent women, and Ico is another instance of a harmful trope.

There are only a handful of acceptable character templates for female characters. Depending on whether she’s aligned with the heroes or villains, she’s either a child/brat, maiden/whore or mother/crone. In the end, she’s still just a goal. She’s something to protect, rescue, destroy, or convert. In any case, the princess is there only to await a man’s action. When that action is fulfilled, her role is complete.

The solution to this problem is simple. Just stop making women into objectives. Include female characters and give them their own plans, make them active agents in pursuing those plans. If they fall in love with a male character, then it should be because of who he is and not because of something he’s done to prove his worth. If a woman is kept in a castle, make it clear why she’s being held and what the consequences of her abduction will actually be.

Give her personality, goals, desires, wishes, fears, flaws, quirks, and responsibilities. Make the women in games people. It isn’t very hard. It isn’t as though it hasn’t been done before—there are well written female characters in games. Some of them even wind up captives in some form of castle—but not enough. Every instance that bucks the trend is welcome.

Games are not just for teenage boys. It feels stupid to have to keep hearing and reading that but until attitudes change its needs to be repeated. Games never have been just for teenage boys but now more than ever people are losing patience with the juvenile nature of the medium. But until games themselves are willing to start showing that women are people, not things to covet, the undercurrent of chauvinism will not disappear.

Originally posted on PopMatters.

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Brad Borne
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When did the dog stop barking? I'm still seeing these articles everywhere.

Your main example just straight up doesn't work, though. Not a single character in any of the Mario games have any sort of personality. As Miyamoto says, they're actors filling roles, not characters with personalities. Mario is no more a developed character than Peach. He is nothing more than a vessel for the player, he has no 'thoughts and actions' of his own.

I'm really not even sure where you're trying to go with this. Some games tell the story of a person attempting to save someone that's close to them who has been taken away. I suppose us gamers enjoy rescuing people. Since players experience games the same way that the main character does, it's only logical that the endangered character is detached from the action, and not developed further. In Alan Wake, Alan's wife is developed just as well as he is in the beginning, and from then on, I would say that even Alan himself is detached from the story as his sanity is called into question.

I can't tell if your solution to develop our damsels in distress better from here on out, which would most likely be restrictive from a gameplay perspective, or stop chasing females, which, well, humans tend to chase members of the sex that they're attracted to, and art imitates life.

Resident Evil 4, though, seriously? How is Ashley a less developed character than Leon? And Resident Evil is a series that's known for awesome female characters (most of whom are lead playable characters!).

I think we can all agree that Dom shooting his wife was one of the worst scenes in mainstream gaming, though, but there was certainly a lot of complaining about it when it came out, so I don't think it's the best example of a complacent industry.

Matthew Calderaz
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Just to nitpick the Dom scene because it's so heavily cited in the argument... I thought his wife, (and everyone in the camp), had already undergone some sort of process to make them into Husks, (or on the way to being husks). Perhaps someone that's read any of the books can enlighten us, but it was most certainly not a case of shooting her for being malnourished!

I otherwise agree with Brad.

Give us well developed, realistic characters and stories in general, and we'll see more equitable treatment of women as a consequence of good story-telling. This narrow-minded focus on female characters not being well developed is putting the cart before the horse.

Brad Borne
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@Matthew: Yeah, I think it was supposed to be a terribly unsettling moment of utter hopelessness. I think that it could be argued, though, that if it was Cole or another main character that you were saving, they would have been fine.

I don't have a problem with games causing negative emotions, I think the problem was that Dom's actions felt so completely different from what I wanted to do (bring her home and let her die in piece, find a cure?). I'm mostly convinced that it was done so that the gameplay wouldn't be affected, but didn't the two main dudes drag a bomb around near the beginning of the game? Maybe if she was shot by an enemy in crossfire instead?

There's certainly no lack of death in the Gears franchise, so I don't know if I would even say that she was being treated differently from the males in the franchise...

Perhaps what I should have said was that there was no lack of criticism of that scene almost immediately after the game was released, so articles like this just come off as, as you more specifically stated, acting like lack of characterization is a women only problem, or preaching to the choir.

Jeremy Reaban
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Yes, women play video games, too. But I think it's a bad thing to pretend that men and women have the same taste in video games.

There's a huge aspect of the industry that almost never gets talked about here, casual PC gaming, like at Big Fish Games.

Look at their games. Probably 90% of them have a woman as the protagonist. Often looking for her husband or boyfriend, or sometimes single and meeting a guy. Or sometimes no guy involved at all, like a woman running her own business. Should those games start having more male protagonists? I don't think so, because it fits their target audience.

Another example, there's like what, 30 Nancy Drew adventure games? But only a few Hardy Boys ones. Why? Because the demographics that like that sort of game is more drawn to Nancy Drew than the Hardy Boys.

Indeed, look at fiction - do men read paranormal romance like Twilight, or its spinoffs, like 50 Shades of Grey? Er, no.

Men & women are equal, but they are also different.

Andy Lundell
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"There’s seldom any explanation for why Peach or Zelda are ever abducted."
Which is weird, because they ALWAYS explain why some random Italian plumber is in charge of rescuing her.

"They don’t have any apparent political value"
If you HAVE to think things through that far, which you certainly don't, kidnappings are usually for ransom. Presumably the royal family is loaded, even though they don't have any security.
(Frankly, I find it difficult to imagine a society where royals are NOT valuable targets for kidnappers. )

"In any case, the princess is there only to await [the player]’s action. When that action is fulfilled, her role is complete."
That describes virtually every single element in a video game. This line of reasoning, on its own, in the simplistic form presented in this article, does not help identify or correct sexism. I would propose that it does more harm than good.

"Make the women in games people. It isn’t very hard."
If only that were true! It's rare to find a video game character that feels as much a "person" as a character from a book or movie does, and when you do it's virtually always not as interactive as it could have been otherwise.
For instance, is Mario a person? How could you easily make him one? Could you do it without tedious non-interactive cutscenes?

"If a woman is kept in a castle, make it clear why she’s being held and what the consequences of her abduction will actually be."
Who would give a shit?
And more to the point : How would it help?

You're proposing naive solutions that don't have any connection to the examples. I mean, we're still talking about Princess Peach, right?

Imagine SMB was prefaced with a block of text that explains that Bowser kidnapped the princess hoping to make a profit of fifty-thousand coins from her ransom, and that the consequences of her being kidnapped would be..., well, they'd be exactly what you expect, she would lose her freedom and the kingdom would lose one of its royals. Done. That was easy. HOORAY! WE'VE SOLVED SEXISM!

That wouldn't be better; that would be worse in a handful of different ways.

Jacob Pederson
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Personally, I always took Mona as Wander's Sister in Shadow of the Colossus.

I do agree with a lot of your points in this article; although I think its dangerous to fixate on them too much. I don't think there is anything wrong with the princess in Mario being a goal only. As a metaphor, it's works just fine representing male psychology.

Where "female as goal" becomes a problem is when it becomes the dominant metaphor. Thankfully we have plenty of alternatives out there like Skyrim and Mass Effect, were Female protagonists are here today :)

Brad Borne
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I think that's actually one of my main problems with this article. How awesome is it that we don't know who Mona is? No, seriously, I absolutely love the mystery of it all.

I was reading some online analysis of the unknowns of the game (which wouldn't exist if everything was explained plainly!), and it seems like the consensus is that Wander himself was part of the organization / cult that comes looking for him, and he himself sacrificed Mona! The analysis involved subtle clues, like how Mona didn't recognize Agro, and how much bigger Agro was than Wander, how comfortable Agro was with Wander riding in fancy ways while shooting arrows.

I think SotC is a good example, too, since, well, EVERYTHING in the game is just as, if not more so, mysterious ('underdeveloped') as Mona.

Really though, I'd much rather listen to women who have actually played these games write about how they feel about the characters.

And yes, my Jane Shepard was awesome, they should have just had her, honestly. I'm really looking forward to see how well the next gen can portray female characters.