The world has become incredibly modern. We now live in the 20th century which has incorporated technology in even the most basic strata of our lives, and video games are an intricate part of it. From the creation of Pong in 1958, the world of video games has undergone tremendous change and evolution, with regards to gameplay and visuals along with performance.
However, in one aspect, even in the 20th century, the world of gaming is in a state of homeostasis – this aspect being gender equality. Leaving aside a few recent releases, the world of video games has set some predetermined stereotypical gender-based roles that need to be followed without exception: the woman being the damsel in distress and the man as the knight in shining armour being the hero who rescues the helpless, defenceless lady and saves the day.
Across the history of video games, from the classics to contemporaries, female characters have been fetishized in the sense that they appeal to hypermasculine desires when they play the roles of the damsel in distress and sidekick to the male protagonists. When they occupy such positions, male gamers fulfil their fantasies of saving, protecting and guiding women. Through the medium of video games, they project such desires onto these characters, fetishizing them so that they can interact with and accomplish their fantasies as if they happened in real life. Furthermore, questions of race, sexual orientation and other factors either drive such characters into marginalization or go unasked altogether.
The woman being the damsel in distress and the man as the knight in shining armour is the hero.
This trend is existent from the beginning of digitalized gameplay to even now. Even though in recent years, games have strayed away from these airtight predefined roles, the pattern is still present and visible. The infamous game Donkey Kong is a supreme example of role association. It is one of the primary examples of such predefined gender role establishments. This game revolves around the protagonist Mario, who is on a quest to save his paramour named Pauline when she’s kidnapped. This game is one of the primary examples of the introduction of the damsel in distress trope.
Another wildly popular game of the same franchise and the same scenario is the classic and incredibly popular game Super Mario Brothers. Wherein the player has to play as the protagonist Mario (or the younger sibling Luigi) and travel around the world beating various obstacles in order to rescue Princess Peach. Throughout the Mario franchise, the primary role of Princess Peach is set as someone in constant need of rescuing, someone who cannot protect herself and needs to rely on the strength and bravery of a male character. Peach has occasionally been known to take on a heroic role, but as the Princess of Mushroom Kingdom, she has been repeatedly kidnapped since childhood. One might describe her as the quintessential damsel in distress.
These two are arcade games and two of the oldest and most renowned games. The concept that they establish is copied and enhanced (not for the better) for games succeeding them. Even in the 21st century, the games have not evolved.
Resident Evil 4, released on various platforms including PlayStation 1 & 2, also suffers from the same. The daughter of the president of the United States is kidnapped by a mysterious cult in Spain and the protagonist is sent to rescue her. Throughout the game, the damsel Ashley Graham does little apart from running and screaming. She is portrayed as a young defenceless woman incapable of protecting herself from anything, be it enemies, projectiles or even a simple bear trap. She depends on the protagonist Leon for absolutely everything.
Lara Croft can be seen as a strong and determined individual that needs no one’s help.
These games have portrayed women as weak, helpless and incapable of surviving on their own. However, these problematic video games do not even hold a candle to the crude portrayal of women as done by the infamous Grand Theft Auto franchise. These games have shown women to be nothing but hapless victims, with no purpose other than satiating men’s desires. Even in their latest instalment, Grand Theft Auto 5, the portrayal of women is derogatory, with no visible purpose, drive or any feature that makes them stand out as characters.
However, to say that the world of gaming has totally ignored the presence/place of women would be incorrect, since in the past few years, many games have been created with a central female character. The Tomb Raider series can be observed in this regard. Lara Croft is a relatable character with an admirable skill set. She takes on various missions in order to uncover deep secrets regarding the world and her own family. This game is a true delight in terms of gender dynamics. Lara Croft can be seen as a strong and determined individual that needs no one’s help. She is an amazing explorer with skills like parkour, combat abilities and intellect. She can be considered as an inspiration to all.
Many other games have now started to adopt this practice of a central female lead or a strong, determined female character who is relatable, like the Tekken and Mortal Combat series, Joan of Arc, Last of Us, etc. Hence even though traits of discrimination and role establishment still pervade throughout the gaming industry, it can be observed that the industry is moving, though gradually, to a more egalitarian state. Since video games serve as a model of socialization, the values may be instilled in the players, thus enabling improved gender dynamics in reality.
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Image source used for representation purpose only. Image credits: Feminist Frequency