I recently watched an interview where the subject presented a lot of strange assertions and vague generalizations. Most of them are probably easily disproved, but one of them touched on something I know a little bit about. The subject (who shall not be named) said that her first experience with gaming was with the NES and Super Mario Bros., which introduced her to the damsel in distress trope early on, presenting a female in the game as a “trophy” to win. I thought about this for awhile, remembering my own NES, and I wanted to explore this idea and see if the NES did have an issue with misrepresentation of women from the start, or if perhaps that perception is simply the fault of the observer or just bad memory. First, however, let me give a little background. Contrary to a lot of the more prominent voices chastising gamers these days, I am what I believe is referred to as an ‘original gamer’. The first I heard that phrase was recently so I may be misusing it. I played on the Comodore 64 in the early 90’s, but my first console was the Atari 5200 years before. I had friends who had the Atari 3200, and I’ve even seen an Intellivision work before it was considered nostalgic. We had an NES, and my folks sprung for the whole package, robot, light gun, games and all. My first PC was an IBM 386 and I actually did play Oregon Trail on an Apple IIe, so when I say gaming is a subject dear to my heart I’m not just paying lip service.
Also, a word on the ‘issues’ in games that really do exist, because it seems like if you argue anything on this front without touching this, people will just claim you are blind to the issues. Yes, there are sexist games. There are games geared just toward people who like to look at scantily clad women (stop saying marketed just to men unless you believe no women enjoy this too and are blind to women who love women). Yes, there are games that are ultra-violent, and some that are horrifying. There are also games that are highly story-driven with little to no violence, and without any skin showing on their female characters. The point is, there is a great deal of diversity in games, and there has been for some time. Just like movies, books, and magazines, games are going to be made to fit a target demo’s ideas of good games, and marketed to that demo. Did we see groups of men protesting the release of Magic Mike, demanding a more tasteful representation of men in a movie that was obviously marketed to women, and men to enjoy looking at men? No. Do you have entire movements devoted to getting more male-centered articles in Cosmo? No. Men who aren’t interested in those things just don’t buy them, and we’re fine with that. Could there be more games that appeal to women? Sure, but that’s becoming harder to define. Despite that there are companies out there doing exactly that, instead of complaining and sitting on their hands vilifying an entire industry, development companies are addressing this issue head-on and guess what? No sensible people are arguing against it. Most people don’t care what game a company releases because each of us will buy the games we want despite how many different types are on the shelf. Oh, and why is the female demographic becoming harder to define? Just like the male demographic has evolved, there are more consumers out there that openly prefer, or at least equally enjoy, alluring images of the same sex. The shocking thing about that statement is it seems to be the people claiming to be the most inclusive that ignore that fact. That’s something I’ll probably touch on more in Part 2 so if you enjoy this article come back and check it out.
Before we get our hands dirty digging into the contention that NES was, from the beginning, a misogynistic male power fantasy device (using their language here, I find that completely mind-numbing) I want to touch on tropes just a second. Not a lot of people are familiar with that word, though it’s becoming more prominent lately. A trope, in this sense, is a common or overused theme, a cliche in other words. The problem is, the word is so improperly overused it has become, itself, a trope. Tropes are not bad, as some people seem to be saying, they’re just lazy. As a very popular fantasy author put it recently, tropes are useful when creating your story early on, it allows the author to insert the most basic character framework to plot their story before they sit down to give life to those characters. It’s when you use tropes exclusively, or for your main characters, that they become a problem, but only in the sense that the author didn’t fully do their job. That said, something like a ‘damsel in distress’ is not automatically a trope just because it is a woman. That is just a specific type of hero story, saving something important to the protagonist. Whether it’s the hero saving his/her friend, saving the world, saving his/her dog, or saving his/her lover, it is a classic story and shouldn’t be thrown away as a trope just because the subject of the saving is a woman. So, that said, was the ‘damsel in distress’ actually a trope when the NES first came out? Was the selection of video games for young people in 1985 just a bunch of young male power fantasies with a woman being the reward for completing the game, like some mindless pixelated trophy wife? No.
So let’s pull apart this cherry-picked claim that someone’s first experience with the NES, and gaming in general, somehow links to the exposure to a trope, and whose fault that is. When the NES released in the States in ’85 it was a hit, and created a new business model for games that would continue into the future. There were 18 launch titles to choose from:
- 10-Yard Flight
- Clu Clu Land
- Duck Hunt
- Donkey Kong Jr. Math
- Hogan’s Alley
- Ice Climber
- Kung Fu
- Mach Rider
- Wild Gunman
- Wrecking Crew
- Super Mario Bros.
That is quite a diverse selection of games: 4 sports games, 3 puzzle games, 3 shooting-gallery type games, one educational and one arcade game, 2 racing games, 2 adventure games and one fighting game with Kung Fu. Out of those 18 games do you know which is the only one where the objective is to save the girl? One. One in 18, which if that’s not cherry-picking to prove a point I don’t know what is. One game in 18 does not even come close to showing a bias for tropes in the NES lineup in 1985. To me it says more about the person making the statement that of all 18 games available at the time, Super Mario Bros. was their definitive NES experience and subjected them to the ‘damsel’ trope.
In fact, in 8 of those games you played yourself or an androgynous character whose gender was left up to your imagination whether intentionally or by coincidence. You’re either the first person view, with no avatar, or you’re a race car/bike driver in a full fire suit and helmet. In two of those games you aren’t even a human character, and one of them actually includes a female protagonist which wasn’t all that common back then. So in those 18 launch games, only about half of them include explicitly male protagonists. While there might be verifiable gender issues in video games to follow, the idea that someone was exposed to sexist or harmful tropes when the NES came out is flawed. It’s especially flawed to choose one game out of the first 18, the ONLY game in that lineup with this ‘trope’ as an example of a problem with the whole. Perhaps we’ll do a poll on all the games licensed for Nintendo so that we aren’t cherry-picking just 18 but for the sake of first impressions from NES I think we’ve settled this one, what do you think?
I’m not sure how many parts we’ll have in this series, but I can’t think of a couple more issues I’m interested in exploring. Next we’ll look at a real trope that is being pushed in a number of narratives across media, and has been the go-to stereotype for years. The Male Gamer, oftentimes simply referred to as the Gamer. Stay tuned.