Beyond Damsels & Villains in ‘A Tale of Two Rulers’

A Tale Of Two Rulers

[Editor’s Note: This piece was inspired by “We Could Be Heroes: Revisionist Gaming & Representation.” It’s recommended that you read it first!]

In March 2013, media critic Anita Sarkeesian launched the video webseries Tropes vs. Women in Video Games where she argues that games are subject to gendered biases. The Legend of Zelda is one of the gaming franchises Sarkeesian critiques in the first episode of Tropes vs. Women, as many of the Zelda titles contain classic examples of a trope that she refers to as “damseling.”

Damseling, in its purest form, is the process by which a woman is rendered inert and thereby positioned as an object that will motivate the player character—a man—to complete his quest. The point of the game is therefore to rescue the damsel in distress, who is subordinate to the hero and is not allowed to rescue herself, generally because she is, as Sarkeesian puts it, “Stranded in a hostile area, trapped, desperately ill, or suffering any number of terrible fates where she needs help to survive.”

In the Zelda series, Princess Zelda is frequently such a damsel, as she is variously kidnapped, imprisoned, placed into an enchanted sleep, crystalized, zombified, and turned to stone. The player’s job, as a young man named Link, is to acquire a weapon powerful enough to defeat the villainous Ganondorf and save Zelda, a narrative that forms the core of the eponymous “Legend of Zelda.”

What do players who are women make of Zelda’s role in this story? Is it necessary to take the plot elements of the series at face value, or are other interpretations possible? How do the games look from Zelda’s perspective?

And what about Ganondorf? What does it mean to be cast as the villain, unable to argue your own side of the story? Are the motivations of “the bad guys” ever so clear cut that we, as players, should feel justified in murdering them? Are there other ways to resolve the conflicts they represent?

Continue reading “Beyond Damsels & Villains in ‘A Tale of Two Rulers’”

Tropes vs Women: Feminist Frequency in the Classroom

Feminist Frequency

I questioned this lesson plan several times. I took it on and off the syllabus. It was the most nervous I had been to teach in years. Ultimately, I’m not sure why I ended up leaving Feminist Frequency’s “Damsel in Distress (Part 1) on my freshman composition syllabus. I know exactly why I wanted to take it off. I had never been big on bringing my politics into the classroom, preferring to discuss “neutral” topics, seem impartial, or let students pursue their own inquiry-led research. This required a departure from that teaching style.

More than that, I was afraid. I didn’t know what students might think or say about women in video games. Of course, teaching is always sort of like this. You never know what direction a conversation will take or what you might need to quickly respond to. This seemed more high-stakes than usual, though. Would students resist feminism or be reluctant to engage? Would the women in the classroom be shut down? Would I need to intervene in a hostile conversation? Even ask someone to leave the classroom?

And so, I was nervous. I typed out almost every word I wanted to say that day, making notes for myself about how I might steer back a troublesome conversation. I took extra time to get ready that morning, attempting to cover my nerves with a blazer and high heels.

My eighteen students — almost evenly men and women — had watched “Damsel in Distress” for homework that day. I reserved discussion until the very end in case things went badly.

It was the best classroom discussion I’ve ever had.

Continue reading “Tropes vs Women: Feminist Frequency in the Classroom”

Healing Potion: Self-Care for Women Who Game

Art by Ashe
Art by Ashe

[Editor’s Note: The title of this piece has been changed to reflect our new inclusivity policy. The link will remain the same.]

“I bet this was written by a woman.”

I remember my friend and I visiting a GameStop two years back to check on their preorders. While waiting, I had picked up a Game Informer and flipped to a top ten list of attractive characters who are men. It’s not very common to read a gaming article that presumes more than a straight dude reaction when it comes to sexuality, nor treats that attraction as something purely humorous (“I’d go gay for this guy! Just kidding, no homo.”). When my friend took out her wallet to pay, the two men behind the counter took a glance at what I was holding. The muttered rebuke of one had she and I momentarily speechless.

In hindsight, we really should’ve canceled that preorder.

After a while, each little flick to the proverbial nose starts to feel like a punch to the face. The “Are you on your period” when you show emotion during a match, the “Suck my dick” in online play, the unwanted come-ons during a social gathering, the skin-crawlingly specific threats to your person in a tweet—it’s all a gradual smother of a blanket you don’t even know is wrapped around you until you snatch a breath of fresh air. For the sake of brevity, let’s call that repeated peep out of the blanket ‘self-care.’

The women’s perspective saw many fascinating developments in the game industry during 2014. Everything from tactless commentary by leading developers to entire e-movements dedicated to the harassment and silencing of marginalized voices slammed one more nail into the coffin of women’s confidence and security. On the other hand, 2014 released multiple impressive games starring lady protagonists and prominent supporting lady characters (here’s winking at you, Never Alone and Inquisition), a surge of activity in feminist communities, and a flood of positive media and studio attention in favor of diversity.

Phew! How does one take care of themselves when everything attempts to whittle you into a bunch of curly little feminist pieces?

Continue reading “Healing Potion: Self-Care for Women Who Game”

The Gender Effect: Canon FemShep & Assigning Roles By Race

Mass Effect

Anita Sarkeesian mentioned Mass Effect in her “Tropes vs. Women” series, stating that with ‘male’ as the default, FemShep is more of an add-on rather than a character in her own right. That stuck with me, so I looked at the game far more critically to appraise the gender nuances within the whole series. There was good and bad in what I saw.

Despite what Jonathan Cooper tweeted above, it is clear that a number of actions Shepard takes in-game were designed around the male model, and all they apparently did was swap the male model with the female one with no change in actions. For example, whenever Shepard tries to cheer you up, the action seems to come right out of football where men routinely pat each other on the hips or butt. That is an action that very few women would do, even women in the military. Every time I see it, it makes me twitch.

However, despite this game design that has physical actions that do not fit with a female protagonist, there are a lot of interesting gender issues in the game. You encounter the Asari, a non-gendered race who concede to being referred to with female pronouns. There are the Turian, who you primarily encounter as male characters. As a race, they are rather militaristic and it shows. The Krogan are practically frat boys gone wild with an interesting society and the Salarian have differing genders with apparently different social roles. The Quarian are also a race with interesting gendered divisions. Then there are the Hanar, the big jellyfish who seem to be completely genderless.

Continue reading “The Gender Effect: Canon FemShep & Assigning Roles By Race”

Dream of the ’90s: The Evolution of Women’s Visibility in Gaming


When it comes to gaming, a common argument I hear is that women are just now entering the industry, and therefore have no right to complain about the culture. They even have less of a vote because, really, they are only doing it to get attention or to impress their boyfriend.

Recently, I posted on Tumblr my commentary regarding a GamerGate post (and not the “it’s about actually about ethics in gaming journalism” kind), which “chronicled” the history of women and gaming. The post argued that since 1995, women typically made fun of boys and their video games. Then, around 2006, we thought nobody was paying attention to us and decided we should start joining gamer culture (making a reference to Portal, with the whole “Cake Is A Lie” meme) and now we set out to ruin video game culture. Typically, I tend to ignore the GamerGate posts, but this one ticked me off. What a bunch of narcissistic, entitled idiots, I thought, and quickly crafted my response. It was only a short, hastily written summary of how this was completely crap based on my own experiences. But upon further consideration and deliberation, I felt like my argument just wasn’t fleshed out enough.

For as long as I can remember, my brother and I begged my mom for a video game console. The Nintendo 64 had just come out, and though we were amazed at the system, we would have easily been content with a Super Nintendo (Super Bomberman on the SNES is one of my favorite games of all time). Our mom never really wanted to have a gaming console in the house. After all, this was around the time Mortal Kombat and reports about video game violence were coming out, and with a seven and nine-year-old in 1996, she was worried about how this may affect her children. However, we did have old school GameBoys, and let me tell you, my brother and I played with those for years (I think I had mine up until 7th grade in 2001 … mind you, this is like the 1985 old school GameBoy, too, though I did have a Color GameBoy).

Continue reading “Dream of the ’90s: The Evolution of Women’s Visibility in Gaming”

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