The 5 Worst Moments for Women in Video Games

17 September, 2010 § 6 Comments

Just as a warning, this post has lots of swears. Read at your own discretion.

Video games have been the realm of men since their first spurt in popularity in the early 1980s. It’s not that women never played “Duck Hunt” or “Super Mario,” they just didn’t flock to gaming like men did. After two decades of being marginalized, underrepresented, and alienated, women are finally a considerable part of the gaming community – 48%, by recent estimates. But after reading this list of little-known and legendary games, you’ll understand why it’s taken so long for women to form a major part of the gaming community.

Case in point: typing in "girl gamer" on Google images. Although very outdated (joysticks anyone?) this was the least offensive and sexualized image.

5. “Daikatana,” or, “John Romero’s about to make you his bitch.” (2000)

(personal computer, Nintendo 64, Nintendo GameBoy)

An oldie but goodie (baddie?). John Romero was the mastermind behind id Software, the pioneering gaming company behind “Doom,” “Quake,” andWolfenstein 3D”: three titles that influenced literally EVERY first person shooter (FPS) game ever made since the mid-1990s. So what prompted the ridiculously smug self-aggrandizing of this little slogan?

By the late ‘90s, Romero was a rock star in the gaming world. He had his own huge penthouse and office building in Dallas, his own online gaming league (the Cyberathlete Professional League), and had revolutionized the entire gaming industry with an impressive list of incredible titles. John Romero had every right to be a smug asshole – but like every classic smug asshole, Romero was about to meet his match in his bloated megafailure, “Daikatana.”

“Daikatana” was years overdue, millions overbudget, and tanking publicly. As one final act of defiance against the gaming industry he helped create, Romero took out a single page ad in various gaming magazines consisting of two black sentences against a blood red background:

No thanks. We'd rather not.

 

The gauntlet was cast… and subsequently ridiculed. Romero received even more derision for such a petty and immature retort to the PR nightmare over the unfulfilled promises of “Daikatana.” Any potential vindication for Romero as a person was gone by the time “Daikatana” was finally released in 2000 – and even then the game flopped harder than the “E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” game for the Atari.

The message itself speaks like the smack talk ever-present in competitive gaming, which Romero also pioneered. Romero was speaking to the gaming community in the way gamers speak to each other – unfortunately, he disregarded whether or not there were any women gamers who would be offended (there were), or a hungry media waiting for American video games’ golden god to fuck up (there were), or if his grandiose and childish swipe at an entire community would backfire (it did). Romero’s use of the word “bitch” didn’t legitimize it to gamers, but it made it quite clear what the ultimate insult in gaming would be for years to come.

The whole incident shows the harmful sexist language that became the standard smack talk of online gaming. Hardly a round of any online first person shooter goes by without cries of “bitch,” “faggot,” or even “woman,” making clear that anything which deviates from the heterosexual male norm is unwanted in the gaming community. As a popular and incredibly important figure, John Romero didn’t start this trend; he made it acceptable and standardized the sexism inherent in gaming dialogue.

Thanks John Romero!

4. “Super Mario” (1981-present)

(All Nintendo systems)

No, not because it’s one of the most wildly popular video games of all time. Not because Mario is as iconic to video gaming as Hitchcock is to film or Tolkien is to fantasy literature. And not even because Mario is so damn inoffensive and I’m trying to do this for shock value or to keep my already dwindling readers intrigued. Mario earns his spot on this list by being the very first truly great exponent of gaming-as-male-fantasy.

Before every single person who has played a game in the history of ever bludgeons me to death for overriding douchebaggery, HEAR ME OUT. Mario plays into one of the oldest sexist stories ever: the hero who rescues the princess from a monster. To make it worse, rescuing the princess is so goddamn intolerable and fraught with frustration that by the time you finally free her from Bowser’s brutish turtle claws you don’t even care. In fact, you’re mad as hell at Princess Peach for somehow disappearing from every castle you’ve survived and putting you through so much hard work. And your reward? One kiss. You’d think Mario would get nothing short of married to the Princess if he’s so dedicated and she’s so grateful. But instead Mario gets a kiss on his cheek, collapses into a dazed pile, and the game ends. “Ha ha!” laughs Shigeru Miyamoto somewhere in his mansion made entirely of money. “Gotcha!”

...and a million misogynists were born?

More than anything else in the game, Princess Peach frustrates the player. It’s very hard to go through so many levels and at the end of each boss fight get the same result: “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!” The phrasing of this is key: it’s not that Bowser, alerted to Mario’s one-man assault a la Schwarzenegger in “Commando,” retreated and took his main hostage with him. If this were the case, Toad would be saying “I’m sorry, but Bowser has taken the Princess to another castle! Shit sucks, bro!” Instead, there is no mention of Bowser or any baddie for that matter; blame is placed squarely on Princess Peach for Mario’s continued suffering. It’s no wonder Princess Peach is one of the most despised characters in video gaming [1]. Maybe the next item on the list should be dedicated to Toad as one of video gaming’s premiere misogynists? No, instead it’s…

3. “Grand Theft Auto 3″ (2001)

(Sony Playstation 2, Microsoft Xbox, personal computer)

Legendary film critic Roger Ebert drew considerable criticism from the gaming community after writing an article in 2006 claiming that video games could never be considered works of art. Ebert later admitted he had never played a video game before and thus saying anything authoritative about video games was like writing a review of a film based off another review of that film without ever actually seeing the mystery film, and modified his statement because he’s an old, senile coot and should stick to what he knows.

ANYWAYS, Ebert concluded that video games might one day be considered works of art, but nowhere in his lifetime or in the lives of many modern gamers. New Yorker contributor Tom Bissell responded, “There are times when I think [“Grand Theft Auto”] is the most colossal creative achievement of the last 25 years.” Though both are critical and skeptical of video games as art, both Bissell and Ebert bring up important points in their criticisms.

Let’s think of the history of video games in terms of the history of film. Film started more or less in the late 1890s; video games in the late 1970s. Films were considered an entertaining novelty for decades before they were recognized as an artistically legitimate medium, let’s say the 1930s. Thirty years on, video games are still struggling for that same legitimacy.

Now, let’s look at one of the most important films ever: D. W. Griffith’s 1915 epic “Birth of a Nation.” The film was technologically revolutionary and a massive success, but that doesn’t change the fact that it was an unabashed glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. Now take “Grand Theft Auto III,” a similarly revolutionary video game that created a massive and mind-bogglingly detailed universe in Liberty City and its spinoffs “Vice City” and “San Andreas.” The hyperreality of “GTA III” is deeply alluring and, as Bissell claimed, simply an astounding creative achievement by any standard.

But then the sexism comes in: Liberty City may be an incredible and immersive environment, and even to an extent a brilliant parody of urban America, but the sheer contempt for women in the video game is unrealistic, alienating, and deeply disturbing. “GTA III” has a rather problematic hatred of women. Women in the game are hyper-sexualized and exist only to be killed or fucked as prostitutes who “restore” the player’s health in exchange for money, usually to be killed off right afterwords so the player can get their money back. Of course, since “GTA III” is a fictional world where Michael Madsen still has a career (OH SNAP) this was disregarded by many gamers who didn’t have much of a problem with blatant misogyny as long as it was fictional. But the problem is it’s still misogyny, it’s still sexualized violence, and it’s still harmful and alienating to women gamers that the only women in an otherwise fantastic game are there to be killed immediately or fucked then killed. Misogynistic video games shouldn’t be excused for misogyny because there should be no place for glorification of misogyny in video gaming.

Pretty much the apex of Western civilization.

I hope that one day in the future – long after all currently existing gamers are dead of course – the disembodied head of Roger Ebert (a la “Futurama”) finally admits that video games are art. Maybe then “Grand Theft Auto III” will rightly be regarded as the “Birth of a Nation” of its time and medium: a fascinating and revolutionary achievement marred by an unforgivable and hateful prejudice. Film didn’t need to be that way and video games shouldn’t need to be that way.

2. “RapeLay” (2006)

(personal computer)

Video gaming as an art and culture is profoundly indebted to its Japanese progenitors. The Japanese gave us, until the Microsoft Xbox in 2003, every popular gaming console that wasn’t a personal computer: Nintendo, Sony, and to a lesser extent Sega monopolized the medium from the outset. Japan gave us almost every great console game before America and Europe finally developed their own serious gaming industries some decades later. Unfortunately, this monopolization of gaming occasionally exposes the gaming public at large to a particularly Japanese phenomenon: the hentai rape video game.

Hentai (anime-style porn) isn’t inherently bad or good, and much like Western views of porn it is often assumed that many relatively normal Japanese men and women watch hentai and play hentai games. And hentai games aren’t necessarily all debauched and disgusting: in fact many of the more popular anime-style games are merely dating simulation games called bishōjo (Japanese for “beautiful young girl”), which are often lumped in with hentai games because of their male audience, anime-style artwork, and the games’ emphasis on interactions with attractive females.

Disclaimer aside, hentai games can be some fucked up stuff. Some Japanese gamers and developers have an unfortunate preoccupation with rape – they seem to perceive rape differently than most sane people, and the act of rape is much less taboo to them for some godawful reason. This occasionally sexualized portrayal of rape combined with games marketed toward young men can sometimes have shocking and confounding results. Take for instance the controversy around the 2006 hentai game eloquently dubbed “RapeLay.” “RapeLay” follows a male main character that stalks and rapes a woman and her two young daughters (both of whom are virgins). The player stalks and gropes the women on a train (another bizarrely Japanese phenomenon), seduces or forces the women into sex, and either way has to rape the women until they like it.

RAPE!

Mitch Clem disapproves.

Of course, there is obviously so much wrong with this game. Particularly disturbing is the concept that one can rape someone until they like it. Excuse me? It’s fucking rape! Even more offensive is the idea that the player can rape teenage and prepubescent girls of their virginity – complete with bloodstains and all – and they may still like it. The only drawback to any of this for the character is that he risks impregnating the women (and, if impregnated, the player can force the women into getting abortions – let that sink in for a bit, please). And that’s about it. Of course, defenders of the game (who, unlike leprechauns, actually exist) will point out that the player is faced with death at the end of the game, either thrown onto a train track after impregnating a girl or stabbed by one mid-coitus, but this means little. If the game were meant to be moralizing, it probably wouldn’t be from the perspective of a rapist, and it wouldn’t be based entirely around wantonly raping women and children.

So it all combines into a giant shitstorm of rape, humiliation, and murder. How about it, Japan? We’ll always have “Katamari Damacy,” I guess. And Pocky.

1. “Custer’s Revenge” (1982)

(Atari 2600)

Need there even be an explanation for why this is number one on the list? How about a quick plot summary: a naked cowboy with a pixelated erect penis dodges arrows Frogger-style to get to a Native American woman tied to a pole so he can rape her.

Yeah. This is a real fucking game.

Think about that again for a moment. A Real Fucking Game. A Real Fucking Game that developers put hundreds (OK, maybe dozens) of hours of time and thousands of dollars into creating a final product where a naked white cowboy rapes a Native American woman tied to a pole.

Be glad for this. Very glad.

“Custer’s Revenge” is a Real Fucking Game where almost every level of sheer decency is violated over and over again. “Grand Theft Auto III” may let you fuck women and then kill them immediately afterwords, but you don’t have the option to rape anyone. “Custer’s Revenge” makes “RapeLay” just a little less (and I mean the tiniest amount) cringe-inducing when you realize at least that rape fantasy wasn’t fucking racist.

“Custer’s Revenge” is almost like a parody of sex, violence, and racism in video games, except it’s not a parody. Indeed, “Custer’s Revenge” is the shittiest of the shitty, a veritable “Manos ‘The Hands of Fate'” of video games bad. But even then “Custer’s Revenge” manages to pervert the relative innocence of every game that came before it on this list simply through inclusion [2], and maybe even the whole medium through inclusion as a video game. It’s that bad. It crosses the line of mere “fail” and tepid “epic fail” into something so advanced in fail that it requantifies the boundaries and possibly even the entire notion of fail. “Custer’s Revenge” is to fail what Nikola Tesla is to electricity. “Custer’s Revenge” might actually be The Worst Video Game Ever Made ©, made all the more loathsome by its sublimely racist and misogynist rapequest through the darkest reaches of the disenfranchised white American male psyche that constitutes such an important audience for gaming.

There you have it, dear readers, the five worst moments for women in video games. So the next time you’re playing “Modern Warfare 2″ online, please, have some respect for the women in your server. God only knows the bullshit they have to put up with from the games they enjoy, let alone the people they interact with online.


[1] No, she’s not redeemed by her appearance in “Mario Kart 64.” Yeah, she’s one of the fastest in that game bu-huhWHAT? Fast women? Unbelievable, these video games!

[2] OK, maybe not “RapeLay.”

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§ 6 Responses to The 5 Worst Moments for Women in Video Games

  • Ridiculously interesting post. Nice comparison of “Birth of a Nation” and GTA 3 by the way. It’s really interesting to wonder if video games will develop along the same lines as film did. Like if some years in the future non-sexist video games will be praised, or even simply expected. I hear universities (maybe even St. Edward’s?) are starting to offer courses in video games though, so maybe they’re on their way to becoming considered works of art.
    Maybe even I am sexist because I thoroughly enjoy both Mario and GTA (even though they’re not nearly as bad as RapeLay and Custer’s Revenge sound–WTF??). Although I must admit that I usually do not kill my hookers after they restore my health–only if they disrespect me.

  • Trevor Smith says:

    Eh, I think you might be pulling a little bit for the fourth one. Sure, it’s a little peeve-worthing, but the 4th worst moment ever? If I had to place the 4th worst moment, it would be everything Xianghua-related in Soul Calibur after the original.

    I mean, the strongest female character in the series – at one time the wielder of the sacred sword, and ultimate savior of humanity – is basically reduced to following this dude around and being saved by him in every single battle. Major suck.

  • […] Damacy,” to continue the film comparison I began in my assessment of “Grand Theft Auto III,” is like a Pixar or Studio Ghibli film. It’s wonderful fun that’s appropriate for all […]

  • BWbig says:

    john romero sux. id software is creation of two guys, not romero only.
    i like white girls, easy to blow.

  • RedneckRival says:

    The GTA series probably never needed prostitutes in the first place. I loved GTA when it become 3D with GTA 3, but come to think of it I never really cared for the prostitutes either, never used them and never needed them too. I never actually thought females would like to play the violence laden sexist animal that is GTA. What really made GTA what it is was a massive game world where a player could do almost anything and not be forced to complete the storyline. Maybe they went a little bit overboard with the ‘almost’.

  • Moocow says:

    Tesla was not a fail… You absolute moron…

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