Exploring the uncharted territory of the gay videogame experience. Here, I explore the female/LGBT presence in videogame culture, media and industry.

Monday, February 28, 2011

(Sort of) Self-Rescuing Princess Part 1

Nintendo released The Legend of Zelda in 1986, merely a year after their runaway hit Super Mario Brothers. This game gave birth to the company’s second iconic princess: Princess Zelda.

She leads a much more interesting life in her game series than Peach. ON the surface, it seems that she is trapped in much of the same situation as Peach; constantly kidnapped by the same villain and saved by a man who seems poorly, or not at all, experienced in combat and rescue. There are two key differences between the Princesses: Zelda speaks, and it is made clear why she is captured by the villain Gannondorf.

In the first game, speaking in terms of release date, The Legend of Zelda, the Princess is captured because she has broken up and hidden the magical relic called the Triforce. Gannondorf, Gannon in his demon form, kidnaps her in hopes of either torturing her for information on the location of the Triforce shards or holding her for ransom; again, hoping for information on the Triforce. Before she is captured, she sends her handmaiden, Impa, to find someone to help recover the relic and destroy Gannondorf. Impa comes across the hero, and playable character, Link.

All of the games in this series are set in the medieval country of Hyrule, so it is not a great leap of imagination to think that the hero is trained somewhat in swordplay; unlike the Super Mario Brothers series. Link also has a more extensive arsenal of weapons and magic items that Mario and Luigi. Throughout the game, his inventory becomes filled with different swords, shields, explosives and magical items to help battle Gannondorf’s minions and monsters. While it is true that Mario and Luigi can obtain magical items to fight Bowser’s minions, their main method of attack is to jump on top of the koopas. Needless to say, Link’s vast array of weapons makes it much easier to believe that he has a chance to stay alive long enough to reach Gannondorf himself and save Princess Zelda.

The Legend of Zelda was Nindendo’s first popularly successful attempt to bring the role-playing genre of games from pen-and-paper to electronic form. This forces game designers to put much more thought and care into not only the story of the game, but the way the game plays. To find all of the Triforce shards, Link must explore several dungeons, and once he has obtained them all, he is magically transported to Gannondorf’s dungeon on Death Mountain. After the final battle, Princess Zelda appears and thanks Link for repairing the Triforce and for saving her. Unlike the Super Mario series, Zelda does not reward Link with a kiss; just a simple, “Thank you, Link.” The kiss may be something that players had come to expect from the princesses they rescue. After all, Zelda was released only a year after Super Mario Brothers. The writer and designers, however, may have thought that it was reward enough to have completed the relic and defeated the demon Gannon.

It must be noted where Link finds Princess Zelda. Gannondorf has cloistered her away in a dank, dark dungeon in an area known as Death Mountain. This is a much more appropriate setting to find a captive; a far cry from the colorful, brightly lit and rather posh castle that Peach is hidden away in. Since The Legend of Zelda is a role-playing game, fans of the genre have certain expectations. Those expectations include having a dark, frightening dungeon to battle through in the last part of the game. By today’s standards, the graphics capabilities of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) are rather inadequate in portraying a truly frightening setting for the final battle, but with a little imagination, players definitely feel the suspense.

Princess Zelda’s behavior when she is rescued from Gannondorf is appropriate for someone who has been imprisoned for months, or perhaps even years; it is never made clear how long it takes Link to find all of the Triforce shards, but it is safe to assume that it takes a few months at least. Zelda does not smile and clap her hands like Peach, nor does she get excited in any way. Instead, she is quiet and reserved. Again, the graphics capabilities of the NES are rather primitive by today’s standards, but if the game were to be revamped for the Nintendo Wii, it can be expected that Zelda would show the blank, hollow stare characteristic of someone who has witnessed and suffered unimaginable horrors.

It is mentioned above that The Legend of Zelda is serially first. This is because that it is the first game released in this series, but it is not the first in the timeline. That spot belongs to The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, or just Ocarina of Time as fans of the games refer to it. It was released in 1998 for the Nintendo 64 (N64) game system, and has established what fans refer to as the “Split Timeline Theory,” and this theory is supported by Shigeru Miyamoto, the creator and director of Zelda, Super Mario and Donkey Kong.

According to Miyamoto, the progression of the timeline is as follows: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, The Legend of Zelda, The legend of Zelda 2: The Adventures of Link, and finally The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past. The split in the timeline is followed by The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask, also released on the N64. There are other games in the series that build upon this established linear progression, and still others that are part of a separate timeline. While it is a confusing and rather convoluted idea, the Split Timeline Theory explains why Zelda is repeatedly captured by Gannondorf. The Split Timeline supports the idea that there are multiple Zeldas, sparing the Princess from the theory of poor mental health applied to Princess Peach.

With Ocarina of Time being the first in the timeline, players are given more information on the relationship between Gannondorf, Princess Zelda and Link, as well as the history and importance of the Triforce. The relic represents the balance between the forces of Power, Courage and Wisdom, and it is the key to a plane of existence known as the “Sacred Realm.” When a man or woman wishes to rule the Sacred Realm, he or she must be the embodiment of this balance, or the Triforce will split itself into pieces, embedding the shard representing the quality most valued by the potential ruler. The marked heir must then seek out the other two shards, which in turn have embedded themselves in people who most value their respective traits. The only way to unite the Triforce once more is to either form a triumvirate government between the three marked individuals, or to murder the other two and claim the shards for one’s own. This sets up the story for the game with Gannondorf possessing the Triforce of Power; Link, the Triforce of Courage; and Zelda, the Triforce of Wisdom.

Along with having an actual voice and a much more important role than her counterpart, in Ocarina of Time, Zelda finda another way to escape the perpetual cycle of capture and release. At one point in the game, Zelda disappears and players are introduced to the character Sheik. At first, there is something familiar about the tall, mysterious man, but it is difficult to pin down. Later, it is revealed that Zelda transformed herself into Sheik in order to protect herself, her kingdom and the Triforce from Gannondorf. By turning herself into a man, Zelda effectively removes herself, and almost all conflict, from the flow of the game. As Sheik, she can hide the Triforce of Wisdom from Gannondorf and protect her kingdom in ways she never could as Zelda.

While link is in the Sacred Realm, incubating and preparing for his battle with Gannondorf, Sheik wages a covert war against the invader, providing Link with hints and clues for using the Ocarina of Time and becoming a better fighter. In doing this, Sheik becomes a double place holder. He holds the place of Zelda and that of Link. While Princess Zelda is absent, there is a lull in the action of the game. The writers most likely did this to build suspense because the structure of having a villain and two heroes is so very different from the other Legend of Zelda games that came before it. Without a princess to capture or rescue, there is a stalemate in the overall conflict set up in the beginning. The action picks up in full force after Sheik reveals to Link that he is really Zelda in disguise. Immediately after transforming back into the Princess, Gannondorf invades the Temple of Time, kidnaps Zelda, and takes her to the Sacred Realm. By returning Zelda to her role as Damsel in Distress immediately after her transformation, Nintendo is sending the message that Zelda is not simply a helpless female, but she is helpless because she is female.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ain't she a Peach?

In 1985, Nintendo released Super Mario Brothers on the NES console. In doing so, Nintendo created one of the most iconic characters of all time; Princess Peach. We all know the story: King Bowser kidnaps Peach. He hides her away in his main castle and Mario and Luigi have to risk their lives to save her and the Toadstool Kingdom.

But why?

It’s never made clear as to why she was captured or why she needs to be rescued. Indeed, players are never expressly told that the Princess was taken against her will. By freeing captives in the boss-level castles, receiving the persistent (and frustrating) message that the Princess is “in another castle,” players come to the conclusion that Peach was forcibly taken to the final castle by King Bowser. When the player finally comes in contact with Peach, they are greeted by a tall woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, clad in a pink, frilly dress. There are also no real signs of a struggle; Peach never shows any physical injuries or mental/emotional trauma. This makes the Princess either the most cooperative captive ever, or the victim of a severe case of Stockholm Syndrome. Princess Peach is kidnapped multiple times throughout the Super Mario Brother franchise, excluding Dr. Mario, the Warioland/Warioware games and the Mario Kart games. This begs the question of why the Princess wasn’t better protected, and why the national security of Toadstool Kingdom was left to a pair of plumbers.

Politics and mental disorders aside, Nintendo of America is most likely using Princess Peach to play to the Western myth of the “rescuing prince.” Presenting a delicate looking, demure woman in a perilous situation appeals to the more chivalrous, though misogynist, nature of the players, and makes them willing to play a game with virtually no plot; It is a hazy and vaguely noble goal for the players to work towards. It wasn’t enough for developers to simply place a generic princess in a far off tower; they show players a glimpse of a highly stylized picture of beauty that appeals to a wide audience. Though she is much taller than Mario, Peach does not threaten him in any way, and her frequent kidnappings give him and his brother, Luigi, a reason to stay in Toadstool Kingdom.

In their article, “Shirts vs. Skins: Clothing as an Indicator of Gender Role Stereotyping in Video Games,” Berrin Beasely and Tracy Collins Standley discuss the issue of game developers using clothing choices as a way to place characters in very specific gender roles. Super Mario Brothers is no exception to this trend. The perfectly styled blonde hair, large blue eyes and pink formal dress (along with her decidedly innocent and demure nature) place Peach firmly in the role of “Damsel in Distress.” She is depicted as both a victim of violence and ultra feminine. This combination renders her completely unable to free herself from imprisonment and take preventative measures to ensure her future safety. Peach is forced to rely upon two men whose professions give them little, if any, experience in matters of national security and search-and-rescue missions. But, since they are men, they are automatically more qualified for the task of rescuing Princess Peach and are guaranteed success.

Peach and Mario also appear in the arcade and console game Donkey Kong, which actually preceded Super Mario Brothers. The game follows much of the same pattern; Mario must save Peach from her monster captor, and again, players are not given any viable reason as to why the Princess needs saving. Indeed, players are not even told that it is necessary to save the Princess. A player is expected to navigate Mario through the warehouse, avoiding logs and flaming oil barrels to achieve the lofty goal of saving a woman from a vague danger.

Suppose the game were played from Princess Peach’s point of view. According to Joanna Russ, the story wouldn’t appeal to the wide audience Nintendo entertains. From the Princess’ perspective, Donkey Kong could be her protector rather than captor. She could have had him whisk her away from her home in order to escape the unwanted advances of Mario. Where the game Donkey Kong begins, the Princess and ape have become trapped at the top of a warehouse and Donkey Kong is throwing logs and flaming oil barrels in a final attempt to impede Mario’s progress, and ultimately kill him. After reaching their position, Mario defeats DK in a harrowing battle, which the game does not show, and forces Peach to submit to him sexually (the on-screen kiss). If thought of in these terms, Donkey Kong changes from innocent and fun to sinister and frightening.

Russ’ theory of gender-reversal storytelling would also shed quite a different light on Super Mario Brothers. Kong Bowser would fill much of the same role ad Donkey Kong, kidnapping her as part of an elaborate ruse for Peach to escape the confines of royal life in Toadstool Kingdom and the sexual/personal oppression of Mario and Luigi.

The many different “worlds” in the game would be seen as provinces of Koopa Kingdom. The multiple levels, each filled with legions of deadly enemies, seem to be designed to discourage Mario and Luigi from trying to find Peach. The same can be said about the many castles that must be conquered before arriving at Bowser’s main fortress. The Toadstool people that Mario finds along the way are really decoys to lead him away from Peach’s true location. But Mario has his own way of overcoming this obstacle.

After defeating the lesser bosses, coming across the large burlap sacks and finding them to contain a Toadstool, though some unseen, torturous interrogation, the Toadstool victim is forced to give the vague message, “I’m sorry, Mario! The Princess is in another castle!” Mario then runs off, leaving the broken and traumatized victim behind him. Following Russ’ theory, it is no longer a search-and-rescue game, but a battle for personal autonomy. This is why developers have the game played from Mario’s point of view. Super Abusive Relationship Brothers wouldn’t have sold nearly as well.

Throughout the series, and in later Mario iterations, Princess Peach becomes a playable character. However, she is rarely playable in a combat situation or in an adventure game like Mario and Luigi. She is also notably silent in the games. Of course, Peach leaves notes and clues around for players to din in some games, and she will giggle and gasp quite girlishly from time to time, but she never actually speaks. This suggests that Peach must still be considered an object; something pretty to look at, but not thought to be important, or intelligent, enough to contribute anything of use to the games. The lack of a literal voice keeps Peach form assuming a more important role in the series, and has doomed her to a live of spectacle and near obsolescence.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

We are here! We are here! We are here!

Women and video games. Two words that don't normally go together. At least, that's how things used to be. Today, women make up a substantial part of the gaming audience. As of June 2009, women made up 28% of console gamers and an astonishing 46.2% of PC gamers (Meagan VanBurkleo "The Gender Gap" GameInformer). Those are mind blowing statistics which beg the question: If women make up such a huge portion of the market, why isn't it reflected in the products? The short and overly simplistic answer: sexist stigma. Don't worry, I'm not going to get all preachy or go around trying to turn everyone into man-hating, super-scary ultra feminists. I'm just offering my observations and conclusions I've drawn.

Someone in the early days of mainstream gaming (somewhere around the NES era) decided that games should be marketed to kids. It made sense; games were often based on children's TV shows/movies and had juvenile themes. Very few catered to the 18+ market. At the same time, and probably by the same person, it was decided that young and adolescent boys were going to be the almost exclusive advertising targets.

Now we have to consider the kinds of games that were being made at the time to understand why that decision was made. Most of the games I remember playing growing up were platformers, shooters and some RPG/strategy games. Platformers like Mario and Sonic appealed to both genders: simple game play/goals, fast pace, bright colors, familiar characters. The others, especially shooters, were consumed almost exclusively by boys. Why?

Two words: evolutionary psychology.

Over hundreds of millions of years, the minds of men and women have been hardwired much differently. Men were usually hunters and needed to be able to navigate by sight, focus on details (tracks, blood, etc) and be able to mentally visualize their position. Women were often left behind while the men hunted so they were wired to gauge/anticipate emotions/reactions, handle social situations, and diffuse tensions.

Hmm...what does that sound like? Sounds a hell of a lot like Call of Duty and The Sims respectively.

Now we know why games were marketed to boys then. And now; especially with the staggering number of FPS titles being vomited out by AAA studios and indie developers alike. With the need to be able to read a map, focus on details and remember where you are/have been/need to go next, it seems that males were bred for gaming.

That's science, not sexism.

Well...yes and no. It's one part science, one part sexism and a huge heaping helping of laziness. Yes, evolution had molded men and women's minds differently, but these rules aren't hard and fast laws. I know several women (myself included) who are very good at reading maps and figuring positions, as well as a lot of men who are socially intuitive.

This evolutionary difference may be one of the elements contributing to the exclusion of women by advertisers and developers, but it's not the biggest. What it all boils down to is good old-fashioned laziness.

Think about it. Which sounds easier to turn into a game: a situation where players must track and neutralize a target within a large, spatial map, or a situation where players must follow several developing story lines centered around different characters in order to achieve a social goal or attain a higher level of emotional fulfillment?

If you said Option A, congratulations. You think like a modern gaming executive.

Now, I wouldn't go so far as to say that Option B is impossible to translate into a game. Just look at Heavy Rain. I'm just saying it is exponentially more difficult and time consuming.

To make a shooter, developers follow a formula in the early stages of making the game. Establish a main enemy to be destroyed at the end. Introduce lesser enemies such as level bosses and hordes of cannon fodder. Place weapons and upgrades at strategic intervals and voila! You ship the next Halo or Gears of War in a matter of just a few years or even months (quality not withstanding).

Games like Heavy Rain are much trickier to make into effective and powerful experiences...let alone market. There were a lot of complaints that Heavy Rain is more like watching a movie that playing a game. Well...there's a reason for that.

Manipulating a social situation is as much about observation as it is interaction. think about it. Communication is much more than words. It's facial expressions, body language, and tone of voice.

Say you're at a party and you see two different women. One is standing at ease, smiling and speaking amicably to another person. The other is off by herself, body tense, shoulder hunched; her eyes watch everyone with suspicion and she hardly says a word. Which one would you be more likely to try and strike up a conversation with?

But it's not just visual and audio cues. There are infinite other, more subtle, nuances that contribute to the outcome of social/emotional manipulation. Atmosphere, knowledge, acquaintance, etc.

Those elements, combined with the difficulty of animating convincing expressions and body language, make it much more difficult to produce a game like that. Though, with Rockstar's new motion capture technology used in L.A. Noir, I can see developers taking tentative steps towards making more games that cater to the female psyche.

but what about women who enjoy shooters and other action games? where is their vindication?

Well, that's much easier to solve. Developers must work to include strong, independent female characters that resonate with women today. They must embody a relevance that will sustain them for years; a nobility of character that gives current and future generations of female gamers pride and satisfaction.

This must happen soon if the industry wants to avoid another crash like the one it suffered in '83-'84. Because most of the female characters that exist now are painfully insulting at worst, and shamefully shallow at best.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Money and Other Problems

*le sigh* I promised updates on my webseries "Gaymer Grrl Talks About..." and here's one...though it's not good news.

Due to financial troubles and time constraints this semester, I won't be able to do videos. However, with that being said, I still plan on posting what would have been the transcripts here.

The first in the series is just an intro to the state of women in videogames, the culture and industry. I'll have the post up some time this week, so check back often!

I want to stay with the trend of women in games (characters, storylines, etc.), but if you readers have ideas or anything in particular you want me to discuss, I'll be glad to hear it. :)

Just shoot me an email at gaymergrrl@gmail.com. Please put DISCUSSION REQUEST in the subject box so I know it's not spam. Also, if you have any information you would like me to add to a subject I've already posted on, feel free to email me about that too. Just put ADDITIONAL INFO ON [INSERT SUBJECT HERE] in the subject box. And if you have a question, just put QUESTION REGARDING [INSERT SUBJECT HERE]. And so on, and so forth. You guys get the picture.

I hope to hear what you guys have to say. :)

Monday, February 7, 2011

I'm not dead!

I apologize for the extended hiatus. I had a rough semester at school, and it made it difficult to maintain this blog. But, fear not! For I have returned with bigger and better ideas!

I'll be posting links and transcripts for my webseries "Gaymer Grrl Talks About..."

I'm still in production for the series, so I'll keep everyone posted.