From Damsel to Heroine – How video game culture affects identity

Bianca Haun

Each person has an identity which is described by a whole set of metrics like name, ID numbers and labels, but also more „human“ attributes such as size, weight, or even patience and stubbornness. Identity is a construct that can only exist when there are at least two people. Identity can be, according to Manders-Huits, self-informative as well as nominal. Nominal identity contains the set of attributes, which is assigned to a person by society, whereas self-informative identity is a person’s conceptualisation of their self. A lot of metrics like the age, gender or ethnics, which are also a part of one’s identification, cannot be changed that easily. It is important to understand the basic concept of identity in order to discuss the influence of video games on self-perception and awareness of others.

It has been said that the internet provides the potential to create oneself a new kind of identity, often called ‚virtual identity’. This virtual identity, despite having no physical restrictions, is often very close to the offline identity, which is commonly referred to as real identity, so one could argue that a different identity isn’t created at all.

When it comes to MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games), gamers need to create a character they are going to play with. During that process, a certain range of characteristics can be chosen, for instance a name, a class (f.e. paladins or rangers), a race (f.e. humans, elves, orcs, dwarves) and a gender. Possibly due to the mostly humanoid nature of the selectable races, the visual character creation is often limited to basic choices like the color of hair or eyes, while certain features like being two-legged and standing up, are given and non-changeable, even when the character is clearly being modeled after an animal like the Khajiit race in Skyrim or the Pandaren in World of Warcraft. Furthermore, the choice of gender is more often not limited to the two biological genders of humankind. It seems that all social constructions about the gender like preferred activities, the strength of their bodies and even the way they talk, behave and of course look, are being reconstructed in the virtual world.

In some parts of the game, the portrayal of the genders is quite overstated. During the course of the game, while men get to wear big and impressive armor, it is often the female counterpart of the item that is portrayed in a very sexualized manner and it can only be worn by females since cross-dressing is usually not impossible. It could be argued that sparingly dressed female warriors are somehow part of fantasy or roleplaying culture, though some would say that a character being inappropriately dressed for battle takes away from the immersion that the game tries to achieve. You cannot be naked in battle and expect to survive. Then again, a counterargument could be that fiction should not have to abide by the rules of actual war.

Of course, gamers have the ability to opt for a different gender. But while most of the time a player tends to choose their own biological gender, only a small percentage opt for the opposite sex. As Feilitzen & Linné would distinguish it in 1975, one might suspect that this is due to the fact that most people want to identify themselves with their character and as such try to reproduce their own appearance (similarity identification), if not a somewhat enhanced version (wishful identification) of themselves.

As found in a study by Jay Potter conducted in 2011, men use gender swapping more often than women. When asked for their motives, the former tend to explain their selection by saying that they enjoy the visual appearance of female characters or that they are trying to benefit from getting easier access to certain freebies, f.e. high level weapons, armor and various items. Some, of course, just do it for the fun of mixing things up. On the other hand, a female player’s main reason to swap genders is to avoid unwanted attention from male players and to have the chance to compete with other players without the gender being an issue.

Where do such restrictions, when it comes to the appearance of the characters, come from? We can safely assume that it dates back to early video game culture. Since the early years of gaming, the gaming scene mostly catered to male players. It is mostly men that play and create these games, which at least in part might explain some of the male-oriented storylines of video games involving chivalry, fighting and saving the girl.

Consequently, one plot device, or so-called trope, often found in games is the “Damsel in Distress”. We all have attempted to save them at some point in our lives: The Zeldas, the Peaches, the Paulines and all the unnamed spouses, sisters or mothers of our beloved childhood heroes. Literature did it, movies did it a lot, and thus, videogames did it too. They all still do. They make use of the seemingly oldest plot device in history: Girl gets kidnapped, guy needs to get her back. We see scenes where the girl gets beaten, tied-up and captured. She is helpless, but looking splendid when being so. Cue the dude. He gets to be the hero, he goes on an adventure in order to do what a male protagonist is destined to, and that is nothing short of saving the girl, saving the world, mostly both. And that’s where the player joins the story, driven by the prospect of being rewarded by the salvaged damsel in distress.

Another maybe more recent trope often used in video games are cyber heroines. Female characters move through landscapes like deserts, caves, tombs or dark urban places. Strong, adventurous women, who fight on their own, are indisputably the counterpart of the damsel in distress-trope. Their strength and ability to fight frequently comes with not too realistic proportions of their body and an outfit that overemphasizes and sexualizes their physical appearance in a way mirroring the desire to play a somewhat enhanced version of oneself – as we discussed earlier, albeit with a rather male sort of design as one could presume. A key example here are the early games of the Tomb Raider Series, which have been widely discussed, even within a lot of theoretical texts at the time.

One might assume that the storylines and to some extent over sexualized appearance of female characters in games lead to more males being drawn to them and females gamers being less interested, which would hint at the question why it is mostly men considering to create games. In contrary to mainstream games, it is often the indie games that show us that main characters do not necessarily require a specific gender and that gender roles do not need to be represented in a hyper-sexualized manner as the lowest common denominator. The platform Thomas Was Alone seems to be a pleasant example. While using traditional storytelling methods and making use of a narrator, this particular game abstains from using traditional images to differentiate between the characters gender, but uses only basic shapes like circles, squares or rectangles to portray the player model.

Other than games of the “first person” genre, traditional video games do not usually contain an individual selection of the characters attributes or gender as the game is designed with a specific, more linear storyline in mind. So game designers have to develop a main character and a story all by themselves. However, in online roleplaying games, it is common practice to let the player adapt his character for his needs and wishes including the name, look, gender, storyline and activities. The story is open to change and is often dependent from the character’s actions and therefore directly guided by the player himself. There is no need to let the player choose only between male and female characters.

Subjectively speaking, it should be a key factor for gaming culture to embrace its difference to other parts of popular culture. Other than in films, the immersion happens because the player gets to take part in the adventure, therefore the argument, whether the main character necessarily needs to be physically relatable, could be false. We believe that people choose the character that comes closest to themselves, because of convenience, and that this is the reason why the industry keeps repeating the same patterns.

So why is it that the industry puts itself in this cage of dichotomy? Is it because of convenience that game makers create restrictions on their own creativity and fantasy in a virtual world, although there are no real limitations? And why is this important? To answer the latter question: The portrayal of women in games reflects on what game companies, but also the non-gaming community, think of gamers. It affects how female gamers perceive the industry and their male counterparts, and it directly affects how gamers view women.

We consider games to be a mirror of society. We also believe that, as a part of human culture, games need to celebrate the endless possibilities and responsibilities that come with the medium, with breaking up gender barriers being just one of them.

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Bianca HaunFrom Damsel to Heroine – How video game culture affects identity

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