The Damsel In Distress Role in Video Games

So, after promising to talk about the “Tropes vs Women” videos over two months ago, I’m finally going to sit down and start talking about them. Well, kinda. See, the main reason for the delay was that I thought I had a lot to say about the first video, but on re-reading it turned out that I actually didn’t have a lot to say about that video, as some of the points that I thought I wanted to talk about there were actually expressed or better expressed in later videos. But I still had a rather long introductory discussion to do about how the damsel in distress fits into games, which I think is a bit different than how it fits into other media. Thus, I decided to make a post just about that before going on to the video itself. And then as is my wont I put it off for a bit while posting about atheism.

I’d worry that this would leave me further behind in talking about her videos, except that she’s done only two videos since my introductory post, one of which I’ve talked about, so it’s not like her pace is that rapid either [grin].

Anyway, to understand the role of the damsel in distress in games beyond the simple general trope that’s ubiquitous in all media, you first have to understand what is different about the gaming experience from, say, reading a book or watching a movie. The key difference is that in a game, the “observer” is not really just an observer, but is instead an active participant in the story. This means, as Shamus Young once opined (in frustration at Travis in “Silent Hill: Homecoming”) that a game not only needs to provide reasons for the character to do something, but also — and, I think, primarily — has to provide reasons for the player to do something. In a movie, if the character is doing stupid things for stupid reasons that might not break immersion as long as that is portrayed consistently. Even in a game, in a cutscene you might be able to get away with having the PC do something stupid if that’s part of the portrayal of the character. But in the actual game itself, for the actions that the player does, if you try to force the player to take a knowingly stupid action you end up with Stupidity Is the Only Option combined with But Thou Must … which frustrates players to no end.

And even having the character do it in a cutscene doesn’t always work, because in a game — particularly customizable RPGs — the player can associate themselves with the character, and then be jarred when the character does something that they, personally, would never, ever do. From this, we can see that the difference is in how immersion works. In a movie, you are immersed in it if you are accepting what you are seeing as if it was real and a reflection of real life. In a game, you are immersed in it if you feel that you are actually doing those things and that those things are happening to you, or a reasonable facsimile of you. In a movie, you get jarred out of immersion when you realize that this isn’t or can’t actually be what’s happening, and are reminded that you are just watching a movie. In a game, you get jarred out of immersion when it stops being about you and starts being about the characters in the game. Good games can transition that to the sort of immersion that you get while watching a movie, but it’s still a shift from the sort of immersion that is unique to games.

So, at the heart of video games is the challenge to find reasons for the player to start playing the game and — more importantly — to find reasons for them to continue playing the game. The simplest ways to do this were, in fact, the first: either to achieve a new high score/complete more levels (eg Pac-Man, Asteroids) or to win the game against someone else (eg Pong, Combat). These are fine as they go, but they don’t easily foster any kind of emotional commitment to playing the game except for those who either really care about beating their last high score or who have friends that they really want to beat. There are a large number of people who are interested in playing games who don’t care that much about that. Also, this led to a notion of “beating the game”, as limits were built in to early games, and that was then added as a potential motivation.

But we can see in games like Defender and Missile Command that giving the player a reason to start the game and for their character to be doing things adds more to the game, and gives them an emotional and maybe even personal motive for trying to do better. In Defender, you can try to save more humans, or keep them alive longer, which essentially makes what would essentially be simply strategic assets have a personal meaning to you; these are actually people. In Missile Command, you’re saving cities. While at this point the personal aspects aren’t fully integrated into the games, we can see how there’s a push to get the player more personally involved in the game, beyond just trying to keep themselves alive.

This leads to another way to keep the player playing: build in a narrative, and a real ending to the game. If you add a story to the game, the player will keep playing to see how the story turns out. For arcade games, this is a wonderful add-on to the existing “beat the game” motivation, as now you aren’t just trying to beat the game, but are instead trying to resolve the story and see how it turns out. Adapting the original “Save the world” sort of story works well for this, but there are others as well.

From there, it’s only a short hop from taking “Save a loved one” as a motivation, as we see in games like Donkey Kong, where that’s the motivation. But just as we see in movies and novels, we get massive impact from combining the two, if for no other reason that what the Green Goblin espoused in one of the Spider-man movies: it lets you force the player into a sadistic choice, to either save the world … or save their loved one. This lets you build far deeper plots and conflicts into your game, which is critical for making RPGs and games with RPG elements.

Now, it’s true that adding the damsel in distress trope almost certainly followed on from how that trope was represented in other media that games adopted, as well as from the fact that at the time, at least, games were seen as a “guy thing”. But there are other reasons to think that the best relationship to exploit for these sorts of plots is indeed the “true love” relationship, given the unique nature of games. Remember, in a game you need to convince the player that they should care about the person they need to rescue, not just establish that the character cares about that person. So let’s look at the most obvious “loved one” relationships. We can have the loved one be the parent/mentor of the PC, the child, the sibling or the true love. But there are potentially issues with most of these that might reduce the emotional impact:

1) A parent/mentor might be seen as having lived a full life, and so when the PC is faced with the sadistic choice it may be very easy to choose to save the world instead. I suspect that a lot of the puzzlement over “One More Day” in Spider-man is because while the creators thought that it would be obvious that Peter would do anything to save Aunt May’s life, most of the fans thought that she didn’t have much longer to live anyway, so it made no sense to, essentially, give up the future for the past.

2) A child works well for parents, but not as well for people who are not parents and for children. Also, if the villain has to hurt or threaten the loved one in a strong way, violence against children is generally seen as being far more evil than it would be to an adult, so you might risk your villain turning into a far more evil villain than you wanted, which is especially important for more nuanced stories in games.

3) While in general siblings count as loved ones, there are enough rivalries between them both in real life and in stories that more of the audience might find it harder to make that emotional connection.

But the true love (mostly) avoids these problems. While children might not have been in love yet, the trope is so common that they’ll all pretty much get it if they’ve ever been exposed to fairy tales. The true love has as full a life ahead of them as the PC, and are seen as a key component to that happy life. Therefore, there’s lots you can do here, and it’s pretty easy to do. Now, of course, all of these have been done and done effectively in games, and will continue to be done and done effectively in games, but using the true love is just so much easier to do that it’s a natural choice when you want to set this up.

Now, if you’re going for true love, as most protagonists are male you’re definitely going to end up with predominantly female “distress objects”, let’s call them. The overall narrative in almost all other works of male hero and female damsel also feeds into this. But the good news is that as games move towards more female protagonists, the same pressures should lead to less female damsels (unless there are other issues, which we’ll look at when we look at “Dude in Distress”), despite Sarkeesian’s skepticism.

Essentially, the loved one in distress trope is a powerful tool in motivating players — and especially players that are immersed in the game — to continue on and try to win the game. The true love motivation is the most powerful of those. So it in and of itself doesn’t need to change and to try to eliminate or minimize it would greatly hurt games, in my opinion. So if there is an issue here, it’s going to have to be with how it is handled, not its mere presence.

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4 Responses to “The Damsel In Distress Role in Video Games”

  1. Andrew Says:

    I suspect you’ll get to this, but here’s a thought experiment:

    A couple are walking down an alley when a thug, armed with a pipe or similar, jumps out and threatens them.

    (a) the woman runs and the man waits to cover for her
    (b) the man runs and the woman waits to cover for her

    Imagine both those scenarios. Do you attach more or less social approval or opprobrium to the characters in one of the scenarios vs the other?

    Does your emotional reaction differ to the various scenarios? Now reflect that onto the “damsel in distress” trope.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, I’ll probably get into that more when I hit the “Dude in Distress” video. For now, I’m going to mostly assume that you could, in fact, substitute in a female main character and her male love interest into the same roles and have that work.

  2. Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 1 | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] we get into this, let me remind you of what I talked about last as a set-up for this on what the “Damsel in Distress” trope is supposed to do: it’s supposed to give […]

  3. Tropes vs Women: Damsel in Distress Part 2 | The Verbose Stoic Says:

    […] indicates clearly that Sarkeesian does not understand the usefulness of the trope as outlined in my preamble post. The “Loved One At Risk” trope allows for a number of plots and situations, from the […]

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