Nine months after her successful Kickstarter campaign, Anita Sarkeesian unveils the much anticipated pilot episode of the Tropes Vs. Women in Video Games series, which examines how video games often portray female characters as someone who needs to be rescued.
I hate how she keeps claiming this is a “critical analysis” but then she doesn’t actually critically analyze anything. She just cites examples of “sexism” for 22 minutes, just a torrent of surface-level examples and wikipedia article recaps. There is zero analysis of why these kinds of games are made. Just some vague hand waves to “selling more games to straight young men.”

The Krystal/Starfox thing is a complex issue and she’s not actually… looking into it… she’s just assuming it’s motivated by misogyny. And it’s not. At all.

Rare made Dinosaur Planet. Almost all of Rare’s original properties have female leads (Banjo-Kazooie, Perfect Dark, Jet Force Gemini) and Dinosaur Planet wasn’t changed to disempower women. It was changed because franchise games sell better than original IPs. It happens a lot with Nintendo; often experimental games will get reskinned as Kirby games so they’ll sell better.

Video games are an expensive mass media product and Nintendo can only invest money into games that they know will sell well enough to return on the initial investment. Her line, “make a game starring princesses – and NOT just some mobile or DS game” is meant to ‘address’ the fact that Princess Peach starred in her own game and it sold miserably, and also that Zelda was somewhat playable in Spirit Tracks.

She’s literally saying, “don’t just make female-lead games in a safer test market and then after they fail to sell well realize it wouldn’t be a wise business decision to invest even more money into those sub-brands; invest a ton of money in games that will obviously not sell well because of my social agenda!” which can be boiled down to “I don’t understand how the free market economy works – but sexism!”

Games don’t have female support characters to bring down women. Games have female support characters because they have male protagonists and there are few roles in video games for non-protagonists that make sense because of how video games are typically structured. Games have male protagonists because people who buy video games are more likely to buy video games starring male protagonists.

And I’m going to take that a step further: males are more likely to buy video games and comic books because video games and comic books are inherently more likely to appeal to any given man than any given woman. There are psychological differences between men and women. There are different chemicals in the brains of men and women that affect their preferences in activities because evolution. There is a reason male and female versions of the same species of animals behave differently. It’s because gender is an actual biological thing and not an entirely made up social construct. Gender roles have been enhanced end emphasized by society, sure, but they’re not based on nothing.

Women don’t choose not to buy video games as often as men because they’re offended by the subtle sexism of Princess Peach being captured by a monster. Women choose not to buy video games because the actual gameplay of most video games are inherently less interesting to the average woman than to the average man. There are some changes in that, like, there are more and more games being marketed to the gameplay sensibilities of women, not just skinned with female characters and pink menus. But games designed with women in mind is a modern thing and I hope she talks about it in an upcoming episode.

Gendered entertainment products is not a new concept. Women buy romance novels more often than men. Specific products appeal to specific demographics. If you get wildly offended by the idea that specific products appeal to specific demographics it’s because you’re misinterpreting a reference to a group in aggregate as a personal assumption about you on an individual level. I am not saying if you are female you should not or would not like the 90s definition of “video games,” I’m saying that, throughout the 90s, very few women were inclined to buy video games. Not that none did, or that you didn’t, or that you shouldn’t; but that not enough did to justify making the kind of sweeping bad business decisions she’s urging Nintendo to make in this video.

If you don’t understand how market forces lead to games with male protagonists then read this excellent post on how market forces lead to comic books with male protagonists.

If you want an industry to change, the solution isn’t to make pie-in-the-sky demands that companies invest a bunch of money into something that is qualitatively a bad business decision. The solution is for you, as a consumer, to vote with your wallet and buy games starring female protagonists, urge other people to buy games starring female protagonists, and urge people to dispel the notion that they should be buying games because they’re popular.

Generally any critique of pop culture is useless when you’re pointing at the very top of pop culture. If you’re pointing to Mario and The Avengers and other market-leading franchises as being pandering to the lowest common denominator then that is just a totally useless observation because of course it is. Of course the market leaders are going to be reflective of the prejudices of the society in which they are set, that is why they are market leaders in the first place.

If Nintendo made a Mario game where you could only play as Princess Peach and they released it on the Wii U in place of a Mario game where you could plays Mario it would not sell as well. They don’t need to “just try it” to know it won’t sell well, experiments like Super Princess Peach and focus group testing and market research let them know, in advance, not to make that poor business decision.

It’s just really useless to try to educate people on an industry without having (or at least not demonstrating) any understanding of how that industry works yourself. Playing video games does not qualify you to discuss market forces in video games. Understanding free market economics and the way corporations work does.

As a consumer the only input you have in an industry’s direction is what you choose to buy or not to buy. If you want the perks of mass-market games (ie higher production value) then you have to deal with the fact that mass-market games are designed to be broadly appealing. If you’re unwilling to buy mobile or indie or handheld games starring women because they’re not as expensively made as games starring men then you’re just being shortsighted.

tl;dr the real reason there is a lack of female protagonists is because there is a lack of people buying games with female protagonists. IF YOU WANT MORE GAMES TO STAR WOMEN THEN BUY GAMES BECAUSE THEY STAR WOMEN AND NOT BECAUSE LOTS OF OTHER MEN BOUGHT THE SAME GAME AND RAISED THE PRODUCTION VALUE. You have to sacrifice production value for ideology, I’m sorry. You can’t have both.