Monday, June 20, 2011

Peggle and the Smurfette Principle.

I've been playing Peggle lately, because I'm easily amused by bright shiny colors and cheerful dink dink sounds that make it sound like I'm doing something very important and successful when I'm barely even interacting with the game. And I know this isn't exactly on the "children starving in the streets" level of importance, but I couldn't help noticing there was something funny about the cast of characters.

In Peggle, you play as one of ten cutesy cartoon critters. There's Jimmy Lightning, the surfer-dude beaver! Master Hu, the wise owl! Claude, the inexplicably French lobster! ...And Tula, the female flower! All of the characters have a different silly quirk, and her quirk is "female!"

The total, then, is nine male characters and one female character. (One character is an alien and is arguably alien-gendered. Eight males and one female, anyway.) This is what TvTropes would call the Smurfette Principle: For any series not aimed solely at females, odds are high that only one female will be in the regular cast.

The implications of the Smurfette Principle are numerous and pretty smurfing offensive:
-Men are the default gender, and women are a variation
-It's normal for there to be more men than women in a group that is doing something interesting
-Men have a variety of personalities; women don't
-Women won't mind playing a male character, but men would be embarrassed or unwilling to play as female
-If a game had a lot of female characters, it would be a "girl game," and those are widely known for being condescending and technically incompetent

The tricky part is: I don't think the Peggle dev team were trying to say any of the things above. I do not suspect them of hating women or participating in some grand conspiracy against women. I'm sure they were just trying to design a cute little ensemble of cartoon animals, and this is what came to mind. (It may not have helped that the Peggle dev team consisted of... nine men and one woman.)

This is what's meant by "ingrained sexism"--not hatred of women, but unintentional disregard. It's not a problem of thinking women are inferior so much as it is a problem of forgetting to think about women at all. It's pretty benign when it comes to cartoon videogame characters; not so much when you can look at a picture of the newly elected members of the 112th US Congress and not immediately see What's Wrong With This Picture.

Women are half of everybody. I hope I live to see the day when we're half of the people who get talked about and written about, too.


  1. It's a bit funny 'cause in real life the "default gender" is female, since you automatically get ovaries if you don't happen to have a Y chromosome..

    Anyway this is totally unrelated but I just saw something totally ridiculous:

    "dreams in which she has rampaging sex with dozens of HANDSOME MALES
    "he has dreams in which he is engaging in sexual fondling with some GOOD-LOOKING guy"
    "have sex with BEAUTIFUL women"'s like only beautiful people can have sex.

    (And there's a lot more shitty things too.

    Just felt like I had to complain to someone about this, and since I really like your blog..)

  2. I think one of the assumptions they are making is that 'men won't notice'. Of if they do, they won't care.

    I do notice, and it's got to the point where if two out of ten characters are female, I'll label this as 'progressive'. Just like when 'Bratz' became popular, Barbie took a huge step up in my estimation.

    It's all relative, really.

    I did take a personality test once, though. It came back as 'female'.

  3. Holly - yes. Just yes. That ingrained attitude is the hardest one to even point out, because it's NOT as simple as just hating women. It's people just leaving women out of the equation, not due to any conscious choice, but because that's just what's done.

    Anonymous - well, to play Devil's Advocate, all else being equal, I think most people would rather have sex with someone they find physically attractive than someone they don't. And if it's a sex dream, that my brain is generating for my own pleasure, then yes, my sex partner is probably going to be beautiful by my standards.

    And that's the thing - beauty is subjective. I'm not convinced that there is any such thing as people who aren't beautiful; at most, there's just people who aren't beautiful to me.

  4. I recall one of my big click-moments with feminism was when someone pointed out to me that the entire rat colony in Ratatouille was male, there were no female rats. And I realized I hadn't even noticed that.

  5. I'm thinking that as soon as more females get into the gaming field as developers then there will be more female characters from what I can tell most of these games are made by gaming studios that are mostly male.

  6. I've noticed this. Cartoons I used to watch when I was a girl seem to have this a lot. I've noticed that some female characters are also ridiculously sexualised.

    For example: .

  7. First anon - I'm not sure that makes female the "default" sex. It shouldn't matter from a social perspective, anyway.

    A much, much bigger problem with that article is that it takes Freud seriously. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar,

  8. Dang. I also didn't notice that in Ratatouille. Sigh. *Hangs head*

  9. Actually, almost no Pixar movies pass the Bechdel. They're still awesome, but think about how much more awesome they'd be if there were girls.

  10. To Anonymous 6:18:

    Women aren't immune to this kind of thinking. Hell, I'm a woman, I'm aware of it, and still I catch myself looking at a room full of people, trying to decide who might be interesting, and mentally discarding the other women - especially the unattractive ones. We've all been raised with this assumption and most people give it about as much thought as a fish gives to water.

  11. @Anon 6:18:
    There's also a certain chicken-egg problem, in that the Smurfette issue (among other things) is a barrier for women getting into gaming, and game developers are overwhelming drawn from people who are into gaming.

  12. And when there are female characters in video games, they never wear any clothing.

  13. PopCap's had this problem before. In Plants vs. Zombies, none of the zombies are female. Some might be considered androgynous if you push it and only a handful of the flower-weapons are female. I like the idea that it takes place in a neighborhood of MGTOWs, but I don't think that's what PopCap was going for.

    You'd also think that PopCap of all places would be better about this. The puzzle/mini-game market has a reputation as being games for girls/non-serious gamers/moms, at least as far as a lot of gaming magazines are concerned. I've seen Bejeweled and the like on more "buy this for Mother's Day" lists than I can count.

  14. @ Ozy:

    Pixar is finally making their first movie with a female lead character "Brave." It is quite odd that, after 13 super successful films, critical and financial, they're finally doing a movie with a female lead. Here's the synopsis, from the studio:

    "Brave is set in the mystical Scottish Highlands, where Merida is the princess of a kingdom ruled by King Fergus and Queen Elinor. An unruly daughter and an accomplished archer, Merida one day defies a sacred custom of the land and inadvertently brings turmoil to the kingdom. In an attempt to set things right, Merida seeks out an eccentric old Wise Woman and is granted an ill-fated wish. Also figuring into Merida’s quest — and serving as comic relief — are the kingdom’s three lords: the enormous Lord MacGuffin, the surly Lord Macintosh, and the disagreeable Lord Dingwall."

    Of course she is a princess. Of course she can't be a car, a toy, a lovable septuagenarian curmudgeon, a robot, a monster, a bug, or any of the other ingenious Pixar characters. That said, I'll still see it.


  15. MMOs tend to have plenty of female characters, but exactly how many are actually played by females. As for me I do like to play Mass Effect with a female Commander Shepard but that's mostly due to the quality of Jennifer Hales voice acting.

  16. @Keith: It's nice that Bioware gives you a choice for Mass Effect (and also Dragon Age 2, I think, but I haven't played that), but which Shepard is featured in all the promotional material? The male version.

  17. MMOs tend to have plenty of female characters, but exactly how many are actually played by females.

    55%, at least for WoW. Men still play more male characters than female characters, but they play female characters about a third of the time and they're willing to cross gender lines much more often than female players.

    This is fascinating to me because it tells me that the Smurfette assumption being made by developers is not just offensive, it's objectively wrong. Given completely free choice, male gamers are pretty willing to play a female character, even a female character that isn't particularly sexualized. I've heard all the "elf ass" jokes everyone else has, but of the dudes I actually know with one or more female characters, most of them aren't of the "sexy" races- they're gnomes and goblins and tauren and zombies.

    So either choice A, there are a lot of "perverted" players who'd prefer a childlike or undead or brutish female to a stereotypically sexy female, or choice B, they're just making characters and female characters aren't scary or abnormal.

  18. The Playstation version of Peggle also has a female squid teacher.
    Also, you don't play as the characters, the Peggle characters are the teachers/professors at the Peggle Institute. They guide you.
    Peggle really has quite an interesting storyline 8D

  19. Re: Pixar: There was an article in this month's Esquire which mentioned that, only they didn't really have any problem with it:

    "From the beginning, [Pixar has] been a boys' club. It has, indeed, been intended as an answer to Disney, with its princesses and romantic songs and its inescapable air of yearning."

    So sadly enough, I actually think that this is deliberate on Pixar's part.

  20. And then at the end of the article, Lasseter shows a mother how to hold her newborn baby boy properly (it involves holding the baby in a manly fashion, like a football.) Kind of made me roll my eyes.

  21. "The total, then, is nine male characters and one female character.


    -Men are the default gender, and women are a variation
    -It's normal for there to be more men than women in a group that is doing something interesting


    (It may not have helped that the Peggle dev team consisted of... nine men and one woman.)"

    So, what you're saying is: a group of people got together and designed a game about a group of characters whose apparent genders were an exact match for the gender distribution of that real-life team, and you have a problem with this?
    Or that in male-dominated environment a lone female's gender could be seen as the defining factor of her personality?
    Or that in a group doing something interesting like game design, it is normal for there to be nine guys and a girl? (In this group, for sure...)

    It seems like you're calling for some kind of affirmative action here. It seems like you're asking male developers / directors / authors to write characters to a quota, rather than writing what they know, from the heart.
    Surely that's a recipe for badly written characters? Or worse, for a host of 2-dimensional female characters in a world of thoughtfully-drawn males? Surely that would piss you off worse, wouldn't it?

  22. I tried to read the whole comment column, but Brad Hanon blew my mind before I got a third of the way through. They didn't even have a Rat-ette, and I never noticed.

    I guess it makes a kind of sense, though. They had their token female human, so . . . . unless they wanted to try to have two romantic subplots or the French chef-lady inexplicably had a coincidental female pet rat . . . .


  23. There is a large genre of hidden-object video games--visual puzzles where you must find specific objects on a cluttered screen, sometimes with other types of puzzles, and with more or less plot wrapped around them. Some of the plots are quite elaborate. Big Fish Games is a major reseller and minor producer of these (they produce some of the best ones, in my opinion). In an interview with one of the leads at Big Fish, they said that their largest single market is women over 50.

    Perhaps as a result, protagonists are female more often than not. There is, to my tastes, an overemphasis on "rescue your relative who is in peril" but it is *very* often a female protag rescuing a male relative--father, brother, or child.

    Most of the games can't pass the Bechtel test because they don't have dialog, but of those that do have dialog I think that probably more than half would do so.

    There are also a lot of games where the protagonist's gender is unspecified or barely specified (I found out that the protag of one game was male via a pronoun use in the final cutscene).

    No "serious gamer" would look twice at these, but it is a large market--they boast of releasing a game a day!--and must amount to a lot of sales even at around $10 per game.

    I haven't looked at the game credits to see how many women are involved or how that stacks up to other parts of the industry. I'll do that with the next few I play and report back.

    I like having female characters, PCs and NPCs, in my games. I am more likely to buy games if they have actual women characters and not just "my shtick is being female." I didn't like Dragon Age from a gameplay perspective, but I did appreciate that it acknowledged the existence of both women and gay people. (And also that dwarves have sex!)

  24. Men can write perfectly good female characters; it doesn't take a woman to do that! So even if a team happens not to have a woman writer there's no reason they can't do woman characters.

    I could name a lot of SF/fantasy writers, but I'll just start with Sean Stewart (especially _Mockingbird_). He wrote a whole novel about a pregnant woman, and his heart, I am 100% sure, was in it all the way.

    Or, for the reverse, there is Sarah Monette, a woman writing very strong novels about one gay male and one straight male protagonist.

    Don't sell men short! They can do it! Of course women can too; but it will be easier for women to get interested if they aren't fenced out.

  25. Interestingly, part of the reason that there's only one Smurfette has more to do with the Marxist origins of the show than anything else. There was no undercover sexism there; it was blatant. Marx didn't believe that women should operate in the public sphere, that in fact, if they were part of the public sphere, it would ruin everything. Looking historically at the Smurfs, who were modeled after Marxist ideologies, it would make sense that were no women. And remember, kids: Smurfette wasn't a REAL Smurf. She was made out of stone as a spy, and then the REAL Smurfs showed her the goodness of her ways, and Papa Smurf, in a supreme act of kindness, turned into something more real than stone. But she's still not a Smurf.

  26. RE: Mr. Monster

    Writing genders isn't like writing aliens. Many creators have made characters of a gender not their own--like me. I have yet to hear any complaints that they were two-dimensional stereotypes, and frankly, I find it condescending as a man to hear that I'm too incompetent to write a woman, or an androgyne, or anything else.

    I mean, Jesus Christ. If I'm writing a frickin French Lobster, why the hell COULDN'T I write a woman?


    RE: J

    I like to just randomly assign gender in Wall-E. I mean, they're robots. They're one of the few critters that I can just pretend are ANYTHING without people having genitals to "prove" me wrong.

  27. Allow me to second the WTF. Apparently male game devs can write aliens, space marines, people from ancient or other times and cultures, fantasy races, and animals, but women would just be far too beyond the pale...

  28. Hershele OstropolerJune 20, 2011 at 10:56 PM

    And that's the thing - beauty is subjective. I'm not convinced that there is any such thing as people who aren't beautiful; at most, there's just people who aren't beautiful to me.

    It's amazing how often that gets overlooked in evo-psychery, in discussions of relationships, in in complaints about women only having sex with people they want to have sex with, etc.

    It seems like you're calling for some kind of affirmative action here. It seems like you're asking male developers / directors / authors to write characters to a quota, rather than writing what they know, from the heart.

    Pretty much, yeah. In the real world, the (ostensible) problem with affirmative action is that if, for whatever reason, getting the needed mix of skills conflicts with getting a gender (or whatever) balance similar to that of the world, skills wins. In fiction the gender distribution is entirely up to the creators and such conflicts can be avoided entirely.

    Is there some particular reason you think one gender ought to predominate?

  29. I'm iffy on this note. For some reason, despite the names, I always assumed that wall-e was female and eve was male. And nemo was obviously a daughter (IME) because single men who raise sons tend to coddle the boys and sequester their daughters (leading to failure to launch for the young men due to.a lack of someone to rebel against and daughters who want to real free) . on top of that, Violet became the outgoing child in 'the Incredibles' and Dash learned how to hold back (a reverse of almost every princess-related Disney film prior to Pocahontas.)

  30. Finding Nemo gets REALLY interesting if you're aware of how clownfish biology actually works.

    On any given anemone/clownfish family, the largest individual there is the female, the second-largest male, and all the smaller ones juvenile neuters. If the female dies, the resident male becomes female, and the largest juvenile becomes the next male...

  31. "Women are half of everybody. I hope I live to see the day when we're half of the people who get talked about and written about, too."

    Me too. Oh God, me too.

  32. Allow me to second the WTF. Apparently male game devs can write aliens, space marines, people from ancient or other times and cultures, fantasy races, and animals, but women would just be far too beyond the pale...

    I actually have to object to this. Unless something really out of the ordinary happens, no aliens, space marines, people from ancient cultures, people from fantasy races, or talking animals are going to show up on the internet and chew the game dev a new asshole or five about how he did it all wrong.

    Think "uncanny valley" for psychological profiles.

  33. But we *know* men can write good female characters. Shakespeare did it. Sean Stewart did it. The dev team who came up with Viconia in _Baldur's Gate_ did it (I don't know that they were all men but it's statistically likely). My husband's roleplaying games have good female characters. It's happening all over the ruddy place.

    Dorothy Sayers was asked how she, an only child with no close male relatives, was able to write such convincing male characters. She said, "As far as possible I tried to write them as human beings." Of course you have to vary this recipe a bit if they are meant to be three-eyed monsters from Alpha Centauri, but for humans it works just fine.

    Now, if an individual male writer can't do females it makes sense to find other work for him, but I would think most professionally competent ones should be able to manage. They could start with baby steps--just having two or three female archetypes. TV Tropes is a great sourcebook for archetypes.

  34. In regards to LabRat's post about playing the opposite gender in games:

    Yeah, I enjoy trying to create and playing as female characters as much as I enjoy creating and playing as male ones. When Champions Online came out/recently went free to play, I spent most of my time in the character creator, just making up stuff. I found it way more interesting to make a female superhero than a male one, especially trying to make one that is tasteful. In some games, I tend to make male characters. In other games, I sometimes gravitate towards female. It really depends.

    I am all about female Shepherd in Mass Effect, mainly because of the above mentioned voice acting, but also because she reminds me so much of Susan Ivanova. I am a horrible, horrible nerd.

  35. RE: men playing female characters in WoW . . . I'm not a gamer but a good friend is, and she once mentioned a piece of advice she'd received about choosing a WoW character: "Pick one with an ass you think looks cute running around, cuz you're gonna be seeing a lot of it."

    The person who told her that was a guy with a female Blood Elf character he'd chosen for exactly that reason. Sooooo . . . maybe guys playing female WoW characters isn't as progressive as all that. (Though I can't argue with the logic of letting a pretty character backside enhance one's gameplay.)

    Also, completely randomly, said friend once showed me a fascinating thing about armor in WoW. What was a full-coverage suit of plate for her male character magically turned into a steel bikini when transferred to her female character. Same armor, same stats, but if you're a chick you have to show skin. *eyeroll*

    (Disclaimer -- this was the "old" WoW, before the Cataclysm reboot-type thing; dunno if any of the above still applies.)

  36. Perl- As MaryKaye points out, "we can't possibly touch this with a ten-foot pole, people in a position to know better might criticize us" is a pretty chickenshit excuse when male writers write successful female characters all the time. Yes, sometimes they also write unsuccessful ones and get called on it, but this is not what happens every time or even most times.

    If I wanted to turn the example around, white American male civilian game writers also write characters all the time that are both outside their experience and that actually exist and can walk up and call bullshit on them as well- black characters, military characters, characters from drastically different cultures. And from time to time someone does, justifiably, call bullshit on them.

    Women- especially ones from the same culture and general demographic- aren't so alien that it's just impossible for male writers to write them without writing something horrible the poor dears will be immediately pilloried for. Given the entire fiction market I'm kind of amazed this is even something to argue about.

  37. Argyle- you can, if interested in such things, basically track where in the development cycle an armor model in WoW came from based on whether it changes much, if at all, from male models to female ones. My warrior character started life in what amounted to a chain mail bikini, eventually graduated to full plate armor at the end of the second expansion that for some reason had the belly cut out of the chest armor but no other skin, and currently is walking around in stuff that doesn't change at all between models. New female characters don't get magic changing armors until they hit armor created in the first and second expansions.

    Meatloaf- yeah, no doubt. I know of the small slice of women who create male characters some do it specifically to have eye candy of their own as well. I'm just saying it far from explains all of it, especially differences like older men being much more likely to roll female characters than younger ones.

  38. @LabRat -- Interesting! Nice to know there's been a progression in WoW armor designs. More logical AND more equal, what's not to like? :) Thanks for the update. As I said, I'm not a gamer myself, so I don't always keep up on the latest.

  39. Portal is quite a rarity, in that it features only one protagonist - female - and one ...antagonist... - also female.

    Nethack wins for gender equality in games, though. Any role except the Valkyrie can start as male or female, and gender can be changed at any time with an amulet. (Valkyries are, incidentally the best character; they start as hardy fighters and yet can later become powerful spellcasters.) Gender has no effect on gameplay except that only female characters can lay eggs when polymorphed into monsters.

    Of course, it happens to be a primarily text-based game. Even the official tileset (16x16) is pretty fuzzy.

  40. @ MaryKaye & Rogan -

    Okay, okay, maybe that was a little too sweeping a statement. I agree, there are some great authors writing cross-gendered protagonists in various media, but that doesn't mean everyone can do it, or even that they should try.
    Think about it; if a character's gender can be altered without altering the story, doesn't that make it more or less irrelevant? And if a character has to be a certain gender for the story to work ... well, then they usually are.
    I have a feeling a lot of developers and authors write from a very personal viewpoint. It makes sense that, when the point of genre fiction or gaming is for the player to immerse themselves in the world and identify strongly with the character, they build characters that are "a bit like me, only better" - idealised archetypes that default off their own experiences and worldview, and by extension that of their target audience.

    I'm not saying every single creative artist does this, and you can probably find a million counter-examples. Still, it happens. It takes a conscious decision on the artist's part to set out to create a fully-realised character of any gender, and it's commonly said that men and women are so different that it's like they come from different planets - that must be a daunting prospect to a budding creative talent who's always been told to "write what you know"...

  41. Smurfs are Marxists. Learn something new every day. (Tho I have to say the clownfish biology lesson was cooler.)

    Portal 2's 2-player version has a couple of robots without any obvious gender markers. You can project whatever you want onto them, and I liked that.

    @Mr. Monster: So the gender disparity can be accounted for the fact that most game writers know nothing about women? Good to know.

  42. Does anyone remember the very first Spyro the Dragon? Not a single female dragon. I think they realised how weird that was and added them in for Year of the Dragon (where dragons hatch out of eggs, no less...)

  43. I don't remember seeing genitalia, so how do people know that the entire rat colony in Ratatouille was male? Or do we expect female rats to have boobs and lipstick?

  44. Anon - They were all voiced by male actors. If there were any lady rats, they at least weren't talking.

  45. Mr. Monster - Think about it; if a character's gender can be altered without altering the story, doesn't that make it more or less irrelevant?
    If it's irrelevant, then why not make them a woman sometimes?

    I don't buy that writing a female character is some insurmountable challenge. (I also don't buy that most media creators being male is just the way of the world, oh well.) None of the Peggle dev team were unicorns or aliens either.

  46. Holly, I think Mr. Monster meant that if altering the gender didn't change the story, then it indicates that the *story* is kind of irrelevant. Mr. Monster, did I get that right? If that's actually what was meant, then I gotta say, I just fundamentally disagree.

    I'm starting to suspect, though, that some of us are just inherently more "gendered" than others. By that I mean, people vary a lot in how much they that their gender is part of their identity. Personally, I feel like my gender is only weakly related to my sense of who I am (in the sense of, outlook on the world, reactions to things, the kinds of things I think about, issues that concern me, what I value, etc). I feel it defines me about as strongly as my hair color does. It has some effect, sure; it affects how people react to me, to some extent. But I don't feel like any story about me would be substantially different if my gender were swapped.

    I had this conversation with a friend once, though, who was very surprised to hear me say this. He said he felt very much that "being a man" infused most of what he did. I'm making eggs in the morning? I'm doing it in a man way! I'm watching a movie? I'm watching it through the perspective of a man!

    So, you know, anecdotal evidence being so convincing and all, there's mine. I would bet that said friend would feel that a character's gender is a fundamental aspect of the story. I disagree. But then, we're comparing our own experiences.

    (Just for grins: does anyone really feel like Ratatouille would have been much different if the rat were female? Or hell, if *Frodo* was female? Tolkein gets a lot of flack for having an all-male cast, but I always felt most of the characters were pretty sexless, anyway..)

  47. I think it's time for some thread necro:

    Touhou Project

    It's a series of japanese shooter games. Not the first person kind but rather more like a space shooter where you fly around with your ship (think gradius / project x / whatever).

    The thing about the Touhou games is how you control a character directly. You're not controlling a spaceship or a helicopter. Instead you're controlling the main character you want to play, flying around above some beautiful (but occasionally bland) environments fighting your way to save the world... Usually...

    The thing that sets these games apart is that the games have no male characters. This isn't an amazing feat. I mean Dead or Alive Extreme Beach Volley Ball only has female characters too... Well the thing about the touhou games is that while the fandom certainly sexualizes the characters something fierce, there is no fanservice in the games themselves. You will not see girls flying around in swimsuits or bikinis or whatever. The most explicit it will get is miniskirts (and I can only recall one person wearing that).

    Of course you could say that this is just a male fantasy thing (no threatning rivals to take your girls away) and that's possible.

    I still think it's one of the few games with some really good female characters. And really lovely plots too...

    I should warn you that while the games are entirely devoid of fanservice and innuendo the fandom produces Touhou porn en masse. If you want to see pictures of the characters you should check them out on safebooru or other work-safe sources. (unless you want porn, of course)

  48. Contrary to popular belief, Kat Tut is also female. Perhaps, people never consider this due to the fact that Kat Tut is presented in the form of a pharaoh; as an authoritative figure and, let's face it, women usually aren't leaders (hehehe). Also, Peggle Nights included an additional new character in the form of Marina: the lovely, purple squid with aspirations to become the next Peggle master which, by the end of her story, she does. Granted, Peggle Nights may have come out after you originally wrote this but, nonetheless, Kat Tut remains a female character as well.