I went to see Disney’s new animated movie Wreck-it Ralph yesterday with my family. I have to say, it was the most enjoyable movie experience I’ve had in a while.
The story was part of the reason for this. The movie centres around a Donkey Kong-esque bad guy named Ralph and a ‘glitchy’ racing avatar named Vanellope that learn to accept themselves for who they are. Along with the well-written story, the writers did an excellent job of catering to gamers by both evoking nostalgic memories of the 8 and 16-bit characters of yore, and by scattering a myriad of inside jokes that only those that spent hours in front of consoles in the 90’s would appreciate.
But there was a minor aspect of the movie that I thoroughly enjoyed, and if you were focused on the in-game characters, you would have missed it. It was Disney’s portrayal of gamers and gaming, a simultaneously disheartening and encouraging presentation.
Gamers and Stereotypes
The gamers in the movie played only a passing role (how could games be played exist if there were no gamers?), but their portrayal speaks volumes to how society views gamers.
The movie opens with various gamers waiting outside before an arcade opens. The arcade is run by a pot-bellied, balding 45 year-old man with glasses whose life has simply escaped him due to his obsession with video games. The first clear illustration of what society thinks of gamers. As soon as this broken man opens the doors, a swath of gamers force their way into the arcade to reach their games of choice. A single adult is among them, and even though you don’t see his face, his stride, hunched posture and baseball cap immediately identify him as a pedophile. If he turned around, I’d bet my money he was sporting a pretty sweetpedostach. Thankfully, that’s the only time we see him, but it’s unfortunate that adult gamers are portrayed so undeniably as losers.
You could probably guess the next two stereotypes. First, the rest of the gamers are school children averaging about 10 years old. This is despite the average age of gamers being 32 and 75% of gamers being over 18. There weren’t even any parents, dropping them of, playing with them, or watching them. I mean, don’t their parents know that there’s a pedophile in there?
Second, the gamers were largely male biased. Society still views gaming as a male pastime despite that women make up almost half of the gamers today. Ever since Sierra On-Line started making games in the 80’s, companies viewed women as an untapped market and specifically targeted them in many of their games. Do women play the same games as men? Does it matter? Not all men enjoy the same games either.
From the large assortment of children in the arcade, we are only really introduced to one gamer. I was excited to see that this character was a girl as I was curious to see how the writers would portray a female gamer. Unfortunately, the first word to come to mind when you see her is ‘geek’. It seems that female gamers aren’t spared any of the phenotypic stereotypes either.
Despite this initial depiction, the writers shirk further gender stereotypes and have her play Hero’s Duty; a violent first person shooter that most people would consider a ‘male’ game, even though they are frequently played by women. She next moves to play Sugar Rush, a racing game akin to Mario Kart that is clearly marketed for girls given its pink colouration and candy-themed design.
Interestingly, the game is being played by two boys when she arrives. It seems that Disney is smashing video game gender stereotypes like their titular character.
The next depiction of what happens, unfortunately, is representative of what female gamers are experiencing today. After putting down a quarter to call next game, she is immediately rebuffed by the two boys while they drop a role of quarters. “We’re playing all nine racers today”; meaning that she won’t get a chance to play and isn’t invited to try. They’re bullies, and as harmless as it seems, you get the feeling that she’s encountered this may times before and that she’s tired of it.
Sadly, this is very close to reality. If you read Maddy Myers’ depiction of what it was like to try and take part in gaming fight clubs, you’ll find that this kind of sexist bullying is common even in the professional gaming circuit. The typical view seems to be that women are welcome to go ahead and play games, but they can only do it for fun. They could never be ‘hardcore’.
So what kind of a society does Disney show us? One where gamers are kids, because only kids have time for such nonsense. Also girls, you are welcome to play, but don’t be surprised when you’re playing by yourself. You should have better, more girly things to do.
How Disney Inspired
But I did say that there was a reassuring part in the movie. At the end (and don’t worry I’m not spoiling anything) the girl gamer gets an opportunity to play Vanellope, the lead female character in Sugar Rush. Using this avatar, the girl wins the race and Vanellope pumps her fist into the air. At this point, the girl is so thrilled that she places her fist against the screen to perform a virtual fist bump.
There were a few snickers in the theatre, and interestingly, they came from the young girls beside us. But to me, this was a powerful statement of the role games can play in someone’s life.
Along with improving numerous other physiological and behavioural traits, games have the ability to improve our view of our self-worth through positive reinforcement. This is in fact one of the arguments that Jane McGonigal makes for why we love playing video games in her book Reality is Broken. In this movie, this is the opportunity the girl has been waiting for: to succeed and to be recognized. And for the few seconds you see it, the relationship between gamer and avatar is palpable. No matter that it’s just a game, the girl will definitely leave the arcade feeling better about herself.
This scene also demonstrates that women identify with video game characters, highlighting the importance of providing strong female role models in video games. As sexist views can be perpetuated through sexualized views of women in video games, depicting women as gender-equal role models may further help to eradicate sexist views in the younger generation.
The gaming industry is making changes that will likely lead to gamers to contemplate questions of sexism and violence in society. Nevertheless, it is a clear sign of progress when Disney is begins positively depicting women in video games.