Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A bit about my project.

Or, I Wander Off-Topic Again. In my first post to this blog, I talked about what drew me to this class, and what seemed to be some interesting parallels in narrative-building between pro wrestling and a certain videogame genre. Representations of women in videogames has always been a thorny topic, and most of the writing on the subject (as popular and scholarly levels) is, in my opinion, weak to embarrassing, but fighting games have their own history with women that seems to have some relevance to wrestling.

Fighting games--for a refresher, games in which a small number of characters (usually two) attempt to beat up or kill each other using complex controls--have very few passive characters, and generally have fairly large casts. The game responsible for the popularizarion of the genre, Street Fighter II, has twelve active characters, eight of them playable, one of them female. The inclusion of a woman was not a major play element, and the gameplay was biased toward the two male protagonists anyway: the other six playable characters were all more or less gimmick characters. The female character, Chun-Li, was not overly sexualized, beyond fighting in a traditional Chinese dress and using an acrobatic fighting style, but nonetheless, she was something of a novelty at the time. She quickly became a fan favorite (for reasons that are, of course, impossible to determine completely), and more female characters followed in other games. The issues involving mixed-gender contact sports are nonexistent in the virtual realm, of course, so women in fighting games quickly shifted from novelties to standard characters whose absence would have been very noticeable.

Time passed, graphics improved, controversies roiled, and mainstream games became more sexual. Merchandise allowed for greater character development and greater fan attachment, both of which contributed to more openly sexualized female characters. Fatal Fury Special introduced a modern staple of the videogame woman, the breast bounce. Dead Or Alive continued the trend, with a higher-than-usual proportion of female characters, all sexualized to a fairly ridiculous level. Dead Or Alive helped carve out the beginning of videogames' answer to the "lad mag," games that were marketed to teenage males largely on the basis of over-the-top female sexuality. (At least that seems to be the idea; the marketing seems to work better for women on some titles.) Dead Or Alive is perceived by many gamers as not being a "real" fighting game, due to the ubiquity and sexualization of its female characters.

So, female characters began as a novelty, grew to become an expected part of the game, and ultimately created a segregated subgenre in which women are the primary or only important characters--a subgenre that is not respected by "real" fans. It seems to me that this parallels, to some degree, women's wrestling: beginning as a novelty act alongside midgets, growing to some degree of legitimacy, and then collapsing back into a separate novelty act sold on the basis of sexuality. The arc seems to be different (the growth of the modern women wrestlers derided by most of our readings seems to have come from failures of popularity, not successes), but I'm curious to see how the two might work differently, at to what extent the differences can be attributed to differences in medium.

1 comment:

Sam Ford said...

Peter, not having a strong video games background, your quick history is quite instructive. I'd like to see if the class agrees that some parallels can be drawn with women's wrestling. I have a really rough study of women's wrestling and its trajectory that might help you, and I could pass that along to you if you think it would be a help. Let me know.

My take is that women's wrestling was seen as a sideshow attraction but taken somewhat seriously as athletics in the early days. In the 80s, as cable rose, women were instead primarily incorporated into the storytelling and didn't wrestle as regularly because they were on a national stage. At this point, the valet became more and more important, and romantic entanglements became a major driver of storylines (think Elizabeth and Macho Man/Hulk Hogan, for instance).

The modern era briefly brought back women's wrestling in the WWE, but juxtaposed with the "divas." In the end, the "divas" won, and there are few women's wrestlers left once again, probably fewer American women's wrestlers than at any point in the past 75 years or so.