Anita Sarkeesian published her second part of the Damsel in Distress trope on youtube last night and after initial hiccups (as in a bunch of her haters getting the video auto-banned thanks to spamming report buttons), I was able to watch what turns out to be the grimmest of her documentaries so far. I recommend watching it not just for the general insight however but to experience the intended repetition in this video, the repeated descriptions of tropes such as “…the X is brutally murdered and you then have to rescue your daughter” (starting at 07:40) which incidentally aren’t only a powerful tool in conveying the inherent absurdity, but touch on a greater subject so central to this discussion: repetition.
Repetition and the subconscious mind
Sarkeesian, by now used to the violent opposition and ruthless nitpicking her videos provoke on a regular basis, is including more and more clarifying (and in places toning down) final words in her recent documentaries, forestalling no doubt many of the incoming exclamations of “..but not all games/men/women are like that!” or “…just because lots of X doesn’t mean I am Y!” and erm, yeah. I doubt it helps much but I appreciate her attempt at balancing where there is not much balance to find. Of course she grants that just because gamers keep seeing certain power constellations or violent problem solving in games over and over, that doesn’t mean we go out on a killing spree the next weekend.
What all those who think they remain unaffected by common videogame tropes and imagery should know however, is that it’s not up to them but their brain to make that call – and the brain happens to be an utterly impressionable organ when it comes to the power of repetition. There is a reason why when googling the search terms “mind control and repetition”, you will not only be presented with educational sites about effective studying methods, but surveys about psychological brain washing, scientifically researched mind conditioning and manipulation techniques employed in interrogation and warfare scenarios. For hundreds of years, repetition has been one of the simplest and yet most effective ways to influence and control human minds ever so slowly and subtly. Methods such as the well-known “drill” employed in the military but also intense sessions of repeated prayer in institutionalized religion, aka “litany”, are based on the same principles.
Our mind is highly susceptible and vulnerable to repetition on a subconscious level. This is most commonly seen in children/people who are bullied over longer periods of time, to a point where they adopt the negative image of themselves, communicated over and over by their peers. They are brainwashed. It is then the daily challenge of educators, social workers and psychologists to try and untie the harmful knots. More often than not, they do not succeed. We simply cannot unhear what we have heard a hundred times – just like we cannot unsee what has been seen too often. It leaves a powerful mental print and shapes our notion of what we are, how we look and what we should be and look like. Rationalization proves to be surprisingly ineffective here even for grownups, although one common therapy of the damaged self-image is also based on repeated, positive affirmation (“over-writing”).
Accepting knowledge about how the human mind works has a sobering effect on the (videogame) tropes debate. No media that are consumed on a very regular basis and which require dedicated levels of attention, can distance themselves from shaping thoughts and behavior of their audiences. This in itself is still trivial unless we are talking about recurring and repeated scenarios, representations of reality and normality. Movies, commercials and print media have a lion’s share here but so do videogames increasingly.
Contextual chunks and you
Physical violence is an integral part of many video game genres, even more “peaceful” ones at first glance and probably always will be. While there are those who would ban shooters from the market yesterday, the overwhelming number of “peaceful gamers” out there (and observations towards the relaxing effect of shooters) speak a pretty clear language in that debate. I don’t think it should ever be silenced but I don’t believe that depictions of “just violence” in media cause the likeliest harm; violence in and out of itself isn’t a motivation and it doesn’t create content in videogames. Much rather, it is fully fleshed out, repeated stories, the finely woven and complex relationships, stereotypes and tropes that we are continuously presented with. That’s why “but we’re also not shooting everybody” doesn’t really apply as counter-argument to Sarkeesian’s points. It’s the repeated subtle messages and subtext in our daily lives that deserve the most attention and that are mirrored in the games we play.
One of the most interesting lessons I’ve taken away from a speed reading seminar few years back, is that there’s a common misconception among readers and also educators that slow reading improves contextual understanding. In truth the contrary is the case: there’s such a thing as reading too slowly (the way your teacher might have asked for back in school). The reason for this is that our brain processes and stores information best in chunks or groups of words and alternatively through images. Only in context do we understand and memorize the most, so it’s easy to see why reading text word by word rather than word chains isn’t exactly helpful. Speed reading isn’t primarily just about being faster but understanding the most in regards to time spent. It’s a skill that can be obtained.
Complex social, contextual relationships, role models, power mechanics and tropes repeatedly shown in media, especially those that combine messages with graphical elements, are the likeliest to get memorized and hence to influence us subconsciously. Personally, I believe that a big part of what our society regards as masculine and feminine traits and behavior for instance is based on the returning “stories shown and told all around us” from an early age. The same goes for our notion of beauty which has drastically changed over time. It isn’t just fashion posters but much rather fairy tales, picture books, movies and daily chatter that teach us what’s desirable or unattractive.
The tropes Sarkeesian is analyzing in her video are complex, crude as their examples might look like. The “girlfriend in the fridge” in all its portrayed variations is built on deep psychological and emotional triggers that are as socially meaningful as they appear to be accepted without question. Yet, it’s the things we are just so used to that require our critical attention. Why is there not more variety in videogame victims and heroes? And why does “flipping the script” (as mentioned towards the end of the video) seem so silly?
I don’t think that videogames need to be highlighted more than any other, in the case of film or literature even more widespread media when it comes to violent, sexist tropes and questioning all their implications for a society. But videogames are a powerful tool for storytelling and therefore they too deserve scrutiny. Whether we like it or not, we are subject to harmful thematic repetitions in games (not just in regards to gender roles) that we are not naturally equipped to ignore. This isn’t some psycho-babble; valuing iteration is just what our brain is really good at. And it happens in spite of us.
That’s why this debate can’t be trivialized and it can’t be shrugged off. It isn’t just about what gamers think they can rationalize or distance themselves from because “umm fiction”; the critical analyzis of repeated violent tropes or gender roles in games and other media is one we need to take seriously because our mind cannot escape repetition. And that, to me, bears repeating.