Gender Portrayals in Early Video Games
Popular culture, including video games, serve as the means by which society has traditionally defined and enforced gender roles. Recent video games have come under increased scrutiny for their perpetuation of harmful stereotypes about gender and sexuality, but these attitudes are not a recent development. From the start, gaming has been dominated by men attempting to dominate women.
Primitive video games, using improvised equipment, printers, or overlay sheets, were often preoccupied with the mechanics of the game. They did nothing to advance the cause of gender equality. How many women grew up to become Pongs? Not many, I'd wager.
The majority of early games focused on crude science-fiction or dungeon adventure concepts in which violence was used to resolve conflicts. The early developers unwittingly created the male-dominated template for violence in gaming from which even modern developers rarely deviate.
The late 1970s and early 1980s VCS/Atari era of home console gaming coincided with the Space Invaders renaissance in arcade gaming. To our modern eye, these games are still crude, but they represent a leap forward in graphics and concepts. And a leap backward for gender equality.
Space Invaders, which started a new boom in arcade gaming, was a thinly-disguised metaphor for sexual aggression: the steady progress of suitors wears down the shields of willpower. Even the player, attempting to fend off those who would invade space, wields a penis and marks territory to prevent other men from touching his property. The game would inspire many imitators, including the vulgar Galaga, which adds a layer of "hen pecking" gender imprisonment in a blatantly misogynistic attack on women.
1981 saw the release of one of the most famous early arcade games: Nintendo's Donkey Kong. It is hard to imagine the pain of little girls growing up in the 1980s and watching their brothers play this game (if they were even allowed in arcades) in which a giant gorilla has captured a helpless woman who must be rescued. While clearly inspired by the damsel-grabbing ape in King Kong, this is no excuse, as that film was released in 1933, just over a decade after women's suffrage in the United States.
Even Pac-Man, a being without defining sexual characteristics, is declared to be male just for the sake of enforcing binary gender choices. Things did not improve with the sequel. 1982's Ms. Pac-Man was an insulting gesture towards gender equality that warped the way an entire generation viewed women.
Imagine how seeing this on the side of a Ms. Pac-Man cabinet spun the body image of young girls in 1982:
The story of Ms. Pac-Man, as told during interstitial animations, defines her as she relates to the original Pac-Man (both pursuing and being pursued by) and as a mother to "Junior." In other words, despite the "Ms." this is definitely a "Mrs." Pac-Man, a heroine so utterly enslaved by the Pactriarchy that she has no name of her own. A licensed cartoon based on Pac-Man later attempted to retcon the story of Ms. Pac-Man, calling her "Pepper," but the damage was already done.