Critical Play: Play Like a Feminist

For this critical play, I played Super Smash Bros. Ultimate, published by Nintendo for the Nintendo Switch in 2018. During my play through, I primarily played as Princess Peach (as well as her echo fighter Princess Daisy). The traditional courting of a male audience that has historically dominated video games, as described in Shira Chess’s Play like a Feminist, is palpable when viewing the game’s roster of playable characters. The selection is very male-dominated, with only 16ish characters being female out of 81ish total characters. This underwhelming representation for female characters can be traced back to the historic targeting of a male audience among video game designers rather than Smash Bros. itself, however Smash could make more of an effort to include female characters and balance out the roster, making more of an effort to bring about change.

Beyond inclusion, the depiction of female characters in the game is questionable as well, both in terms of fighting style and character design. Many female characters are given attacks that feel much less violent than those of their male counterparts. The majority of male characters have fighting attacks, such as punching and kicking. Even more whimsical or cartoonish characters, such as Mario, are given punching and other standard forms of violence as a weapon. However, most female characters are given elegant or magic-based attacks. For example, Peach can summon a Toad to attack for her and create magic sparkles above her head to attack foes. In place of standard punch attacks, Peach wields a golf club (a reference to most of her appearances as a playable character, rather than a damsel in distress, being in Mario sports games.) These sports-based attacks could have been given to any Mario character, as they all appear in Mario sports games, but the developers chose to attribute this attack to Peach in place of punching seemingly in service of the idea that women are not inherently capable of violence or fighting. This seems to remove agency from several of the female characters present in the roster. Shira Chess describes agency as a tool to stand against those in power. By depicting Peach as being inherently non-violent, the game depicts her as fighting almost accidentally, relying on Toads to fight for her and swinging golf clubs around and coincidentally striking opponents, and thus depriving her of her agency and intentionality.

Another issue with the depiction of the female characters in the game is character design. While some female characters are given more typically violent fighting styles, such as Samus, they are often still given outfits that sexualize their appearance, such as Samus’s skintight jumpsuit. Characters such as Peach and Palutena wear clothing that appears impractical for fighting, such as elegant dresses. While these appearances are faithful to the character’s classic appearances, the Smash developers could have taken it upon themselves to provide the characters with more practical outfits, such as one of the athletic outfits that Peach wears in many Mario sports spin-offs. These depictions can push unrealistic body types and societal standards that Smash could help to phase out with various aesthetic modifications.

Discussion Question: How can video games such as Smash that draw on a typically male-oriented gaming history move to be more female friendly?

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