Mario, You’re 30 Today. It’s Time To Step It Up.

Photo: Courtesy Nintendo.
Stop me if you’ve heard this plot before: Mario (and his brother) are chilling out when, suddenly, Bowser decides to invade the Mushroom Kingdom. Princess Peach is kidnapped and it’s up to the titular brothers to go rescue her.

Oh, you have? I guess that’s because it’s happened 17 separate times since the first Super Mario Brothers game was released, 30 years ago today.

Sure, it's an irritatingly dated trope, but it's also a serious problem with one of the best known video game franchises ever created. So let’s back up and talk about 30 years of Mario — and how those three decades have treated women.

My parents lost me when they made the terrible mistake of buying a Nintendo for Christmas in 1985. My grades went to hell, I stopped doing chores, and Nintendo became my reason for living. This is a common story for people like me, who grew up to become professional game developers. But from the beginning, I was always frustrated with how women never got to be the heroes in games.

Super Mario 2 came out in 1988 and I thought things were turning a corner. Princess Peach was a playable character — arguably the most powerful character in the entire game.

What was weird, looking back on that era, was the aggression I noticed from boys about her inclusion. Playing with Peach was considered undignified. Lesser. I remember chalking it to boys that age being jerks in general, but then she was unceremoniously dropped as a playable character in Super Mario 3. There she was, stuck in a castle waiting to be rescued again.

Amazingly, you would not be able to play as Peach in a core Mario game for 25 years. Nintendo did make an offshoot game for the DS starring Peach in 2006, but it was a sexist train wreck of a design. Peach's stereotypical emotions drove the gameplay. When she was angry, she would smash her way through obstacles. When she was sad, tears would flow to the point of extinguishing flames. Women gamers were understandably less than happy.

You’ve probably heard about how the game industry is hostile to women. I should know, I’m one of the women being targeted by the hate group known as #Gamergate. I’ve had over 150 death threats this year and my office regularly talks to prosecutors and the FBI. All of this because I’m a woman in a field that wants more games to star a Princess Peach.

A lot of people want to chalk this up to a few bad apples in the scene ‚ and they are that. But it’s worth thinking about how the video game industry made a choice in 1985 to market exclusively to boys. Documents from the era that show that Nintendo targeted boys between five and 10 years old. When the Super Nintendo came out seven years later, they expanded the range and targeted boys between five and 15.

Believe me, if you lived through this era, you got the message that games were not for girls. Everything from Captain N to Captain Commando posters in Nintendo Power sent the message that girls were not welcome. Three decades years later, those boys are now adults. They’ve been told their whole lives that games are their space and the proper place for women is waiting in the castle.

What’s stranger is the exclusion of women didn’t even make economic sense in the '90s. You may have heard recently that women are now the largest segment of gamers. People like to think this is a new phenomenon, but we’ve been here the whole time. Nintendo released the Game Boy in 1990. By 1995, Nintendo was surprised to find that demographics were almost evenly split between boys and girls — a trend that was helped by non-violent puzzle games like Tetris and gender-inclusive options like Pokémon. And yet, the Mario games on that platform still featured the same dated tropes of princesses locked in castles awaiting their male saviors.

When you look at the wider Mario universe, women are also noticeably absent. Bowser has seven children, six of whom are male. They range from composers to clowns dancing on balls. The single girl, Wendy, is stuck-up and perpetually pouty. She suffers from what Anita Sarkeesian calls “female personality syndrome” — her only definable traits are a collection of female stereotypes.

In 2013, Nintendo finally released a core Mario game that allowed you play as a female character again: Super Mario 3D World. And this game is an absolute masterpiece. It's by far my favorite Mario game since Super Mario 2. One of my best friends has two daughters, and both love it. They fight over who gets to play as Princess Peach. But they complain about the lack of women characters in other games — the same way I did in 1985.

Mario, you’re in your thirties now. It's 2015. Women have wanted to be part of your adventures for 30 years. It’s time to step it up.

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