So. This series here. As I had mentioned, we’re going to be covering three different categories of factors that make it difficult to have a woman as your lead in a video game; business, creative, and social. Before we get to that, though, first I feel I need to do something I’m very, very, very good at. I need to talk about myself.
Specifically, I need you guys to know where I’m coming from in all this. I spend nearly all of my time being absolutely incredible, but for this one, I need to take it two steps back, and make myself credible to you all. I don’t like putting a lot of real life into this blog, except for a few isolated places, but here’s one where I feel it’s really important to know what my foundation is to contextualize your own take on the theorizing I’m about to do.
Basically, I’m not an expert on any of this. I do have enough of a professional background behind me to make what I consider to be some educated guesses, but I’ve never worked in the video games industry. So, you know, keep that in mind.
My degree’s in Business Administration. I’ve spent most of my career as a small business consultant. I’ve worked on the outskirts of the literary publishing, the fine art, and the film industries. I have and continue to periodically write or work on my graphic novel or do other creative stuff. So the above few sentences are where I get my standing on the business and creative spheres. I currently work as a case manager, which gives me a bit of a lead on the social aspects, but honestly, most of that is just going to be drawing from my years of experience watching people be assholes on the internet. Because really, that’s as much of an expert as pretty much anyone is on that side.
So there, that’s the short and quick of what I’ve got behind me pushing me towards these thoughts. You got it? Good.
One more thing I want to highlight on this little series here. The Shameful Narcissist hit it right on the head in the last post on the subject: This is a very complicated matter. The question of why we don’t see more woman-fronted video games is something that relates to the core of how we look at each other and treat each other as human beings. This is a complex matter. And we cannot apply a simple solution to it. People on both sides of the argument have been doing that as long as the argument has been there, and it hasn’t gotten anybody anywhere. That’s the big takeaway I want you to get. We cannot have a simple solution to a complex problem. There are so many factors involved in keeping men as the primary gender for video game protagonists and trying to address one single thing as the cause for it all is just wasted effort. If you want to see the type of change that leads to more female leads in games, we’ll need to start by understanding just how many branches there are in that rabbit hole.
Moreover, this is not about misogyny or any sort of acute sexism. This is not a man vs. woman thing. If there is anyone out there deliberately making choices to keep women out of games, nobody with any sort of sense is listening to them. Rather, this is more about implicit bias. This is about the assumptions society in general makes about gender and what that means. Every culture, large-scale or small, has their own set of assumptions and acts on them unconsciously in ways that trend towards whatever group is most strongly represented there. It’s not just whatever group men or whites or whatever group in power at the time does. Look at companies and industries dominated by women, or caste- or clan-based societies, and you’ll see the same thing. These unconscious biases are usually negative on both sides, which we won’t so much see here but will become more apparent when we get into the next two sectors we’re looking at. The longer that culture goes on, the more prominent those unconscious trends become, until slowly, shifts start to happen. We’re in the middle of a shift like that now, but it’s not happening quite the way a lot involved in that dumb culture war going on right now would like. We’re going to check out why.
Let’s start giving you the Business.
But first, a little story
There was a time when Perfect Dark was the biggest game in my life. It took everything that made the already excellent Goldeneye 007 great, and took it even further. The gameplay was built off of the Goldeneye engine, and did not drop a single bit of quality in the conversion. You got a lot more variety out of the gameplay with the alternate weapon modes and more creative weapons. The level design was a lot stronger. The presentation was miles better. The cyberpunk setting resonated with me a lot more than Goldeneye’s real-world setting. And most of all, the multiplayer was miles better. The levels were stronger, you got a lot more customization options, you could insert bots with a wide variety of playstyles, and on and on. To me, from both a mechanical and a purely subjective standpoint, Perfect Dark blew the already phenomenal game it was built off of out of the water.
I could not get any of my friends or schoolmates, who loved Goldeneye 007, into it. The most common thing I heard when trying to introduce it to them was “Yeah, it’s good, but I don’t want to have to play as a girl.”
First, a little review. Businesses are formal structures that people organize into in order to accomplish a goal. Usually that goal is to make money doing something the owners want to do. Doesn’t have to be, but most of the time it is. Particularly, when your business becomes a corporation, you usually trade your original owners for a collective of uninvolved individuals whose primary purpose is to gain a return on investment, so making money in either the short- or long-term then becomes your primary focus. Even with other forms of business, if money’s not the primary consideration, it is up there, as it’s necessary to keep the business sustainably moving towards whatever other goals it may have.
So money is a big deal for businesses. Without money, employees lose jobs, and owners fall into ruin. When businesses are releasing products, return on investment is usually chief in their minds, and these products will be designed to maximize it. We’re going to be talking about the creative and the social factors leading to the dominance of males as the main character in games in future posts, but honestly, just with the way businesses work, these business considerations we’ll be talking about here probably trump all. Even if it were nearly impossible to create compelling female characters and the business was protested by half the world every time they put one in a game, if it was significantly more profitable to have lady-led games, you’d be controlling a lot more XX chromosomes in your titles. For right or for wrong, the games industry as a whole has decided that it is likely to make more money by having men as its usual lead playable character.
And traditional marketing habits may back that up. Let’s take a look at the business foundations behind that decision.
Marketing by Empathy
Pay attention to your television ads sometime. You’ll see this in action. They’re selling a product for whom the target market is women? They’ll show women using it. Selling a product for men? You’ll see men using it. The idea being that if you are already somewhat inclined to buy something, and you see someone like you using it, you’re even more inclined to buy it. It’s easier for you to emphasize with the person you see operating something if they’re more like you. Pretty simple, right?
It’s similar with creative works. The gender of the lead will mirror that of their target audience, predominantly. Action movies have male leads, not only because we more expect to see men than women in violent roles, but because men are more inclined to buy those tickets. Romance films have female leads, for the exact same reason.
Does this apply 100% of the time? No. You’ll find plenty of examples of these things flipped around. That’s a good thing. But with the way industries often work, a simple preference for one type of person or another will see their representation being way more predominant than their market share.
So that means game designers are having more games led by men because they’re primarily trying to sell to men, right? No. Actually yes, but we’ll get into that later and it’s not that simple in this case. See, that empathy, than thing that makes us more likely to buy something when we visualize someone like us using it? It doesn’t work equally across genders.
If you ever get into marketing things to children, one of the first things they’ll teach you runs along these lines. If you’re selling to boys, show boys using it. If you’re selling to girls, show girls. Same thing we already know. But if you’re looking to sell to both, you show a boy using it. Because for whatever reason, be it social condition or genetic predispositions or whatever, young girls will emphasize with and follow the lead of a boy more than boys will follow girls. Crossing the streams on gender doesn’t get you as good results with those girls as coming from the female side does, but you’ll still get more of them than you will cross-marketing to boys.
To some extent, it’s reasonable to assume at least part of this carries over to adulthood. It might even be stronger for adults; there’s more differences between sexes in adults than in children, after all. And yes, it absolutely make more of an impact to be using women when you’re primarily marketing to women. That’s where niche marketing comes in, where you’re in a position where you can be more profitable by marketing your product to a previously under-served market segment, where you’ll be able to build a stronger market share by not having to compete with the rest of the world for the biggest pie there is. Niche marketing does not apply to the AAA games industry, however. If you see someone sinking tens of millions of dollars into a product, they’re wanting to get as much of the pie as they can. And when one choice can get them all of Pie A and half of Pie B, and another gets them 25% of Pie A and all of Pie B, it really ends up being a numbers game. The fear that female characters won’t be able to draw enough male interest is something you see in a lot of sectors of the creative industries, particularly as prices of production jump up. That’s the reason you don’t see a lot of female leads in film genres traditionally marketed to men or evenly split between genders, too.
The Numbers are Bullhonky
The numbers fluctuate every year, way more widely than I would have expected, at that, but currently, the Entertainment Software Association puts women as making up 41% of all players. That’s pretty significant. That’s almost half! If women make up almost half of all players, why aren’t publishers marketing to them more?! It’s outrageous and frankly offensive that this market is being largely ignored due to their gender!
And honestly, it kind of is. But that’s a different point. There’s a problem with that number. That 41% number is handy for making a point on the internet. It’s good for framing your complaints and vitriol and whatever else you want to through at developers either for putting or not putting a lady in their games. But that 41% number is absolutely useless to businesses.
Let’s talk Marketing 101 here. One of the first things a marketing team is going to do when they’re getting ready to sell something is to identify their Primary Target Market. We saw above, different people react to different things in different ways. It goes beyond just gender lines. You’re also looking at age groups, regions, lifestyles, other habits, etc. Really, you’re identifying the demographics and traits of the people most likely to buy your product, and you’re tailoring the majority of your marketing material around them. And you know, sometimes, you can reverse-engineer a company’s Primary Target Market by working off their actions. Like, you can tell from EA’s ‘Your mom will hate this’ campaign and worry about people not knowing what war the new Battlefield is set in that they consider teenagers to be a strong market for their M-rated games. You can tell from Acclaim’s ‘bloodvertising’, ‘name your baby Turok’, and gravesite marketing campaigns that they think their target market are a bunch of idiots. And I would put money down that the reason Mass Effect 3 had a multiplayer mode was because they realized their primary target market for that game was people who already bought Mass Effect 2, and limiting it to previous producers is a good way to shrink both your install base and your stock price.
The point is, when you’re marketing something, you’re not blasting it to everyone out there. That 41%, that’s 41% of the potential market. Publishers don’t care about that. They’re not selling to all the people that play video games. They’re selling to all the people likely to buy their video game.
And that’s a completely different audience entirely. Let’s take a look at another study, from Quantic Foundry, analyzing the percentage of female video game players in a given genre’s audience. Now, there are problems with this study, too. Particularly in that their test group was self-selected, which leads to massive amounts of bias both in that they’re by default going to be the type of people that respond to surveys about video games and in that they’re by default going to be the type of people that hang out wherever you find these surveys. So yeah, grain of salt here. Still, this is the data we’ve got, so for the purposes of world-changing blog posts, let’s work with this.
The Quantic Foundry study takes a look at the types of games women are playing, and finds that a lot of the so-called ‘casual’ genres, the match-3’s, the family/farm sims, and the casual puzzles, have the highest percentage of female players among their user base. Also scoring relatively high, with at least a 25% player-base of women, are the atmospheric explorations (I’m assuming the likes of Gone Home, Oxenfree, and others of what I’d call environmental narratives), Interactive Dramas (I think this would cover visual novels), Japanese RPGs, Western RPGs, and Survival Roguelikes.
Let’s top that with a look at what matters most, me and my life. Specifically, thinking back over the women who’ve had the pleasure of being in it, and what sort of games those who did play gravitated to. Anecdotally, there’s been my sister, who gravitates to sim games and western RPGs. A couple I used to roommate with were really big on JRPGs and Survival Horror. There’s been the oh-so-endless stream of love interests who, overall, have largely gone for sim games and RPGs of all flavors. Then there’s my good friend Harliqueen, who really values connections to the characters and worlds of her games, and seems to go for visual novels, western RPGs, and character-based action games. ‘Round here, we often see Athena, who seems to largely appreciate games with a strong story and expansive world; Lightning Ellen, who seems to most strongly appreciate games with powerful female characters that she relates to; and the Shameful Narcissist, who I would guess goes towards RPGs of all flavors with a particular focus on Final Fantasy.
So we’ve got all that. That’s what women are playing. What does that mean? Well, we’re going back to the ESA report on that one. Comparing their list of top 20 best selling games of 2016 to the list of genres from the Quantic Foundry report, only six of those games likely have a female player-base of 25% or more, and that’s being as generous as possible by counting Overwatch and it’s noted high female market share in spite of it’s genre, and counting Minecraft, even though I have no idea where that’d fit on the genre chart. Going further, again being as generous as possible by assuming the ‘other’ category has a strong female player base, only 17% of all game sales were in genres for which women made up at least a quarter of the player-base. In fact, shooters and sports are very well represented in both the top-selling games list and the top selling genres, and those are the two genres with the lowest proportional female player-base.
We saw this with the Wii before; there may be a large install base making for a very sizable potential market, but when that potential market does not spend much money on video games, the target market developers are courting will drift elsewhere. In the Wii’s case, they drifted to other consoles. Going by the data, we can infer that although the woman gamer market may be significant in size, similarly, they’re not buying as many video games as the men are, so the target market is drifting that direction.
This doesn’t mean that women players are not a very sizable secondary market. They definitely are. I’ve had more women friend who play than I have men, and it doesn’t take long to find a whole host of women players on the internet. And it is very, very dumb to ignore your secondary market. But it’s also very dumb to market to your secondary market above your primary target market, and if you’re in a position where you have to have a fixed character in the lead role for your game, well, you only get to choose to use them to market to one, and it just makes logical sense to focus them towards your primary market unless you’re willing to take a risk with them or you’re working on a larger plan.
It’s possible that these games have created their own player-base by not marketing to women in the first place. And obviously, you don’t need to be at the top of the pack to be profitable. There’s a reason games come out in all sorts of genres looking for all sorts of markets; the industry is so large and massive and varied that most games can do well by capturing a slice of it.
And that said, those genres women are most likely to be playing? I think they’re also more likely to offer playable women leads. Now, correlation does not equal causation. It could be that they have more women players because they have more women leads, and that drew more of that market. I would guess that’s the case with Overwatch, with both it’s unusually high female player-base and the fact that the female character Tracer featured most prominently in their marketing materials. It could also be that the greater proportion of women leads was in reaction to the amount of women already playing the game.
It could also be that games, even in genres that don’t typically draw a lot of women, could stand to get more of that secondary market by being more friendly to female characters. That’s a risk. Will talk about that in a bit. But frankly, if we did get more women involved in video games, that would only be good for our chosen medium. In spite of what those all-caps twitter rants tell you. Increase the size of the market which means more opportunity for success in the industry which means more varied and unique experiences and that creativity and risk-taking has more chance to take off. That would be a fantastic thing, and that’s a direction the industry should be moving in.
But the industry as a whole is not an actual entity. It has no management, no directorship, nothing that says ‘we should do this’ and makes everyone involved hop in that direction. It is made up of a lot of individual companies, all acting independently. And an individual company, even the largest ones, cannot sway the entire industry unless they can prove themselves financially successful in doing so. If it does not make business sense to do it, other businesses will not pick it up. Thus far, the business numbers show that even as women make up a larger proportion of the total games market, more of the dollar value rests with men. And industries do not typically go towards what should be without a rare and real agreement among their leaders or some sort of business incentive. They react to what is. They have a duty to, to their stakeholders and staff and themselves.
Moreover, differences in sizes of their target and secondary markets do usually lead industries to disproportionately favor the target market. Even if women did truly make up 40% of the audience for every game out there, you’d still be seeing significantly more men than women in leading roles. Probably less men than we see now, but it wouldn’t work out to 40% of leads being women. It’s just the way a lot of businesses work, more than 60% of the product would be aimed at that 60% share as nearly everyone tried to grab the biggest slice of the pizza.
Honestly, even with the figures that seem to support the size of the potential market of women, from a business perspective, a lot of them do still highlight the differences in the target market. Just look at another figure from the ESA report. One of their headlining figures is that women make up a significantly larger proportion of players than do boys under 18, at 31% vs. 18%. But reading into things a bit further, that means that 38% of the population in America only make up 31% of the market, while another 14% segment could be buying 18% of the games. Women are involved less than their total proportion, while boys are involved more. When making business decisions, this could go either way depending on the product I was delivering. Yes, I could take the ESA-intended inference that women make up a significant and un-catered portion of the audience, or I could take the inference that boys are a lot easier to market to and more likely to buy the product while women would be a disproportionately high amount of work to court towards my game.
Risk and the Establishment
For a creative industry, video games are largely risk-averse. It’s not just them. A lot of creative industries have been going that way lately. As development costs rise, as more units need to be moved to break even, it gets hard to rise out of the comfortable, out of the successful but unspectacular. You remember back in the NES/SNES era? Having a woman-led game was still an oddity then, but it sure seemed a lot more common than it is now. It was unique but not out of place to have your Ms. Pac-Man or your Final Fantasy VI or your Phantasy Star. Over the past couple generations, as games grew more complicated and failure had larger consequences, you saw less and less women helming games.
Overall, it seems to me that the largest game companies have been trending towards the well-tread path. They looking for slower growth, taking more small, calculated risks rather than the large, potentially hugely successful ones, and building more around a tried-and-true framework that they know will see a certain level of reception. They’re not building risky games, they’re not building games fostering a hot-or-cold reception, they’re sticking with building on top of the established foundation. This isn’t a bad business strategy. And honestly, once a corporation reaches a certain size, it is a lot better for them to balance out their high-risk/high-reward projects with enough safe ones to keep them alive if everything comes crashing down. I would argue a lot of companies are playing it a little too safe, and that the largest companies are not courting as large and diverse a market as they’re capable of, but it’s not my job to run them so I’m not in a position to talk. In any case, playing things safe may not be the best for creativity or moving the medium forward, but focusing on slow steady growth is usually what’s best for business for established companies.
Usually, it’s the smaller companies, in this case the indie or mid-sized producers, or the large companies in the process of losing market share who have more to stand from big risky games. The better creative companies will also take some risks with their mid-budget properties, as well. That doesn’t seem to be playing through in the games industry, though. I was surprised as anyone when I ran down my Steam list last post of this series and found that women aren’t particularly better represented among indies than they are among high-published titles. Guess when you’re spending years with no income on a project, the price of failure does stand to be pretty severe. For large companies in the process of moving downwards, the Hail Mary carries too much on it for the traditional risk-taking. And the mid-budget games all seem to be designed with a potential franchise in mind, so even then, the characters are built so they could be transplanted into a big name title.
And having a woman-led game is a risk. Let’s be clear on that. It’s something different from the norm, and the industry has so settled in to the manly protagonists that we haven’t had enough major releases with women on the other side of the controller to identify the true impacts of their marketing potential, yet.
When you’re risk-averse and making business decisions, you stick to what’s been successful for yourself and others paddling along your stream. The industry won’t change until a few lone companies can prove the fun new thing will be successful, and in the case of woman-led stories, that’s fallen a little flat. Mirror’s Edge did not perform as well as publishers desired. The Tomb Raider reboot had weak sales for the longest time until Square Enix finally eked a profit out by getting aggressive with discounts. Bayonetta sold strongly, but not up to par for other games with similar ratings. Now, marketing and selling anything is a very complicated subject, and sticking to simple rules such as ‘Lady Protag=Smaller Sales’ is always going to lead to a lack of comprehension on the true matter. But trying to track the root of a failed project is incredibly difficult even for people with a lot of education on the subject, and when those simple rules are all that you can hold on to, that’s what you do. So because there were so few female-led games coming out, and because the ones that did underperformed, no matter what else may be going on there, it would have been easy for the woman protagonists to be the scapegoats simply by virtue of being common among them and being relatively prominent.
Thankfully, that understanding should be starting to shake up a bit. Horizon Zero Dawn came out with the type of marketing campaign that would fit any other major AAA console release, and did respectably well in sales, even with its woman protagonist. Rise of the Tomb Raider seemed to escape the early lull in sales its predecessor faced, and easily topped the trouble sales history the franchise had established. It’s a little too early to see how Uncharted: The Lost Legacy is doing, but early info is rather promising. And these recent successes are important. If a few in the industry can establish that woman protagonists don’t have a negative impact on sales, that’s going to open the door to more. The established understanding of what the market does and does not want is going to be tough to beat, but if more than a few woman-helmed games can find success, the understanding is going to build.
Complicating matters even further is that businesses don’t just try to sell to their home market, they’re often trying to take their game global. And unless you have a very deft hand and a project that lends itself well to multiple cultures, that a rather difficult prospect. You’ve got a lot of varying social mores to take into consideration, a lot different values, many different types of reception, and yes, a lot of different types of treatments of women.
Maybe the western world is ready to get behind women as leading characters. That would be very considerable, a big move in a good direction. But commerce is going increasingly global, and the video games industry is no exception. We’ve seen a strong Japanese influence in the video games industry for as long as there’s been a video games industry, and they’ve got their own culture and views on various subsets of people that doesn’t exactly line up with the western world. China is one of the biggest markets in the video games industry, and their views on… you know what, I’ll never stop if I go there. They’re different, that is to say. Same with South America. Same with any other given not-traditionally English speaking company. Different areas take different marketing, so even if you know how a changes to a formula might affect things in America, the effects on sales in other areas may be a completely different story. Which, depending on how strong your international sales are, well, see above for the whole industry’s take on risk.
Beyond that, though, and this is something we’ll get into in our next post on this line, building a creative project with the idea of selling it to different cultures usually requires simplifying it. You see that with the way movies have gone lately, more reliant on vibrant visuals and less moving parts in the plot, as the international market has grown more important to them. There’s a heck of a lot of things in this world that mean different things in different cultures, and usually, if you’re building something that translates between them, the less mixed perceptions you’re building in there, the better. You want to keep things simple.
And that means men. Men are the generic gender. Women are special. In creative works, women are notable for being women. And being woman has different baggage attached to it with each culture. Being man does as well, of course, but frankly, audiences have gotten so used to men in the leading roles that the key assumptions are a bit easier to pick up. No matter your culture. This is something that can be corrected by more exposure to leading women worldwide, but until that happens, women will face a stronger variation in the cultural perspectives they see as characters then do men, which takes a lot of the creative control out of the hands of the creators. And you know how much they love that.