Lagging Behind on the Leading Ladies, Part 3: The Creative Side

Introduction

Business Perspective

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It’s that time again! Time to talk about how I don’t get to play like a girl as much as I want to, and look into possible means as for why that is.

Today, we’re going to talk about the creative aspect of having women as leading characters in your video games. And it’s purely going to be about the art of making video game women, in a vacuum. We’re not going to discuss the impact audience reception has on creating just yet, that’s going to be a topic for our next post in this series, when we’re talking about the social factors. Most creators do create for their audience, but if we start working that in alongside everything else we’re talking about the lines between this post and the next post will blur and then I’d have to write the two of them together and I am too monumentally lazy right now to do that. So yeah, just focusing on the creative side of things today, looking at things from the perspective of the designer, not considering the marketing or receptive aspects of these.

This didn’t come up so much in the last post we did in this series, but at it’s core, the whole issue behind gender representation and everything else we’ll talk about here stems from the way we as a culture look at gender identity. So let’s talk a bit about that first.

I’m going to say I’m pretty experienced at being a man. I’ve got a lot of experience at that. Enough that I have pretty much mastered the art of physically being a man. On top of that, I’ve known plenty of women throughout the course of my life. Taken in their stories, their personalities, their… eh, let’s keep this G-rated. Never been a women, but I’ve observed them plenty. On top of that, as I continually demonstrate through this blog, I am a genius. My thinking is just of a top-tier quality.

What I’m saying is I have absolutely the highest credentials to talk about matters of gender. Accept no substitutes. My word on this is the best-informed you will ever see. And I’m telling you that men and women just aren’t all that different. Naturally, we barely have anything between us. Personality-wise, we in general have a few different drives, usually related to partnering or evolutionally instilled upon us from a period of life that we’ve outgrown faster than our biology has, but aside from that, we’re basically the same. Yes, we have some biological, hormonal, and brain developmental differences, but the differences account for so little proportion of who we are. Men and women have far more in common than we realize. Stripped of everything else, we all have basically the same capacity for caring, for aggression, for nurturing, and for enjoying video games.

But cultures in general do not recognize that. That’s one of the human absolutes, every single known human culture has developed a distinction between gender roles because people in general have a hard time not getting blinded by obvious distinctions. It’s human nature, in an attempt to understand people we attempt to see them as instant wholes based on the most obvious characteristics, rather than taking the time to figure out their individual features and building our concept of them around that. This creates expectations. Implicit, unstated expectations of how different genders are supposed to act, instilled in us since birth, and the mold by which we’re supposed to grow up into. Which is ridiculous. You cannot define a single personality trait or feature that reasonably applies to a full half of the human population. But cultures try. And in so doing, they create more differences between the genders than actually exists.

And that has negative impacts on both sides of the coin. Those impacts don’t always reach a one-to-one match, but the defined gender roles are hurting both men and women in different ways.

But still, it persists. That’s both the cause of what we’ll be talking about today, and the whole reason I’m writing this post series in general.

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Lagging Behind on the Leading Ladies- Part 2: The Business Perspective

Overview

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.

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Lagging Behind on the Leading Ladies: Part 1, Why I’m here.

Hold onto your seats, boys and girls. We’re going to talk about women in video games. Specifically, women as protagonists. You may have heard, likely from someone typing with way too many caps and exclaimation points, that the industry has a bit of a problem with its leading ladies. Which is not to say they aren’t out there. There are a huge number of strong female characters in video games. Given the size of the industry, in sheer numbers, there’s even a lot of protagonists with double X chromosomes. I could make you a list of playable female characters a mile long. The problem comes in when you’re looking at proportions, in which the formerly fairer sex is completely crowded out by a wave of digital masculinity. I’d like to see women getting a bit more market share. The thing is, gender representation in games is a hugely complicated issue, far more than your random agenda-pundit on Twitter is ever going to give it credit for. If all it took for creators to work some more women into their leads was to click on the right check box, it’d already be happening. Video games are a business, this overwhelming preference for male leads wouldn’t be happening in a vacuum. There are a lot of business, creative, and social factors that may be complicating the situation, and in this series of posts, we’re going to take a look at just what may be making varied gender representation in games such a hard thing to implement.

Before we get int that, though, I wanted to get into why I care. Wait, let’s put that another way. I want to talk about why I, as manly a dude as God has ever invented who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about this stupid culture war the Internet’s been waging in which it seems a participant’s intelligence is inversely proportional to the number of words they put together talking about it still wants to see more women helming his video games.

It’s not about trying to score points for any given side or to try to pick up women by white knighting for them, because when you look as good as I do, it’s no problem getting myself an in. Nor am I just looking for some new eye candy for my screen, although I wouldn’t begrudge it when used appropriately. To some extent, I do have the social concern. Studies have shown that just hearing stories about someone of their particular demographics finding success can lead to a statistically significant improvement on skills and education tests, and people shouldn’t have to work hard to find that in their chosen medium, though.  On the flip side, unless there’s a mirror in the room I do typically enjoy looking at women more than I do at men, and having more women leads would facilitate that. But to be honest, when I’m home, trying to get my leisure on, those are both small concern to me.  Really, what it all comes down to for me is a very selfish thing. I just want to play better games with better stories, and part of that is having more interesting leads.

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Just a refresher for those of you that need it, women are those people that wouldn’t go to prom with you in high school because they were too busy thinking about me. Anecdotally, more of my personal friends who play have been women than men, although I know that’s not representative. Women make up more than half of the human population, and a significant portion of the video games market. Although their proportions in a given industry, women are involved in all occupations, including military, law enforcement, crime, and video game development. Yet for all of their involvement in real life they don’t make up a very large proportion of video game leads.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that video game protagonists are more diverse than protags in most other creative industries, in the sense of actual experiential variation if not filling the EEO checkmarks. The most recognizable video game hero is both fat and rather ethnic. Due to the strong Japanese influence and historic market share, Asian and mixed-race characters abound. I could bring you examples of characters of all economic backgrounds. And I’d guess that you still see a lot more women taken seriously in action roles than in most other media. So while video games may seem to get more heat on the internet around its representation, I would posit that there’s a lot less inequality here than in most. Inequality is inequality, and that it’s there, even if it’s better than you might find otherwhere, is a sign that we’ve still got work to do, but recognition of that fact is handy for discussion.

The problem, from my big selfish perspective, comes when certain models of characters become overwhelmingly widespread. Now, this isn’t the first time games have run things into the ground. Back in the NES/SNES era, we needed characters that could be easily represented at minimal size and pixel use, so the mascot character ran rampant. As 3d games started getting their hold, and it became easier for the technology to represent someone recognizably human, the anime pretty boy started popping up all over the place. Then, when graphics started getting realistic, well, realism is apparently white brown-haired thirty something whatever.

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Any individual character is just fine. You can’t really pull out any individual mascot or spiky-hair or generic dude and honestly say they embody the worst of their era. It’s like steak. You can make a great meal out of it, you can prepare it so many different ways, there’s a lot of variation to it, but if you eat it every day, it’s going to start tasting bitter. Such it is with characters. Variety is key to keeping things fresh and interesting. When it’s something you’ve seen a thousand times, now matter how solid it is, it’s just harder to get into it. So when everything’s built off of the same general design document, the world just starts to look bland.

Breaking away from the XY chromosome isn’t the only way to add sufficient visual interest to a character. There are other ways to add in some fun variations. After all, Heihachi is made more interesting by virtue of being old. Link is made more interesting by being left handed. Dunban is made more interesting by being absolutely gorgeous and looking remarkably like your favorite video games blogger.

Nor is strapping a pair of tits on a character enough to automatically create that visual interest. No matter how white boy he might be, Geralt is still way more obviously interesting than Left 4 Dead’s Rochelle, just from a basic design standpoint. So yeah. Characters don’t have to be women to be interesting. And while the visuals, including their demographic, are the foundations from which a character springs, But women leads are a really obvious way to both create more interest through variety in their protagonists and get the story told through a somewhat different lens that we’re just not seeing that much of. Supplanting male characters is a common idea that just strikes me as a completely blind approach to the issues, but getting some lady leads, that carve out their own identity, much as Lara Croft, Faith, and Aloy have? That’s some low-hanging fruit that remains largely unplucked.

But there’s barriers to getting there. It’s not a simple decision for most of these businesses on any level.  You know what, let’s do some science here.

No, wait.  Let’s do some SCIENCE!

We’re going to do a big scientific study, right here, right now.  You would think, if it was easy to have women as lead characters in our games, if it were a simple matter, if the only thing holding it back was a bunch of old business dudes and their outdated assumptions, the indie creators would be making more woman-led games then the establishment.  Their creators are given more free reign, the companies thrive on individuality, and the smaller a company is the more flexible and the more in touch with their market they should be able to be.  So if there weren’t any of these business, creative, or social concerns in place, I would think that they’d be more reactive to the vocal demands for more women representation and the larger place women have been taking in our culture.

That’s what’s called a hypothesis in the biz.  We’re going to run a quick survey, sample size of my Steam library, on how many games have male protagonists, female protagonists, and indeterminate gendered/choice of gender or main characters/no protagonist.  First up come the major company releases.

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Really.  Out of almost 100 games, only six female protagonists?  Not very diverse, game industry.  Fine, let’s look at the Indies next.

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See!  There we go!  Numbers are still relatively low, but that’s 12% female protagonists in the indie sphere against just over 6% in the mainstream releases!  Twice as much!  Eat that, producers!

But wait.  There was one sphere that might be skewing those results.  Let’s take a look at those numbers again, but let’s take out the Visual Novels and Environmental Narratives that have very limited amounts of player involvement from those.  Not because they don’t count as games, we’re not getting into that argument here.  But because I think it does give a more accurate picture when we’re looking at the games where the player is expected to act through their character in a meaningful way.  So here’s the numbers when we isolate those games in which the player is an active participant.

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Indies have more mixed options, but as far as stories told with a strictly female protagonist?  The proportion is basically the same as the mainstream releases. 6% vs. 6.5%.

That’s because it’s harder to work in a female protagonist than most might assume, and those difficulties are largely the same whether you’re a company outfit or an indie studio.  If we are going to ask for more gender variation in our protagonists, I feel it’s important to understand where those barriers are, because creators aren’t going to break through them until their audience is there on the other side.

And that’s what we’re going to be taking a look at in this series. I hope you’ll join me for it.