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