It’s a tired cliche that all gamers are male, and it’s time manufacturers woke up to the fact that women want to see female characters they can relate to
After pop culture critic Anita Sarkeesian attended the Xbox One press conference in LA’s E3 trade event, she spoke out on Twitter. “Thanks #XboxOne #E3 press conference for revealing to us exactly zero games featuring a female protagonist for the next generation.” No doubt Sarkeesian, who runs feministfrequency.com, was expecting some lively discussion despite writing the truth. What she got was a stream of abuses
“Shut up”. “Hey there! Can you just stop. Stop being retarded and bitchy. No?” “Women don’t belong in video games.” “What did you expect? Cooking and cleaning games at a console launch?” “Maybe if women were more interesting and capable at life there would be more female led games, like super floral arranger.” “Games with female protags don’t sell. Maybe if more women started getting into the game market then they would make more, dumbass.” Those were just some of the more thoughtful replies. Others accused her of being sexist, of perpetuating a victim culture, of being a “she-bigot” and that she was being childish. Then there were the obscenities and rape gags.
It’s no secret that female protagonists in video games are a minority. But it’s shocking that when someone points this out to one of the biggest players in the industry, this is the reaction (admittedly, only of some gamers). As Sarkeesian notes on the blog she posted showing some of the missives: “This is … a window into what it’s like to be a female video game critic on Twitter.” So why does the games industry – and the delightful gamers who responded to Sarkeesian – have such a problem with heroines? And what is going to change it?
One of the reasons that there is such a paucity of decent female leads is the long-held perception that, as one of Sarkeesian’s detractors put it, “games with female protags don’t sell”. Late last year, EEDAR, a video game sales-forecasting and research firm, revealed findings that showed that out of 669 current titles that had protagonists of a specific gender, only 24 of these were exclusively fronted by women. And these games didn’t sell as well as their brethren. “If you look at the first three months with the smaller quantity of female-led games, they did not sell as well,” explained Geoffrey Zatkin of EEDAR. “The ones that were male-only sold better.”
But what’s this? “Games with a female-only protagonist … [received] only 40% of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually.” Less marketing spend means fewer sales which, it seems, means less marketing spend in the future. Who fancies a quick game of vicious circle? Then, of course, there’s the games industry marketing that is sexist in its own right, such as the deeply unhilarious promotional ad for the Sony Vita handheld console in France. (It has two sides, so if it were a woman, it would have two sets of breasts. Right.)
Sarkeesian has spoken in the past about how to change the status quo. “The creation of great and complex female characters in video games is an involved process, but ultimately developers are going to have to take some risks and step outside of the expected or established conventions,” she told GameSpot last year. Rhianna Pratchett, the writer responsible for two of the biggest female-led games titles (the recent Lara Croft reboot and Mirror’s Edge), agrees that it’s the responsibility of publishers to make changes, but that it’s good financial sense rather than a risky business move. “It’s not really about taking risks, it’s about catering better for the existing audience. Publishers suggesting that the audience is male and therefore doesn’t relate to female characters is ludicrous and short-sighted,” she says. “Game of Thrones has some wonderful female characters, without putting off male viewers. Likewise, it has some great male characters without putting off female watchers. Tomb Raider wouldn’t have sold 3.6m in its first month of sales if the audience had a problem with female leads.”
In a UK gaming survey compiled by YouGov SixthSense and Lady Geek, the technology agency I founded to improve accessibility for women in the tech industry, we found that more than half of the women we questioned play video games and that three-quarters of women who game think the hobby no longer has anything to do with gender. Female gamers are not a minority, and female protagonists shouldn’t be either.
Craig Stern, founder of Chicago-based indie design studio Sinister Design, passionately agrees. In a recent, heartening blogpost, he wrote that “the numbers don’t lie. Women are every bit as much a part of the gaming ecosystem as men, and yet they receive only a small fraction of the leading roles. Is it any wonder that many women are upset? (I can assure the reader that men would not be happy in a world where male characters were constantly getting kidnapped or killed in games to set up the plot, and yet were actually heroes in only one out of every 30 titles.)”
He tells me that “the response to my own blog post has mostly been positive. The few comments I’ve received from men who disagreed with me are quite muted compared to the vitriol thrown at Anita Sarkeesian. There’s clearly a difference there in how we’re being treated.”
Depressingly, he says this is far from the first time he has seen that difference in action. “Time and again, I’ve noticed that women who complain get abuse heaped on them; but the worst a man can expect to face for supporting women’s concerns are accusations that he is a ‘white knight’ who is only saying what he’s saying in the hope that feminists will sleep with him. Which, ultimately, just betrays a cynical worldview in which women cannot be empathised with, only manipulated for sex. It’s all pretty vile, really, but women bear the worst of it.”
There are two tiny pinpricks of light on the horizon, at least. Remember Me, which is released this month, is an action/adventure title set in a dystopian future, but one in which the heroine, Nilin, is a force to be reckoned with. Meanwhile, Mirror’s Edge 2 and Faith, its free-running protagonist, is coming, albeit “when it’s ready”.
Sarkeesian herself has said: “Change is coming to gaming, and like all structural or institutional transformation, the process can be slow or painful for some in the old guard, but in the end it’s imperative that the shift happens – and I think it will ultimately move the industry to a better, more-equitable place, producing better games with better and more dynamic female characters.”
@belindaparmar is the founder of the social enterprise Little Miss Geek and the CEO of Lady Geek