Female Protagonists: A “Risk” Worth Taking

Monster Tale art. Ellie, a girl with short blue hair, white dress, brown messenger bag, and blue boots, strides forward determinedly. Chomp, her small, blue-eyed monster companion with a head shaped like a football, and red and beige markings, is floating in the air at her side.

Monster Tale art. Ellie, a girl with short blue hair, white dress, brown messenger bag, and blue boots, strides forward determinedly. Chomp, her small, blue-eyed monster companion with a head shaped like a football, and red and beige markings, is floating in the air at her side.

Doc at Inner Child Gamer wrote a post about the case for creating more games with female protagonists. Unfortunately, the antiquated and limited state of the industry is still such that some designers and writers need to fight for and are required to justify why their games have a female protagonist—a situation that strangely does not exist when designers propose male leads in games. There are an overwhelming number of games on the market in which there are no women leads, in which women are relegated to supporting or background roles, and in which women are hyper-sexualised and objectified. To deviate too much from what is believed to work well is courting too much risk in the eyes of many game companies.

The post at Inner Child Gamer opens with a quote from Game Director Peter Ong about the protagonist of the upcoming DS game, Monster Tale. Ong observes that his decision for Monster Tale to have a lead female protagonist was a controversial one, and a battle that had to be fought with their publisher. Whilst some of Ong’s statements are a little sexist in themselves, such as the idea that women are uniquely nurturing in nature simply because they are women, Ong stated that the idea of a young, muscular, male protagonist is quite a tired and generic trope, and he wanted to do something different from what everyone else was doing. However, the publisher felt that putting a woman in the lead protagonist role was too risky and would not capture “large audiences.” The publishers argued that it would be safer if a man was the lead, or at the very least, a sexy woman. These statements are quite telling. They show that this publisher acknowledges both that the audience they’re selling to is incredibly sexist—so sexist, in fact, that their target customers would be more likely to buy a game if it stars a man, or a woman that is made to be objectified, than purchase a game in which a woman protagonist is presented in a non-sexualised way—and that the publishers are knowingly trying to pander to this audience by playing into their audience’s sexist world view. This is an insult to consumers, and sadly envisions a monolithic, close-minded, regressive, and sexist market that is not receptive to protagonists who are different from them. Have female protagonists as a whole really been given a fair shot in the market?

Doc argues that there have been too few women protagonists in games compared to the huge number of games with male protagonists, and thus there have been few chances to prove whether women leads can capture “large audiences” at all. It’s sort of like the Catch 22 situation where a job you want to apply to only wants applicants with experience in the relevant field, but how can you ever gain that experience if someone won’t give you a chance? It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in a way. Game companies are averse to produce games with female leads because they believe that games with female leads don’t generate huge revenues. The market is currently flooded with games that do not have female leads and/or games in which women are hyper-sexualised and objectified. Game companies interpret this information to mean that games with female leads don’t generate the big bucks. And thus the stagnation continues.

Further, heavily weighting the revenue generation prospects of a game on whether it has a female protagonist or not doesn’t take into account any number of other factors that could contribute to the earnings of a game: design, story, marketing, etc. To say that a game doesn’t do well only because it has a female protagonist is a simplistic and shortsighted analysis. It’s one of many different factors to consider.

I argue, however, that increasing diversity in characters and creating well-rounded, interesting characters, particularly characters who are not heterosexual, white, cis males, is a way in which companies can be competitive and differentiate themselves from what everyone else is doing. Why do companies want their game to be like every other game out there? In an ultra-competitive market, particularly in genres in which consumers have a lot of choice, shouldn’t games companies look for ways in which they can distinguish their product from all the other products in the same genre? Why present players with yet another heterosexual, white, cis male character out on a mission to rescue his love interest/take revenge/clear his name/save the world? We’ve seen that before. I’d like to see game companies innovate in the area of characters and story, and specifically telling the stories of protagonists that have rarely been told, or have not been told at all.

The post discusses demographic data about the number of women gamers. It turns out that there are a lot of women who play games, which probably isn’t surprising to readers, but this information goes against conventional, mainstream thinking of gamer demographics. We may heard these statistics before: 40% of all gamers are women, and women over age 18 make up a larger proportion of the games market than boys aged 17 and younger. However, the mindset that most gamers are male is unfortunately quite entrenched in the industry and in mainstream consciousness. Furthermore the mindset that the male consumers of games are sexist is also pretty entrenched.  If this was not the case, it wouldn’t be a big deal to make a woman the leading character in a game, and it would not be so difficult to convince executives that having positively-portrayed, kick-ass women in leading roles is good thing. If this sexist mindset wasn’t so entrenched, people wouldn’t question the notion of simply having a female protagonist.

There could be money to be made where others lack in innovation or imagination, says Doc:

I theorize that a developer could even capitalize on this deficiency and make strong female protagonists their trademark. They could easily create a very loyal, if niche, fanbase that follows their work, buys many of their titles and spreads word among friends.

The point I disagree with is that making strong female protagonists a signature mark would necessarily generate a niche audience, partly for the factors of complexity I noted above.

Read the entire post over at Inner Child Gamer.

About Brinstar

Brinstar is an Editor (on hiatus) at The Border House blog. She is a cisgender, temporarily able-bodied, Asian, culturally-mixed woman from the United States. She is a longtime gamer and works in the videogame industry as a community manager. You can find her blogging about games at Acid for Blood and on Twitter at @Brinstar.
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31 Responses to Female Protagonists: A “Risk” Worth Taking

  1. Lassarina says:

    More than half my online gamer friends are female. The point about strong protagonists creating a loyal following (niche or not) is pretty well demonstrated among my group: one of us plays a game with an awesome female central character (for the moment, I’ll pick on Mitsuru from Persona 3, who is one of my favourites) and raves about how well-done that character is. The rest of us investigate, end up buying the game, and then start chasing down the company’s other games (which sometimes are as awesome and sometimes are not.) It definitely can and does happen just that way.

  2. I’ve pretty much reached the point where I won’t play games that _don’t_ have a female protagonist. Or at least a choice of gender.

    And I also am skeptical that making female protagonists is going to get you a niche. Even if we accept that men won’t buy a game with a female protagonist, which is obviously not true, you still end up with around 40% of the market who would, and probably would be glad to

  3. Laurentius says:

    “I argue, however, that increasing diversity in characters and creating well-rounded, interesting characters, particularly characters who are not heterosexual, white, cis males, is a way in which companies can be competitive and differentiate themselves from what everyone else is doing. Why do companies want their game to be like every other game out there?”

    Problem is that even if videogames is established market, it’s sometimes hard to describe what the hell is going on there. ie. another year and another CallOfDuty game is selling bazilions of copies making Activision ultra rich for making the same game again and again and again…

  4. Matthew says:

    I hadn’t heard about this game before, but now it’s on my radar. I went to check out the post about it on Joystiq, and guess what the first comment was:

    “Seems vaguely familiar, while also looking kiiind of cool… but yeah, not exactly a bang up marketing job going on here.

    They aiming for the japanese demographics? Seems pretty ballsy to go with a female protagonist otherwise”

    Thankfully, this was downvoted into oblivion, but not before some unintentionally racist and sexist remarks. So, amongst the traditional gamer population, apparently, yes, female protagonists are a turn-off. Which is just unbelievably frustrating and sad.

  5. Mezia says:

    They should make more games with intersex, transgender, and genderless characters.

    • More games? Do we even have any yet?

      • EmmyG says:

        intersex – Kainé when not censored. Poison/Roxy in Final Fight in the Japanese version but officially not in the English version. This one’s tricky because many such characters, depending on definition, might not even know themselves… There are also some characters whose gender is intended to be seen as both/either – Subaru in Sakura Taisen, Leo in Tekken 6,

        transgender – There are several ‘maybe’ FtM characters, such as Chris in Princess Waltz, Naoto in Persona 4, and Robin in Cute Knight Kingdom. There are a couple of MtF characters, but usually not treated in a very serious manner (Poison and Roxy in Final Fight, Birdo, the Edwin/Edwina cursed-gender-change subplot in Baldur’s Gate). There’s a LOT of Magical Sex Change in the X-Change series but that’s porn and again it wasn’t part of the character’s personality, it was something that happened to the character. There’s also a game called Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender which I know nothing about and assume is comedy. Sadly I can’t think of any positive MtF…

        genderless – Not that rare with magic/spirit/angel/robot background characters, but most such characters that get much interaction in a story will end up apparently gendered-male because the author doesn’t want to deal with the pronoun issue.

  6. Ohma says:

    The extra frustrating part of this is: Since the ‘white male teens won’t like something with a [NOT EXACTLY LIKE THEM] protagonist’ meme is just that, an idea which people perpetuate, nothing will change if people don’t do anything to change it. It’s a self fulfilling prophecy of frustrating stupidity that wont change appreciably until our culture has gotten over it’s weird sex and gender hangups and people don’t feel that children need to be taught that they’re supposed to behave a certain way so that old white guys don’t have to worry about getting a boner when looking at the *wrong* person AUGH HATE SO MUCH RAGE EXCLAMATION POINTS UNHAPPY FACE

  7. Jayle Enn says:

    “The publishers argued that it would be safer if a man was the lead, or at the very least, a sexy woman.”

    I briefly asked myself, ‘Christ. What would it be like if someone tried to sexually objectify Ellie there?’ Moments later I realized, ‘Wait a month or two, and Deviantart will have the answers you fear.’

    Then I wept.

  8. Superblondine says:

    Could anyone tell me how they get the statistics regarding the population of gamers? I often wonder just how accurate they are, since I myself have never been asked in a survey of some sort whether or not I was a male or female gamer (and I’m sure many others haven’t either). It would be nice to know where these numbers are coming from, so that I can be counted and add the percentage of female players in the future!

  9. Jordan says:

    I wonder how many of those who occupy executive level positions at game publishing companies are women. It seems that it’s been relatively obvious to most people watching the game industry that women gamers make up an enormous percentage of the gaming population. Does anyone know if figures keeping track of gender within the industry itself exist?

    • EmmyG says:

      There are a few surveys that get cited a lot and the numbers tend to come out VERY low, like under 10%. It is known.

      It is also sometimes used as justification for a complete lack of female representation on panels or any other sort of industry discussion – “Only (tiny)% of developers are female so having any here would be over-representing them!”

      • Ohma says:

        Which is weird because there are a ton of awesome women who work as game developers who I’m sure have totally interesting things to say about well…everything. But they aren’t the Big Mans who haav the ball and work on totally awsem and organelle games like MADDEN ASTRO GUILD OF ZONE 3 III: THE FPS

        • Trodamus says:

          The breakdown of women gamers tends to show that very few own consoles and the majority of female gamers play PC games, and on that it tends to be social or casual games, ranking the top 3 at something like Farmville (and other facebook games), WoW and The Sims.

          It’s weird. Marketing’s job is to make sure the market for a game wants to buy said game; not much effort is expended on opening new markets and I think the Wii is the only (and biggest) exception in recent memory.

          But then, how would you market Gears of War to women? I don’t mean market it to “girls” and play up the gentle, nurturing side of Marcus and Dom, I mean shifting the codifiers so it isn’t so male-focused, so a woman who doesn’t normally play that sort of game would pause and consider it.

          And while I would like to give gamers more credit than they’re given by these marketing companies, that we would still buy a game even if the iconography said something less than “This is for men!” However, statistics do show that men tend to avoid things that are perceived as being for women, even if they aren’t actually aware they’re doing it.

          I feel like the choice comes down to making something like Call of Duty and breaking sales records, or making Mirror’s Edge and laying off six hundred people.

          • XIV says:

            “But then, how would you market Gears of War to women?”

            Don’t make up an excuse for the sole purpose of excluding a large amount of women from the game to imply they’re being kept at home to push out babies to repopulate to your race? Possibly against their will? That might help some.

            “However, statistics do show that men tend to avoid things that are perceived as being for women, even if they aren’t actually aware they’re doing it.”

            I’d be interested in seeing these statistics, though I will say it wouldn’t really be surprising. With how women are portrayed in a large amount of games (badly and stereotypically).. it’s not really hard to see why anyone wouldn’t be very enthusiastic. Since a large chunk of the gaming industry itself is pretty anti-women (and has been for so many years) it’s not really hard to imagine that it’s audience would be as a consequence.

            Also, on the theory that it comes down to a choice thing… iunno that seems sort of overly simplistic to turn it into an either/or situation.

            • Ohma says:

              “Don’t make up an excuse for the sole purpose of excluding a large amount of women from the game to imply they’re being kept at home to push out babies to repopulate to your race? Possibly against their will? That might help some.”

              As far as I know that’s something contrived by people making companion comics and books which the actual games contradict (again as far as I know, I’ve never actually played the games myself and only have descriptions by people specifically saying the comics are terrible in large part because of this to go by). Granted that’s not much of an excuse for letting that happen in the first place, but the unfortunate part of franchise literature is that frequently the franchise holders are not the people they should be.

              I’d also like to see the statistics but also how they were arrived at. I know that personal experience isn’t the best gauge for something like this but to me those statistics just sound off.

            • Trodamus says:

              I’d read it on Trollsmyth but no actual stat block is provided about that. I think it was one of those statements that “made sense” which looking back might be approached with some caution.

          • Brinstar says:

            However, statistics do show that men tend to avoid things that are perceived as being for women, even if they aren’t actually aware they’re doing it.

            That’s a separate issue from the topic of this post. I was not talking about advocating that games should be created and marketed in a way that presents the game as exclusively for women. The point of the post was to advocate for more diversity in terms of protagonists, and making games more inclusive of gamers who are note heterosexual white cis males. Being inclusive of marginalised people doesn’t mean excluding the dominant young hetero white cis male demographic, however the dominant young hetero white cis male demographic tends to perceive inclusivity as a threat, which is why you have ridiculous arguments such as “games are sexist against men, too.”

            • Jordan says:

              The problem is that we can’t get away from seeing gender in games as a zero sum game. The increase of non-white cis male protagonists under a zero sum framework necessarily results in the diminishing of whatever perspectives were legitimately represented by the heroes we’re all used to seeing in video games. Unless the zero sum perspective is dealt with, attempts at inclusion are going to keep being seen as threatening. IGN published an article on women in games last week, and the comments that followed it are a pretty good case study in what we’re talking about.

            • Trodamus says:

              My point that I didn’t actually type out was that developers and publishers want that elusive “sure thing” and to them taking measures which might convince, intentionally or no, their primary demographic to not buy their product are unnecessary risks. Especially when games cost as much as they do nowadays to make. This is why you named this article “A ‘Risk’ Worth Taking” and not “Something Guaranteed to Make You Money So Why Aren’t You Doing It Already.”

              I mean, have you seen the new and upcoming releases for this year? Everything’s a sequel.

              That said, I think they are letting their marketing department scare them into making decisions that don’t give people enough credit, and it will cost them in the long run. Because it is a risk worth taking because gaming will never advance as a narrative medium or an art form until…its characters stop being designed by committee in marketing.

              And you know what? It’s not like the Wii didn’t make more money than God by marketing to previously ignored or marginalized groups.

            • Well there’s a reason the word “risk” is in scare quotes in the article title…

            • Trodamus says:

              When a word is separated by quotes, it affects the word by separating the author from its common usage. So if it is risky, that means there’s potential loss, but if someone says something is “risky” that means they are acknowledging that others believe it is risky, but they don’t necessarily agree.

              So by that, we can infer that Brinstar wished to imply that it isn’t actually risky. My point is that it is, actually, risky, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. Change is good but it also isn’t cheap. That fact slows progress in something as bottom-line driven as video games.

              And it isn’t about marketing specifically to women or men; it’s about the myriad subtleties that affect how people make their decisions. Action games with ludicrous violence and realistic spleen damage are marketed with poses of domineering men awash in symbols of conquest and virility; this obviously isn’t designed with a more inclusive audience in mind. How far this can be pushed into something more neutral without alienating a substantial portion of their previous demographic while simultaneously piquing the interest of those outside of it is something of great interest to me.

            • Yes, but those aren’t all games. And you can target games at primarily at women without targeting every game primarily at women. And you can take steps to be inclusive that don’t particularly downplay the primary demographic.

  10. Maverynthia says:

    I think the problem is that these company worry so much about a character selling a game. I doubt many of the male characters actually sold the game. I have a very GOOD feeling all those games sold based on GAMEPLAY! It’s why Metroid, Portal and Phantasy Star sold so well. The gameplay was awesome (for the time). The people that focus more on the main character and worry about what she is going to do and “oh dear, she needs to be dressed like this” are the games that fail rather than the, OK we got the main character out of the way, it’s a woman, she’s trapped in space/a laboratory/a big conspiracy involving a Dark Force, how about that gameplay.

  11. j3w3l says:

    If you want a view into the mind of a game developer have a look at the comments here
    http://www.computerandvideogames.com/article.php?id=282680

    The comments absolutely astound me. Me thinks he has been watching to much animated pornography. Unrealistic and offensive views like this seem to be quite pervasive.

    As for female protagonists., From the developers arguments it seems to be solely a fiscal decision rather than a conscious gender based one.
    I too would like to know where they are getting their data from, having a bit of experience in statistics i have many question regarding validity and reliability of said information

    • EmmyG says:

      Me thinks he has been watching to much animated pornography. Unrealistic and offensive views like this seem to be quite pervasive.

      … what, the idea of women bitchily checking each other out and being enemies? There are a lot of offensive views common in hentai videos, but that’s not really one of them that I’ve seen. (I’m not saying it doesn’t ever exist, but it’s not something I’ve noticed, and I’ve sampled a ridiculous amount of the stuff, much of which scares me but that’s another story.)

      The whole “women are each other’s worst enemies” seems in my experience to be a very Western meme, commonly perpetuated in advice columns, fashion/beauty discussions, and popular media plots. Sadly, in an awful lot of hentai, the women are not allowed to be sufficiently active to even compete with each other in such a way. They don’t “fight” for the attention of men. They just stand there and whimper.

      • Maverynthia says:

        I see it in Japanese culture too. There’s always a scene or something where the new girl comes in and the other girls will bully her to various degrees. Especially if she catches the eye of the sexy idol of the class.

  12. Brinstar says:

    @ Jordan: Right. I don’t think anything I said disagrees with your point. :? I agree: inclusivity is not a zero-sum game, however many perceive it as such.

  13. j3w3l says:

    I think part of the problem is that gaming developers are still predominately male, yes there are some amazingly talented female designers, coders etc in the field. the problem with the overbalance in gender is that the male voice will potentially overwhelm based on sheer number.

    Game developers obviously design and make what they want to see and play in a game, one of the things i did notice about his comments was that his favourite moment was one in which he had created, and one in which reads like a young boys fantasy.

    yes economics is a part, as is statistics, but another part is that the developers/ producers/ studios will make, write, and believe in ideas that are familiar.

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