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.