Halo: Reach writer – “We’re not serving half our audience”

A close headshot of Tom Abernathy. A Caucasian man with long curly brown hair, glasses, dark facial hair. (via LinkedIn)

Today on Twitter, Tom Abernathy (who currently works at Microsoft Game Studios where he launched Halo: Reach and has worked in the past on games like Destroy all Humans! and The Saboteur) went on a mini-rant about the lack of female protagonists in games. His full rant is as follows:

I’m tired of those of us who care in the game industry complaining that there aren’t enough female protagonists while those of them who make the money decisions keep responding, “Gee, we’d love to, but the market data is clear. They just won’t buy it.”  I hear that from WOMEN in those money/marketing positions, too.  And they say it while agreeing with the principle of the thing.  Since when did it become okay to NOT do something we know is in best interests of our kids, just because our profits won’t be as obscene? I am all for obscene profits, but I want my daughter to see and play characters she can relate to. SHE wants that; nobody put it in her head.

I’ll freely admit, as sensitive a dude as I am, this didn’t become a concrete issue for me until I started seeing how much more excited my kid got when there was a girl onscreen she could identify with. She asks for “girl songs,” “girl movies” and “girl games.”  Why shouldn’t she have that? I had that as a kid. She’s a consumer. We’ll buy it. I’ll MAKE it. We can’t be the only ones. I know we’re not.  As I told @leighalexander for her article, I’m DYING to write more female protagonists. I do everything I can to make that happen.

I am less than successful. This angers me and, when I look at my little girl, breaks my heart. It’s not right.  Forget the data. Scale down the budget accordingly if needed. We are not serving half our audience in the manner they want and deserve.  Not good enough, gamemakers, dammit. Not good enough. Here endeth the lesson.

*claps*  We need more writers and developers like Tom.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard the following excuses for not putting positive female representations in games or not using marketing that excludes women:

- It’s too expensive
- It’s too risky
- It doesn’t test well in the metrics
- It wouldn’t make good business sense

Justifying excluding women, people of color, and diverse depictions of human beings for the sake of running a business is a damn disgrace.  I don’t care how important you are at Company X, there is downright no excuse for exclusion.

47 thoughts on “Halo: Reach writer – “We’re not serving half our audience””

  1. Totes agree with the sentiment here. When my daughter was 4.5, she began to have the same attitude towards media. Perhaps in no small part due to the fact that her media tastes translate directly into imaginative play? Before I forget I think I’ll finally tweet @ naughty dog those pictures of her pretending to be Elena Fisher.

  2. Woo! Thank god for people like Tom. His frustrations align with my own experiences at a game company- even in a casual game studio (which made games catering to women, even) with a rare 20% of our staff being female, all of the head players making the big business decisions were ALL male. Many creative staff wanted to do more unique games with more unusual depictions of gender and race, but were stuck doing whatever was the latest safe, cash cow. Marketing can have way too much power over content these days.

  3. Hooray! I am a self described gamer, but I don’t own any consoles. And I don’t see myself owning any any time soon. There just aren’t any games that don’t either make me outright angry with their misogyny or that don’t bore me two levels in. I just can’t identify with anyone – even when there is a female character she is not someone I would aspire to be. I want armour that COVERS my vulnerable parts, k thx. (Perhaps this is why female protagonists don’t test well? Because they are still written FOR the teenage boys, not the untapped female/grownup market).

    It’s not like I don’t have money to spend. I don’t even want to THINK about how much I’ve poured into the Sims franchise, and I don’t even like the game that much. But at least I can play characters like me. I guess I’m stuck with shitty flash games on the internet, which is definitely not where I want to be, either. My (male) partner does own consoles. But he frequently talks about how dissatisfied HE is with games. He’s a grown-up, not a 14 yo. This means that he wants more real, more interesting, more well-rounded characters of all description. We both have more money to spend on games that we did when we were 14, but we won’t until there is something we want to buy.

    Here’s hoping there is a future where we can find content that we like, and the people who make good content get to have a say in what it is. It’s great to hear things like this coming form behind the walls of the industry.

    1. Well there is a lot of ways to construct a test audience and whatever that will support your existing sexist biases. Like by, oh, making a group out of all men, or asking them if they’d prefer that your example female characters were men, or not even actually testing that because you’ve already come to the conclusion that women don’t sell…

    2. It’s a little ridiculous sometimes just how rewarding it is to have a female character to identify with. This is true not only in games but other forms of entertainment media. If a company put more effort into providing well-written female leads I suspect they’d pick up a disproportionate share of the adult female market, because they’re still quite rare.

      I would suggest Saints Row II and Fable III (haven’t played the earlier ones) as games that try to cater to both male and female interests. SR2 has a ridiculous level of customisation, with the only thing that ‘codes’ your character as male or female being choice of voice–everything else (yup, even bust size) is gender independent. The ONLY difference I’ve noticed is that in the ho-ing diversion, males will get some rather interesting comments from their partners. Females just get moaning :/ F3 also has very little difference between the male and female leads, except for the canon love interest and who you can seduce.

  4. Thanks for spreading this, and for the kind words. Let’s make this happen! (Oh, and, for the record, my hair is shorter now. :-) )

    1. My hat is off to you, sir. Thank you for speaking out!

      I find it more than admirable that you say quite plainly that lower profits are a reasonable price to pay for better games, and if more people felt as you do the gaming industry would be a much better place.

      That said, I would also suggest that you and others counter a very basic fallacy in the reasoning of these market executives: that they are simply following the whims of demand. Any analysis of market dynamics reveals that there is a significant extent to which demand is -created-, not simply passively followed by business. If demand was not a constructed, cultivated thing, there would be no need for marketing departments, and advertising would not be the highly paid ‘art’ that it is. The reason the executives find there’s “no market” for games with women in them is because their “likely customers”- i.e. the people they have not completely alienated with marketing- don’t want those characters. But if they did the hard work of expanding their market, there would be plenty of people lining up to play these characters.

      We construct women game characters very often as either weak and dainty, or hypersexed objects. Many people, neither men nor women, will be terribly interested in taking up the controls of such a protagonist for very long. We need to work harder to portray women as -cool- characters, as badasses in their own right, defined by their awesome attributes above and beyond physical ones.

      When this is done in earnest, you may find profits may actually -rise- from the increased trade. When so many mass-market games with a lot of hype generated around them feature women, people will buy them. The people you so rightly complained about merely find the status quo to be the path of least resistance to profit, which is a major flaw in capitalism (as opposed to the myth, that capitalism rewards profits to the highest -quality- product). Rather than work hard to expand the market and generate more profit, they choose to do what’s easiest and laziest in the name of -existing- profits.

      See Emily’s above comment about the nature of self-fulfilling prophecies in focus groups as well.

      Challenging the executive mentality along those lines may, in my view, yield more results. Checkmating them on their own terms, as it were.

      ~Quinnae

      1. Yep. The options seem to be hyper-sexed or super-kawaii. I am available for both in their place, don’t get me wrong. But when those are your only options? It sends me the message, over and over, that this game is not for me, what am I doing here, I am being a woman wrong, etc. Those games HURT me, why would I keep playing them? And no, I’m not being over-sensitive. That kind of message is hurtful and silencing.

        I think this quote is appropriate “Let me put it this way, if you keep keeping putting food on a kid’s plate and they don’t eat, do you assume they don’t like to eat or they don’t like the food? Right.” (From here http://dcwomenkickingass.tumblr.com/post/2154530765/levitz )

  5. What would you like to hear from Bioware exactly? I can’t exactly speak for us as a whole, but look at our track record:

    Dragon Age
    Mass Effect
    Star Wars: KOTOR and TOR
    Jade Empire
    Neverwinter Nights

    You can play as either a male or a female character in every single one of our games. There are also almost always an even number of male and female companions of various backgrounds, strengths, personalities, and sexualities. We have been executing on Tom’s challenge for almost a decade with every game we make.

    1. With BioWare, the problem isn’t the games so much as the marketing. I’ve talked to several women who had zero interest in Mass Effect because they looked at the ads and trailers and all they saw was Mr. Generic Space Marine shooting at things. They had NO IDEA you could customize the lead character, play as a female, or, for that matter, do such things during the game as talk to other characters.

      Take a look at the cinematic trailer for ME2 sometime. It’s gorgeous; I loved it; I took one look at Thane in action and thought, “If he’s not romanceable I’m going to smack somebody.” But that’s because I already know how BioWare games work. You ever notice that Miranda’s only job in that trailer is to stand around and look pretty, whereas the only characters you see do anything (since you can’t see Jack clearly enough to identify her as anything, really, let alone female) are male?

      And then we have to sit here and read about how 80% of players used a male Shepard, and that huh, isn’t that interesting! Gee, I WONDER WHY.

    2. Blake R.,

      I am a woman who plays BioWare games almost exclusively, in no small part because of the fact that I can actually play a badass woman who doesn’t run around in a chainmail bikini. So I thank you and your company eternally for that! However, one area where I feel BioWare could definitely use some improvement is in their marketing. I wish I could tell you how many times I’ve come across female players on the internet who say that it took them months to pick up Mass Effect/Mass Effect 2 because they had no clue that it was possible to play as a woman. I know that the insistence on using the “iconic” Default Male Shepard in literally all of the marketing has been a sore spot for me and many other female ME fans for years now! I understand the advantage in having one consistent face for the trailers and such, but when there’s not even a single mention on the game’s website that you can play as anything other than a generic-looking white dude, I see that as a problem. Even in the Dragon Age franchise, which as fantasy might be seen as somewhat more “female-friendly” than Mass Effect, the marketing again falls back on using studly white males. All that to say, for a company that overall does such a fine job of crafting strong female characters — both as PCs and as party members — the lack of female representation in the marketing is disappointing.

    3. Hey there,

      I grew up with NWN, which was a signal moment in my online gaming career. It introduced me to D&D, and roleplaying, which now feature very, very prominently in my life as a geeky woman gamer. Same with KotOR, which I still replay sometimes, KotOR 2 which features my favourite villain of all time (who happened to be a woman), and DA: Origins was astonishing and great on a number of levels.

      I am asking you, however, to understand that I and others think about media in a multilayered way. Yes, you all have gone above and beyond many of your competitors and that is wonderful. Leliana still sings to me, Morrigan makes my lips curl in a smirk, Wynne renews my hope, Bastila still makes me go “fuck yeah!”, as does Juhani… but then there are other issues.

      Such as the transgender sex workers in Denerim’s Pearl. The only place you could include trans people was in a highly stereotyped role with male voices and appearances as a side gag? I’m a transsexual woman and, here I was hacking and slashing through Ferelden, to come across that tells me: “here’s what progressive Bioware thinks of you, Quinnae.” To date I’ve not seen anyone from Bioware itself talking about that. Lost in the glare of their positive portrayal of cis gay and lesbian characters is the fact that they still used trans people as a joke and absolutely nothing else.

      Then there are the general issues, such as rather supine defences of male-as-default advertising from BioWare for DA2: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=3920

      Your colleague, Stanley Woo resolutely refusing to understand the nature of critiques of how race is portrayed in fantasy: http://borderhouseblog.com/?p=3784

      If you look at our BioWare tag, you will find these posts and others filled with -both- raves and rants about your company. I implore you to understand both that our opinions are complicated and -why- they are complicated. As I said when I began this comment, I love BioWare probably more than any other single developer, but what worries me about the sentiment of your post is that you feel the good your company has done is ‘enough’ when, for the reasons I mentioned above and more that could be better discussed with more time, it decidedly isn’t. The issue of how trans people were portrayed, in so very callous and mocking a way that was well out of line with the otherwise progressive cant of DA in terms of gender and sexuality is -not- trivial, nor are the disturbing comments made by Bioware staff, nor the ongoing problem with marketing.

      Also I just realised BioWare didn’t work on KotOR 2 but… it’s still a shining example of good marketing:

      http://images.wikia.com/starwars/images/f/f1/Atris_4.jpg

      More of that, please! =)

      If you’ve read this far, thank you. Good luck. *waves*

    4. Thanks for the big response folks, and I certainly appreciate your passion on the issue. As always, I don’t speak for Bioware, only for myself just like Jesse was doing. These are our opinions, not the company line.

      Tom’s challenge was for there to be more female protagonists in games. In regards to that challenge, Bioware meets it and has been doing so for almost its entire history.

      I can’t speak for marketing, I don’t work on it, and it isn’t specifically what the challenge was about.

      In regards to questions of sexuality, gender and race, we aren’t perfect. Our games are created by big teams of diverse gender, sexuality, and race. Ferelden is an awfully tiny chunk of a vast fantasy world filled with more wonders and peoples than we could possibly put in one game. We push boundaries forward and will, I imagine, continue to do so.

      1. Blake,

        Thank you for your reply. I should add, however, that marketing is a central problem in getting more female characters in games. The industry is locked in a self fulfilling prophecy of saying- as Mr. Abernathy pointed out- that women don’t sell. *Bioware* has said this, as per one of the links I showed you. Yet one of the reasons ‘women dont’ sell’ is because they are rarely portrayed as interesting or desirable as characters in advertising copy.

        These are not dissociated concerns, I feel. Rather, it’s an essential (though by no means the only) part of the “how” in terms of getting more awesome women characters in games.

        See my comment to Mr. Abernathy up-thread for a more detailed explanation of what I mean.

      2. Blake R., we don’t need you to speak for Bioware marketing, just to speak to Bioware marketing. They’re way more likely to listen to you than they are to the rest of us. Tell them what you’ve read here.

        Will some guys complain about it being too ‘PC’ and resent any changes that might be made to that effect? Most likely. But, really, that’s the kind of customer you could stand to lose.

        1. To be fair to Blake R., it’s not his job to speak to marketing. That’s supposed to be the community manager’s job.

          1. I disagree with that actually. In a well run organization, marketing gets the input of designers, producers, AND community. I have hardly heard of a community manager who interfaces that closely with marketing – especially when a CM is brought on AFTER launch (when all of the pre-launch marketing has already happened and the tone for the game already set).

            This has been my experience as a CM anyway. :)

    5. I’ve been a Bioware fan since the days of Baldur’s Gate, but: the female companions in Bioware are not even in number to the males, and they are not even close in variety. “Hot young hetero love interest” sadly strikes me as the primary trait of almost all of them in the post-BG2 era — which is (one reason) why I was so incredibly, utterly thrilled with Wynne. Finally an older woman, and one who fills the “kindly mentor” role to boot, just as I had been asking for!

      Just compare the percentage of “sexy and romanceable” among the male and the female companions. Compare their outfits, too, their body types and animations. There is still a lot of room for improvement away from sexist and one-dimensional female presence.

      As for the choice of female protagonists, yes, that is one primary reason why I am a fan. :) It’s just such a bloody shame that the marketing has that myopic obsession with the “straight young white cis male” market at the expense of everyone else. As I have written before, I don’t see an “iconic (straight white etc.) protagonist” as important at all, there are so many awesome and famous games which didn’t have one, your own included.

  6. Okay, can I just say that I’m a total sucker for this kind of stuff, for Dad’s who through the experience of raising daughters, are all like WTF is this shit?! SEXISM SUCKS! Etc, etc. Stories like these always make me want to call up my own dad and blubber on about how awesome and supportive he was when I was growing up and how much it meant to me because I doubt I tell him enough.

    Anyway, this is so great, and I wish more people in the gaming industry talked this way, heck, more people in GENERAL. But baby steps, right?

  7. By the way, I was tweeting about the whole industry. I actually am pleased to note MGS has a pretty decent track record in this area, especially lately. (E.g. Reach and Fable 2/3, all of which allow you to play as either gender.)

  8. I just want to chime in and say Hooray!

    People come up with the most obscene ways of defending and denying their prejudices, privileges, and bigotries. Way to pop those bubbles, Tom!

  9. I’m afraid I don’t have more to contribute to the conversation other than, “Hurray! I completely agree!” Little girls shouldn’t be forced to feel that males are the default and females are an aberration/a burden.

  10. Well, if no-one makes games with good female protaganists no-one will be able to buy them and no-one will make any money off them. It’s a circular argument really.

  11. Yet, i can’t help but find some irony in this, as being devs of Halo means actually helping to establish such shameful situation, since this astonishing financial succes of overblown medicorness Halo series holds, can be seen as staple why we don’t receive more qality, mature, inclusive, especially starring well rounded female protagaonists games but boring FPS clones…

  12. There have been several good books written on just this topic, how much of it is pure myth vs self fulfilling prophecy, and how the industry can break out of the cycle. Sheri Graner Ray’s “Gender Inclusive Game Design” being a good example.

    Ultimately, there is a lot of short sighted and circular thinking going on with executives. In many ways it is not even about taking chances.. it is about a surprising attitude of not even WANTING to expand the market. A lot of senior devs and executives seem to feel that if you make games that appeal to females, you have to make them appeal less to males (so hurting their preferred demographic) or ‘make the game worse’… they see it as a zero sum game where the idea of appealing to women requires compromising their games making them less appealing to their base. Until that attitude is tackled, I do not think we will see much progress.

  13. Laurentius, I was just one writer among several on Reach (saying I “launched” it, as the blurb at the top does, makes me sound far more important than I was; I would never use that language). But, with respect, I think what you say is a little unfair, and at least not germane to the issue we’re talking about. I applaud Bungie, 343 and MGS for allowing players to choose the gender of their Noble 6 (and mine was a woman, btw). I also am gratified to note that pretty much every Kinect game that’s come out so far allows you to play as either gender.

    So I really do feel proud to be working for what I think is by far the most progressive publisher on this score (and to have worked with Bungie, who was just as progressive-minded about it). I just want us all as an industry to stop rationalizing this issue away and commit to doing what is so clearly the right thing.

    1. I certainly can’t speak for Laurentius (and Halo’s influence on subsequent FPS design is decidedly irrelevant), but I think the sense of irony might derive (at least for me) from the Halo series’ status as… emblematic of the video game ‘bro’ culture, if you will, at least insofar as Xbox Live is concerned. I’ve always associated it (yes, perhaps unfairly) with the sundry unpleasantries that have served to ensure that I never play online multiplayer. (I also figured Red Vs Blue’s creation of the ‘Tex’ character was a pointed subversion of a largely male cast.) So when I read this headline it was a pleasant surprise. Not proud of that – just saying.

      Regardless – Mr. Abernathy, sir, I think this is an incredibly important and valuable thing you have done, just by speaking out. Here’s hoping it’s just the beginning of a sea change.

    2. Yes, my comment went as clumsy as always, English’s not my native language so I have problems to articulate my thoughts accordingly, “helpful” of course is not a right word here as it implies responsibility and that’s not what I meant. Huge commercial success of Halo series certainly influenced whole gaming industry: designs, production priorities, marketing etc, saying otherwise is unnecessary modesty ( whether this success was well deserved is imo a certain issue here as well but can be left out to a degree), and if this influence had been so positive you wouldn’t have been making your tweet I guess.

  14. I have yet to read the comments but wish to give only my views rather than rant at people.
    You are absolutely right, however, there is another way around.
    I understand that not always can you make a game with a girl as the protagonist if the storyline dictates it is a guy, if the story is deep and relevant to the male gendar, however, with alot of games the one think that annoys me is having 2 men and 1 girl to play as.
    Or making games with a man and woman yet giving the girl a gun to start off with to state “this is easy mode”, when faced with zombies for the first time i’m sure the man is just as skilled as the woman, why should she get to call it easy mode, if anything the man should be easy mode because he has bigger muscles, but that’s just me ranting. (glares at jill- what did they make you wear in resi 5, tut tut).
    All games should have a number of class choices and then the ability to play them as male or female. I have never played a game as a man by choice. Yes I will still love my final fantasies, but despite all the raving i loved 6 and ffx-2. Everyone may agree with 6 but the all female cast to x-2 made a few people angry, despite all the awesome clothes. The only thing worth whinging about in that was Yuna’s Mclean style teeth at the end.
    I loved Lost Odyssey too, even though kaim was a guy there seemed a nice even split of men and women. I love Atelier Annie, and Atelier Rorona, which always tend to have girls as the lead. And I even bought princess debut which was an impressive ouendan for young girls with a love sim popped in for good measure, and I am 23. I am not ashamed of saying i like girly.
    Right now I am playing DC universe, and dabbling with a free account on champions online, but will think nothing of picking up a barbie movie and enjoying it while i do uni work. I have no children, it’s my life and i’ll enjoy it how i want.
    My partner would happily agree their should be more tomboys in games. Hes always happiest when there is a girl with short hair, if prince daisy chopped her hair off i’m sure he would dig her.
    Which reminds me, princess peach, the game, was most totally awesome (doods) she kicked umbrella for once and was one of the best games i completed, only thwarted by the fact you unlocked invincibility by decimating the whole game to a state where you would not need to play it ever again- but its good for when you pick it back up.
    I will be quiet now but will reiterate I HAVE NEVER PLAYED AS A MAN IN A GAME WHERE I HAVE HAD A CHOICE except once with final fantasy xiv beta for one day where I called him Bobba DeBilda. But as a long standing character it’s women all the way.
    Give me more Bayonetta, more Xenosaga, more Persona 3 portable. Give me choice.

  15. Had a little more time to think about my response and I think I missed my own point.

    The problem here is that this can not be tackled from a business perspective.. the business logic you are being fed is an excuse not backed up by actual business cases, and making games that would appeal to women is good solid business sense with minimal economic risk. If you want things to change, you need to get to the roots of why executives and designers do not want these elements in their games…. the profit stuff is a red herring.

    As for why the women in these high positions are saying this too…. marketing esp is a popularity game.. once you move away from actual sales you get promoted based off convincing people above you that you represent their thoughts and values…. so essentially you get ‘dumpy white guy syndrome’ only in marketing memes instead. In other words, they promote people who believe the same things about the market they do…..

  16. Standing ovations, that man!

    I spent my entire childhood and half my adolescence pining *so hard* for female role models that I pretty much ended up hating fact that I was female, because almost everything I saw, heard and read told me that being female meant being useless, stupid and annoying. It took me many years to get over that, and I’m not sure the process is finished yet.

    The situation is better now than it was then, but strong female role models are still badly needed for all ages. We get less of the blatant “girls can’t do that” these days, but at the same time we are endlessly bombarded with other harmful sexist crap. That is why I couldn’t agree more with Quinnae: we need female characters who are kickass and interesting above all — not damsels, not fan service, but characters who are heroic and capable, characters you want to *be*, not want to screw. And IMO, saying that female protagonists don’t pay is a self-fulfilling prophecy if said protagonists are not taken seriously by their very own creators.

    Look at two of the most famous and beloved female icons in movies: Ellen Ripley and Sarah Connor. Competent, determined, hard-arsed survivors and fighters who never lost their human touch. And they looked the part too. They got bruised and dirty and sweaty. They wore practical outfits. They fit into their role and into the setting. You can take them as seriously as any male character. They are real, they are people.

    Then look at, say, the token females in Blizzard’s SC2 cinematics. Scrawny, smooth, clean and pornstar-perfect even in the middle of combat, in a skin-tight outfit or naked altogether. It’s a huge, huge break with the overall style of the cinematics; for me it strikes me as something cut from a JRPG and dumped into SC2 with no concern for suspension of disbelief. Who can take THAT seriously? It has “I don’t belong here, I’m just a wanking aid” written all over it.

    1. Practically everything that Korva posted echoes my feelings and frustration over my, many, years of video game playing.
      Although it wasn’t until I played Baldur’s Gate 2 SoA, that had npcs that were capable of being romanced by the pc, that I really started getting annoyed about not being the target audience. BioWare had time and resources to make three possible heterosexual romance tracks for a male pc and only one for a female pc. I have since been informed on a number of forums, BioWare included, that I should be grateful that a female pc option was available, let alone a romance path.
      Fortunately I soon found the wonderful modding communities where a good variety of npc mods have been, and are still being, developed.

      Korva’s example of Ripley resonates the most with me. If a game developer created a protagonist like her to play as well as a good story, gameplay and a science fiction setting I might even consider preordering a game for the first time in my life.

      I applaud Tom for speaking out on this issue and for Cuppycake for posting this on The Border House(My favourite place). I actually feel positive about the gaming industry for the first time in a while.

  17. First let me say I’m so happy to find you guys here! You are just as passionate and opinionated about the industry as we are. I am also happy that in a sea of male developers, Tom wasn’t afraid to speak up and say this is not acceptable.

    I cannot tell you how many times I’ve had to get in the faces of developers as conferences and had to endure the sexist comments, saying women just don’t play games. How many times do we have to prove it to you? What exactly are you developers afraid of? (Obviously I’m not speaking to BioWare, I’m a HUGE fan and have more BioWare games in my house than any other.)

    But it’s time to try something new here! I find it funny that companies are willing to take a risk on consoles and peripherals that will do amazing things, but could very well flop, but everyone is afraid to make good game with a woman lead. We have one company doing this Her Interactive, but unfortunately they delve only in the realm of mystery games. They are GOOD games but not a genre I get the time to play with often. I’ve long begged for Rock Star to give us a GTA with a female lead. I think it could be absolutely epic. Several games would work with female leads and we’d eat it up as women gamers. I say to the male devs who are spewing this ridiculousness, are you a man or are you a mouse?! Make the damn games, we’ll play them!

  18. May I just add that one game I forgot about with a female lead is Venetica. Just released recently in the UK it was delayed for a year since its release in Germany, and though the game isn’t the greatest modelling and not the greatest combat many of us have enjoyed the game. Think of it as upper end indie market.

    Also for point and clickers, check out gray matter as it is released in just under 1 months time.
    Best played on the pc from the 2 demos I tried, it has male and female main roles which you switch between at specific points of the story.
    It does not revolve around romance, though possibilities are there. It is a beautiful story that deserves to be experience.

  19. It is great to read this! Thanks for being willing to go public with it; I am heartened by your boldness. I hope that it helps change the question that keeps getting ask from being “why?” to “why not?”

    I wonder, can you imagine a way you’d have understood that joy before having a daughter? I hope someday to find a way to communicate that lack to men who don’t have female children they identify with.

    On the subject of BioWare:
    Rght now there are usually two modes for games that encourage the player to identify as the character: “be a specific man” or “be a customized character, who can be a man or a woman” (clearly exceptions exist, in some genres more than others.) While I enjoy customizable characters, I want there to be a third option of “be a specific woman”, as that option is missing right now (along with options for any purposefully un-gendered, multi-gendered or variably-gendered characters. Gender is interesting! And multi-faceted! And not actually a binary switch! But, anyway…)

    I empathize with the desire for “girly” games. I experienced a rush of excitement, physical joy, when I saw the new design for Laura Croft. I may be terribly disappointed, of course, but right now she looks like she might be a specific, emblematic character who’s new design I find appealing, I am excited to get to *be* her, and play out whatever story they will tell. The white, straight, cis guys I know who have always been well-represented in games didn’t get that rush when they saw her; for them, nothing is missing. They didn’t seem to have any particular reaction at all to the new character design, even the two who had played earlier versions of Tomb Raider.

    When I was little I accepted pink games, games with ponies, games about clothes and makeup not because I cared about any of that, but because it was the closest thing I found to games about *me*. They were’t about me at all; they were about stereotypes other people assumed about me, but that still made me less invisible. I was looking for role models, I wanted to play games about what I might become when I grew up, about what femininity even meant. If the only answers available were in pink packages and starred Barbie, well, that was where I was going to look.

    When they say “those games won’t make enough money” they really are saying, “women aren’t worth writing about.” And that simply, absolutely, sucks. Games are “fantasy fulfillment”, and so when they refuse to create games about women they are saying that nobody would ever want to be a woman. I don’t know about other little girls, but I heard that message loud and clear.

    While Bioware has taken a more inclusive approach, it is not the only possible approach. Bioware, instead of just telling men’s stories tell the stories of a human, who is either male or female. They offer options, but the player is never required to identify with a female avatar. It is kind of a cop out, though one that is greatly appreciated given the alternative. However, I believe it does limit the stories you can tell.
    In Bioware games the only time gender can be important is in small, isolated areas where it doesn’t drastically change the game. From what I’ve seen, this is when sex comes up or occasional extra conversation options that are added for women (because most of the time, male is still default.) Gender can never be a central and integral part of the story or they’d be creating two separate games, and it can only vary as much as these little extra hooks allow. At the same time, some of the constraints of real world gender are still there: on sexuality, on gender expression, on which bathroom you can go into without getting yelled at. Most social sexism is ignored when it comes to your character (the “we don’t respect women, but Shepard, you’re a hero!” effect) and there is a whole bevel of human life that gets smoothed away so that your gender is irrelevant to the story. Luckily, not every story is about gender and not every social role is gendered, and so Bioware has many interesting stories it can tell.

    However, I believe there are other stories that call for specific protagonists, and I don’t automatically condemn games that tell the story of some man. BioShock was a game that was more meaningful because Jack was male. A story based on Joan of Arc would make no sense with a configurable gender; a man wouldn’t be tested for virginity or burned at the stake for wearing men’s clothing. He would not be the only person of his gender in the room at his trial. There are stories in which gender isn’t just important, but central.
    I don’t want games with male protagonists to go away or stop being made, but I have no fear that that is going to be the result of pushing for games that tell women’s stories to be made as well. Arkham Asylum will still be there even if Promethea becomes a game. I love the specific games games I play now, I just wish they didn’t all tell the story of a similar white, straight, cis man. Eventually it stops being specific, and goes back to being a generic stand-in for the audience, with default, unexamined, unimportant gender.

    In those cases, where gender isn’t important to the story, the Bioware approach works fine. Other games where gender never comes up and the player character is primarily an avatar, such as Assassin’s Creed, would benefit from it and I would like to see it become the default, from which there should be a reason to deviate. But that approach will never produce the rush of gratitude that a game with a single, specific female protagonist does. A game that’s not just a “girly” game but rather a game about a specific woman who was once a girl makes me feel… seen. I can play a version of *my* life! It would be even more amazing if these protagonists varied in other ways as well, reflected the heterogeneous spectrum of human experience, but to open up that possibility I think we have to start with convincing people that that even if they can’t imagine anyone paying for the privilege of being a woman, some of us think it is worth it.

    1. Ha! It seems that we both felt the same desperate desire for role models, for visibility, for *something* that made us feel like we were welcome and real there and got to do fun, exciting things that any male takes for granted. Yet we reacted in polar opposite ways: as I said, I absolutely HATED anything “girly” (still do, actually), almost any female character I ever saw, and eventually even the fact that I was female. I tried to reject all of it as much as I could. Though sadly, I was and am neither physically or mentally “boyishly tough and strong” as I wanted to be. The rebellion was mostly inside, and turned against myself as much as it was against society and what it tried to tell me. There was a time when I hoped I’d get cancer so all those hated, disgusting girl-bits would have to be ripped out and would never ever bother me, and I could somehow be an eternal “it”.

      Granted, it is an extreme example of what hateful sexist conditioning and images can do to an already insecure child, but I don’t think it is all that rare that girls today still end up with a completely messed up image of themselves. Just think of pre-teens dieting and worrying that they don’t have DDDDDDD-sized tits yet …

      I have to disagree utterly with you calling gender choice in gaming a cop-out, though. Bioware makes roleplaying games, and IMO the ability to create my own character is one absolutely central aspect for RPGs. Take it away and you have some flavor of adventure game — neither superior or inferior per se, but just not what I usually want to play. I do agree that it would be most welcome if more “fixed protagonist” games did not default to the generic straight white cis male, but at the same time I mainly wish for more true choice games, because they have become such a tiny minority in today’s industry.

    2. Great comment, thank you.

      I do appreciate the Bioware approach (though I wish female characters had as many options as the male ones–BG2 is the clearest example of how this is problematic). I agree that games that only need minor modifications for the protagonist to be male or female can be great.

      But like you, I also think there are stories that can only be told with a male protagonist, and there are other stories that can only be told with a female one: not because men and women are inherently different, but because the outside world puts us in different positions in life. And I’d love for both types of stories to be told.

      As a man, the issue for me is not so much that I want a character to identify with (though I do have trouble identifying with most characters, mostly due to the very traditional way they conceive relationships). For example, I’d love to play a game that explored polyamory–not necessarily presenting a polyamorous relationship, but at least breaking away from the traditional rules of possession and entitlement we find in more traditional monogamous ones.

      But most of all, I want all types of stories to be told because I know I’m missing out on so many great ones. Just like I have no trouble playing and enjoying a game with a male protagonist who is different from me, I think it’d be great to play one centered around a female lead, and most importantly one in which the fact that she is female is important. I think it’s cool for little girls to see a heroine kicking ass on the screen, and I’m not denying how important that is. But I also think it’s a bit of a cope out to to simply replace a male model with a female one. Seriously, I’d love to play a game in which the protagonist is necessarily a woman, or else the story couldn’t take place at all. This kind of specificity (not only related to gender) is one of the hallmarks of great fiction, as much as people like to think that it’s the “universal” features that matter.

  20. I’m a Geeky Mom. I’m also a professional woman who works in and out of the home. I buy a lot of games not only for my kids, but also for myself. I specifically look for games that include more women not only for myself, but for my kids, too. I don’t want my kids getting the stereotype message that it’s ‘all about the fighting’ for the guys and ‘all about looking pretty’ for the girls. I’m thrilled to see that Star Trek Online has so many female admirals and captains. Sure, they have the half naked Orion slave girls, but at least not all of the females have size EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE bazoombas that are just aching to fall out of their miniscule bikini tops. There are some decent female leader types, too.

    As a game player, I was anticipating Alpha Protocol and reading the news about it long before it came out, because I enjoy Obsidian games and Avellone’s stories. Then I found out the PC was going to be male-only. That was a huge turn-off for me–I really wanted to play a female spy. Instead of buying it day one, I decided to wait until there was a good sale. I still haven’t played it. Obsidian, but you lost a full-price purchase specifically because of your decision to go with only a male gender PC. I’d STILL love to play a female spy, btw.

    My generation is the first generation that grew up playing video games, starting with Magnavox Odyssey and Pong. We don’t watch TV as a family, we now game. I think my generation now wants more out of our games as a result. My sister and I play Beatles Rock Band with our dad and my kids, and now that she has a decent rig we’ll be gaming in LOTRO together. My kids, hubby and I play Guild Wars together–and in Nightfall, the lead hero AND one of the main bosses were female–it added an interesting twist to the game that I really appreciated. We’re not the only family that games together. I’m certainly not the only mom who buys games for the family and herself, either. Nor am I the only mom who determines what features our consoles and computers should have, which is a key factor in determining what games can be played at our home. We shouldn’t have to search high and low for inclusive games just because the head honchos at the gaming studios decided that only something with an XY chromosome combo ‘counts’ in the industry.

    It’s not JUST a man’s world anymore–we’re moving beyond that. It shouldn’t be JUST a man’s world in gaming anymore, either. We women are making a lot of hardware and software purchasing decisions, and more of us will be doing so as my generation and those generations coming up behind mine gain in the percentage of serious and hard-core female gamers. It would be unwise from a financial and marketing standpoint for the major publishing companies, producers, and developers to continue to ignore 50% of the population.

    1. Your comment makes me feel a bit better. I buy a lot of rpgs, as well as other games, mainly for me and my partner to share, but when we have children ive been wondering what will happen. Sure I will have to buy us a console each at some point when they are older but in the mean time i guess I add to my own collection, let them play what is suitable and when they get pocket money they can buy games mommy and daddy have to ask to use. It’s a strangggggggggge world lol. I like to think parents who game are more sensible than those who just want sex out of life. Apparently the lower the IQ the more children a person has. I think that means anything above 2. If there are any daring gamers who had more than 2 children and still manage their hobby it would be fascinating to hear from them.

  21. @Tom Abernathy I can’t tell you how happy I am to see this statement, and especially to see it from a Reach developer. I’m a huge Halo fan and I loved being able to have my Noble Six be a woman (and I also loved that she’s not hyper-sexualized in appearance, she’s simply a fit, muscular female soldier). I’m an anomaly among your audience, a casual-gaming middle-aged woman who loves Halo for its lore, and I completely understand how your daughter feels at being able to play a female character and see well-developed women as part of the game.

    @Laurentius I’m a fan and I’m biased, but I’m frustrated that all people see when they look at Halo is that dudebro macho young male XBL culture. IMO the Halo universe is underrated when it comes to good female and good POC characters– Reach in particular with three important female characters (and one more who is key to saving humanity!), one a fantastic example of a strong middle-aged civilian woman in charge of all of these macho soldiers. Cortana’s appearance can be justly criticized for being oversexualized, but her function in the story is important and her role in the lore quite well-developed. I think a Halo developer being the one to make this point isn’t ironic at all. (But then, there has always been something of a divide between people who are into the story of Halo and people who just want to get into multiplayer and pwn n00bs.)

  22. The only major mainstream female lead I can think of is Samus from Metroid. Samus, who has a boy’s name and spends most of her time in a robot-suit. I played this game when I was younger and it was new for MONTHS before I even knew it was a girl. How did I eventually learn she was female? A cheat code that showed us her in a bikini.
    I’ve since stepped away from the series, but my brother still plays it. She’s tough, yes, but she never speaks and when she finally does in Metroid M – she becomes weak-willed and needs a man, Adam to do anything.

Comments are closed.