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"Not all gamers are teenage boys" - Why we still need more variety in our gaming protagonists

Matt Gardner
Choice, Female characters, Female protagonists, Game development, game industry, Jade Raymond

"Not all gamers are teenage boys" - Why we still need more variety in our gaming protagonists

We need more variety when it comes to gaming protagonists.

It seems like a no-brainer written down, after all everyone games these days, from toddlers to pensioners. Yet still there seems to be a prevailing idea of a majority market ruled over by a male, teenage demographic who demand the greatest attention.

It's getting better, of course. It takes less time to point to a game with a female protagonist, or at least the option for one, but we're still a long way off. There'll be those who scoff and argue that little needs to change, and I'd wager that the vast majority of those reactions will be from male gamers. I don't want to bash people over the head with talk of privilege, but it's important to take a walk in someone else's shoes from time to time.

"Not all gamers are teenage boys" - Why we still need more variety in our gaming protagonists

As I explained in a vid on my personal channel over the weekend, I like playing female roles: I enjoyed Tomb Raider, No One Lives Forever is one of my favourite game series of all time, and I'll frequently take female characters for a spin in RPGs just to see how characters react differently to a protagonist of the opposite gender than to those when I'm role-playing as myself. But I also imagine what it might be like were the tables turned, with upwards of nine out of ten games released featuring female protagonists. I'd like to say that I'd be totally fine with that, but I'd be lying. Eventually I'd want to just be able to invest wholly in a character without compromise. It doesn't matter how well written the women in those imagined games might have been, at some point I'd want a character I could truly relate to. As a person. As a man.

To turn that around and bring things back to reality, it's easy to see why we might not see an enormously diverse audience for core games. The idea that women don't buy games is frankly ludicrous because it conveniently ignores the fact that the vast majority of mainstream games are geared towards a specific male audience that is shrinking in terms of percentage. It doesn't help that the most vocal gamers, those who regularly shout their opinions across one another on forums and whip themselves into a frenzy at the mere prospect of change, often appear to conform to that aged stereotype -- 15-24 year old males, sitting in darkened rooms in their pants, squinting for hours upon end at a screen, armed with a possessive sense of paranoia and suspicion.

But the figures don't lie. The market, including core console gaming, PC gaming, handheld, mobile, and social gaming, is more diverse than it's ever been before. So much so that the audience split is actually in favour of women -- 51% to 49%. Everyone watches films. Everyone listens to music. Everyone games.

So why the hell are developers and publishers and we consumers still settling for a production line of cookie-cutter, thirtysomething, light-skinned, brown-haired, gravelly-voiced, male protagonists for the most part? Something's gotta give.

Earlier this month, Ubisoft Toronto head Jade Raymond was asked what still makes her cringe in 2014. She replied with the following:

"Not all gamers are teenage boys" - Why we still need more variety in our gaming protagonists

"I think it’s all the videogames that treat gamers like idiots. I don’t like the assumption that all people who play games want big chain saws and women in bikinis. It’s like, really? Not all gamers are teenage boys, and even teenage boys want more than that.

"It’s got to change, right? Look at movies. I really love traditional action movies—I almost don’t care how bad it is if there are big things exploding—but even those films have become more interesting in terms of complex leads. Look at Iron Man. The videogame world is improving, too: We’re seeing some variety. Grand Theft Auto has been doing a good job picking interesting main characters in recent years—like the new-immigrant underdog. There still isn’t a game where you get to play an old lady. That’s my dream."

That last point might be a little flippant  (though  if we can play as a goat, why not an old lady?!) key word there is variety. It's not about one or the other, it's not about mutual exclusivity, it's about a wider range of choice in  terms of interactive experiences. It's about companies deciding to try and do something different rather than constantly retreading old ground and playing it safe. It's about attempting to stand out from the crowd and attract an audience  that is under-represented. It's about treating women and LGBT and ethnically diverse characters as people rather than devices or structural conveniences.

"Not all gamers are teenage boys" - Why we still need more variety in our gaming protagonists

Geena Davis wrote a fantastic piece for the Hollywood Reporter last year, highlighting the severe gender imbalance portrayed in family films, noting the lack  of aspirational female characters in mainstream films, and developing a two-step program that would, in her own words "quickly and easily [boost] the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue

Step 1: Go through the projects you're already working on and change a bunch of the characters' first names to women's names. With one stroke you've created some colorful unstereotypical female characters that might turn out to be even more interesting now that they've had a gender switch. What if the plumber or pilot or construction foreman is a woman? What if the taxi driver or the scheming politician is a woman? What if both police officers that arrive on the scene are women — and it's not a big deal?

Step 2: When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, "A crowd gathers, which is half female." That may seem weird, but I promise you, somehow or other on the set that day the crowd will turn out to be 17 percent female otherwise. Maybe first ADs think women don't gather, I don't know.

And there you have it. You have just quickly and easily boosted the female presence in your project without changing a line of dialogue.

There's no reason why such a process couldn't be applied to game scripts, but it goes beyond that too. For too long in this industry, "male" has simply been the default, from the start point of a project all of the way through to the end. It's reflected in personnel, in marketing targets, and in the final product. It's time we all, as an industry, stopped being okay with that, because we're only limiting ourselves.

"Not all gamers are teenage boys" - Why we still need more variety in our gaming protagonists

And that doesn't mean fulfilling a quota or accepting compromise. That's not what this is about. It starts with recognising the variety in terms of gaming audience available right now and having the drive and the daring to do something a little bit different. It's a shame in a way that we have to applaud games like Tomb Raider for having a capable, fleshed-out female protagonist, but then again the fact that Lara Croft is still only one of a few game characters we can say that about is precisely the point and such things still need encouragement.

It's not enough either to simply present more female characters, yet still root them in terms of a male perspective. We don't need more overtly sexualised women pandering to some kind of spurious teenage ideal. We need characters, well-written ones. We need options and choices and an overall industrial approach that preaches inclusion and welcomes and encourages diversity. We need more characters like Joanna Dark and Cate Archer and Samus and Faith Connors and Aveline de Grandpré and TLOU's Ellie. And someone please give Elena Fisher her own game, maybe Uncharted meets L.A. Noire -- action/adventuring plus investigative journalism. Yes!

"Not all gamers are teenage boys" - Why we still need more variety in our gaming protagonists

See as much as this is an issue because it's an inaccurate portrayal of our society, or because we should be teaching boys that women are in fact relevant to stories and teaching girls that they can totally kick ass and have adventures, or because this industry is ignoring vast sections of the gaming audience, I'm also saying all of these things for entirely selfish reasons too. I want that vast array of gaming experiences. I want everything I can get because I love this medium and I believe in it and I want to stuff as much of it in my face as possible. I want to run that gamut of characters far beyond the safety of dead, white, males and I want developers to be unafraid to deliver games that do that.

There's simply no good reason not to have more choice. There's nothing to lose, and potentially a whole new audience to gain.

Add a comment15 comments
googleberry  Apr. 23, 2014 at 12:27

I would love to see more diversity too. Regarding representations of females, the conundrum is probably as follows:

"Do games that feature well written female protaganists sell games better than games that feature superficial, hypersexualised female protagonists?"

I think that is the question that gets posed, implicitly or explicitly, by game studios seeking a return on their investment. I'm guessing the most profitable segment is the 18-24 gaming male: pandering to this audiences percieved needs is what drives the 1 dimensionality of characters in games. In short, it's a business decision, but one that unfortuneately reinforces some pretty unhealthy ideas society inherits from less enlightened days about females.

Late  Apr. 23, 2014 at 12:33

I've argued against you on this before (partly because I like a debate and am often happiest to take the opposite viewpoint; partly because I've been convinced there isn't actually an issue to address here) but you made me stop and think with: "...imagine what it might be like were the tables turned, with upwards of nine out of ten games released featuring female protagonists. I'd like to say that I'd be totally fine with that, but I'd be lying..."

You're right. I'd probably be pretty irritated. Despite the fact that I often - probably even "usually" - pick female characters when given a choice.
That's partly because I tend to favour faster smaller characters rather than bigger stronger ones (yes they're totally sterotypes but it is what it is when you're at the character select screen, and perhaps that needs to change); and partly for titillation - I'm a bloke, irrespective of age we all like a flash of flesh or a nice rack, even if it's a poorly rendered game character. I imagine girls like nice looking male characters too.
Just don't have him parading around with his shirt off. I wouldn't like that. It's degrading.

I can't see things changing much, though. Developers have to cater to their audience's desires, and whilst we're not all teenage boys, males who like being a bad-ass on their tv/monitor and like perving at scantily-clad female characters do make up a very big proportion of gamers. "Teenage" is just a number, some bad skin, and social awkwardness. In terms of gaming I pretty much like the exact same stuff I did when my teen years ended (slightly over two decades ago).

As for the statistics stating 51% of gamers are women, that's a statistic that's probably pretty easy to pull apart (though I've not looked into it beyond the headline).
Does it take into account how much time is spent gaming; or what kind of games are being played? My wife and my mum both like a bit of Candy Crush, PvZ, or Wii Sports once in a while, but you won't find either of them spending all night playing CoD, Fifa, Skyrim, or most of the games considered more "hardcore".

Last edited by Late, Apr. 23, 2014 at 13:47
JonLester  Apr. 23, 2014 at 12:52

I'd love to see more diversity in gaming (not just in terms of female characters, but older gents and gay protagonists too) - *but* not if developers just throw them in for the sake of it.

See, many many developers create their female characters thusly:

"So, our female character. What do we know about her?"
"She's female."
"Good. So... what does that entail? What makes women unique?"
"Yes, of course. What else?"
"Erm... subservience? Or, umm... being an ice queen?"
"Cool, we'll choose one of those nearer the time."
"Definitely underline boobies though."
"Already done. Send that brief to the art department, let's go to the pub."

And they'll continue to do so.

Characters who are defined by their gender (or sexuality) tend to be rubbish and one-dimensional. What's important is that the main character is a believable person regardless of their sex or sexual preference, with their own personalities, hopes and fears.

Which is why (old) Lara and Samus are awesome - they're women, sure, but that's not their whole *thing.* They're capable, efficient, awesome professionals who are great at what they do. Which is ventilating endangered species and ventilating space pirates, specifically.

Also, we need a game starring the Oxford professors from The Secret World. As in, medically need. They're amazing.

TL;DR: More diversity, please, but don't half-ass it like ****. Team Ninja.

Last edited by JonLester, Apr. 23, 2014 at 12:57
googleberry  Apr. 23, 2014 at 13:14

"What's important is that the main character is a believable person regardless of their sex or sexual preference, with their own personalities, hopes and fears."

The discussion you caricatured was quite interesting, and made me consider an additional factor: that game developers are for the most part just not great writers. They default to the lazy choice of the stereotype because character development and story telling are very specific (and difficult) skills, that aren't that common in the game industry. For lack of this skill they default back to what they know.

Where have I seen good female character? Mass effect, dragonage, bioshock, the last of us, uncharted, beyond souls, half life 2, to cite a few prominent examples. What is characteristic about these games is the massive emphasis on storytelling talent in the developer team, and also female representation in the writing team has a big part to play too.

phil16  Apr. 23, 2014 at 13:26

Totally agree. My wife really struggles to get into gaming unless it something simple on her phone, the wii or maybe a lego game as they just don't appeal to her...

Breadster  Apr. 23, 2014 at 16:29

Hmmm, well I just wrote a massive post and then it disappeared and I really cannot be bothered writing it again. I'll just say that the Geena Davis 2 step program idea is a great way to look at it. Write a character first, then give them a gender. There are cases where a character's gender is an important part of their identity but most of the time it isn't.

Late  Apr. 23, 2014 at 16:40

I just wrote a massive post and then it disappeared

:( Hate that happening. I've been lucky for quite a while, mind.

Also: <3 Geena Davis
In her younger days, anyway. Thelma & Louise era, if you can ignore Susan Sarandon (can't stand her).
I'm probably not helping her gender equality cause by championing her as a sexy babe, am I... (_;)

REDACTED  Apr. 23, 2014 at 19:07

I'm sick of all this "more diversity" crap. You cant have things two ways.

If you believe games are art. Then why do you tell the artist what to paint.

If you believe games are purely business then the market will dictate what games get made. (hence I hate call of duty for its lack of innovation from game to game... but it still sells and so it still gets made)

Forcing change is pandering to the minority. This is something that does not help grow, but stifles, innovation as a developer is forced to work on a concept they don't believe in rather than something that inspires them.

You cant say we need more variety in gaming while also saying we aren't trying to fill a quota. If you don't like the variety given then speak with your wallet. Stop buying into the drivel you disagree with. Publishers will get the hint. Money speaks louder than words. You can not say you are not trying to implement a quota and use references that are saying exactly the opposite (Geena Davis).

To the whole Jade Raymond bit, really? Not every game is a bikini wearing, chainsaw slinging, prepubescent wet dream. and then to say that film has come a long way... Have you seen the stupid high school/college movies that have come out lately with their covers of half naked women trying to entice you to watch 90 minutes of crappy film in the hopes that you might see one shot of frontal nudity. Its not like they just stopped making that crap.

I've said it once and I will continue to say it. If you don't like it, don't buy it. If no one bought it they wouldn't make it. If you have a great idea make it yourself. There is no excuse now in 2014 where independent developers have access to some of the best development tools on the market to blame anyone but themselves for what they see as a hole in the market.

If it is truly what "Gamers" want then make it. Make your millions of dollars and make another one.

No one is preventing these things from being made (stop playing the victim card). All these articles are saying is that they want to tell a big publisher how it should spend its money. They have a business to run and if they don't want to take the risk that is their decision.

If there is really an outcry for this than start a crowd funding campaign and raise all the money from the same people who are calling for this change. PROVE THEM WRONG!

Would it be nice to have more female protagonist games? Personally, I don't care, that's not why I play a game. Go for it; If it inspires you and makes your game better let it ride. If the game is my style Ill happily fork over money for it. But then again I'm more of a freedom of choice game player and those games mostly allow you to pick a female if you want that anyways.

montyburns56  Apr. 23, 2014 at 21:02

"And someone please give Elena Fisher her own game, maybe Uncharted meets L.A. Noire -- action/adventuring plus investigative journalism. Yes!" Like a 3D version of the Broken Sword games perhaps?

MattGardner  Apr. 23, 2014 at 22:43

@REDACTED: I'm not sure that telling an artist what to create and expressing an opinion that gaming protagonists could be more diverse than they are are the same thing.

And why does expressing the desire for greater diversity threaten you so?

No one is "playing the victim card", rather observing that certain aspects of this industry (reach, ubiquity, technology, potential demographics) have progressed, and others have not.

If you read the article properly you would have noted that nowhere do I suggest forced change, in fact I clearly state that positive discrimination is not the answer.

I'm arguing that more choice would only be a good thing. Why don't you start by explaining to me how that would actually be bad.

Last edited by MattGardner, Apr. 23, 2014 at 22:48
MattGardner  Apr. 23, 2014 at 22:48

@Breadster/Late: We've been trying to replicate that issue without much luck. It's happened to m once or twicce, but I can't seem to trigger the damn bug reliably. The devs have been notified, but until they know what they're looking for it's a bit tricky. Might have something to do with post-length if it's only happening to essays.

NB (TO ALL): If it happens again please drop me an email/tweet/comment with as much detail as possible :)

Breadster  Apr. 24, 2014 at 06:20

@Matt, it was quite a long post, I'm not sure exactly what happened. I was writing it on my phone and I touched the screen to scroll down and either the site just refreshed and it was gone or I accidentally pressed submit and it didn't post. Sorry it's a bit vague but that's all I could gather.

Fortunately it's only the second time it's happened to me.

@Redacted we can't exactly stop buying all games with male protagonists can we? It doesn't even make sense to suggest "voting with your wallet" in this situation. It's not really a case of the current games being bad, it'd just be nice to see some more variation.

Also, in my original vanishing post I suggested that it's not just a problem in games, it's a problem in life in general. How many female surgeons are there for example? I think that, although it is hard to see sometimes, society on the whole is becoming less prejudiced over time though and we will hopefully see more diversity as older generations are replaced by younger, more open minded ones.

Last edited by Breadster, Apr. 24, 2014 at 06:34
Late  Apr. 24, 2014 at 09:22

Saw a woman refereeing the snooker last night. Not sure what that's about. I don't think either of the players needed a sandwich, and there wasn't a great deal of dusting required. Strangest thing is she wasn't even wearing a bikini!

There's a female driving instructor operating near where I work. She mainly teaches lasses. I guess they feel more comfortable.
I'll tell you who doesn't feel comfortable, though. All the people who are going to get run over. Women teaching women how to drive! Madness!

Yeah, I'm maybe one of those older and less open-minded folk ;)

Rubisco  Apr. 24, 2014 at 09:50

More diverse characters in video games can only be a good thing, but simply shoehorning them into the kinds of games that men and boys are buying is never going to capture the female imagination en masse. It's foolish to acknowledge that women like different things to men when it comes to characters and narrative but fail to recognise that they tend also to prefer different game mechanics.

I feel the real issue is that games with female-friendly mechanics tend not to have matured as an artform to the extent that traditional male-centric games have. How we scoffed when women pushed The Sims to the top of the charts, we were all playing Deus Ex! But this is unfair as The Sims was the first game to become massively popular amongst female gamers, what we really should have been comparing it against was Space Invaders. Many of the types of games women are drawn to remain throwaway and vacuous to this day, and they really don't have to be. Devs need to focus on adding depth instead of patronisingly releasing Ikea furniture packs.

MattGardner  Apr. 24, 2014 at 11:49

I absolutely agree, but I think that when it comes to this discussion there's a danger of conflating diversity with mediocrity. You're right that this happens at a development level, but as you say...it doesn't have to be this way, and it shouldn't.

Shoehorning characters into games is bad regardless of gender or sexual orientation or race or whatever. Bad writing is bad writing. Bad games are bad games. That games with female protagonists come under greater scrutiny because they're relatively rare is an unfortunate fact.

Breadster makes a good point as well...progression on a socio-cultural level will hopefully bleed through into the industry. Much has been made over the past couple of years of encouraging women to consider game development. It's not about positive discrimination, but rather doing more to foster a spirit of inclusion. The more diversity we see amongst creators, the more perspectives we have at a developmental level, the more that'll be reflected in the games produced.

And the proof is there at an indie level and there are glimmers of progression amongst triple-A titles too. Having female playable characters in COD was a big step. Indeed, when it comes to open games, genres and modes where you're able to choose your own character, there's no excuse any more for not having a female option.

Depth and choice, we've been banging on about them for years. And we'll keep doing it.

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