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.
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:
"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.
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.
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!
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.