Only 24 out of a sample of 669 games released over the past seven years have had a female-only lead character. These startling figures came out of a study by EEDAR, a leading market research firm for the gaming industry, that examined games in the role-playing games, action, and shooter games genres, all of which had protagonists with discernible genders.

With the latest industry figures in the USA showing that 48 percent of gamers are female, the question of why female representation is lacking in video games is a significant one.

The video game industry is the largest entertainment industry in the world, dwarfing Hollywood in terms of revenue. So why do game developers seem to be stuck in the past, believing that video games are only played by boys? According to EEDAR, games with female-only leads are allocated only 40 percent of the marketing budget that male-led games receive.  Geoffery Zatkin, the CEO of EEDAR, delves into the marketing reasons in an interview with The Penny Arcade: “I think there is a general feeling in marketing that it’s hard to sell a mass-market game that’s a female-only protagonist.” It’s easy to see how this mindset can lead to a vicious cycle of developers not creating female characters, and reduced financial support for the few that are released.

As an industry that is fundamentally immersive and interactive, the lack of female representation is a significant problem. As a brown girl, this is an issue that I have faced when trying to fully immerse myself in to a first-person shooter (FPS) game. While sometimes a gun hovers by itself on-screen, the gun is usually held by a large, white male hand. Not all gamers are male, and certainly not all of them are white, and this underrepresentation of women and people of colour has often been criticised.

However, time and time again, developers cite a number of excuses for the lack of playable female characters. Ubisoft recently came under fire for their latest game announcement at the E3 conference. Assassin’s Creed Unity, despite having 4-player co-op, has no playable female characters. According to Ubisoft’s creative director Alex Amanico, this lack of female characters was due to the pressures of production, and would have involved “double the animation” and “a lot of extra production work” for the team. Bizarrely enough, Ubisoft had previously created a female protagonist for Assassins Creed III: Liberation, decreasing the legitimacy of this line of reasoning.

Even when games do have female characters, they are often not playable characters, and are reduced to a stereotype. Grand Theft Auto V, the biggest entertainment release in history amassing $1bn in its first few days, had three lead characters, all male. None of the female characters were fleshed out as believable characters, or were anything other than a generic trope such as that of The Nagging Wife.

Furthermore, games such as 2011’s Duke Nukem Forever not only portrays women as stereotypical damsels in distress, but also grossly objectifies them. A Capture the Flag-style mode in the game called Capture the Babe, where instead of stealing a flag and returning it to a base, players carry off a resistant woman. Her buttocks filling a quarter of your screen as she rests over your avatar’s shoulder, you have to slap it to stop her struggling.

Fortunately, more and more people are starting to publicly criticise developers about this issues, with a lot of criticism coming from within the industry itself.

People saying they don’t want to have women as their lead characters because then they can’t invest and suspend disbelief are, to put it bluntly, wrong: people play games as blue hedgehogs. Are we supposed to accept that the concept of playing as a Black Man or a Woman is somehow more difficult for them to accept than commanding a platoon of worms wearing helmets? (See: Worms)

Of course there are games that have broken from the mold, and portrayed women more realistically. The famously buxom Lara Croft was given a makeover in the recent reboot of Tomb Raider: portrayed far more humanly by actress Camilla Luddington, she is still beautiful, intelligent and driven.  This incarnation, however, is far from the sex object plastered over every 90s lad’s mag. The script, beautifully written by Rhianna Pratchett, doesn’t fall into the similarly simplistic cliché of Strong Woman: this is a Lara who whispers “sorry” to a hunted deer, and wretches at the horror after killing a man in self-defence.

Playing as this new Lara Croft was easy: a relatable female character who shows that you don’t have to flaunt your sexuality or your physical prowess in order to be considered strong or sexy. She struggles to survive, and her humanity shines through the horrors she endures.

The rise in indie games will hopefully see even more of this change. Tools such as Twine allow practically anyone to create games, creating a space for more innovation and diversity within the industry.

 

References

Colin Campbell, Polygon, June 2014

[http://www.polygon.com/2014/6/11/5801374/ubisoft-responds-to-assassins-creed-unity-women-character-furore]

 

Nick Cowen, The Guardian, April 2011

[http://www.theguardian.com/technology/gamesblog/2011/apr/06/duke-nukem-forever-capture-the-babe]

 

Kim Gittleson, BBC News, June 2014

[http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/technology-27824701]

 

Nicole Goodkind, Yahoo News, June 2014

[http://finance.yahoo.com/blogs/daily-ticker/how-the-video-game-industry-became-bigger-than-movies-and-music-171225174.html]

 

Ben Kuchera, The Penny Arcade, 2012

[http://penny-arcade.com/report/article/games-with-female-heroes-dont-sell-because-publishers-dont-support-them#/entry/signin]