The Female Protagonist Crisis in Video Games
There have been a lot of controversies lately about the lack of playable female characters in popular game franchises. Ubisoft recently got taken to task when it was revealed that Assassin's Creed: Unity and Far Cry 4, two of their flagship titles, both lacked playable female protagonists. Rockstar was likewise criticized in 2013 for having three playable male characters, yet no playable female characters, in Grand Theft Auto V.
Not Enough Representation
Many gamers and journalists are seeing this as part of a regressive trend and an unforgivable oversight in today's diversity-conscious market, frequently citing the ESA's (Entertainment Software Association's) report from 2013 that revealed that 45% of all gamers are now women, and evidence that game developers are not adequately serving their market. But is the state of female representation in games as dire as it appears?
How Many Games Have Female Protagonists?
I've always been partial to strong female characters myself (I blame that on seeing Alien as a child), so I wanted to see just how bad the bias against female playable characters was. A few people have already taken a stab at this, but, being the perfectionist that I am, I'm not confident about the accuracy of their results, so I decided to start wading through some games myself. So far, I've compiled a list of 400+ video games drawn from popular franchises, and I've come up with some interesting results.
Male and Female Avatars
Before I discuss the numbers, it helps to have an understanding of the different approaches that games take toward assigning characters to players. There are actually quite a few different methods, not all of which fit neatly into clear-cut categories, but in most cases, one of the following methods is used:
- Players are assigned a fully-fleshed out, premade character of a specific gender around which a complex narrative has been built. The entire game is played from this character's perspective. This is like reading a book written from the perspective of a single protagonist that never lets you peek inside the head of another character. Examples: Wolfenstein: The New Order, Watch Dogs.
- Players are assigned a series of premade characters of specific genders, with the player assuming control over each character during the portion of the story assigned to that character. This is like reading a book or watching a movie that has several different protagonists pursuing separate story arcs. In film and literature, this approach is very common, if not the most common kind of narrative structure. But in games, it is relatively rare. Examples: Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead: 400 Days DLC.
- Players are assigned or get to select from a group a party of premade characters, typically of either gender, which they control simultaneously. This is typically called an ensemble cast, and it is used most often in turn-based RPGs and tactical shooters. Examples: Final Fantasy, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon.
- Players are assigned a fully developed, premade character but are allowed to choose that character's gender. The narrative built around this character has been designed in such a way that it accommodates the player's decision; i.e., aside from minor details, the narrative is the same regardless of the gender the player chooses. Examples: Mass Effect, Halo Reach.
- Players are given a choice between two or more premade characters, and there are often male and female characters to choose from. The remaining character options can play a supporting role in the narrative and are controlled by AI, or, alternately, are available as options in co-op or multiplayer gameplay. Examples: Mario Kart, Hunted: The Demon's Forge.
- Players are allowed to create a custom character from scratch. In these games, the player is typically allowed to pick their gender as part of their customization. Examples: Skyrim, Dark Souls.
- The player interacts with the game without the use of an in-game avatar. Examples: Tetris, Angry Birds.
How Common Are Female Protagonists?
After an examination of 400 video games spanning a variety of genres and platforms, I came up with the following statistics:
- Over 90% of all games have a playable male character, either as the lead protagonist, a secondary character with their own story arc, or a playable option selected from a pool of premade characters.
- By contrast, under 50% of all games have a playable female character, and this role is often minor (a single chapter or scenario), or the number of female options is limited compared to the number of male options. (For example, there may be four characters to choose from, but only one of them is female.)
- There are over six times as many games about a sole male protagonist as there are about a sole female protagonist. In other words, for every Lara Croft, there are about six male leads.
- Games are almost 50% more likely to feature a mixed cast of male and female characters than a sole female protagonist. In other words, developers are more likely to hedge their bets by including characters of both genders than they are to bet on a single female character.
- About one in five games allow the player to determine the gender of their character at the start of the game.
- About 30% of all games allow you to assume the role of a female protagonist and maintain that role for the duration of the game.
Gender Disparity in Playable Characters
According to the ESA's statistics, the relationship between games focused on male and female protagonists should be approximately 1:1 (11:9). According to my current data, the existing bias is 212:34, or about 6:1; i.e., there are approximately six times as many games focused exclusively on male protagonists as there are games focused on female protagonists. It's bad, but not as bad as the results that other researchers have come to.
Six to one is a pretty significant disparity, but this only accounts for games that are specifically about a single predetermined protagonist of a specified gender. If we include those games that give the player the option to select their character's gender at the beginning of the game (Mass Effect, Skyrim, World of Warcraft, etc.), the gap narrows considerably to 299:121, or approximately 2.5:1. In this case, male players are only about two and a half times more likely to be able to play through an entire game exclusively as a character of their own gender as female players. This is still a sizable gap, but not as discouraging as the gap between male and female-only franchises.
Gender and Genre
There are other factors to consider, as well. For example, this data doesn't take into consideration the male and female preferences when it comes to genre or platform. It's entirely possible that genres preferred by female gamers (for the sake of argument, let's say that point and click adventure or mobile puzzle games) may also have a small male fanbase. Without further research, however, the impact of these preferences is impossible to quantify.
Of course, even if it turns out to be true that women are adequately (or over) represented in these genres, it's possible to argue that this preference is based on a "chicken and egg" scenario, where women prefer playing games in these genres simply because they find them more inclusive.
Ultimately, it seems clear to me that there is an undeniable disparity, or unfair bias in favor of male protagonists, even if it is not, perhaps, as glaring or abysmal a disparity as other researchers have suggested. With any luck, developers will recognize this disparity for what it is: an opportunity to provide new experiences to a hungry and underserved market.
Let the Game Industry Know How You Feel!
I have included a few polls to collect data on gender demographics, gender preferences, and the impact that the gender of a game's playable protagonist has on your decision to purchase a game. I know gender identity can be a touchy subject for many people, so please take my word that the polls have been designed in good faith with no intent to exclude or offend anyone.
Poppy from Enoshima, Japan on April 08, 2018:
There are plenty of female protagonists in games already. Those trying to make video games a gender issue are clearly bored and just looking for something to complain about.
slingshotdave on July 31, 2017:
Complete Marxist nonsense.
We actually need more male characters in big RPGs. This cultural Marxist re-engineering of out pop culture by the elite in order destroy the family via feminism and subjugate men, especially white men to make society weaker, divided and easier to manipulate is getting old fast.
The vast majority of RPG players are male for starters.
Secondly, men evolved to be the warriors and protectors, it's simply biological and subconsciously it doesn't ring true to have a powerful female warrior or even any kind of adventuring female protagonist as biologically the males have always gone out to accumulate wealth and test themselves in order to win the female.
PC/cultural Marxism is poison, designed to destroy the West and useful idiot lefties are enabling it.
Ashley Ferguson from Indiana/Chicagoland on February 15, 2016:
It's crazy how many more male gamers there are in the world, and maybe it IS due to the fact that there aren't playable females in many games. I play World of Warcraft, and never run out of options, but that's just one game. I never thought about it the way you just did, thank you for sharing! :)
Molly Layton from Alberta on March 09, 2015:
I heard the developers of Remember Me had to fight tooth and nail to fight with Capcom to have a female protagonist. Honestly, I don't think manly-man heroes will ever leave, but getting a more even male to female ratio could get more people interested in games. The hidden object genre is mostly targeted to young women, and mostly has female protagonists, so maybe your idea of the avatar's gender being related to the target market's gender is correct.
j-u-i-c-e (author) from Waterloo, On on September 08, 2014:
@Ithlia: I don't think the trend will ever go away entirely, but I do think things will get better. I think companies are aware that it's an issue now, which is a start. Thanks for the read and reply.
Ithlia on September 07, 2014:
I have read a lot of forums where someone will complain about the lack of a playable female character. This complaint almost always draws several unkind responses. For me, as a female gamer, especially when playing an RPG, I just can't relate to the game through a male avatar. I have tried several times. My son gave me a copy of The Witcher 2 and told me to just get into the story. I started the game three times and I just couldn't muster up any interest in the character or what happened to him. I tried with The Risen because it was on sale for a great price. Again, no interest after a few hours game play.
I really wish I could enjoying playing a male character, I would have a lot more game choices but as it is I have given up buying any game where I do not have a gender choice. Game companies are apparently ok with alienating a portion of the buying public so I doubt there will ever be a change in this trend of male only avatars.
Randall Jonas from Canada on August 12, 2014:
When I read this, I think about Hollywood films and how we have men represented in so many of them. They are stories about men often and women are secondary. And also I see how when male actors age - they are still allowed to act in films in general but women very often get thrown away. I see it in the music industry. It just makes me sick and sad - if you can believe I have this empathy. And so I ask myself what is it one can do - thankfully countries other than the US and to a much lesser degree as we are a smaller population and do not have "Hollywood" Canada, do not do this. I see many women in films from other countries and they are not this "archetype" projected in North America. I still watch all these "guy" movies - I admit. And on a positive note - there are film with women in them where the woman or women are potent, present and the focus of the story. There is also ageism but that is another story.
Thanks for this post! It is excellent and very well written - thoughtful too.