Do We Need More Playable Female Characters in Video Games?
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; ie., 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 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.