Anyone who’s been playing video games for a while is probably vaguely aware that it’s not exactly an industry that caters to women very much. And why should it be? Who wants to be Princess Peach when you can be Mario? Do you remember Remember Me? That was okay, I guess, but not as good as GTA V. Besides, the majority of gamers are men! It’s simple economics! We have Lara Croft and Bayonetta, right? What’s the problem?
It starts with a number. Did you know that 45% of gamers are women? That’s hardly a minority; that’s almost half of all gamers. They exist in a proportion to males similar to the gender distributions at most American universities. The University of Southern California (USC) is 48% male, 52% female. The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) has a male-female distribution of 45% to 55%—in other words, the reverse of the demographic in gaming. Why am I bringing this up? Because having one gender in the slim majority does not lead either USC or UCLA to completely disregard the interests of the other. Guys at USC aren’t told “dicks or gtfo” when they go to a dining hall. Guys at UCLA don’t see that the student services cater largely to girls. Sororities and fraternities are equally important to campus life. Guys at USC don’t go to office hours and see that most of the professors there are women–the opposite is actually true. Being in the minority doesn’t mean they don’t matter.
The university and the gaming industry may be two different beasts, but fundamentally the concept of gender is the same. If all the guys at USC and UCLA up and left because they thought they weren’t being represented—hell, even if only half of them did—the university would suffer. If girls in gaming up and left because they thought they weren’t being represented—or even half of them—gaming would suffer. The point is, even though women represent a minority of gamers, their voice still matters–particularly since they’re barely a minority. I could understand the validity of this argument if the male-female distribution was, say, 85% to 15%, but it’s not. Women and men are practically represented in equal numbers in gaming, and they make up too much of the population to be ignored. And yet, they are. The gaming industry, for the most part, caters to white guys. Why, when women over 18 represent a larger percentage of gamers (31%) than boys under 17 (19%)? Demographically speaking, women are way more important to gaming’s success than you might have initially thought.
Okay, so women make up 45% of the gaming population. So what? If they wanted female-led games, they’d buy them more. And female-led games don’t sell, right?
That’s half-true. Female-led games don’t sell as well as male-led games, but not for the reason you think. The reality of the gaming industry is that female led games get less than half of the promotion budget that male-led games do.
“Games with a female only protagonist, got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 percent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually.” –Geoffrey Zatkin, Chief Operating Officer of EEDAR
That’s a ridiculous handicap on their ability to sell well. It’s like if you put two cheetahs on a track and got them to race a hundred-yard dash, but you shot one of them in the knees first. One is going to do better than the other, but the playing ground is inherently unfair. So to say that female-led games don’t sell well, period, is innately incorrect. The real answer to the question of whether or not female-led games sell well doesn’t exist because nobody has bothered to find out. So why is this happening? We’ve already established that women make up a pretty significant percentage of gamers. Why do game covers and game protagonists not reflect this? Is it because there aren’t enough ladies in game dev to make that happen? If that’s the case, then we need more ladies in game dev. There’s no way of knowing how a well-written, female-led, big budget game would sell. There are just so few female protagonists, period, that we can’t make any conclusions.
There’s absolutely no reason for this to continue. Why is the profit motive a perfectly valid reason to dismiss women’s representation in gaming, even though the same thing is justification enough to make EA Consumerist’s Worst Company of the year–twice?
For the record, though, my money is on the idea that if a game is well-written, plays well, and is fun, gamers won’t care if it’s led by a male or a female. I mean, look at Portal and Portal 2. Look at Tomb Raider. Not only have they been hugely successful games, but Chell and Lara Croft are basically gaming icons now. I don’t think that people are so sexist that they’d make a well-promoted game fail just because there’s a woman on the cover.
So now that we’ve established that women make up almost half of all gamers, and that there’s no good reason to believe that female-led games are unsustainable, then why do women continue to get this dismal treatment from the gaming industry? Girls still face plenty of harassment and even threats online–and are often snubbed when they try to report it. Many gamers still make a habit out of mocking and outing “fake girl gamers” and “fake girl geeks”. There are apparently legit rules on what a gamer girl can and can’t be to be “legitimate”. And the games themselves aren’t helping: female characters are so apparently unpopular to publishers that they will explicitly tell developers that it can’t happen and fight developers on putting a girl on the front cover of a game. Female characters are still largely relegated to the same roles–damsels, love interests, motivations for revenge, or any combination of the three. There are too few Lara Crofts and Elizabeth Comstocks and Eleanor Lambs to invalidate that fact.
And how about women involved in the game industry? How are they treated? The gaming industry is supposed to be groundbreaking and progressive, right? Wouldn’t this mean that they’re also more progressive and unique than the film industry, the TV industry, or the comedy scene? Sadly, they’re not all that different. Women in entertainment suffer across the board, and gaming is no exception. Women only account for 11% of designers and 3% of programmers. That’s not just tiny. That’s sad. Given this statistic, is it really that surprising that the gaming industry sucks shit at “catering to women”? You can’t do that if you’ve wiped the ovaries out of your masthead. Is there any good reason for founders, designers, and developers of amazing games to be sidelined and treated as arm candy just because they’re women? Read that article; read the tweets. Kim Swift is on there–Kim Fucking Swift, who designed levels for a little-known shooter called Half-Life 2. Brenda Romero, too, who was on the Board of Directors for the International Gaming Developers Association at one point–and mistaken for arm candy. This isn’t the fifties, people. Women deserve better, period. More women leading games would add depth to video games. Is it better than it was thirty years ago? Maybe. But that doesn’t matter.
“It’s true, the industry is not as actively bad as it used to be. But not actively bad is an embarrassingly low bar.” –Courtney Stanton, founder of Women In Games Boston
Whatever you may think at this point, I think we should all agree right now that representation matters. Fiction and humor may be products of our culture, but they also help to create that culture. If our fiction (in this case, our games) only reflect male protagonists and stories while casting female protagonists and stories to the wayside, what kind of a message does that send to female gamers? That they can’t create? That their stories don’t matter? That they can’t be the protagonists of their own stories? That their only contribution to any story is to become a damsel in distress? That if they are leaders of their own stories, they have to be sexy ass-kickers? Is it a surprise, then, that so many girls these days flat-out hate their bodies? That’s not the message we should be sending to a young and impressionable youth, and it’s not a sack of shit we should peddle to the public. Teaching self-hate is not healthy or constructive. Teaching girls to devalue themselves is not kind or reasonable. Teaching girls that weakness is their defining trait does not promote a better society.
You may say, “Gaming isn’t teaching girls anything! They can ignore it if they wish.” Wrong. Showing is a powerful form of teaching. Saturation is an even more powerful form of internalization. And when your workplace was essentially designed to exclude you and even victimize you, you can bet that is going to affect you. When every game you buy has a guy on the cover, that is going to affect you. When every girl you see in video games is hypersexualized and one-dimensional, that is going to affect you.
Women and girls are staring to take notice in a very vocal way now more than ever, thanks to the blogs and forums that have also made this post possible. How long before they realize that gaming doesn’t love them back? How long until they start to leave? This may be nice for guys who want to maintain the status quo, but it’s not good for gaming as an industry–nor is it good for its image. Most of us, myself included, want gaming to be seen as a complex art form that has matured over the years. We want to be respected as gamers; we want to be given the same respect for playing Heavy Rain that we would for watching Blue Jasmine–and yet we still go crazy over games like Grand Theft Auto V, even though its novelty is long gone and its cultural impact is arguably similar to MTV (groundbreaking and shocking at first, and now a rehash of the same provocative, offensive trash passed off as satire). We still lose our minds over women like Anita Sarkeesian, treating her like the bogeyman of gaming and literally trying to terrorize her into silence. Our knee-jerk reaction to any accusations of sexism is still to cry “misandry” and complain about how men suffer too, assuming that it somehow invalidates the argument. It’s no wonder gamers are seen as socially stunted, immature, and impulsive. We don’t give the world much reason to think otherwise, and a huge part of that is the way we treat women. When “tits or gtfo” is still seen as the norm, when shaming “fake gamer girls” is still seen as acceptable and even deserved, we send the message that gamers as a whole are largely the same–immature, cruel, and deathly afraid of the female gender. Really? Do we really want to be the close-minded virgin nerds who chased all the girls away because they couldn’t stand the idea of girls with their hands on their precious controllers? Doubtlessly, there will–and are–girls who are okay with all of this, and that’s fine. I won’t harsh on their tastes. But it doesn’t mean that it’s okay to ignore and condescend to women in gaming.
For gaming, I see this as less of an indictment than I do an opportunity. Misrepresentation and lack of representation for women is a problem not just in gaming, but in all forms of media–movies, comics, and TV shows (to a lesser extent). Hell, J.K. Rowling became a household name because publishers thought that nobody would buy books from someone named Joanne Rowling. But gaming is a brave medium that gets a great deal of fame and credit for breaking old conventions and creating new ones. It’s also a unique medium that allows players to be in the story rather than watch it from a seat in a theater. If the gaming industry sits up and starts giving meaningful attention to women–putting them in producer and writer positions, giving them more control of what to create and giving them a safe space in which to work, then creating more female protagonists and showing scenarios where strong female characters, strong female presence, is nothing to be afraid of, the world would take notice. Gamers would take notice.
This change in attitude could revolutionize video games. It’s a hell of an opportunity. The only question is, will anyone take it?