Gaming the SystemAre women-led games D.O.A.?

“'We had [some companies] tell us, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.'”

That's what game developer Jean-Max Morris was told when he tried to sell publishers the upcoming cyberpunk-action game Remember Me, which tells the story of Nilin—a woman who hacks and “remixes” the memories of others as she attempts to reclaim her own. But Morris wasn't about to change the story or Nilin's gender, whatever weird objections he faced. “At one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy,” Morris told Penny Arcade. “We had people tell us, 'You can't make a dude (like the player) kiss another dude in the game; that's going to feel awkward.'” Thankfully, not every game publisher shut its door, and Remember Me will be released by Capcom this June for Xbox 360, PC, and PS3—female protagonist and all.

But not many game developers share Morris's determination. Ken Levine, another creative director, reacted angrily to criticism at last year's PAX East convention that his Bioshock Infinite character Elizabeth—whom many critics said the game was actually about—was hidden from the game's box art in favor of the buff male lead, Booker. Levine's view on the controversy was much simpler: We should ignore Elizabeth's disappearing act in the marketing and just “play the fucking game,” he said, to much cheering. (He later apologized on Twitter.)

But perhaps Levine was just being economical. Many developers have to bow to “market pressures” that, in their perfectly neutral and objective fashion, refuse to admit women leads. After all, gamers won't buy games that star women. Tragic, yes, but the free market is what it is. The invisible hand mustn't sully itself with girl cooties.

The reality, of course, is more complicated. As Morris suggested, developers and publishers often flat-out reject women leads and either trash the games entirely or substitute in male leads. The game Starfox Adventures, starring the eponymous (male) Starfox of the combat-pilot franchise, began as a game called Dinosaur Planet that starred a woman named Krystal. In the redesigned Adventures, she became an unplayable damsel in distress for Starfox to save.

The “economic” argument is built on wish-fulfilling vapor. Geoffrey Zatkin, the COO of EEDAR, a firm that compiles gaming industry statistics, recently revealed that “Games with a female-only protagonist…[received] only 40 percent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually.”

In other words, even when a woman-led game gets greenlighted, it has to do more with less—and the likely market failure is taken as more proof of the “objective” claim that women-led games don't sell.

The gaming industry doesn't like risks, and it has fixated on the straight, white-male lead as safe. But the effects of this timidity harm women in and beyond the world of gaming. The syllogism often runs: Games are played by men, men only want to play as other men, therefore all games should be about men. Not only does this ignore women gamers, it lends fire and fuel to stereotypes that make men more resistant to identifying with women—squandering the unique power of a medium based on interactivity and virtual embodiment, and contributing to an empathy gap between men and women.

But to return to the syllogism: Developers don't adequately fund games with women leads and then they act as if the market has spoken when those games fail. When it comes to marketing video games, true parity hasn't even been attempted (though the recent success of Tomb Raider may be a harbinger of change).

Games illuminate new universes and give us a unique way to see and experience them—a goodly chunk of which can, and should, be seen through the eyes of a woman. A look through Nilin's eyes in Remember Me is a great place to start.

This article was published in Micro/Macro Issue #59 | Summer 2013
by Katherine Cross
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Katherine Cross is a PhD student and sociologist at the CUNY Graduate Center and a games critic.

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35 Comments Have Been Posted

Your points: 1) Publishers

Your points:
1) Publishers told you they don't want a game with a female lead. The publisher is taking the risk here, if you want the female lead, do it anyway and take the risk yourself. If your boss tells you to wear velcro shoes and you want strings, find a new boss or find some new shoes.

2) Box art? Pass. As you said, invisible hand of the market. If she had been put on the cover, it'd likely be in a 'skin sells' fashion.

3) Less marketing budget for female leads, but I see plenty of free marketing in articles such as this. It being a less competing market might also help.

4) Games are for men, by men, with men? Sounds like a strawman. Who really holds that position?

I don't care about the gender of the avatar in a game. The thing is, it should only come up if it's important to the game. Is this a story that can ONLY be told through the eyes of a woman? I doubt it, but we shall see.

1. That's an elaborate

1. That's an elaborate metaphor for, "Avoid the problem or suck it up." No. Women will change this industry for the better, even if we have to drag all the little boys out of their clubhouses kicking and howling.

2. Likely? Oh, very likely. The only possibility? No. Why are we so against holding men accountable here? It's not like they have no choice in this matter. In fact, they're usually the ones making the choices.

3. This is probably the only point I mostly agree with you on. Marketing comes in a huge variety of forms and doesn't always need to be expensive or flashy. Nonetheless, it's still not fair that women are not viewed as worthy of spending money on, and, hey, money is nice. It helps the designers and artists and programmers, y'know, eat.

4. Uh, the gaming industry IS dominated by (straight, white, cis) men who tend to make games about (straight, white, cis) men. This isn't news. You can literally walk into a video game store or watch some video game interviews and come to this conclusion. Or deny reality, whichever's easier.

4) I won't argue that most

4) I won't argue that most games have a white male lead character, but does that really make the game about them? Take Dues Ex Human Revolution for example. Jensen is a white male (I think), but the game isn't about him being white or a male. It's about transhumanism.

That's an easy one

If the game's not about him being white or a male, then why is he? It's a lazy way to say to the assumed audience of 25-44yo white males, "we're with you. We won't challenge your assumption that everything is about you, even when it's not."

"If the game's not about him

"If the game's not about him being white or a male, then why is he?"

Wait wait wait, back up a bit.

Are you insinuating that unless a character's race/sex/sexuality isn't a plot point, then he/she shouldn't be said race/sex/sexuality?

What I'm trying to say is: If Jensen was black and homosexual, and it had no bearing on the story (as in he just happens to be a homosexual man of color) would you be saying the same thing?

It's not that

It's not that race/sex/sexuality should always be a plot point. It's that white-male-heterosexual should not automatically be the default perspective through which games are presented. If you have to justify plot-wise why a character is female or why a character is a black homosexual male, then why don't you have to justify why a character is white-male-homosexual? If, as you say, it makes no difference what race/sex/sexuality the player character is, why don't games have a wide variety of player characters from all types of races, genders, and sexual orientations?

It's because the people in charge of the gaming industry's decision-making believe that white-male-heterosexuals can't handle games being about anyone but themselves. I don't know why more white-male-heterosexuals aren't insulted by this. The gaming industry is basically accusing them of being self-centered, entitled brats who lack the intelligence or imagination to put themselves in the shoes of anyone who isn't white-male-heterosexuals like them.

(Sorry, there's a typo up

(Sorry, there's a typo up there. In the third and fourth lines, it should be "why don't you have to justify why a character is white-male-*hetero*sexual?")

So your contention is, that

So your contention is, that as developers we should have a darts board with ethnicity, sexual orientation and gender, and we should be arbitrarily mixing and matching them, just to make sure we're good with "social justice" moral crusaders, even though our script may not be compatible at all whatsoever. If you're annoyed that easy and dull stories of any kind are prevalent over quality and interesting ones, either go out there and do it yourself, or buy the stuff that is akin to what you like. Bullying people into writing stories they don't want to, who have no malintent in their heart is insane.

That's not what I'm saying at

That's not what I'm saying at all. I'm not saying that game developers should arbitrarily or randomly assigning races/genders/sexual orientations to player characters. What I am saying is that the human experience is not limited to the stories involving white-male-heterosexuals, and that they are severely limiting both the stories they can tell and the types of consumers they appeal to by limiting their stories to the white-male-heterosexual archetype. This is not just to make sure the game companies are "good with social justice moral crusaders". This makes solid business sense that in order to keep up with a changing market, you have to appeal to a wider consumer base.

And I do buy the stuff that is akin to what I like. But I have the right, just like any other person, to express my opinion. I'm not bullying anyone. I'm not making threats to game companies, I'm not saying they HAVE to do anything. I'm not saying I have a RIGHT to varied player characters in games either. What I am doing is expressing my OPINION that game companies would be smart to have more varied player characters, including women, people of color, and people of other sexual orientations.

Wait a minute

"If the game's not about him being white or a male, then why is he? "

Hold on, back up a bit.

Are you insinuating that unless a character's race/sex/sexuality etc. and the work isn't "about" him/her being that race/sex/sexuality, then he/she shouldn't be said race/sex/sexuality?

What I'm saying is: If Jensen were a black homosexual, and the game wasn't about that (he'd just be a character that just so happens to be black and homosexual) would you be saying the same thing.

1) The point is that it's a

1) The point is that it's a self-fulfilling prophecy. Fear that a game will fail leads to less support for the game, which leads to leads to its failure, which leads to greater fear that similar games will fail. If making games with female protagonists is a risk, it's because they're underpromoted. Publishers are essentially starving a game, then complaining when it can't pull its own weight.

2) What is described in the article is the invisible hand of the market jerking itself off. "Sure, I have a game with a female protagonist. If you wanted a copy, all you had to do was just go through the employees-only door, down the staircase with the missing step and broken light switch, into the flooded bathroom with the "beware of jaguar" sign on the door, and get one. We didn't sell any copies. I guess there just wasn't any demand. Lotta jaguar attacks, tho."

3) Articles like this are pretty barebones for marketing. Triple A marketing campaigns have market penetration so deep and fulfilling I just came a little. Pretty much every Xbox owner and their dog has a copy of MW4 because there was a six month stretch where nobody would shut up about it. Articles like this are mostly read by people who are fully encased in gaming. They're not the forty-year-old divorcee who plays Xbox on the weekend, or the mom trying to figure out what to get her kid for his birthday, or any of the million other people who aren't entrenched gamers reading industry shop talk.

Just keep scrolling down and see how many times it gets posted. It's a lot of times.

"Is this a story that can ONLY be told through the eyes of a woman? Probably not."
Weird, because I just played fifty games that apparently could only be told through the eyes of a man. Do men have a monopoly on stories?

""Is this a story that can

""Is this a story that can ONLY be told through the eyes of a woman? Probably not."
Weird, because I just played fifty games that apparently could only be told through the eyes of a man. Do men have a monopoly on stories?"

Couldn't have said it better myself.

If the gender of the avatar

If the gender of the avatar matters so little, then there should be no reason not to reverse it. Is the viewpoint of a male *absolutely* necessary to the game?


Only if it is necessary and adds to the story.

"Is this a story that can

"Is this a story that can ONLY be told through the eyes of a woman?"

You should be asking, is a story that can ONLY be told through the eyes of a man? (A heterosexual, white man?) You're treating male characters as normative and saying there has to be a special reason for the existence of a female protagonist. Whereas the male protagonist needs no special reason--he's the default representative of the world, according to you--but that designation is arbitrary. There need to be more female protagonists for the simple reason that women exist, too, and the current state of video games doesn't reflect that.

Missing a Key Market here

I am a girl. I LOVE video games. BUT I haven't played one in ages because there aren't many interesting games with female leads. Much less female leads that have all their clothes on and don't have a chest the size of Christmas Hams. Hopefully they will realize that once they give up their boys club mentality they will be richer for it... in more ways than one!

from a geeky family

hey there, I am the sister and friend of many avid male gamers, and have myself put in years of time in a variety of console and mmorpg games. I am by no means a sociologist, nor do I claim a hidden knowledge of the true nature of every guy who plays every game. in my own immediate group, I can say a few things with certainty, the main bit being that video game players love options. something I have seen almost universally from the guys I know who play mmorpgs specifically is that they love to play girls. whether it is because they start out thinking the toon is cute, or they just like the skills a class has, it goes the same way every time -- after a few levels, it is their character, not a guy or a girl. as far as console games where the player only has one option for gender, (the first games in the Fable series, for instance) it was not uncommon for these guys to complain that there was no female option. in later sequels, Fable added a female option, and of course, in Fable, your character can marry anyone they like, regardless of gender.
while there are still some glaringly obvious flaws with the gaming industry in general, I do feel that most players just want a well told story, some awesome graphics, and a game that will keep them glued to their seat for hours on end. I would love to end with a thought provoking or amazingly astute quip that would have you nodding at my wit, etc, but that is really all I've got to say about this..... thank you for the article!

"something I have seen almost

"something I have seen almost universally from the guys I know who play mmorpgs specifically is that they love to play girls. "

FWIW I knew a guy (we were both in our early 20's at the time) who played a female character in an RPG and was part of a guild and everything. He wasn't being smarmy or trying to hook up with any of the "real women" players, he just liked playing a female character and enjoyed being in this mostly female/only female guild. At one point he wanted to branch out and start talking to some of the women using a headset but was afraid they would kick him out if they found out he was really a man, so he asked me to do the talking for him. He wasn't a jerk, he wasn't trying to get sexy with them, he just enjoyed their company.

I think maybe other guys do this as well but they really can't reveal it or they lose their Man Card or something. :/

Every guy I know who plays

Every guy I know who plays MMOs had at least one or two female characters that they played. They either had the look or voice acting that better suited the class or role the guy had in mind for that character, or were overall just better looking (not from and objectifying angle, but like more thought and customisation options may have been given to female options).

None of the guys I know have any problems with playing female characters when there is no choice but to, in a game, either.

I think you're spot on with the options thing :) Unless the writers/developers have in mind a story that has to be told with a specific person, why can't they just let you choose how to look?

I hate to do this, but it's

I hate to do this, but it's an excellent article, and the grammatical error bugs me.

"...publishers often flat-out reject women leads and either trash the games entirely or substitute in male leads."

It should be: "...publishers often flat-out reject <i>female</i> leads and either trash the games entirely or substitute in male leads."

It's a very common error, but woman or women is not an adjective. You wouldn't write "men leads".

Feel free to delete this post after the error is corrected. And again, excellent article.

Lack of analysis

I was hoping there would be some real statistical analysis on this subject in the article, but sadly it is completely lacking.
Where is the comparison of female lead games vs. male lead games with similar budgets? Considering how incredibly expensive the market is right now, I understand the risk aversion in none MMO games to certain types of characters. To dismiss that games not funded as well would do better is at best a "maybe". Kingdoms of Amalur sold over a million copies and the company still went broke. That said, there really isn't any reason that games nowaday shouldn't be able to plug in a male or female template and then give them a generic name that would cover either sex from the start menu.

"Hello Kelly, your mission today is......"

Except the fact that no one

Except the fact that no one is asking for an immediate representation of real life. We're asking for a diversification of storytellers. It's great that you're a girl and you like games; that's wonderful. I'm female, and I love video games. I am, however, sick and tired of being told stories through the eyes of men; I'm tired of that in science fiction, I'm tired of that in action and horror films, I'm tired of that in comics, and so on.

It's not that I want a complete replica of my life when I play games, but I want to see that they're considering that race/gender/sexuality can be a complex addition to the games we play; it can be a social commentary, and it can be something that just is. It just makes us realise that we're all diverse; the way it seems now is that we're all white heterosexual men.

And, to top it off, I'm tired of seeing games do crap like what I saw in MGS5's trailer. A female character named Quiet, who is a "sniper deprived of her words." Give me a break.

A female character named

<blockquote>A female character named Quiet, who is a "sniper deprived of her words."</blockquote>

That makes NO sense whatsoever.

If you think Second Life is

If you think Second Life is about having 'a copy of my own life', then you're missing the point there. Two points, really.

<strong>One</strong>: SL is not a game. Nobody is settling goals for you, you don't have to go around killing or collecting anything. You can play games INSIDE SL, but that's entirely your choice. A lot of people try content creation, once they get the hang of things. There's also a lot of charity work. Community is the most important element there.

<strong>Two</strong>: It's more about what you can <i>imagine</i> yourself to be, rather than making a copy of anything. Want to be a My Little Pony? Go right ahead. Want to be a massive dragon that could dwarf your real-life house and breathe fire on things? Let me give you the landmark. Want to see what it's like to be another gender? Give it a try. A serious try. There's a lot of transfolk who are expressing their inner selves this way, happily. Want to be a Wookiee? Um... OK, just... watch out for the copyright lawyers lurking in the undergrowth.

Does this eliminate sexism and stupid human behaviour? Hardly. But it can make it a little harder to be self-justified.

P.S. The fashionistas bite.

And if you avie as Rarity,

And if you avie as Rarity, you can play a My Little Pony AND a Fashionista.

It's a very well known fact

It's a very well known fact that the Tomb Raider franchise, Portal franchise, and Mass Effect Femshep were all critical failures. Oh, wait, they're massive successes and fan favourites of the vast majority of actual gamers.

Indeed. Perfect Dark was also

Indeed. Perfect Dark was also a huge failure back then. So bad that it totally didn't get a prequel at the 360's time of release and a HD remake in 2010.


...Is that seriously your point? "Well, they made a handful of games with female leads, everyone can just shut up now."

I'm actually so flummoxed I don't have an argument. I'm just blown away.

Obviously, because of those games you mentioned, sexism in games is totally gone now.

Good article but the section

Good article but the section about Star Fox Adventures is facepalm worthy. The lead is Fox McCloud, not "Starfox".And the original game was supposed to have two characters, one male and one female. The male was replaced by Fox.
Pushing Krystal to the sidelines entirely (actually she's playable very briefly at the beginning of the game) was a poor decision sure but it seems to be motivated more by the ill-advised shift to make it a Star Fox game than being afraid that a game with a female character wouldn't sell. Let me remind you that the game was made by Rareware, a company which also made Perfect Dark (female lead), Jet Force Gemini (two leads, one male one female) and several games in the Donkey Kong series where at least one female character was playable.

Nintendo, who pushed for the change, also made the Metroid series where the main character is a female.

I'm not saying the overall point of this article isn't valid, but it's also not quite as simple as this article sugguests. And pointing out more examples of games with a female lead or co-lead would actually serve the point that female leads can and do work.

I do not know how much truth

I do not know how much truth there is in the economic argument. I have noticed that many "economic arguments" seem to be aimed at the gullible and the uninformed, and I certainly do not have much information about the relationship between game sales and game design.

I will say this, though: I buy a lot of games. More than I have time to play. And, almost all of them have female leads. That's my contribution here, and it's all I can do.

That said, I will also admit to some frustration about the "punching game" game play in Remember Me. It's painful for someone that is not used to that particular style of play. As a tip for anyone else playing it with keyboard and mouse: when you see an icon and you do not know what it means, you can hit Escape and go to the "bindings" menu and many of the icons are displayed there. That will not be enough to solve all of the problems which can make the game frustrating but it's a start. You may also need to spend a significant amount of time paused, reconfiguring your presens, to deal with some of the action sequences (and "level up" seems like it might be aimed at reducing the time spent paused during action scenes). Trained reflexes can reduce this need.

But, anyways, if Remember Me is a market failure will that be because of the characters? the [dystopic] plot? or the gameplay? Personally, I have no significant problems with the characters (once I get past the situation they are in), I am repulsed and fascinated by the plot and I am stalled and frustrated by the gameplay (currently: the second floodlight battle in episode 3).

Portal. Female character,

Portal. Female character, female end-boss. Remind me how badly that one failed?

I was going to say that too,

I was going to say that too, but then I remembered:

• We're not sure whether Take Your Daughter To Work Day was an effort to harvest test subjects or not. That recordings in the test chambers suggest it'd be a good time to bring your daughter in for testing ... doesn't look good.

• Chell does not speak. This can be taken to a problematic place, but Gordon Freeman doesn't speak either, but eh... I can see people making it a thing. Hey look, a female protagonist! But she's mute.

• Chell did get a makeover between 1 & 2. Tank top instead of jumpsuit top, nicer hair, etc. How she did that in stasis, I am not sure... and I'm less sure why it was necessary.

• Caroline was most definitely put into GLaDOS against her will. Whole lot of things wrong with that, with Cave demanding it, with Aperture going through with it.

I love Portal and I love Valve, but Chell and GLaDOS don't hold up to this argument.

I agree with your second

I agree with your second point, but as for a mute character - this is commonly used in games, not just Portal. Off the top of my head - Link is one example.

I sort of agree with the third point - the whole GLaDOS thing was a bit disturbing. I could have dealt with just her personality being put in there, but the way they implied there was also abuse of Gladys herself was a bit icky.

Comfortable playing girl avatars

My six-year-old is far more comfortable playing female avatars than I am playing males (when there's a choice). We play HeroUp together sometimes, and I choose the female superheros far more than the males. When he plays HeroUp he does particularly like IronMan and Spiderman -- I think he'd call those his favourites -- but he is also very happy playing Psylocke, Jean Grey or Invisible Woman.

I find this odd myself, because I've played videogames, often with male avatars only, for many many years. But as soon as the game offers gender options, there I am picking the females.

I'm a pencil/paper/funny dice

I'm a pencil/paper/funny dice gamer myself. This article reminds me so much of early of D&D in the mid- to late Seventies, when gaming was a New Thing, a geeky white boy's pastime, and female gamers were rare. Back then I'd hear horror stories about what "No Gurlz Allowed" gamer types would do to a female who tried to join their gaming group -- from cold-shoulder rejection to the DM deliberately killing off her character(s) until she got a clue to the REAL horror story of setting up her character to get gang-raped by the other player-characters. This took several years and lots of player mutinies before "girl gamers" were accepted.

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