Are we paying too much attention to gender when it comes to modern gaming protagonists?
Disclaimer – My intent is not to offend with this piece of writing, so please take your time to read through the entire article and I think you’ll agree with my standpoint, I don’t make claims such as this title lightly!
So during my time browsing the internet I’ve heard a lot of complaints about the lack of female protagonists in gaming. One of the so called “buzz” topics in game development at the moment is the lack of main female characters in games, period. This is definitely one of the painful thorns in the side of a game designer because while a diverse fanbase demands ‘equality’ (you’ll see why that’s in quotes later in the article) publishers demand sales. Unfortunately, with the way the world is at the moment, games with female protagonists just don’t sell… or at least that’s what we’re told.
Now, anyone that knows me personally knows that I’m 100% behind equal rights in general, the idea of any person in this world being treated lesser for any reason disgusts me, whether you’re man, woman, black, white, homosexual or heterosexual, it doesn’t make a difference to me. If you treat me as an equal, I’ll do the same to you.
Now you’re probably wondering why any of this has a place on an entertainment blog? Well now I’m going to tell you. As much as I support equality some things still outright irritate me, and I saw something the other day that managed to do so. Here’s what I read:
“Women make up 45% of the gaming community and 0% of the protagonists of the 25 biggest games of the year.”
Now, the list of 25 games this post linked to included the latest Tomb Raider, so we can already disregard this statement as rubbish. While the sentiments behind the statement are still valid, based on that list of games I think I’d RATHER be a female represented by it than a male and before you get upset and/or hate me, let me explain why…
The following list of games is the top 25 selling games in 2013, at the time of writing. The list comprises of the following titles:
COD: Ghosts (multiple platforms)
COD: Black Ops 2 (multiple platforms)
4 Different Mario Games
FIFA 14 (multiple platforms)
GTA 5 (multiple platforms)
Assassins Creed 4 (multiple platforms)
The Last of Us
Monster Hunter 4
Now, to say that 0% of these have female protagonists is obviously wrong, but we aren’t out to prove a random person on the internet wrong here (let’s be honest, there are enough people doing that out there already!), so let’s get a more accurate percentage of representation.
Removing sports games and games that allow both male and female protagonists we have the following, split by gender:
COD Ghosts, COD Black Ops 2, Luigi’s Mansion, GTA 5, Assassins Creed 4, Battlefield 4, The Last of Us, Halo 4
Looks bad right? But honestly, at this point I’d still prefer to be represented by the female side of that list. (Again, please don’t be angry!)
Let’s look closer. From the list above it seems that about 10% of the 25 best selling games in 2013 have female protagonists, that’s pretty poor. Sure you can see why female gamers feel a bit under-represented, but this is just a percentage. Here’s where I start to get a bit miffed. Look at that list of both male and female protagonists, and I mean take a really good look at it. Now list the protagonists that are well written, well fleshed out three-dimensional characters, I dare you. I don’t think anyone would argue (ok, there’s bound to be some people, but this is my list dammit!) that the new list looks like this:
Joel (The Last of Us)
(some might argue the GTA 5 trio, or Kenway from Black Flag, however I don’t believe that they stand up in comparison to Lara or Joel)
Lara (Tomb Raider)
Looks a bit different now doesn’t it?
How about we look into supporting cast of these games, surely Tomb Raider is full of well written males and The Last of Us is void of all females? No? Well let’s have a look! Tomb Raider’s supporting cast is, frankly, underwhelming. The only member really worth pointing out is Lara’s role model Roth, who’s still a bit wooden. On the flip side The Last of Us has Ellie, arguably one of the best written female characters in entertainment last year period.
Now are you beginning to see my point here?
What’s more is that very few of the male protagonists are really written as anything apart from ‘shooty-shooty-boom-boom’ types who’re there specifically to pull a trigger. The only characters that aren’t soulless gun machines are still pretty bad people: for example, I’d hate to have any of the GTA 5 cast as a role model. Joel is the only standout, and even he is a bit of a grey area (not that anyone cares because he was written so well, d**k or not). Then we get to Lara and Ellie, who, in my opinion are absolutely fantastic role models for girls. If I was a teenage girl I’d love to have Lara as a role model, she’s headstrong, courageous, intelligent and doesn’t take any s**t from anyone. She’s her own person and doesn’t need to rely on anyone else. On the flip side, can you name any male characters in recent memory that do the same for guys? I didn’t think so. Of course I’m not saying there aren’t any, they just don’t appear in this particular list.
We haven’t even looked at audiences either. Sure 45% of gamers may be female but that includes ALL games, right down to your 70 year old Nan playing Candy Crush on Facebook. We all argue that the “games with female protagonists don’t sell” mantra is incorrect, but if our primary reason is that 45% of all gamers are female then we’re wrong. You need to look at individual audiences: for example, are 45% of all Call of Duty players female? Uh, no, no they aren’t, which is why the games are aimed at guys (although Ghosts allows you to play as a female anyway). There are so many things that percentages don’t tell you; we all need to learn to read a bit deeper into things, rather than just taking values as a given and going forth brandishing it as a weapon (no matter how misunderstood it may be).
So, what’s the overall point of this? Just to rant? No, I’m not angry enough for that. I guess what I’m really trying to say is that why should we stop with just more female characters, why can’t we just have more human ones? There will always be a place for the unnamed killing machine in the gaming industry, we can’t help that, but I genuinely think that the lack of female protagonists isn’t as much of a problem as the lack of well written characters in general. Just my two cents, but I think if we’re going to get more strong female leads, we need more strong, well written characters in the first place.