An interesting take on the female protagonist thing on InnerChildGamer. It takes a bit of a different view than my previous article. The author argues that the female gamer demographic is actually quite large and has presence in the game retail space and this would mean the publishers’ fear of female protagonists failing to capture large audience is wrong.

Jade from Beoynd Good & Evil

The argument in the linked article is somewhat flawed in my opinion though. I think the author believes that players want to some extent to play same gender characters as themselves1. I also think that just because there are female gamers doesn’t mean that games with female protagonists will sell. One thing is that while 40% of “gamers”2 are female, do they buy/play games where they are represented by an avatar? The answer to this is probably yes, but it is not stated anywhere.3 The player does not assume an avatar in all games, I would even go as far as to say they are in minority.

Also, the research clearly shows that not “only males play video games and [not] all buying power lies in the hands of young men, adolescent boys, or elementary-age boys” and yet, despite this, the top games reek of testosterone. I’m quite certain that the publishers know their market and are just providing what the markets want. They author just throws away that

Oh, and if an “average-aged” 34-year old male gamer is put off or too insecure to buy a title with a female lead… well, that’s a whole other discussion in social commentary.

But that’s exactly the problem. The publishers are not trying to guide social discourse, they are selling games. Sure, they might alienate some portion of their potential customers, but so far that has been the most profitable path.

As I noted in my article, many of the games with normal female leads end up being critically acclaimed but haven’t so far captured large markets. This excludes Tomb Raider; as quoted in the linked article, the publishers are fine with mature/sexy female leads. Just for fun, do an image search on Google for “samus aran” and see the racks on those fan-made pictures of her. Another example is the “improved” picture of Mirror’s Edge’s Faith which shows exactly what’s wrong here. This isn’t just offensive to women, it’s offensive to men as well.

The problem here is that there is ample evidence that the marketplace has demand for games with very heterosexual men going to war and games with hot chicks. It should also be noted that many of the games with female leads are marketed for more mature audiences, notable exception is Beyond Good & Evil. Mirror’s Edge, for example, was rated 17+ in Europe (Teen in US), which probably didn’t help its sales.

A good point about the Catch-22 the developers and publishers face when trying to be more diverse was raised in the lone comment for the article.

Remember Left 4 Dead 2? There’s black skinned people in the USA, so naturally, a game that is based in the USA will let you shoot black skinned zombies. This was an incredible step for a developer, and what did they get?

Of course, it isn’t a discussion about female lead characters without Metroid.

I’m just glad that Nintendo paved the way with Metroid heroine Samus Aran so early in the industry’s history (1986)

I’d agree if making the hero female wasn’t an afterthought and only revealed to the hardcore players who managed to beat the game in a certain time.

I realized that I was completely biased by 3D games in my earlier piece and forgot all about female leads in games such as King’s Quest IV (1988), The Legend of Kyrandia: The Hand of Fate and probably a lot of other adventure and 2D platform games, notable mentions include:

  • Sierra’s Laura Bow (and its sequel)
  • The Longest Journey (and its sequel)
  • Syberia (and its sequel)
  • King’s Quest VII: The Princeless Bride
  • Secret Files: Tunguska
  • Phantasmagoria.

In addition the platformers America McGee’s Alice, Jill of the Jungle and Great Giana Sisters come to mind as well. Many of the adventure games listed were published when the genre was already in a decline, and half of them were created by Sierra’s Roberta Williams.

Screenshot from Legend of Kyrandia: The Hand of Fate
Me? Surely there's a man for this job?

However, yet again, Rosella’s task is to safe his father, not the world (okay, indirectly maybe). Zanthia, on the other hand, was chosen to save the world exactly because she was supposed to fail4. I also realized that the advertisements of Portal 2 I have seen so far have mostly featured just the two male-voiced robots, not Chell5.

To summarize, the question is what would have been the effect on, for example, Metroid’s sales, had it been marketed from the start that the protagonist is female. The publishers fear that it would have been disastrous. No matter if it makes for a “better” game, because the publishers are in the business of selling games. While having many valid points, I think that InnerChildGamer’s analysis doesn’t really prove that there is market for female-led games and instead, the numbers make a case for the status quo.

Still, no female lead with an assault rifle.

  1. The guys at BioWare/EA probably have some demographic information on this, as they could check an EA account’s gender and which Shepard was played in ME2.

  2. Actually, the survey looked at people in the US who play games.

  3. The Top 20 computer games for 2009 (by units sold) do include 6 The Sims games and World of Warcraft games. Both have gender choices for players characters. However, if we look at the Top 20 video games (including consoles), neither of the above games make the cut. The only games making the list where there are gender choices are Wii games with Miis.

  4. Yes, a major spoiler right there. The game’s over a decade old and if you haven’t played it yet, you probably weren’t planning to.

  5. On the other hand, it required you to put the portals next to each other to catch even a glimpse of what your character actually looked like in Portal, so this isn’t really anything new.