The risk of the female game protagonist

It's 2014, yet mainstream gaming still hasn't twigged to the fact that women play games. Why aren't there more playable women, and what can be done about it?

Michelle Starr Science editor
Michelle Starr is CNET's science editor, and she hopes to get you as enthralled with the wonders of the universe as she is. When she's not daydreaming about flying through space, she's daydreaming about bats.
Michelle Starr
6 min read


Video gaming is no longer niche: According to the latest ESA statistics (PDF), 59 percent of Americans play games -- and women make up 48 percent of that figure. It's been argued that the number has been inflated by mobile games, which may well be the case; but when it comes to console and PC games, women still make up around a third of users -- which is still quite a sizeable chunk. Yet only around 15 percent of games have playable female characters, and those that do receive only 50 percent of the marketing budget given to games with male protagonists.

And it's not as if the player's don't want it. As demonstrated by the recent Assassin's Creed: Unity debacle, gamers definitely want the option to be able to play as anything other than the generic brooding white guy hero -- and, since Ubisoft isn't the first developer to be hit with this specific criticism, it would seem like a no-brainer to at least consider the option. So how do so many developers manage to drop the ball?


"I think the general perception is that there is some kind of organised or very considered approach taken to the exclusion of women in games, but I actually doubt that's the case. To me it feels more systematic and more a case of lack of awareness and perspective than any deliberate approach," indie games marketer Chris Wright of Surprise Attack, who has a background in mainstream games marketing, told CNET.

"I suspect the topic of inclusivity, gender portrayal or diversity is not something that is regularly discussed or highlighted in key decisions compared to other AAA games during development. I think a lot of developers probably feel surprised at the level of anger and disappointment being expressed and how much of a hot topic this has become."

The reasons for why this might be the case are well documented: from the belief that games with male protagonists make more money (which could very well be explained by the fact they receive more marketing money) to the fact that games development is massively dominated by men -- women only make up 22 percent of the game industry workforce -- and, of course, the idea that the larger core gaming demographic (men) don't want to play as women.

"The thought is generally that the player character should reflect the largest portion of the player base so as not to alienate them," BioWare's David Gaider, writer of Baldur's Gate, Neverwinter Nights and Dragon Age, who in 2011 took to the Dragon Age forums to address a "straight male gamer" who felt slighted by the game's inclusion of same-sex romance option, told CNET. "Speaking for myself, I think it's a gross underestimation of the imaginations of most of the player base and their willingness to play as anything other than the 'default'."

Women over 18, however, are now the fastest-growing gamer demographic, making up 38 percent of Xbox Live subscribers in the US and 50 percent of Nintendo users. Figures for PC and PlayStation are a little harder to come by; in 2004, 39 percent of PC gamers were women; given that all the other numbers have risen, it's probably safe to assume that one has too.

According to Professor Jeffrey E Brand of Bond University, whose areas of expertise include video game content and audience, developers aren't unaware of this fact. As with any media, he notes, media creators tend to treat male as the default and women as a special interest; and, he adds, while men tend to be early adopters, the female audience catches up -- as we are now seeing.

"In the case of games, both of these have been true," he said. "In research I conducted a decade ago with my colleague Scott Knight, I studied over 200 popular game titles at the time, and of those in which a character existed, that character was more than 70 percent likely to be male, 20 percent likely to be unidentified with respect to gender, and then 10 percent likely to be female."


Gaming habits and comfort zones, he said, can make a difference as well -- and, while gender role research has been increasingly focused on women, many developers are still reluctant to take the commercial risk of including a female player character.

"A few researchers studying how gamers take on avatars and characters noted that female gamers are more comfortable taking on male avatars than male gamers are taking on female avatars," he said.

"Therefore Ubisoft for example would be looking at all its data on players and consumers and would reach the conclusion that, although a female lead would be provocative, it would be commercially limiting. I expect that the reality is that game developers, who are overtly recruiting female game designers and calling for change, realise there is a growth market in balancing gender roles in games -- but are unwilling to take the initial hit that may be required to move the logjam in gamer willingness to run with a female protagonist through the entirety of a game."

Gaider has, from his very first games, always included playable female characters.

"I suspect you could chalk that up to the fact that our first games (the Baldur's Gate series) were based on tabletop gaming, where you could make your own character, be it male or female," he said. "BioWare was doing its best to replicate the tabletop experience, so I believe it was never in question that we would include the same options. That was thus not done with diversity in mind -- indeed, back then it was barely an issue anyone thought about. I believe we really only became aware of our large female fanbase later on, and that's when we started to consider how good we were at inviting them to play our games."

Gaider also believes there is an institutionalised mindset -- and an erroneous one -- that playable female characters constitute risk, but also that many developers simply don't consider other possibilities."I think it happens in dev teams most often because the male default is considered 'neutral'. It occurs without much thought going into it, or because there is a certain amount of risk associated with doing anything else (and, considering how much games cost to make, any risk -- even imagined risk -- is considered anathema)," he said.

"It falls on the developers to take a moment early in the development process and consider why they're making the game the way they are. Nobody's saying they can't have a white male protagonist... but have they considered whether he could be anything else? Have they considered whether their characters offer any breadth in their portrayals, and whether having some variety might actually be more interesting, not only to them, but to the larger player base?"

Wright believes that the perception of risk is sadly misplaced. Rather than being worried about alienating the current perceived demographics, he said, developers should be concerned about alienating those who would like to see more diversity.

"AAA games are now so expensive to develop and launch, and must sell so many copies to break even, that it's of critical importance that they are as inclusive as possible and do not exclude large portions potential audience, especially when there are so many alternatives to choose from," he said. "In my view, it's more commercially risky to exclude the very significant female audience than it is to risk alienating some of the less progressive audience."

And for those who would like to see more diversity in how the protagonist is represented on screen, it's vitally important to continue speaking up -- not only when they see something they don't like, but when they see something they do.

"It falls on the player base to speak up and tell developers (and publishers too) what they would like to see," Gaider said. "I'm not only talking about female players and minorities making themselves visible and making their opinions heard (although that is important), but also to male players speaking up in support of them. Unless they really want the discontented few to speak up on their behalf, it's absolutely vital in reassuring the industry that any negative reaction to inclusivity efforts is far outweighed by the positive."