Personal Tech for Women: 5 Things to Know About Female Leads in Video Gaming

Monday, June 29, 2015


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This month, video  gamers got to binge on their favorite pastime at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the annual video game conference held in Los Angeles. And if you weren’t lucky enough to attend, no matter – the wealth of media coverage and reviews keep you in the know about the surge of gaming technologies and titles that will soon hit the market. On the feminist front, the games showcased at E3 still failed to accelerate the number of female protagonists, regardless of the pressure gamers have put on the mainstream industry to make that happen. Here are 5 things you need to know about the state of female leads in the video game market.

1. Still low numbers on exclusive female leads

Only 7 games at E3 had exclusively playable female protagonists, whereas gamers could choose between 24 games with exclusively playable male protagonists. That means out of 76 titles, 32 percent had male leads and only 9 percent had female. It seems the majority of writers and bloggers on the topic are saying women representation was greater this year than 2014’s dominating white male heroes (like every year), but the numbers are still quite low. According to 2014 statistics from the Entertainment Software Association (ESA), 59 percent of Americans play video games – and women make up 48 percent of them. Hence, game designers should create more female leads because – not only is it fair – but it’s simply wise from a marketing standpoint when almost half of all players are women. Yet the fact that only 22 percent of game designers are women might have something to do with low numbers of female leads.

2. A glimpse at the female leads of upcoming games

Apart from being the love interest, the damsel in distress, the sidekick or the cute elf, female characters are leading the pack and kicking ass in the following games sited by the blog Feminist Frequency: ReCore features desert nomad Joule, accompanied by her robo-pup, as the world’s last human survivor; Horizon: Zero Dawn gives us hunter and archer Aloy who fights her way through a post-apocalyptic world of mechanized creatures; in Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Faith fights for freedom within the City of Glass; and the widely popular Lara Croft leads the upcoming Rise of the Tomb Raider. E3 also featured the mobile game Lara Croft Go, and two indie games, Tacoma and Beyond Eyes.

3. More games let players choose a female lead

Out of the 76 titles, however, 35 games let players choose between a male or female lead. That’s 46 percent of the games. But while it’s true that many men might prefer to be a woman in a video game, the reasons could be more superficial – they get to look at their character’s sculpted body, symmetrical face, pouting lips and flawless hair. Not true for all men of course, but it is something to consider. Interesting to note is a comment from Professor Jeffrey E Brand of Bond University, who told CNET, “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 females.” Conditioning seeps into video games too. Bond also points out how developers could be reluctant to introduce more female-led games simply because they might prove to be commercially limiting, if both men and women are already comfortable playing as male characters.

4. Female leads help men identify with women… maybe

Feminist Frequency stresses the importance of introducing games fronted exclusively by female characters because, “it works to counter the long-established, long-reinforced cultural notion that heroes are male by default. By and large girls and women are expected to project themselves onto male characters, but boys and men are not encouraged to project themselves onto or identify with female characters.” Running with this logic, if male players see the game world through the gaze of a female protagonist, “it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women, their lives, and their struggles,” writes Feminist Frequency. True … kind of… which brings us to Number 5.

5. Female leads don’t necessarily reflect real women

It’s a game, not real life. And the struggles of a female lead in a video game are closer to acquiring rare weapons and abilities than balancing one’s self esteem or fighting for equality in the workplace. For this reason, men won’t necessarily better understand “things” from a women’s perspective just because he plays as a women. This is entertainment and fantasy, remember. He should try playing as a woman because her story is just as engaging as a male’s, and is not secondary to his. Feminist Frequency also points out that indie games like Tacoma, Firewatch and Beyond Eyes are embarking on a more “human experience through a lens of empathy rather than one of violence.” At this month’s E3, 76 percent of games revolved around combat and violence. But that’s no surprise, since the “fight” or “combat” in games are almost synonymous with the genre. So whether or not more games in the future are less violent isn’t a matter of gender, but rather of story innovation.

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Melanie Sevcenko is a journalist for radio, print and online. She reports internationally for BBC World Service and Monocle Radio (M24) in the UK, and for Deutsche Welle in Germany. Melanie also reports for the online news source GoLocalPDX, in Portland, Oregon. Her work has been broadcast by CBC in Canada and the Northwest News Network, and published by Al Jazeera English, Global Post, Pacific Standard, the Toronto Star and USA Today, amongst others.


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