The PAX Survey of Video Game Characters
So, seeing as gender in video games is such a hot button topic right now, I spent some time at PAX taking a survey of video game characters. Here are my criteria:
- I surveyed every game I could find in the main hall of Penny Arcade Expo - floor 4 only, both sides of the Skyway.
- I surveyed only video games, not boardgames or card games.
- I only examined playable characters, not NPCs.
- I either asked the devs/media people about the game in question directly, or took note of their main advertising for the game.
- I only asked actual game studios or the representatives of the various consoles. There were some manufacturers, like nVidia, who were using games to showcase their hardware, and I thought it safe to ignore them.
- In MMOs and other games where the player could create and customize their character, I counted one male and one female character for every race as long as there was an option to create either.
- I recorded no characters for games in which the game play did not involve controlling anything that could reasonably be construed as a person. For example, The Crew is a racing game where the player controls a car, not a character, and there were several indie puzzle games that did not involve characters at all.
- For some games, like Guardians of Middle Earth and Smite, I had to refer to the website to get a count of how many characters of each gender were present.
- This is not a complete list of every game. I am only one person, I likely missed a few.
For each game, I asked the following:
- How many playable characters are there in the game?
- If there are any, how many are male or female, or are their genders indeterminate?
- If there is just one character, are they the lead character, i.e. the game is entirely about them?
My findings aside, I did notice several trends:
- The indie developers I spoke to were far more likely to talk enthusiastically about gender diversity in their games, and more likely to have equal numbers of male and female characters in their game.
- Across the board, there were several devs that said that the characters they were showing off at PAX were all male, but they had plans to include female characters. As far as possible, I recorded the characters that were present and playable right then, for the sake of getting consistent data.
- In ensemble casts (more than one character playable), there were consistently more male characters than female characters. Very few had equal numbers, and, as far as I recall, they were all indie games.
- The majors were far less likely to answer questions. I'm not entirely sure why, though I suspect they were under NDAs. They'd mostly happily confirm how many playable characters were in their game, but they tended to get very cagey once I asked about female characters, as if they feared what angle I was going to take on it. The representative for Infamous: Second Son refused to answer any questions at all.
- I met exactly two female developers among the indies. Women were very much under-represented among the majors. 90% of the time I would approach a woman who was manning a booth to ask questions, and I was deflected with apologies to a male developer. Otherwise, they were the PR rep.
- Female characters, if they were present in the game's advertising for an ensemble cast, tended to be heavily downplayed in favor of the male characters, sometimes to the point where I was doubtful if they were present at all. Those that were not downplayed tended to be sexualized.
- Overall, female characters were far more sexualized across the board.
- Total games surveyed: 149
- Total characters: 540
- Total characters with no recognizable gender: 38
- Total male characters: 338
- Total female characters: 164
- Total male lead characters: 39
- Total female lead characters: 11
First of all, I was mildly surprised to see that there were more female characters than I expected - I honestly expected very little, so the fact that just under a third of all characters were female astonished me. This indicates that developers are at least somewhat taking notice of the fact that their games should include female characters of some kind, even if actual equality isn't happening yet.
Secondly, although just under a third of all characters are female, devs are still shying away from making them the lead or highlighting them in their advertising - and when they do, they tend to use the characters that are overly sexualized. So progress is being made, but that progress is predictably slow, and studios are still falling back on the usual tired old tropes that male gamers will only take notice of female characters if they're sex objects. (That, by the way, is never going to get any less insulting to gamers of all genders.)
Thirdly, I found that female characters among the indies tended to be less sexualized and more likely to be a lead, but the majors tended to be the opposite. Smite, the AAA title from Hirez Studios, was an especially irritating example - there are 41 playable characters, of which 12 are female, and 8 of those are heavily sexualized. PC Gamer described it as the 'surprise of PAX' - frankly, the only thing surprising to me about it was that anyone thought it was something special, because it looks like a League of Legends knockoff to me.
On one hand I'm hopeful, because this is progress, of a sort. On the other hand... I heard a lot of excuses, when I asked the fateful question: how many of your characters are female?
There were excuses as to why the devs simply couldn't add women to the game, so that the absence of female characters was not due to unconscious bias or sexism, oh no. It was because they had to follow certain undefined rules. This honestly did not sit well with me, but I wasn't there to be rude or start a fight, so I took some notes and moved on. It's still pretty damn cowardly, and it means they avoid taking responsibility or even making an effort to fix the problem. I expect better than that.
Here's some of what I heard:
- I was told a few times that adding female characters would have been anachronistic for the game in question. Frankly, this excuse will always be stupid and lazy. If your game has Ghandi leading an army against Cleopatra, you have lost the "historical accuracy" high ground - and you lose it a second time when you don't do the research and learn about how women have always fought. I'm looking at you, Rome: Total War 2 - the dev told me that they had several hundred generals that could appear during the game and only one or two women because "it wouldn't be accurate". Impressed I am not.
- "It's not that kind of game." Yes, I heard this once. I didn't know how to respond to it then, and I still don't know now. Unpacking the sheer level of idiocy in this statement is going to take me a while.
- That they had plans for adding a few female characters later, but what they had on display right now was a wall-to-wall sausage fest. This is rather insulting to me, because it implicitly states that they decided adding multiple male characters was more important than adding even one female.
Overall, I wish there had been more female characters, and more female leads. There's a lot of problematic stuff at PAX, and it seems that the indies are carrying the industry right now when it comes to female characters in general. So here's a few shoutouts to the games that are making an effort, and therefore will be getting my money:
- Transistor, from Supergiant Games, and possibly the only stand-out title of pure, unadulterated awesome in a sea of mediocrity among the majors. One of the few with a female lead, and the demo just blew me away.
- Contrast, from Compulsion Games, among the indies. Really beautiful art style, and a rare example of a pair of female leads working together.
- Always Sometimes Monsters, from Devolver Digital, again among the indies. Interesting because the devs included equal numbers of male and female characters, as well as minorities, purely to make this 8-bit RPG more enjoyable in a play-your-way kind of theme.
- Armello, from League of Geeks, again among the indies. The dev I spoke to was very emphatic about including equal numbers of male and female characters as well as plans to release equal numbers of both in the future, and their effort to create strong female characters. I'll be buying this digital card/board game even though it's a few lightyears away from my usual games fare.
- And finally, Gravity Ghost from Ivy Games, where I talked to one of the very, very few female creators.
For the majors full of excuses: as long as you continue to not give a shit about female gamers like me, I will feel perfectly justified not giving a shit about your games. Every time you overly sexualize your female characters, you make it clear that you don't want my money.
Keep chasing that male 18-34 demographic, and let me know how that goes when - not if, when - other developers whip the whole market out from under you.