At E3, Microsoft and Sony debuted their additions to the next generation of console gaming. The Xbox One and the Playstation 4 are both promising, but they may just fall into the same old track of their predecessors. The makers of these consoles appear not to have taken half of their customers into consideration with their presentations at E3: women.
For years, the video game industry has been marketed as a boy’s club. The Entertainment Software Association has shown, however, that 45% of gamers are girls. Along with this substantial statistic, the ESA found that of the most frequent game purchasers, 46% are female. When it comes to consoles, NPD Group revealed in 2009 that 28% of console gamers in the U.S. were female, rising from 23% the year prior. With all of these girl gamers, you would think that console makers would take this significant chunk of its consumers into account. Unfortunately, the industry seems to operate on outdated demographics, still focusing its energies almost exclusively on males.
In particular, I take issue with two aspects of the video game industry: the dearth of strong female protagonists featured in major titles and the lack of women shown in ad campaigns. (There are a number of other issues regarding women and video games, but I’ll stick to these two for now.)
Sure, there have been some fantastic female characters in top-selling games, characters with great depth that aren’t hyper-sexualized. The problem is that these characters are few and far between and rarely appear as main protagonists. The vast majority of popular titles featured on consoles and in the gaming world in general offer a standard male protagonist as the playable character. Even when female characters are playable, they are often not shown in the marketing of the games. For example, the Mass Effect series offers players the choice to play as either a male or female Commander Shepard. However, the female version of the protagonist only appears in ads for the third game in the franchise. Even when players have a choice between a male or female protagonist, the male figure takes prominence.
Just take a look at a few of the big titles confirmed for the Xbox One and the Playstation 4 — only a few offer the option to play as a female character, let alone have a woman as the default protagonist. As excited as I am for sequels to some of my favorite games, I’m disappointed to see that the next generation of consoles doesn’t seem to be making much progress in offering games that feature strong female protagonists.
Women not only lack representation in popular video games, but also in the ads put forth by the video game industry. I’ll be honest: we are starting to see more women in commercial ads for video games and consoles, like in this excellent ad for Call of Duty: Black Ops. but there is still a notable discrepancy. For the most part, video game advertising does not offer much of a female presence. The ads we see for both games and consoles tend to feature more men than women. Even Sony’s ad for the Playstation 4 (as cool as it is) falls victim to this. Although the commercial shows some women, they fade into the background. Ultimately a male figure leads the charge once again.
I understand that in any industry, there is a certain level of risk in trying something new. So far the video game industry has determined that deviating from the standard male protagonist is far too risky. Since appealing to male consumers has been lucrative in the past, there has been little incentive to invest in games that feature strong female leads or to shift marketing efforts toward women. Unfortunately, this doesn’t really make much sense. Given the percentage of the video game consumers who are women, the risk in creating more of a female presence in video game development and marketing cannot be that high.
As a woman who plays video games, I am not demanding more "feminine" games, nor am I asking for marketing to be specifically aimed at women. What I am asking for is inclusion. People often play video games because they can relate in some way to the characters. They see some part of themselves in the game when they pick up the controller. The main protagonist serves as a representation of the player, but female players are re-gendered.
Times are changing. Demographics are changing. Women are becoming more and more an integral part of the video game industry. We deserve to be represented.
The next generation of consoles needs to step up and get women in the game. Literally.