Gears of War 5
Maybe this isn’t even the real issue here.
The Last of Us Part 2
“The number of women protagonists in E3 games still in single digits,” blared Polygon’s headline in the aftermath of E3 2018. The website was reporting on the perennial dearth of representation aﬀorded to women in video games, as documented by Feminist Frequency, and you wouldn’t be wrong in coming away with the impression that this was a really big problem.
After all, the percentage of games at E3 that focus on women has been stuck in the 7 to 9 per cent range for the past few years, and this year shows scant improvement. In comparison, around 24 per cent of E3 games – out of 118 titles – had male protagonists.
That may seem like quite a lopsided state of aﬀairs, especially if you think that games should be representative of real world demographics. Furthermore, it hardly seems fair that games are generally made for men, by men. There is a lack of women in video game development, just as there is a lack of female protagonists in games.
This means that games that are ostensibly designed for women are being created by men. There’s nothing wrong with this in and of itself, but things become problematic when these games are based on a stereotypical feminine ideal. This is typically a white, straight, cis-gendered female with an aversion to violence and a preference for cute things, and the resulting games reflect this.
Similarly, this means that games are designed predominantly for their largest audience. For the longest time, the assumption was that this audience wants hyperviolent, hypersexualized material. The protagonists were often almost always male, which allowed male players to readily project themselves onto these characters.
The problem with this is that this forces female gamers to experience the world through the eyes of a male protagonist, which can create a feeling of dissonance for some and lead them to view games in general as distant and inaccessible. This in turn creates a vicious cycle that discourages more women from entering this male-dominated space, which is what really needs to happen in order to achieve any form of equal representation in games.
Having said that, I question whether we’re viewing this issue in the appropriate and most constructive terms. Representation is important, but I’d argue that calling for female protagonists just for the sake of having more of them feels rather heavy-handed and futile.
There have also been hopeful signs of progress. E3 2018 had some noteworthy titles that prominently featured female characters, including blockbuster games like Battlefield V, The Last of Us Part 2, Wolfenstein Youngblood, and Gears of War 5. The response to this was mixed. While some fans welcomed the change, others took issue with what they perceived as their beloved game giving in to so-called political correctness.
For example, some vocal Battlefield fans took to Twitter with the hashtag #NotMyBattlefield, decrying what they thought was historical inaccuracy in service of being politically correct. Battlefield V doesn’t even force you to play a female character. While the trailer featured a British woman, players will be able to choose the gender and ethnicity of their troops, so they’re not being shoehorned into a particular role that they don’t identify with.
In fact, I’d argue that allowing players to choose is a better option than having a fixed female protagonist. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for characters like Ellie and Kait, but player agency isn’t something that should be overlooked either. While it seems bad that just 8 per cent – or nine games – were headlined by female characters, a good 50 per cent of games at this year’s E3 let players pick the gender they wanted to play as.
I don’t see why we should ignore all these games and simply focus on those that have a female lead. According to Feminist Frequency, when a game features a set female protagonist, every player who enters those worlds must experience them through the lens of that female character. These games then help to “normalize the notion that male players should be able to project themselves onto and identify with female protagonists just as female players have always projected [themselves] onto and identified with male protagonists”.
This sounds unnecessarily combative to me. I get that some narratives demand a fixed character, and we should definitely embrace greater inclusion and diversity, but it seems like we should also welcome the ability to choose as progress as well.
At the risk of trivializing the entire issue, I’d also argue that we’re taking things a little too seriously here. Feminist Frequency only began tracking games at E3 in 2015, and four years is too little time to expect some major leap toward gender parity.
Furthermore, while more than half of gamers are supposedly women, most of these are comprised of women who game on their smartphones, which means that the audience on PC and console is still predominantly male. It’s possible that women shy away from so-called “proper” games because they’ve been continually led to believe that they don’t belong in that space, but it’s also entirely possible that they are simply not interested in the kind of games there.
The reality is likely a mix of both, and while I am all for banishing stereotypes, it also seems foolish to discount the truth of varying interests.
What’s more, the gender disparity in games is just a reflection of deeper inequities in society. Social norms and expectations still pose huge barriers, and until we solve these issues, games will continue to reflect the world we live in. Instead of railing against gender inequity in games, we should probably direct our energies toward fixing what is really wrong.
PICTURES MICROSOFT STUDIOS, ELECTRONIC ARTS, SONY INTERACTIVE ENT.