The statistical data was taken from the 2015 ESA and 2014 IGDA market research studies sponsored by these organizations. When relevant, the data has been copied from the reports and included. Credits and rights to the graphics belong to the ESA and IGDA.
My friend Professor GWSS booked me to teach a class about gender bias in video games at the local state University (the actual date was October 27th, 2015). At first, I was flattered and very confident that a brief history of video games and a few statistics were going to be enough to spark a dialogue about women and the video game industry, especially since I am have been around consoles and arcade games since age 3. In my world, video games were a family affair; opportunities to learn to share and cooperate with my fellow gamers at home in a safe environment. We didn’t tolerate bigotry or uncontrollable bouts of anger and derision towards any player regardless of their skill. I thought the rest of my peers had grown up in this utopia. What I learned while researching the latest data was shocking, and as I surfed the internet for articles about #gamergate and Anita Sarkeesian’s Tropes vs Women, I was introduced to another reality.
Video games are definitely more mainstream than people realize.
When you looked at the industry as a whole, most popular games, gaming related workplaces and marketing environments are hostile towards women. There are reports of developers hiring strippers and scantly clad hostess to promote their products at renowned conferences and release parties for titles. Apparently, they are there to attract or appeal to the male 18 to 45 years old demographic. Why? There is a perception that video games are only played and bought by men and many of the big or upcoming developers make the mistake of marketing mainly to them. The rest of gamers aren’t considered a big enough chunk of the pie to matter. Because of this misconception, the Entertainment Software Association (ESA) and the International Game Developers Association (IGDA) commissioned studies to set the record straight and explore the true forces behind the developing and gaming world.
Turns out video games are played by 155 to 179 million people in the USA. This amounts to 59% of the population! Out of that 59%, 44-46% are women, with an average playing age of 43. My jaw dropped when I read the findings of the ESA:
My suspicions were confirmed; I was not the only woman raised to enjoy video games! In fact, women 18 years of age and older account for 33% of the market. Woohoo! That begs the question, why are we advertising video games solely to boys and men or worse why are we lied to in the media and told women don’t play?
Based on sales, the industry generates about 22.41 billion dollars in revenue. Content purchases amount to 68% of the total. Can you imagine how much more money the developers and console manufacturers could be making if they created content that appealed to more women, who are responsible for 41% of the purchases? As a player I can’t tell you how many times I have put a game back on the shelf because I couldn’t relate to it because I found it offensive or too dumb. Growing up in the 80s and 90s, video games were an outlet to learn and hone in skills required to work with software and 3D computer graphics. Somewhere along the line the art and story telling of my Nintendo and Sega days became trite nonsensical first and third person shoot ‘em up franchises with women in suggestive outfits and sexual poses that made the world spurn the USA culture.
When the majority of video game developers, 76% to be exact, are men in their 20s, 30s and beyond you have to begin to wonder why the portrayal of women in their work is the polar opposite of what their mothers, daughters, sisters, wives and female coworkers are in real life. I think in some cases they are caricatures or exaggerations of what male fantasies should be, but then again I haven’t met a decent, intelligent and well educated young man that wants a half naked, big breasted, curvy and airhead woman as the mother of their children. I guess that in a culture where women are seen as possessions and things to protect and keep chaste and pure, the best alternative is to present young men with the complete opposite and have them create emotional attachments to impossible dream girls and unhealthy sexual behavior.
Wishing all this wasn’t true doesn’t make it go away and the lists of the top 20 video games for consoles and PCs in 2014 prove that change is necessary: there were no games on those lists with a female lead. All these games can be played by women and I own a few of the titles, but the sales match the “only boys and men” play video games stigma. If you stick to the Top 5 games, GTA, the #4 most popular video game for the year, is the only one that features women in their back story and they are mainly prostitutes and “bitches” to be battered and mugged.
Where is our cut of the game development pie?
As I continued to dig through articles and social media, I found out that it is estimated that less than 10% of stories feature women as the main character. Clearly we are an important demographic, and play a role in creating content and its marketing, but why aren’t we better represented in game play? Are our voices not being heard or taken seriously? We know there are some women at the forefront of game design and development and that the boys club mentality has been proven to be obsolete and incorrect. Women have always been a major force behind the success of the industry and now we have proof that things are changing and aggressively.
In 2014, the industry reported that 22% of developers were women and that 2% identify as transgender or androgynous, up from 11% back in 2009. You can feel and see how the influx of women and the LGBT community influenced the way the industry designs and builds the software and story boards that eventually become the distributed products. Look at the credits of games like Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed and you will find women at the helm of these projects. The marketing to women and minorities is improving. We still have a long way to go to ensure these voices are heard and are better represented by the big companies and the independent video game market seems to have become the main outlet for these groups even though the numbers show they are not minor at all.
The number of female game reviewers and electronics journalists have skyrocketed; their opinions and thoughts are moving their male counterparts to improve the portrayal of women in games and the acceptance of their talents in the industry. More games are being developed by female centric teams targeting women issues, feminism and gender studies content. Games have evolved to include beautiful graphics with interesting background stories that appeal to a wider audience. As graphics technology advanced in the early 2000s, characters became more realistic and motion captured, which resulted in a need to shift from the highly fantastical and 16 bit worlds to places that offered a realistic feel and experience. Physics engines and high definition graphics made movements more fluent and life-like opening the door for women to be designed more accurately, and for developers to anchor story and game development around them. More independent companies got into the market through the development of computer, smartphone and tablet games and the PC/internet-based boom of the mass multiplayer online revolution ensured that anyone with a passion for role playing games got into the fray. Fantasy worlds started to pop up everywhere, easily accessible while you waited in line at the DMV.
Is this the face we want to show to the rest of the gaming world?
About 67% of the public believes that sexism in video games and in the industry are scaring folks away from it or cast it in an undesirable light. This is sad because video games are not just entertainment but art, an expression of our inner selves and the inner workings of our society. If the industry can’t design a fantasy world that is appealing to all genders or one that you can market to all gamers they are not capitalizing on a big chunk of the users. Not catering to women makes little business sense. Why would the industry continue to release games that demean women and portray them as objects when this assures they won’t sell as well? Do they really want to exclude such a big share of the clientele? Maybe their focus groups are missing the point. If you don’t recruit a representative sample of women in gaming when testing out your new game you won’t get the feedback you need to appeal to all gamers. You will lose market share by ignoring the audience and their needs.
The best example of creating or improving your market share has to go to Nintendo’s Wii. In 2006, the console outsold PS3 and XBox 360 by a mile when launched because the controllers were intuitive and the games inclusive for all ages and gaming types. The console may have lost steam and the Wii U didn’t sell as well because most of the eight generation console successes were measured by the 18 to 45 male demographic that we know is not representative of the gaming population. Nintendo continues to be the favorite family gaming console but as tastes shift into the interactive and online sharing platforms, it will lose momentum by keeping the experience attached to the wall so to speak. Portability and multi platform access is the future of the industry and indie developers are adapting nicely to the transition.
When 65% of games are conceived and developed in North America one begins to wonder why we are doing this to our own market share. Most of my favorite female leads are not even American in the continental sense of the word. Take Nilin (Remember Me) or Nariko (Heavenly Sword) as examples, one is Black/Caucasian mix born from British parents and the other is a Japanese warrior princess. If you need a more modern leading lady look for Lara Croft (Tomb Raider) who is British and has a degree in archaeology, commendable and very inspiring until you see the original design for her character; the draw were her short pants, low cut shirt and ample breasts. SquareEnix’s version is classier but still not American.
Nilin, Nariko and Lara are exceptions rather than the rule; a small percentage of the already small 10% of female leading characters. They are assertive, fast, physically and emotionally strong and can take down an enemy with the same prowess of a comparable male counterpart. (There is nothing that peeves me more than when my husband says “she has to be slower or less strong because she is a woman”. Geez can’t our fantastical worlds include more Wonder Womans and less skinny witches?) Try and think of an American Made video game stand alone protagonist and you will barely find any. You can argue that there are many supporting cast members that happen to be female who are American and kick ass but they are outnumbered 10 to 1 by their male counterparts. Being able to choose a female avatar in a game should be standard operating procedure but I do not understand why it would be harder to change stories to feature an all female cast or to spin it around a leading lady unless our view of them in our society doesn’t allow us to see them as more than whores, emotional messes and weak characters.
I don’t think ghetto whores or gangsters are the best face we want to present to the masses, even though these types of games seem to be the most popular. I am appalled that games featuring violence towards others, not just women, are the best sellers in our culture. It says a lot more about us as a people than any other statement we make and presents us as a retrograde culture with no substance or class especially when women are no more than sex toys or eye candy. I live for the day the United States’ developers create more games like Heavenly Sword, Transistor and Remember Me, that value women and their contributions to society exalting their virtues and strengths instead of their bodies. It may take another generation of video game developers to get there but I welcome the challenge of voicing women’s issues in gaming since someday my unborn daughter may want to join and lead the industry. Knowing she will be treated with dignity and respect is worth the hassle of surviving #gamergate and setting the record straight every time I encounter a misogynistic opinion about the subject.
How can we become agents of change?
The biggest gender bias in the industry is one that is ingrained on young players early: girls can’t play as well as boys. If we continue as a society to incorrectly validate that girls are not quick enough, strong enough or smart enough to merit being the lead player or character of a game then we will never have quicker, stronger and smarter women. This is the problem women like me find in the technical workplace which extends to the video game industry; our contributions aren’t counted because we are not seen as creatures that can add value.
The moment our sons take a controller away from our daughters because they “suck at playing” or insinuate that they should not become interested in games because they are for boys we have failed as parents and role models. No one can become a better gamer if they don’t practice and are encouraged to continue through the levels of the story. No one can have fun when people constantly harass them online or while they play, when they are constantly hounded via messaging about their marital status, age or measurements. In an environment designed for anonymity and equality, my online ID and gaming prowess should be the only indicators of my identity as a gamer and my gender or looks should not play a part of anyone’s exchanges.
The next time you see a male or group of gamers take a controller away from a woman or transgender person because of who they are please stop them. When someone wants to kick out the women from the online lobby stop them. Give these players a chance! Also, if you happen to run into a game designed for these populations don’t knock them until you play them and if you do play them and don’t understand them contact the intended audience for information. When you come from a position of privilege you may not realize the struggles the rest of the gaming population endures just to be able to pursue a hobby. The next time you are in front of a video game display take the time to validate everything you have read and it will be very clear that women are an afterthought in terms of marketing and art cover design. The moment we begin to lobby for better content and more equality in video games, we all win!
If you are one of those men that still think video games are a boys club, remember that Ada Lovelace was credited for writing one of the first codes that sparked the programming revolution that led to PCs and the internet. You owe your ability to play video games in the comfort of your home and in the middle of anywhere through your 4G or Wi-Fi connected device to her, a woman. If that is not reason enough to support women in gaming, I do not know what will.