[The Gender Gap originally debuted in Issue 204 of Game Informer. Here we provide the original article with expanded developer commentary.]

Ask gamers who their favorite video game heroine is, and a few names will likely garner the majority of the vote. Samus Aran, Lara Croft, and Joanna Dark are three early icons whose rareness catapulted them to stardom and helped keep their respective franchises afloat for more than a decade. Who could forget the surprise when Metroid’s protagonist removed her helmet to reveal long locks? Players never looked at masked heroes the same again. The exploits of cyber “it-girl” of the late ‘90s, Lady Lara Croft, became a multi-million dollar brand that spawned film adaptations, a comic run, and endorsements deals for everything from energy drinks to luxury cars. With such prominent female leads appearing in the early stages of the interactive entertainment phenomenon, the video games industry seemed well on its way to creating abundant gender diversity.

But since Croft's glory days, progress has seemingly halted. Sure, recent years have given us the occasional female leads in blockbusters like Uncharted 2 and critical darlings like Beyond Good and Evil, Mirror's Edge and Bayonetta, but in general the fairer sex has been all but M.I.A. in action titles. Some games even neglect to include a female character when allowing players to choose among multiple protagonists. While some genres like role-playing and fighting games generally offer a level playing field, others seem to be treading water.

We chatted about the gender selection process with members of several prominent development studios and learned that the decision between XX and XY isn’t a frivolous one. Demographics, cultural norms, technical constraints, and more must be considered. So when narrative, setting, or historical context doesn’t dictate the gender of a character, why are females noticeably absent from the action? Read on to find out.

The  Numbers  Game
First and foremost, numbers matter. Perhaps the most influential factor in regards to core design decisions is player demographic. An NPD survey detailed a five percent increase in female console gamers (23 percent to 28 percent) between June 2008 and 2009. A similar Nielsen Company study showed that females 25 and older now make up the largest segment of PC gamers – holding strong at 46.2 percent. The number of female gamers is obviously growing, especially in relation to specific platforms and genres. This being said, female gamers are still the minority, even if not to the grossly overestimated degree perceived. If there is any truth to the notion that individuals identify closer to characters of their own gender, then it’s somewhat expected that we see a disproportionate ratio of males to females.

“The game industry is constantly collecting information about who is buying games, and what types of games they’re buying the most of,” explains Jennifer Wildes, art director at Gearbox Software. “If these statistics suggest that your game will sell more copies within your demographic if the majority of the player characters are big hulking males, then it’s obviously a bit risky to decide they should all be female instead.”

Wildes also points out that while modern games may not have a new female protagonist on the level of Samus or Lara Croft, progress is being made. “It’s important to note that only a few years ago, the male to female [character] ratio in these types of games was four to zero. We may be moving slowly, but we are getting there.”