Analysis: Two Reasons Why Playable Female Characters Are Here To Stay

by Hershall Cook on Aug 23, 2015 at 12:21 PM

Video game protagonists have come a long way over the years. Consider the iconic Lara Croft: In her 1996 debut, she was a polygonal, sexualized figure, designed to appeal to an overwhelmingly male audience. However, she also stood out for being one of the few playable female protagonists at the time; her strong demeanor made her a beloved heroine for many female gamers as well. Almost 20 years later, Crystal Dynamics took the character to the next level by rebooting her into a more complex, multidimensional character. This year's E3 showcased that more playable female characters are following suit, suggesting this trend may soon become the new status quo.

At E3 2014, the press conferences showcased 28 games with exclusive male leads compared to 5 titles starring women. Around the same time, Ubisoft chose not to add a playable female character to its upcoming game Assassin's Creed Unity, alienating potential customers. These two occurrences encapsulate why controversy arose during last year's E3, an event some publications used to call out the video game industry on its lack of gender diversity. This year, however, the narrative seems to have flipped.

Most hailed E3 2015 as a much-needed reversal for female representation. With Dishonored 2, Bethesda unveiled Emily Kaldwin instead of further highlighting the returning male character Corvo. The same occurred with Assassin's Creed: Syndicate, as E3 attendees watched a trailer dedicated to Evie Fyre at Sony's press conference. Time and time again, the press conferences emphasized playable female characters.

To compare E3 2015 to its predecessors, I watched every E3 press conference from 2012 through 2015 and compiled yearly lists of games with playable female characters. Most titles earned a spot through the inclusion of a customizable protagonist, though a significant number of fighting games were included because of their selectable female fighters. A few games also qualified because of exclusively female leads or brief segments featuring a playable woman (think Ciri in The Witcher 3). In cases where playable female characters had been announced but were not shown during the presentation, I marked the game as having playable women.

The results of my research are below.* 'Total' refers to each year's games with playable female characters divided by all the games at E3. Bethesda and Square Enix's press conferences from 2015 are not listed, but I included them when calculating the totals. Of the six games Bethesda highlighted at its press conference, five – 83 percent – offered playable female characters. For Square Enix, that number dropped to 64 percent.

*Research for 2015 done by NYM Gamer. To see the numbers in a table format, click here.

With a 20 percent boost in playable female characters, my sentiment that E3 2015 was a better year for female representation proved true. Why the sudden change in direction? Potential explanations include broader marketing strategies and more female developers. Let's look at each possibility.

Turn to the next page to learn how marketing changes are affecting the number of playable female characters.

Shifting Demographics Lead To Broader Marketing Campaigns
Appealing to women mattered less in the past, back when male gamers represented the vast majority of the industry's purchasing power. Although men still remain the primary demographic responsible for buying AAA console games, gaming's core population has shifted. "It's got to be north of 70 percent [male] and probably north of 80," says Michael Pachter, a research analyst at Wedbush Securities. "That's still not north of 90 like it used to be."

Newzoo, a market researcher focused on video games, affirms Pachter's guesswork. Two years ago, the company looked at the player base for several core franchises, finding the numbers less skewed than many would expect. Twenty-eight percent of Call of Duty gamers, for example, were women. A similar number surfaced for Grand Theft Auto, Assassin's Creed, and Halo, with each franchise's player base hovering around one-third female. (Source)

For industry heavyweights hoping to cash in on the influx of hardcore female gamers, a survey highlighted at GDC proposes a road map. In a sample of 1,400 students, researchers Rosalind Wiseman and Ashly Burch found 60 percent of high-school girls preferred playing as their own gender, compared to 39 percent of high-school boys. As women continue to cross the threshold into the realm of hardcore gaming, it stands to reason more publishers will cater to their needs by adding playable female characters.

Acting contrary to this research, after all, would result in lost revenue, especially considering that the gender disparity among hardcore gamers may disappear entirely. From 2011-14, the number of women playing games on the PlayStation 3 or Xbox 360 rose by 70 percent, climbing from 18 to 30.3 million. The same survey only recorded a 45 percent increase for men, suggesting female gamers are growing at a faster rate.

Regarding gaming's core community, Pachter agrees. "In our lifetimes, there's no reason it wouldn't be 50 [percent female]," he asserts. With more women playing big-budget console titles, publishers need to market to them so as to avoid losing money.

On the next page: see how more women becoming developers may lead to more playable female characters.

A Growing Number of Female Developers
A potential second explanation for the increase in female representation lies in the rise of female game developers. Dmitri Williams, an associate professor at USC and the first to orchestrate a virtual census, discovered an intriguing correlation between developers and the characters they design. His census looked at the top 150 games of 2006, identifying race, gender, and body type in half an hour of footage from each. His team's massive data collection revealed several truths about video games, few more disappointing than the percentage of female characters compared to their male counterparts. In 2006, only 10.5 percent of all characters were women.

When Williams discusses the 9:1 gender ratio of video game characters, he explains how it came close to mimicking the percentage of male and female game developers in 2006. "Our hypothesis is...game developers make game characters like themselves," he says, before cautioning against assumptions about the developers' reasoning. "There's no ulterior motive. They're not good or bad people. They have no agenda. Just like most creators of content, they make stuff that looks like them." Following Williams' reasoning, more women in game development equates to more female characters – playable and otherwise – in the games themselves.

Fortunately, the number of female game developers has grown in recent years. According to a study from the International Game Developers Association (IGDA), the percentage of women in game development has more than doubled since 2009. That year, women represented 11.5-percent of the game development workforce. In 2014, they accounted for just under a quarter of all developers.

While they remain a minority, women have begun to carve out a community in game development. Websites like Women In Games Jobs (WIGJ) offer advice to girls considering a career in gaming, and events like The European Women In Games Conference (EWIG) allow women to share their stories. Finally, Intel's 300 million dollar diversity initiative suggests even some companies outside of the video game industry seek to improve the gender disparity among game developers.

Assuming Williams' theory holds true, then more female characters will appear in games as more women join the video game industry and assume prominent roles.

Trending In The Right Direction
Who doesn't love the thrill of unsheathing the Master Sword, jumping on Goombas, or cutting through darkspawn? When developers add playable female characters, they invite women to join in the fun of gaming.

Admittedly, considering the past three E3s feature a more or less equal percentage of games with playable female characters, E3 2015 could be an outlier. However, that doesn't seem to be the case. As more and more women enter the game-playing and game-making populations, the industry will continue growing and learning how to support multiple demographics. To put it simply: Playable female characters are here to stay.

This feature was originally published on August 18, 2015.