Activision Doesn't Want Female Lead Characters, Sources Allege

by Phil Kollar on Aug 04, 2010 at 02:45 PM

As if Activision CEO Bobby Kotick wasn't having enough trouble involving women, a new report has surfaced indicating that the publisher is actively avoiding developing games with female characters and even changing them to male characters.

The very interesting story from Gamasutra points to "numerous former employees at the company's studios" as confirming that Activision has decided from focus-testing that only games with male leads sell well enough to be worth the investment. Apparently this business decision has grown to the point that games created with female protagonists in mind have been changed to feature a male lead character.

According to Gamasutra, in recent years, Treyarch pitched Activision on a new IP called Black Lotus featuring a female main character "modeled on actress Lucy Liu." At some point in 2007, Activision decided that there wasn't room on the market for games with female main characters, so they ordered that the project be changed. Eventually, it was turned into True Crime: Hong Kong and handed over to current developer United Front Games.

One source said of the project, "We were all on board, and then Activision killed it, said they don't do female characters because they don't sell." Another source explained:

"If Activision does not see a female lead in the top five games that year, they will not have a female lead. And the people that don't want a female lead will look at games like Wet and Bayonetta and use them as 'statistics' to 'prove' that female leads don't move mass units."

Gamasutra's sources claim that the refusal to have female protagonists is just one example of how Activision is hyper-sensitive to focus-testing, following it to extremes. This process leads to many projects being changed mid-development, with checklists of features forced onto developers who aren't eager to implement changes that didn't fit into their original vision.

In the end, the sources allege that even positive focus tests couldn't convince Activision: There needs to be evidence of a game with a female protagonist performing well in sales before they will even consider it.

The publisher, for its part, denied these allegations, telling Gamasutra:

"Activision respects the creative vision of its development teams. The company does not have a policy of telling its studios what game content they can develop, nor has the company told any of its studios that they cannot develop games with female lead characters.... With respect to True Crime: Hong Kong, Activision did not mandate the gender of the lead character. Like all other game and media companies, Activision uses market research in order to better understand [what] gamers are looking for."

Despite the statement, Gamasutra points out that since 2005, the only Activision games with any female leads have been titles with licenses such as Barbie and Dora the Explorer.

Obviously, the topic of gender in games is a touchy subject that some people feel very strongly about, so let's try to be civil in the comments. That said, I think this is a pretty fascinating article and worth discussing. I recommend reading the whole thing at Gamasutra and then providing your opinion. Do you believe Activision's claims that they don't dictate the gender of characters in their games? Or do you think the anonymous developers quoted are probably telling the truth? And either way, is it okay for Activision as a business to make that decision or should it be left up to the developers and their creative vision for a game?