I initially wrote this post for the Games and Culture class blog taught by Dr. Zach Whalen at the University of Mary Washington. I wanted to archive it on my own blog as well, partially because this topic is so dear to my heart and partially because I want to revisit this piece soon, perhaps with some new conclusions.
A fellow classmate already tackled this topic, albeit in regards to race. I highly encourage you to read that post, and, depending on how angry you want to be today, the discussion that followed.
At the end of the day, there’s no arguing that the bulk of the gaming industry, just like any other industry, must be profitable in order to survive. That truism has been used for years to justify the narrow demographics represented within video games: video games have traditionally had excellent sales among straight white young cisgender men, so the majority of characters represented in games should, accordingly, be straight white young cisgender men. As anybody who isn’t actively living under a rock can tell you, the audience for video games as a medium is rapidly expanding (and was never all that narrow in the first place), but the demographics and kinds of stories represented within video games themselves are still lagging way behind.
While it would make some sense to assume that gaming companies might not want to produce a game with, say, a female protagonist out of fear that doing so might damage their earnings, it stands to reason that making more games appealing to a wider audience brings in more profits. I’m not suggesting that game companies should start marking to every categorical niche in existence, but when every conversation about diversity in games seems to conclude with “everybody’s playing something,” investing in more diverse video game casts seems like a rock-solid business decision. At this year’s Game Developers Conference, Microsoft narrative designer Tom Abernathy structured an entire talk around that point:
Abernathy also pointed to a study which said 56 percent of the US urban population plays games, compared to 47 percent of the rural population. Abernathy said with more rural areas of the country tending to be less diverse, the numbers would seem to shift the gamer audience even further away from the idea of an average gamer being a straight white male.
“Our industry, our art, and our business stand to gain in every sense simply by holding a mirror up to our audience and reflecting their diversity in what we produce,” Abernathy said.
The importance of Abernathy’s point is highlighted by the fact that at the very same conference, one of the major writers for the Dragon Age series, Dave Gaider, gave his talk on sexuality and sexism, and made some of the very same points as Abernathy in a recent interview:
If we’re talking about how we need our big-budget games to sell to more people and have a larger audience, to say that that larger audience should only be 18-25 males exclusively… So, what, we’re all going to fight over the same demographic? There are actual reasons why having diversity in your games and being inclusive of a larger audience has sound financial backing. If you’re talking about that, maybe that’s the only way the industry is going to listen. It takes somebody to do it and do it well and prove that this is something that makes financial sense before the industry will accept that maybe it’s a thing.
I may not have a degree in economics, but all of this makes a great deal of sense on a very basic, logical level. Of course, one can’t expect sweeping industry-wide change over the course of a year or two, nor would it be logical to assume that major game companies would immediately abandon the demographic they’ve been successfully tapping into for so many years. However, it’s been accepted for nearly the last decade that the people who play video games are vastly more diverse than the characters within the games themselves. So if it makes sense that more diverse games attract more gamers and therefore generate more sales, and those diverse gamers are already out there, just waiting to be marketed to, why is it that as recently as 2009, the census of game characters was so disappointingly narrow?
It’s certainly true that the diversity of game characters has increased somewhat since this data was collected, but take a look at even a handful of the games released by major industry names in the last four years and it’s obvious that the percentages can’t have changed much. The most often cited reason for a lack of diversity in games is always, as I’ve said, the issue of money: what will sell, what won’t. But I think perhaps a greater predictor of whether or not we’ll see any real change within the degree of diversity in games comes from who is actually working within the gaming industry itself.
Focusing only on one category, gender, the current employment statistics within the gaming industry are pretty grim, at least based on the latest issue of Game Developer Magazine:
Looking at the business and legal side of the gaming industry alone, a category which includes CEOs, women are not only painfully underrepresented, they stand to make significantly less than their male peers. Not the most inviting corporate environment I can image. In every single category polled, in fact, from artists to QR testers, women always numbered significantly fewer than men and made less in every category except programming, in which they were only 4% of the population surveyed.
Beyond even the significant pay gap within the gaming industry, women are actively fighting sexism every step of the way, even at professional events. Ruth Burr recently posted a brilliant article about actions most men might not consider sexist, but which hinder women’s safety and success during professional tech conferences. Among the most startling of the anecdotes she shared was this one:
I’ve had my thigh groped under the table at a conference dinner. I’ve had a guy make eye contact with me across the bar at a conference event and make the “jerk off” motion, complete with mimed finish (gross). I’ve had unwelcome tickles and pinches and even kisses, and I’ve been called “honey” and “baby” and “sexy” and told that my painstakingly-researched conference talk was “hot.”
There, in a nutshell, is why I believe we don’t have more women protagonists in video games: the industry is mostly guys. Any creative person will tell you that, on the whole, the things we create are part of our selves, that the desire to participate in a creative medium is often driven by the need to show others how we see the world, and discover if anyone else relates. In an industry full of men, the majority of perspectives represented are, unsurprisingly, male. I’m not even touching on LGBTQ people or people of color here (as I mentioned earlier, one of my classmates discussed this argument as it relates to PoC), but I’m sure the representation within the industry (or lack thereof) is similarly skewed.
My overall aim here is to point out that we can talk until we’re blue in the face about the fact that diversity in video games is important. We can recognize that diversity sells, maybe even (gasp!) more than sex (which is kind of a broken assumption anyway), we can come out with endless data points that women and people of color and LGBTQ people are making up larger and larger chunks of the gaming market. But until we reach something that vaguely resembles parity among the people who write, code, draw, and sell the games themselves, video games are never going to encompass the vastly varied perspectives that such a flexible medium is capable of expressing.