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MS Dev - "I'm DYING To Write More Female Protagonists"

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Like a lot of gaming issues, the lack of quality female protagonists is not a new one, but thankfully is one that is gathering more steam as time goes on. Just yesterday Henshin A Go Joe reported on a teen gamer writing a piece for NPR about her frustration with female video game protagonists. Also yesterday, an article over at The Border House picked up a rant from Microsoft Games Studios developer Tom Abernathy about the lack of female protagonists in games. He says in part:
I'm tired of those of us who care in the game industry complaining that there aren't enough female protagonists while those of them who make the money decisions keep responding, "Gee, we'd love to, but the market data is clear. They just won't buy it." I hear that from WOMEN in those money/marketing positions, too. And they say it while agreeing with the principle of the thing. Since when did it become okay to NOT do something we know is in best interests of our kids, just because our profits won't be as obscene? I am all for obscene profits, but I want my daughter to see and play characters she can relate to. SHE wants that; nobody put it in her head.

The part of Abernathy's quote that really gets my interest is the "data" the decision makers are referring to. What "data" is surrounding games with female protagonists that suggests gamers don't want them? I have theories.

First, the cliche "girl" games. You know, the pandering, sappy, pink-and-glittery affairs that come from a chauvinistic mindset that thinks the only way to make something appealing to the female gender is to give it ponies and dresses. While I'm no lady, I have it on good authority that cute animals and playing dress-up are not the entirety of feminine entertainment interests. To add further insult the games aren't typically designed well in the first place, so not only is an unwitting-yet-well-meaning consumer (read: non-gamer aunt/uncle/grandparent) duped into buying pandering product, they're buying something that has no entertainment value due to shoddy and shallow design. So of course if you're looking at the Crap Software pool of data, games with female protagonists do not sell well.

Next there're the "fan service" games. Some games, such as Bayonetta, walk a fine line with this as the game is well designed with a good story and fun gameplay, but a protagonist that is designed to titillate. Then there are the ones like BMX XXX and the Dead or Alive: Beach Volleyball series which are pure T&A. Like the "girl" games these are pandering titles, they just pander to a different audience. Like the "girl" games, most of the audience recognizes them as worthless titles devoid of any value beyond cheap thrills. This isn't to say video game characters should be dressed in a puritan manner. A little sex appeal isn't a bad thing and there's nothing wrong with the character you're going to be controlling for upwards of 15 hours being aesthetically pleasing, but when all your cast has to offer is boob-jiggle physics then you've got a shallow product that most people won't fall for. So of course if you're looking at the Look At My Tits Software pool of data, games with female protagonists do not sell well.

Finally, there's the "poorly marketed" games. These are the ones that took a strong story, crafted fun gameplay around it, and then just threw out into the market with little to no fanfare or support. Beyond Good and Evil is the poster child for this, as is The Wheel of Time. I've been reading gaming sites regularly for over a decade and I had no idea BG&E existed until my college roommate bought a copy, and even then I didn't buy it for myself until I saw it for sale a few years later at the Keesler AFB BX for $5 brand new and thought I'd take a chance. Best $5 I ever spent. The game was a financial flop (I think it didn't break 100,000 units sold) and poor marketing is acknowledged as a direct cause for the game's failure. So of course if you're looking at the Software We Made But Couldn't Be Bothered To Market pool of data, games with female protagonists do not sell well.

So what games with player-controlled female central protagonists DO sell well?

Generally: games where it is narratively relevant that your dude is a chick but mechanically agnostic in regards to the same fact; games that receive marketing support from the studios that are investing money in their creation and are counting on successful sales; games that don't adopt the attitude of "It's a lady! Quickly, we must lady-fy everything!" and insult the female audience by pandering or dumbing down the gameplay or story in a misguided attempt to make them girl-friendly. Girl gamers will adapt to difficulty curves and kick ass just as quick and hard as any guy gamer, and I do believe they are capable of understanding and enjoying deep, complex story lines. See: Frag Dolls.

Specifically: the Metroid series (Samus Aran); Resident Evil 1, 2, 3, 5 and Code: Veronica (Jill, Claire, Jill, Sheva and Jill, respectively); Final Fantasy XIII (Lightning); Borderlands (Lilith); Portal (Chell); Mirror's Edge (Faith); Heavy Rain (Madison); Left 4 Dead 1 & 2 (Zoey and Rochelle, respectively); Perfect Dark (Joanna Dark); Final Fantasy X (Yuna, Lulu); Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem (Alexandra, Ellia), American McGee's Alice (Alice); and No One Lives Forever (Cate) for starters. In other words, just make a game.

5 Comments

Deon said:

Yes!
I love diversity.

BrookeTF said:

Great article, I have bookmarked it with some other similar articles from this site. Reminds me that other people do care about this. =)
It just goes to show that female protagonists can work - As long as you give your game the same love and support as your other great male-starring games. Of course there will always be those insecure, immature, sexist losers who refuse to play a game with a woman on the cover - But not getting their filthy money is worth it for the courage and respect of releasing a great game with a good heroine to help improve the game industry and expand the minds of gamers.

tropicofanatic said:

There have been far more games with female protagonists than games with gay, black, asian, or hispanic protagonists. The video game industry seriously needs to diversify all around. I'm really getting tired of seeing white male power fantasies of blowing up the "evil" brown people repeated ad nauseam.

Charlie said:

I would love to see more female protagonists in games (and movies, and books, and all forms of media).

I do see the plight of the "marketing and money" team though, even if they are the villain of this piece. A lot of great games with female protagonists were named and some of them even sold fairly well but not quite as well as the games with male leads.

There's been so much "sameness" about male game leads that it makes you wonder if the game hero "template" is a bit too defined. Muscled, short dark hair, stubble, cocky, resolute, white.

Bayonetta was my favorite hero of any gender from a 2010 game.

Kevin said:

I agree completely with the Metroid-style of character and think that it is what games should be in reference of gender - that it doesn't matter wheterher you're female or male or whatever when you're kicking ass like it's nobody's business.

I just wonder where playing the wolf avatar of a Japanese sun goddess fits into the gender types...

And girls who like girls who like rumble packs!

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Recent Comments

Kevin on MS Dev - "I'm DYING To Write More Female Protagonists": I agree completely with the Metroid-style of character and think that it is what games should be in reference of...

Charlie on MS Dev - "I'm DYING To Write More Female Protagonists": I would love to see more female protagonists in games (and movies, and books, and all forms of media). I...

tropicofanatic on MS Dev - "I'm DYING To Write More Female Protagonists": There have been far more games with female protagonists than games with gay, black, asian, or hispanic protagonists. The video...

BrookeTF on MS Dev - "I'm DYING To Write More Female Protagonists": Great article, I have bookmarked it with some other similar articles from this site. Reminds me that other people do...

Deon on MS Dev - "I'm DYING To Write More Female Protagonists": Yes! I love diversity....

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