Why next gen is about more than the consoles

2013 was all about the release of Sony’s and Microsoft’s next generation consoles. We were all dazzled about the new features and the possibility to share your gaming experience in social media.

But “next gen” is beginning to mean something else too. How about a step closer to gender equality? As the gap between the number of male and female gamers slowly thins, so does gender disparity in games media. Women are joining the game (pun intended) and the female stereotype is changing. But there is still a long way to go.

Of the developers taking this stuff seriously, Bioware is taking leadership. And even then it took them three Mass Effects before Commander Shepard started to be used in the marketing material. They also made the effort to use both male and female protagonists in different trailers at E3 this year. BioWare is well regarded as a gender-friendly company both for offering strong, confident women, like Commander Shepard, as playable characters and for depicting romantic relationships beyond the heterosexual norm as in Dragon Age: Origins. But BioWare’s reputation for their progressive stances on these issues would not loom so large if these sorts of depictions were commonplace in video games.

A study from ESA (Entertainment Software Association) show that nearly half of all gamers are women (45%). Adult male gamers have an average of 17 years of experience playing video games, adult female gamers an average of 13 years. It also shows that women 18 or older represent a significantly greater portion of the game-playing population (31%) than boys age 17 or younger (19%).

The ESA 2013 report of gaming industry

There clearly is a big group of women playing video games so why aren’t there more female lead characters? It’s not that they are completely missing but let’s face it, there aren’t that many and statistically I bet the number is daunting. I don’t believe mainstream developers have a problem with including women, or racial minorities, in their games but that there’s a deep-seated assumption that the core audience for these sorts of games is mainly white men and boys who won’t accept anything else when it comes to who’s presented as the public face of big franchises. I also believe that many developers at big studios want to start changing that assumption, but don’t really know how to and that they are afraid of the perceived risk.

At GDC (Game Developers Conference) in Mars this year BioWare Montreal designer Manveer Heir gave a speech about stereotypes in gaming. Some say this was the most important moment of the conference. “I want us as an industry to stop being so scared… Let’s create a game that changes the core experience for the player… let’s find a way to challenge the majority and the minority perception of how we deal with race, gender, sexual orientation and all other sources of social injustices we have in our world” said Heir.

Ubisoft is also on to something but they’re struggling to get there. Last year, Assassin’s Creed IV’s ‘Cry Freedom’ DLC cast you as Adéwalé, a freed slave whose story line centered around the brutalities of slavery. But while 12 Years A Slave was winning Oscars, here the same themes were only touched on in the main game and then hived off as downloadable content.

I believe empathy with the protagonist should come from emotional back stories and shared experiences within the game, not from what sex or ethnicity the characters are.

At PAX Prime this year a panel was dedicated to “women surviving and thriving in the gaming industry”. For one hour several women currently working in games journalism talked about their struggles and successes within the industry. Mary Kish [Producer, GameSpot], Neha Tiwari [Executive Producer, GameSpot], Megan Farokhmanesh [Editor, Polygon], Naomi Kyle [Host, IGN], Jessica Chobot [Host, Nerdist], Tara Long [Rev3Games] all shared their experiences and thoughts on stereotypes and a change of the video game culture.

So maybe, just maybe, “Next Gen” will come to mean something more than the consoles. Maybe it’ll mean a more open minded community…

To end this rant I’ll leave you with some great games (in no particular order) with female protagonists:

  1. Beyond: Two Souls (Quantic Dream featuring Ellen Page)
  2. Infamus: First Light (Sucker Punch)
  3. Mirror’s Edge (EA/Dice)
  4. Tomb Raider (Crystal Dynamics)
  5. Heavenly Sword (Ninja Theory)
  6. Assasin’s Creed III: Liberation (Ubisoft)
  7. Gravity Rush (Sony Japan)
  8.  Bayonetta (Platinum Games)