Why isn’t there a stronger female presence in the video game industry? Well before we can address this vital question, we must discuss the inherent problem in this essay. If there is any group that is over-represented in the video game industry it is straight, white men. So having me write about the lack of women within the industry is both presumptuous and a little bit unhelpful. A woman actually in the game industry would easily be the best person for the job. While I don’t personally know anyone who fit that description, I am readily familiar with someone who was in a similar position, Virginia Woolf. Woolf’s essay “A Room of One’s Own” carefully reveals the reasons for the lack of woman’s presence in literature. Her voice will certainly be helpful here.
The title of Woolf’s essay is “A Room of One’s Own”, which elegantly introduces her central thesis: in order to write, a woman must have the means, the time, and the space to create. I don’t really need to tell you that all those things have become more readily available for women. Since women receive the same educational opportunities as men (at least they are supposed to), they are more easily able to discover and cultivate these interests and talents. Woolf tells the story of a theoretical sister of Shakespeare, who is just as brillent, but because of the culture she exists in, is never able to discover her talent. She could thrive in the modern world. So, with all this in mind, why isn’t there a stronger female presence in the video game industry? It primarily has to do with two things, scale and culture. Writing literary work is mostly accomplished by one person. Video games, especially the AAA games that gain the most public and media attention, take teams of hundreds with millions of dollars on the line. There are significant exceptions. The smash hit platformer Super Meat Boy was made entirely by two people. So was the enigmatic puzzler Braid. (Hellman, Indie Game: The Movie) But even those games require money, investors, and publishers to allow the game to reach the public. A room of one’s own, and enough money to provide for one’s self may be enough to make a certain scale of games, but it is not enough to make those games reach the public. Even worse, it is not enough to make the scale of games that reach mass audiences. Books are relatively inexpensive things to create, but games usually take at least a few hundred thousand dollars. Which brings us to the second problem, culture.
When Virginia Woolf went to the British museum to find the truth about women and literature she found a immense sea of writing about women. If Woolf were to go to a Gamestop today, she find almost nothing about women, however the games she would find would be just as sexist as much of what she read. However, it would be in a profoundly different sense. Women act primarily, with a fair amount of exceptions, as two things in games, objectives and player characters. In Super Mario, Peach doesn’t really have a personality, or wants, or goals. She essentially acts as an excuse to move the player through the game. She is something you get when you win. As terrible as that sounds, it is for all intents and purposes true. This trope shows up everywhere, from Legend of Zelda to Super Meat Boy. Player characters are where things get more divisive. When the player is a women in the game she may be, and usually is, just as physically powerful as any of the men. The problem comes in that they are women designed to be played by men. Many of these characters are hyper-sexualized, and that alone is their defining characteristic. Characters such as Ivy from Soul Caliber, or Morrigan from Darkstalkers are good examples. A more recent example is Catwoman from Batman: Arkham City. In terms of ability to fight enemies, she is mechanically the same as Batman. However, she is dressed is a skintight suit with a deep neckline and is almost always referred to in sexual terms throughout the game. While the seductive bit is an important part of Selina Kyle's character, in Arkham City, that is the only thing she is defined by. We have a gaming culture that rarely create great female characters for a potentially female audience.
That isn’t to say that things haven’t gotten better, they have. Games like Mass Effect allow the player to be either a man or a woman and have strong, engaging female characters outside the player to boot. Bioshock Infinite offers an engaging twist on the traditional “Rescue woman A from location B” plot, and creates one of the most amazingly crafted characters (not just female) in gaming today. The now classic, universally acclaimed game Portal has a female lead. One of the most beloved characters in gaming history is Samus, a strong female character. The most recent Tomb Raider game was a solid hit. However, the lack of triple A titles focused toward women is astounding. Mass Effect put most of its marketing muscle behind the male main character. Bioshock Infinite removed the female lead from the box art, opting for a cover showing the player character, a white, grizzled man holding a shotgun. According to a study done by EEDAR, in a survey of around 600 games, only 24 were found to have female protagonists alone, and less than half of them gave you a choice. In fact, according to the same study those games with female protagonists alone were given less than half the marketing budget of games with only male protagonists (Kuchera). At least Woolf had a series of classic female authors she could list off at the beginning of the essay. We don’t have the good fortune to name game designers.
The portrayal of female heroes is troubling, but even more disturbing is the “boy’s club” mentality of the industry. In November of last year, a simple question, why aren’t there more women in game development?, caused a flood of responses on Twitter, under the hashtag #1reasonwhy. The women in the game industry reported stories of sexism, put under the thin guise of “good fun”. Stories of being mistaken for assistants. Stories of people expressing doubt at the very idea of women playing games. Stories of being sexually harassed at conventions. It is that culture you are walking into when you want to create games (Plunkett). Woolf’s concept of the “room of one’s own” is relevant in that women were being robbed of the opportunity to create. Woolf creates a vivid and uncomfortably familiar picture of that culture in this passage “...it is fairly evident that even in the nineteenth century a woman was not encouraged to be an artist. On the contrary, she was snubbed, slapped, lectured and exhorted. Her mind must have been strained and her vitality lower by the need of opposing this of disproving that.” There is a remarkable sense of discouragement along the lines Woolf illuminates. I believe it is that culture, combined with the scale of production needed to create video games, that has caused the lack of both female protagonists and female designers and developers. There are very few places to go outside the main studio system, and when that system is as toxic as it seems to be, it is understandable that women creators wouldn’t want to be a part of it. The lack of female protagonists feeds this as well. If I want to introduce my little sister to games, she will have to really look for female characters she wants to play as. Much less ones to inspire her to become a great game designer.
The problem is not so much that women don’t have the space or time to make games, but that the industry pretends not to have the space for them. Woolf acknowledges a similar problem, and offers a clear solution. However, with the video game industry being as massive as it is, it is hard to find such elegant answer. I will deposit this, that the people losing the most by not hiring women are the same people who are lowering marketing budgets for games with female protagonists. David Gaider, a head writer at Bioware (the creators of Mass Effect), had an experience that illustrates this perfectly. The team of writers were going over scripts for an upcoming Bioware title. The scene in question was a sex scene. The criticism, analysis and praise was continuing as normal until one of many female writers pointed out that a specific moment in the game’s script could be construed as a rape scene. Once this was pointed out, the author realized this was true, and was horrified. They quickly changed the scene. Gaider argues that if their hadn’t been any female writers there, this incredibly offensive moment could have made it into the final game. This is a voice we need within the game industry, for reasons practical as well as artistic.
Kuchera, Ben. “Games with Exclusively Female Heroes don’t Sell (because publishers don’t support them ” penny-arcade.com. Penny Arcade Report, November 21, 2012
Gaider, David. “Female Perspective in Game Development” A Personal Blog
Hellmen, David Hellman.net
Indie Game: The Movie. Pajot, Lisanne, James Swirkney Blinkworks Media. 2012. Netflix. Web.
Wiedner, David. “Drones Over Wall Street” wsj.com. Wall Street Journal, March 13, 2013
Plunkett, Luke. “Here’s a Devestating Account of the Crap Women Have to Deal With. In 2012” kotaku.com Kotaku, November 27, 2012
Woolf, Virginia “A Room of One’s Own”