Writers discuss the portrayal of male and female characters in gaming, and how things should change

Depiction of women in games ‘a disaster’

The depiction of women in games is "a disaster", says the creative director behind mobile game 80 days.

This year has seen triple-A titles such as Alien: Isolation and DLC such as The Last of Us: Left Behind and InFamous: First Light star a female character in the lead roles, but generally white males have taken a central role in big budget games.

When asked by Develop why there is a focus on men in central roles, Inkle and 80 days creative director Jon Ingold blamed the “circular logic” of execs that look at sales data and conclude male leads will generate a higher return on investment than female protagonists.

“Multiply that by an astronomical budget, and it starts to look like lead females will costs hundreds of thousands of dollars – not in animation cost, but in actual lost revenue,” he said.

“I imagine Hollywood does exactly the same calculation when creating big budget movies. It’s irrefutable logic, and also, complete madness.

“I don’t think things will improve in triple-A, or in Hollywood. I think any exceptions – The Last of Us: Left Behind DLC, or Tomb Raider, or Beyond – will be seen as proof that female leads are a risk. But then, all the interesting narrative stuff is being done outside triple-A now, because the same sales logic is also forcing games to be gun focused and driving focused, and guns and driving don’t make for very interesting narratives."

Ingold also said however that the depiction of men in games isn’t much better, as game leads aren’t just 99 per cent male, “they’re 99 per cent the same male”.

“Hell, people praised Joel from the Last of Us as being an unconventional lead, which just shows how narrow the distribution is,” he said.

Meg Jayanth, the writer behind Inkle’s 80 days, said some interesting depictions of women in games, as well as other underrepresented groups, were coming out of the indie scene, “usually in games made by women”.

Despite this progress, Jayanth feels most games are “pretty terrible” at representing and depicting women and present, highlighting the best women protagonists being those in games that allow the player to choose their gender, such as in Mass Effect.

“I love Shepard, but she is essentially written as male and gender-flipped,” she said.

“That’s a step forward, but it isn’t enough – there need to be more women fronting games, more women being nuanced heroes and villains and just plain being people in games.”

Jayanth added that for things to change, the industry itself needed to be more representative of its audience.

“The focus on men in games comes from that in part, but I think it also comes from some unexamined assumptions – for instance, the idea that men don’t want to play games ‘as’ women, or that games with a female protagonist won’t sell,” she said.

“This is in no way a problem limited to the game industry, either.”

Dragon Age: Inquisition writer David Gaider is another voice that has said the portrayal of women in games “could stand some improvement”, and stated it is something the team at BioWare is trying to achieve by offering choice to players.

“I think there are mostly men in lead roles because there are mostly men working in the games, and that’s what’s always been done,” said Gaider.

“As an RPG, our proposal to players is to offer choice – play whom you want, as you want. That’s meant to be empowering, and a better overall approach given the diversity of audiences in the games industry.”

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