The portrayal and use of women in games has once again come under the spotlight today after Dontnod creative director Jean-Maxime Moris claimed some publishers had demanded it change the lead female protagonist to a male in its upcoming game Life is Strange before signing any deal.
Thankfully, the Dontnod team stuck to their guns and got the backing of Square Enix to continue development the way they see fit.
But the demands from those other publishers are nonsense, on a critical and commercial level. There’s a growing demand for lead women in entertainment that’s not being met by triple-A games, and it’s because publishers are being led by outdated perceptions no longer relevant to today’s industry or consumer.
Firstly, let’s take a look at film.
In recent years, the number of lead women in films has been rising, and these movies have been major successes.
The Hunger Games films, starring Katniss Everdeen, as played by Jennifer Lawrence, has raked in $2.25bn worldwide at the box office to date, according to Box Office Mojo, and another film in the franchise is set to be released this year. This doesn’t include DVD, blu-ray and download sales either.
Then there’s Divergent, led by Beatrice Prior, as played by Shailene Woodley, which made $288.7m at the box office worldwide. The sequel, Insurgent, will be released in March.
Lucy, starring Scarlett Johansson, made some $458.8m, while Angelina Jolie’s Maleficent is reported to have raked in $757.7m.
These are big numbers. People are turning up.
Games are no different
Now you may be thinking, ‘well this is film, games are different’. But the facts don’t back this up. The only difference is, the audience and demand for women in games isn’t being met, while it is in film.
It’s well-publicised that the gender split in games now stands at approximately 50/50. According to SuperData in fact, 53.6 per cent of RPG players are now women, while females claim 57.8 per cent of the mobile market and 50.2 per cent of the PC market.
Yet there is still a false perception that the medium is dominated by male gamers who only want to play as male characters.
Let’s look at some game sales.
The reboot of Tomb Raider in 2013 has sold more than 6.5m copies to date. That’s 6.5m people who were happy to play a game with a woman as the lead, and not some cardboard copy cutout of a strong, probably shaven head male protagonist.
The Walking Dead series hasn’t suffered from its ensemble cast, and Season Two starred young girl Clementine as the main lead. To date, that series has sold more than 28 million episodes as of July 2014 and likely many more since. (Of course, being episodes, the count of full games will be much lower, you could estimate around 2.8m based on the number of episodes available).
Assassin’s Creed Liberation, the only AC game to star a female lead, was released on Vita in October 2012. Despite a low installed base, in February 2013 it was reported to have sold almost 600,000. It should be noted however that it was not completely clear if that was sold or shipped, but it still shows confidence in the game.
A few other well-received games have been released starring female leads in the past year, including Alien: Isolation (my personal game of the year), The Last of Us: Left Behind, and Bayonetta 2. It's difficult to argue these games would have fared better with men.
Meanwhile, games like the Mass Effect series, the Pokemon games and Skyrim, which let you choose the protagonist, have also sold extraordinarily well over the years, receiving critical acclaim to boot.
These titles were willing to open themselves up to choice, and it has paid dividends.
So why, for example, would a Call of Duty starring a woman as the lead not work? Or why would a female protagonist in a new IP put off consumers? What would it fundamentally change about the gameplay experience? The industry's default answer lies in outdated perceptions that just don't ring true today.
Games don’t have to star women and developers shouldn’t be made to do so if a male lead fits best with their creative vision.
But let’s not think female protagonists don’t work. They do, and there are facts and numbers to prove it.