On some nights right before I go to bed, I’ll spend a few minutes mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and stopping to read any articles that catch my eye. This past Sunday I was doing just that, about to put my phone away, when a post by IGN, a popular video games publication, caught my eye: “Death Standing Will Be Out Before 2019, May Feature Heroine." The post was referencing a mysterious new game being developed by Kojima Productions, and was mostly innocuous. The “may feature heroine” part, however, got to me.
Now, this is not to say that I’m frustrated with the game designers who are announcing that their main character may be a woman, or with IGN for reporting such an announcement. It’s the state of the industry that makes such an announcement necessary that I find frustrating. The appearance of a heroine in Death Standing is enough of a big deal to warrant its own headline, in contrast to the lack of fanfare that surrounds the gender of a male main character. This is because the industry is sadly lacking in games that feature female protagonists. At 2015’s E3 summit for video games, only 9% of the 76 games showcased were fronted by women protagonists, while 32% had male leads. In other words, in games where the focus is on a chatacter's powerful story rather than the immersion of a player-created character in a world, the default hero is overwhelming male.
All this is true in a world where, despite stereotypes, women actually buy and play video games at comparable rates to men. When surveyed by the Pew research center in January 2016, 48% of women reported playing video games, as opposed to 50% of men. When taking into account the population difference by gender in the United States, this means that there are only a few thousand more men than women who play video games in the United States.
On the other hand, though, 60% of American adults agree with the statement that “most people who play video games are men.” When this kind of disparity between reality and perception exists, it allows for and aids in the creation of a culture that is not just casually and subconsciously sexist, but that can often be openly and aggressively hostile to women. This is, in no small part, due to the fact that video games consciously target men in their marketing, an aspect of which is the casting of far more male leads than female leads. There’s something of a vicious cycle here: as more male leads are cast, more people think gamers are male, and to appeal to these male gamers more male leads are cast. The cycle helps perpetuate a subtly (and sometimes definitely no subtly) sexist culture surrounding video games.
However, the headline that annoyed me also points to the solution to this problem: make more games with female leads. It’s harder to do than it is to type, especially in an industry that’s largely perceived as male. But the success of titles like “Tomb Raider” and “Metroid” make it clear that games with strong women in the lead role can be wildly successful. And if they continue to be made, perhaps one day it won’t be remarkable when one is.