Back in 2014, I was reading a tumblr post about a study done regarding representation in video games. Notably, the study could be boiled down to a rather disturbing soundbite: there are more non-human characters in video games than female characters in video games. Someone illustrated this soundbite using official art of Shadow the Hedgehog vs. official art of Chell from Portal.
In the thread of this post, I got into a discussion with wolftotheslaughter. They were saying:
I replied to wolftotheslaughter with the intention of pointing out that, yes, indeed, Chell is a wonderful, prominent female protagonist of a popular series of video games. But surely we don't need to be satisfied simply because Chell exists. That would be just as silly as saying that Gordon Freeman is the only male video game character that the world really requires... as great as Gordon Freeman is, surely we need Megaman and Duke Nukem and Corvo and several other male protagonists, too. The same is true of female protagonists as well.
It turns out that wolftotheslaughter responded to me to say that, well, maybe in the past video games were skewed too heavily toward male protagonists, but that was back in the 90s when girls weren't allowed to leave the kitchen and never touched icky boy things like video games.
Apparently, since girls have just recently left the kitchen and just recently started to care about video games, marketing schemes have changed to cater to the changing demographics, and surely, nowadays, sexism is over, and we've achieved parity with regard to gender representation in video games.
First of all, this person's historical account of the life girls lived in the 90s very strongly contradicts the experience I lived as a girl growing up in the 90s, and the experience I know several of my female friends who lived in the 90s and earlier. Hell, this person's historical account contradicts the experience of my grandmother, who told me about how much she loved playing Pong with the whole family back in the day. But I didn't want to respond to this person's construct of history with mere anecdotal accounts and be dismissed as a strange outlier who only knows other strange outliers. I wanted inarguable numbers (even though my anecdotal account of everyone I ever knew in the 90s loving or at least liking video games has plenty of weight... but I knew this troll would jump all over that, so, why not, let's go hard).
I did some research into the matter, and the whole tale of women and girls only recently starting to warm up to video games, and the justification that marketing teams only recently needed to start addressing this new, growing market... is the opposite of reality. Actually, women and girls have always been interested in video games, and in the past, video games used to be marketed more broadly. However, marketers say it's hard to have to market to everyone at once. Following the Video Game Crash of 1983, corporations have been desperately trying to make video games into a thing for boys so that they could more easily do targeted marketing to hit specifically male-gendered demographics, without needing to do the (apparently) much harder job of attempting to appeal to everybody at the same time.
Women and girls love video games so much that, despite attempts to elbow us out at every turn, we've stubbornly clung to our love of video games, and there's more of us than you might think, even though people fight this idea tooth and nail. A study can come out saying that adult women make up the largest "gamer" demographic, far larger than that of teenage boys -- and people can whine that they didn't distinguish "casual games" from the "real games". Another study came out in 2015 saying how 42% of surveyed women reported owning a console, where as only 37% of surveyed men reported owning and console, and people can whine about whether those women personally bought the console or not. But the fact of the matter is that girls and women play games, there have always been girls and women who play games, and our numbers are not nearly as few as stereotypes and marketers makes them out to be.
And, most importantly, the idea that games used to cater to a mostly male audience because girls were stuck in the kitchen and didn't care about video games... is pure hogwash.
I then turned my attention to tackling the second part of wolftotheslaughter's argument, that, over time, the gender representation of video games has improved, and, as of 2014, we were at parity. This also clashes with my perception, but I figured it wouldn't be too difficult to find some hard facts. After all, proving this boils down to a totally objective count, yes? And I would be interested to know, if we're not at parity, how far away are we? And are we trending in the right direction?
I first looked more deeply into that one study that found that there are more non-human video game characters than female video game characters. That sounds like they did some counting... let me see what their numbers are. Well, it turns out that this soundbite comes from a Children Now study from 2001, which is unfortunately old, and they only looked at the top ten selling games for each console at the time, and some of those games were sports games featuring like, the real people from the NBA. If a video game is going to represent a real life all-men's basketball team, the game is going to be all men, and that's not really the video game's fault (and we can argue separately about all the -isms present in gender segregated sports).
So while that study still provides some valid insights, it won't help me address this question to the depth I would want. But surely there's some newer data out there, right?
Well, if there is, I couldn't find it. For my day job, I do lots of data analysis and I make lots of graphs. So you know what? Let me put those skills to the task at home and do this myself in my spare time.
And so began a massive undertaking of tallying up as many video game characters as I could. I've spent 4 years now keeping a notebook handy whenever I was playing a video game, but I am finally ready to begin the process of starting to reply to wolftotheslaughter and to make my data readily available to anyone else who needs it.
Note that I said "begin". This will be a long-term ongoing endeavor that might just go on forever. We have decades of video games already in existence and more coming out every day - this data can never be complete. But I am ready to start the next phase of the process: providing what I have and continuing to update it in the future. As of November 2018, I've already tallied up over 5,000 unique characters from more than 400 games and from over 100 different, non-licensed "universes". ✽ We can already glean some valuable insights, and let the data continue to grow and become more and more complete over time.
To do this, I intend to start by making articles on individual games or series, and sharing them as articles here. As they are published, they will appear here.
The Gender Perception Gap
One thing I noticed a lot as I reviewed the data is something that I later learned is a common phenomenon in modern media: it's only about one-third female. Even though the human population as a whole is roughly 50% female (slightly more female than male), apparently our society has gotten so used to having things skewed male that we see it as "normal". Because of this so-called "gender perception gap", a population that is 33% female seems totally feminist, and any more than that, it's just way too many women -- even though true parity would actually be roughly equal percentages of male and female characters existing in a video game's universe as a whole. This skewed perception seems to cause even well-meaning game developers to have skewed representation in their games, and then the audience sees the game with their own skewed perceptions and are unable to casually notice just how skewed it is. Even with me looking at games from a feminist point of view, I would start counting characters of a game that I usually think of as having more fair representation and expecting this game to have a more fair percentage of female characters... to then count up the results and end up at, sigh, just 33% female representation once again. Keep an eye out for this phenomenon in the games reviewed as part of this project!
Gordon & Chell
The header image at the top of this article is from When Gordon Met Chell, an amazing fan video of Chell and Gordon Freeman teaming up -- something that I am desperately wishing to become canon whenever Valve learns how to count to three.
I used this image in particular because I really want to make the point that, I am not promoting the idea of female characters vs. male characters. Video game representation is very much a co-op game. Characters of all genders have important stories to share and important roles to play, from as heroic as saving the world from an alien menace, down to mentioning that the local shop has potions for sale. The terrain of possible video games is vast and full of fun possibilities. And I want to do my small part to help ensure that that terrain is fully explored, and that there is fair representation in the stories that video games collectively tell.
- For now, I am keeping the focus primarily on non-licensed universes. Like in the example of a game based on the NBA, a video game based on a movie or a comicbook or whatever is inevitably going to be impacted by the biases that already exist in the source material, and I want to be particularly pointing out the biases present in the video game industry. It might still be worthwhile to look at, out of a whole licensed universe, which characters ended up making it into the game or not, but let's tackle that later on.