Oct 1 2013

Where the Girls Aren’t

Working overtime to keep female gamers invisible


Bioshock: Infinite cover

This videogame’s cover was missing one of the game’s two main characters.

It’s no secret that the video game community has trouble with women, whether it’s the meticulously documented cases of sexual harassment during play (IGN.com 12/13/12) or the overt attempts to silence their opinions on the matter (Raw Story, 4/18/13). But if you think it stops at 14-year-olds in their parents’ basement, you’re wrong: The gaming companies have chosen a target demographic (adolescent boys) and they’ll do whatever they have to to make them happy—even if that means pretending real women don’t exist.

This year saw the release of at least two games with prominent, well-received female characters: Naughty Dog’s The Last of Us and 2K’s Bioshock: Infinite. Both games’ plots revolve around overtly masculine figures with tragic pasts (Booker in Bioshock, Joel in Last) protecting their surrogate daughters (Elizabeth and Ellie, respectively) from danger against a backdrop of bloody revolution.

But the similarities don’t stop at the subject matter: Despite the fact that the most dynamic character in each game is female, both characters were largely absent from promotional material: Elizabeth is absent from Bioshock’s cover, and Ellie was actually photoshopped out of at least one prominent magazine’s promotions for Last.

In Naughty Dog’s case, the incident was completely beyond their control: the images they submitted to the European magazine GameReactor featured Ellie, but the publication opted to use some of their time and manpower to digitally remove her (Destructoid, 6/19/13). 2K has no such excuse, since their decision to leave a main character off their game’s cover was theirs alone.

Both these games are far more dependent on storytelling than your average A-list title, and since the characterization of both women was so heavily lauded, this seems like comically terrible marketing. If your game’s about shooting, you can be sure the ads will show lots of guns, but with a game that’s all about character development, hiding 50 percent of its story’s main characters seems like advertising a car while concealing the fact it has wheels.

As is so often the case with high-profile media, the culprit can be traced to market analysis: The suits who promote games have decided that video games with female protagonists just don’t sell—and can point to a recent study to support that view. Trouble is, female-lead games receive on average less than 40 percent of the marketing budget as male-lead games, making their lower average sales a fait accompli (Eurogamer, 3/19/13).

In fact, the idea that female leads poison profits isn’t backed up by industry realities: 45 percent of gamers are women, according to the Entertainment Software Association, and there are more female gamers over 18 than there are male gamers under 18. On top of that, the Tomb Raider series, starring archaeologist/adventurer Lara Croft, is one of the best-selling franchises of all time.

But ignoring women is better than the apparent alternative, which, traditionally, has been actively promoting rape. Video-game marketers have in the past employed such sociopathic tactics as using sexual assault to advertise a car-racing game (Cracked.com, 3/25/13).

Recent attempts are no better. Take, for example, Kara: a female character at the center of developer Quantic Dream’s attempts to showcase the Playstation 3’s graphical capabilities by creating an incredibly human-like robot that, over the course of the five-minute video, gains sentience and begs for her life.

Naturally, Kara is a sexually attractive white woman (BoingBoing, 3/8/12), and the voice that chooses whether she lives or dies is a man. Spoiler: He lets her live once she surrenders all dignity.

So maybe it’s not accurate to say that women never appear in video game advertising—it’s just that when they do appear, they are sex robots that exist only at a man’s whim and mercy.

But the worst recent example—and sadly, one of the most indicative—wasn’t for any one game. It was something that happened at Microsoft’s XBox One demonstration at the E3 video conference. During the scripted demonstration of a fighting game, a male player used the game to beat up a female player, telling her to “just let it happen” because it would “be over soon” (Atlantic Wire, 6/10/13)—employing the same kind of rape-like language that some insist is the norm in videogame discourse.

Of course, it is not the norm: the video game community is clearly divided between those that like to “jokingly” threaten to rape people, and those that want to act like human beings. Despite Microsoft’s claims of innocence (or, more specifically, ignorance), until they make better amends, they have made a choice as to which side they’re on. We just wish they’d made a different one.

J.F. Sargent (@JFSargent on Twitter) is a frequent contributor to the website Cracked.