Twenty years have passed since my first job in the games industry. Back then, development roles were dominated by men. I was the only woman in the audio department and I think there was also a female artist. Nowadays, there is a greater swell of women working in the games (albeit far from a 50/50 split). As such, women now have a greater influence on games development than ever before.
More women are playing and developing games than ever before
In the nineties and early noughties, marketing departments felt they couldn't 'sell' a female lead to a majority male gaming audience (back in the nineties, the estimated female audience for games was a quarter of all gamers). Now, stats say the market is ready (a recent Statista report recently stated that of the 1.8 billion gamers in the world, 55% are male and 45% female) and more women are playing and developing games than ever before, leading a drive to populate games with more female leads.
Young girls play games. Gaming isn't just a male activity. I’ve found this out first-hand, speaking at schools about working in games. Back in the late nineties, I spoke at an all-girls school where no girls said they played video games. Fast-forward to 2018 and now all the girls throw up their hands in the affirmative. If girls are playing games, more girls will start making games. We need help to promote this by making it clear that your gender, or how you identify yourself, is no border to entrance in to the games industry. But, encouraging women to work in tech industries, such as games, isn’t down to the women already working in them. The approach needs to be a multi-pronged. Developers need to encourage women to enter the industry, educators must make it clear that games development is an option for all and, finally, marketing teams need to target female audiences.
Interesting characters in games
There’s been a shift towards placing strong female leads front and centre in more games. 2017 was a bumper year. We saw Aloy (Ashly Birch) in Horizon Zero Dawn, Chloe Frazer (Claudia Black) and Nadine Ross (Laura Bailey) in Uncharted - Lost Legacy and Melina Juergens’ stunning performance as Senua in Hellblade: Senau's Sacrifice, not to mention Valerie Rose Lohman as Edith in Edith Finch. These were all characters that were interesting because of their stories, not their gender, but, also, none felt like male characters skinned as female.
The lollipop weapon
Having said that, look at Fornite. My son and his mixed sex group of friends love Fortnite (as do the England football team, as they keep saying in interviews – I bet Epic love that!) In Fortnite, characters are merely avatars. You play towards, or buy skins, for these avatars. The skins are a mix of male and female characters and no-one cares about the sex of the skin, they choose what looks cool to them. At one point, they were all desperate to be a pink female punk brandishing a lollipop as a weapon!
Fortnite might not offer ‘well rounded’ characters, but there is a choice. It’s make-believe, players can be whatever they want to be in a game irrespective of gender, race, species, etc. The industry should encourage this approach, rather creating characters following traditional boy/girl design. Diversity is not simply a buzz-word, it’s our shared reality, and games characters should reflect the audience.
Life beyond the bloodshed
The desired approach outlined above includes male characters. The most interesting male characters are no longer standard alpha-male caricatures. Gamers want more nuanced characters, with a life beyond the bloodshed they unleash. Compare 2005’s Kratos with the 2018 version, for example. The industry is growing up and reflecting a desire across the board for characters with more than a kill-it-and-move-on motivation.
The subject of strong female leads was hot at this year’s E3 following the announcement of The Last of Us 2 and Assassin's Creed Odyssey, games that received great receptions.
In the Last of Us 2 trailer, we witnessed Ellie’s combative strength, but also her personal and vulnerable traits, making her already feel like a fully rounded character.
Ubisoft Assassin's Creed Odyssey allows gamers to play as a man or a woman. Ubisoft had already experimented with this idea back in 2015 when you played a section of Assassin's Creed Syndicate as Evie Frye (Victoria Atkin).
Strong female leads are being developed across both AAA and indie sectors. The indies are trailblazing with titles successful titles like Edith Finch (Giant Sparrow), Hellblade (Ninja Theory), Her Story (Sam Barlow) and the forthcoming titles including Erica (Flavourworks) and Du Lac and Fey: Dance of Death (Salix Games) which has several strong female characters.
Marketing departments are taking note of the audience’s desire for female leads, even putting women on the box art. The reaction placing a woman front and centre on Battlefield V got one hell of a reaction, both positive and negative. But the marketing department did its job right, everyone was talking about it.
There’s quite some way to go, but the games industry is moving towards equality in terms of audience, character representation and development teams.
Play is universal and games are for everyone. Let’s continue to build those imaginary worlds, reflecting our diverse world.
By Adele Cutting