The Feminist Frequency team attended the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles this year to get a glimpse of the latest and greatest in gaming titles and technology.
There has been a lot of discussion about the improvements seen over previous years at E3 in terms of the representations of women in video games announced or presented at the show. And while the presence of titles fronted by and featuring women certainly was better in comparison to past years, it also needs to be said that we have a long way to go before we come close to approaching gender equity.
The following data is based on the games showcased at press conferences by Bethesda, Microsoft, Sony, EA, Ubisoft, Nintendo, and Square Enix at E3 2015:
Numbers on Gender
There were 7 games with exclusively playable female protagonists or 9% of a total 76 titles
There were 24 games with exclusively playable male protagonists or 32% of a total 76 titles
The games centered on women were: ReCore, Mirror’s Edge: Catalyst, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Rise of the Tomb Raider, the mobile game Lara Croft Go, and two indie titles: Tacoma and Beyond Eyes.
There were also 35 games in which players appear to be able to choose either a man or a woman. It’s always great to see more games with gender choice and this year we saw a few blockbuster franchises like FIFA and Call of Duty finally add playable women. Still, of those 35, titles only Dishonored 2 used its marketing and promotional space at E3 to predominantly focus on the female character option.
These numbers also reflect the fact that a purely binary understanding of gender was on display in the games featured at E3, with no options featured that might allow players to pick from a wider spectrum of gender identities or presentations.
Some may ask why it is important that there be games led exclusively by women, and why we make a distinction between those games in which the sole protagonist is a woman (such as Mirror’s Edge) and those games in which you have the option to play as either a male or female character (such as Fallout 4).
One reason why we need more games that are fronted exclusively by female characters is that it works to counter the long-established, long-reinforced cultural notion that heroes are male by default. By and large girls and women are expected to project themselves onto male characters, but boys and men are not encouraged to project themselves onto or identify with female characters.
When players are given the opportunity to see a game universe exclusively through the eyes of a female character with her own unique story, it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women, their lives, and their struggles.
As long as games continue to give us significantly more stories centered on men than on women, they will continue to reinforce the idea that female experiences are secondary to male ones. Stories have the power to influence our understanding of the world around us and when we can virtually embody the lives and experiences of people different from ourselves it opens up greater possibilities for empathy and understanding.
Here’s a bit of info on how we came up with our data:
We counted only those upcoming games which were given full trailers, announcements, or demonstrations on stage, so games that only appear briefly in montages or sizzle reels are not included. Games in which you lead a party made up of male and female characters but which center squarely on a male character, such as Final Fantasy VII, are counted as male-led games (because it’s Cloud’s story). Additionally, we are well aware that Yoshi’s gender has been discussed and debated, but Nintendo uses male pronouns when referring to Yoshi, so for our purposes here, Yoshi’s Woolly World (which looks delightful!) is classified as a male-led game.
Survey on Combat
Of the 76 games counted, only 18 are nonviolent, or at least appear as if they might not have mechanics involving combat or violence. That is only 24%, meaning roughly 3 out of every 4 titles announced or showcased at E3 2015 employ combat mechanics. By this, we mean that the player is either required to or can choose to engage in violence as a means of conflict resolution, not simply that violence exists within the world of the game.
That 24% includes 5 sports games, 3 racing games, 2 separate Animal Crossing games and a mobile game about the Minions from the Despicable Me movie franchise, among others. If we exclude sports and racing games the percentage of titles without combat drops to only 15%.
In compiling data on whether or not a game’s mechanics incorporate violence or combat, we aren’t making a value judgment, or saying that the cartoonish sword-swinging of The Legend of Zelda is no different from the gratuitous chainsaw kills in DOOM. The numbers by themselves can’t paint a complete picture. Rather, these numbers are presented here only to demonstrate how prevalent violence as a mechanic is in all sorts of games, because it is worth considering how, in relying so heavily on violence as a core component of game design, developers and publishers are not exploring opportunities to tell other kinds of stories and create other kinds of games. When game narratives consistently take place in inescapably hostile antagonistic environments, it severely limits the kinds of stories that can be told.
The medium has near-limitless potential, and in indie games like Tacoma, Firewatch and Beyond Eyes, we get a glimpse of what’s possible when games approach human experience through a lens of empathy rather than one of violence. Games have only begun to scratch the surface of what can be done, the stories that can be told and the experiences that can be illuminated when combat isn’t employed as a lynchpin of game design. Fully realizing this potential requires that game creators continue exploring the possibilities, investing in innovative mechanics and storytelling techniques to push the medium forward.