For the past two years, we’ve produced gender breakdowns of the games showcased at the major press conferences of E3, the game industry’s biggest annual event. We do this not because we believe that every game starring a female character will be great, or that every game starring a male character will be awful, but because, when taken in their entirety, the numbers can tell us something about whose stories the game industry deems worthy of telling, and whose it doesn’t. Obviously, the press conferences at E3 hardly cover every game released or even every game featured at the show, but they do tell us how some of the biggest developers and publishers in the industry choose to define and market themselves when given the tremendous amount of attention that E3 brings with it.
This year, more featured games than ever before allow players to either choose from a pre-existing assortment of characters of varied genders or to create their own. In fact, over half of all games featured at press conferences, 58 out of 109, fall into the category of games in which you do not play exclusively or primarily as a specific male or female protagonist. Being given the option to create your own character, or playing as multiple characters of different genders, is great. But it’s worth noting that, in games where a choice of gender is not provided, over three times as many games featured centered on men as centered on women. (In games that have both competitive multiplayer and single-player story campaigns, we took our data from the campaign. Therefore, Star Wars Battlefront II is among the games counted as having a female player character.) Our N/A category accounts both for games in which you play as a character of unspecified gender, such as Ori and the Will of the Wisps, and those games in which you essentially play as vehicles or other objects, such as Rocket League and Robocraft Infinity.
We appreciate and commend those games that featured female characters and players in their E3 demos. Anthem, for instance, is a game in which players can determine the gender of their character, but the demo centered on a female character and female player. Presentations like this help to normalize the presence of women in both online and physical gaming spaces.
Compared to last year, in which 12 times as many games featured male characters as featured female heroes, this would be a very good year. But the very fact that a year in which the number of games featuring men only outstrips those featuring women by a factor of 3 ½ instead of a factor of 12 qualifies as a “good year” is itself tremendously damning, revealing that there is still so far to go before we come anywhere close to achieving gender equity in gaming representations. Games that give us defined female heroes continue to be essential, in part because we still live in a culture that regularly encourages girls and women to project themselves onto and fully empathize with male characters, but rarely encourages boys and men to fully project themselves onto female characters. When players are encouraged to see a game universe exclusively through the eyes of a humanized female character, it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women as full human beings.
This year, as was the case last year, over 80% of games featured at E3 press conferences utilize violence as a gameplay mechanic. We have given the benefit of the doubt to card games such as Fable Fortune and Shadowverse in which the action clearly represents a battle, reasoning that they also simulate two people sitting across a table playing cards with each other. If we hadn’t done this, the percentage of nonviolent games would have been even lower.
As with our numbers on gender, it’s important to understand that this data isn’t meant to suggest that every game that employs combat mechanics is bad, or that every game that doesn’t will be good. Additionally, we are in no way equating all games that employ violent mechanics with each other; the data isn’t intended to suggest that the colorful sword-swinging of Tunic is the equivalent of the brutal beheadings we may see in a game like Middle-Earth: Shadow of War. Rather, we present the data to call attention to how prevalent violence remains in games of all kinds, because when violence is so consistently seen as a core component of game design, it limits our sense of what games are capable of and what kinds of stories they can tell.
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