For the fourth year in a row, we’ve made our data-gathering excursion into each of the major E3 press conferences to see if things are actually getting better in terms of female representation; to identify those areas in which we’re making progress, and those in which we’re just treading water. For purposes of this year’s study, we recorded every game showcased at the EA, Microsoft, Square Enix, Ubisoft, Sony, Bethesda, PC Gaming, and Nintendo Direct events, aside from those games that only appeared briefly in montages (such as the ID@Xbox montage) and Starfield from the Bethesda conference, about which any conclusions we might draw would be pure speculation. Also, games that appeared in multiple shows, such as Just Cause 4 and Fallout 76, were only counted once.
Additionally, we’ve added a new category to our tally this year: gender-ambiguous. This refers to those few games, such as Ori and the Will of the Wisps and Tunic, in which the player character appears to have been deliberately designed to not be interpreted as belonging to any particular gender, a trend we certainly welcome.
Okay, let’s get to the data. With the exception of the particularly low point of 2016 in which only two games shown featured exclusively female protagonists (ReCore and Horizon Zero Dawn), the percentage of games shown at E3 that focus on women has hovered around the 7-9% range for the past few years, and this year shows no improvement, with 9 games, or roughly 8% of games shown, featuring female protagonists. (We counted games such as Gears of War 5 here, which may allow players to sometimes take the role of supporting male characters, so long as they clearly focus on a female character as the primary protagonist.) By contrast, just over three times as many featured games, 29 in all or roughly 24%, focus on male heroes or solely have male playable avatars or characters.
Some may wonder why the ratio of male representation to female representation matters when fully half of games shown, 59 or exactly 50%, either allow players to choose characters of different genders or have players shifting between protagonists of different genders. The answer is quite simple. When a game (such as 2017’s Horizon Zero Dawn, or the upcoming The Last of Us 2) features a set female protagonist, every player who enters those worlds must experience them through the lens of Aloy, or Ellie, or whoever the female protagonist might be. These games work to normalize the notion that male players should be able to project themselves onto and identify with female protagonists just as female players have always projected ourselves onto and identified with male protagonists. The fact that yet again, as in 2015 and 2017, games featured at E3 are over three times as likely to feature a male player-character as a female one speaks to the fact that we still have a long way to go before being anywhere remotely close to gender parity, and sadly, we haven’t been making progress here.
It’s also important to state what the data doesn’t mean. Of course, not every game that features a female protagonist does so in a way that challenges gaming’s long history of sexually objectifying women, and not every game that features a male protagonist treats its female characters poorly. Naturally, not every game featuring a female protagonist is good, and not every game featuring a male protagonist is bad. The numbers don’t speak to the quality of any individual game. Rather, they are meant to illuminate larger trends and problems with regard to gender representation. It’s also worth mentioning that, with those games that feature characters of multiple genders, it’s meaningful when demos at E3 feature female characters or players, as UbiSoft did during their demo of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, and EA did during the demo of Anthem.
At least as important as who the games themselves focus on is who comes out on stage to represent the games industry, and in that regard, this year was truly dismal. During the Bethesda event, not counting musician Andrew W.K., 12 men took to the stage to present and discuss games; only one woman appeared. At UbiSoft, the situation was similarly dire, with 14 male presenters and just two women, while Microsoft’s presser featured seven men and just one woman. It’s hard to say that we’re making meaningful progress in the games industry when E3 press conferences still help solidify the notion of gaming as an industry dominated by men, creating games for men.
Of course, the games showcased at E3 don’t represent the entire breadth of games released each year. Why, then, the focus on E3? Because E3, arguably the biggest gaming event of each year, is the biggest opportunity for publishers to reach their audiences, to define themselves, and to define the industry as a whole. More than at any other event, during E3, the industry tells us how it wants to be perceived and thought about by fans.
The ratio of games featuring combat as a core mechanic vs. those that don’t has also held pretty steady for the past four years. This year, we have a breakdown of 92 games involving combat, or about 78%, and 26 games not featuring combat, or about 22%. (For comparison’s sake, in 2015, the percentages were 76% to 24%; in 2016, 81% to 19%, and in 2017, 83% to 17%.) In addition, of course, to puzzle games like Tetris Effect, racing games like Forza Horizon 4, purely narrative games like The Awesome Adventures of Captain Spirit, and management games like Jurassic World Evolution, we also included all sports games in the non-combat category, although given that football routinely does serious, lasting harm to players’ bodies, you could certainly argue that Madden is a more violent game than some of those that do feature combat. We also didn’t include card games, such as The Elder Scrolls Legends, despite the fact that the playing of cards is meant to symbolize physical combat.
As with matters of gender, this data isn’t meant to suggest that games with combat are inherently bad, or that games without combat are inherently good. Rather, it’s intended to illuminate the fact that combat is still so often viewed as an essential part of games, that violence in one form or another is more often than not the primary way of interacting with the worlds that games create and the primary way of solving problems that game characters face. This widespread normalization of and reliance on violence is unfortunate both because of the values implicit in any medium that relies so heavily on violent stories and combat mechanics, and because it means that the vast potential for innovative games that don’t rely on combat is only very slowly being explored.