Do We Need More Playable Female Characters in Video Games?

Lightning from Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy has a long tradition of playable female characters.
Final Fantasy has a long tradition of playable female characters. | Source

The Female Protagonist Crisis in Video Games

There's been a lot of controversy lately about the lack of playable female characters in popular game franchises. Ubisoft recently got taken to task when it was revealed that Assassin's Creed: Unity and Far Cry 4, two of their flagship titles, both lacked playable female protagonists. Rock Star was likewise criticized in 2013 for having three playable male characters and no playable female characters in Grand Theft Auto V.

Many gamers and journalists are seeing this as part of a regressive trend and an unforgivable oversight in today's diversity-conscious market, frequently citing the ESA's (Entertainment Software Association's) report for 2013 that revealed that 45% of all gamers are now women and girls as evidence that game developers are not adequately serving their market. But is the state of female representation in games as dire as it appears?

How Many Games Have Female Protagonists?

I've always been partial to strong female characters myself (I blame that on seeing Alien as a child) so I wanted to see just how bad the bias against female playable characters was. A few people have already taken a stab at this but, being the perfectionist that I am, I'm not confident about the accuracy of their results so I decided to start wading through some games myself. So far, I've complied a list of 400+ video games drawn from popular franchises and I've come up with some interesting results.

Aveline de Grandpré from Assassin's Creed Liberation

Aveline quickly became a fan favorite among gamers.
Aveline quickly became a fan favorite among gamers. | Source

Shepard from Mass Effect

Shepard is one of the most popular female protagonists in the industry.
Shepard is one of the most popular female protagonists in the industry. | Source

Male and Female Avatars

Before I discuss the numbers, it helps to have an understanding of the different approaches that games take toward assigning characters to players. There are actually quite a few different methods, not all of which fit neatly into clear-cut categories, but in most cases, one of the following methods is used:

  1. Players are assigned a fully-fleshed out, premade character of a specific gender around which a complex narrative has been built. The entire game is played from this character's perspective. This is like reading a book written from the perspective of a single protagonist that never lets you peak inside the head of another character. Examples: Wolfenstein: The New Order, Watch Dogs.
  2. Players are assigned a series of premade characters of specific genders, with the player assuming control over each character in turn at the portion of the story assigned to that character. This is like reading a book or watching a movie that has several different protagonists pursuing separate story arcs. In film and literature, this approach is very common, if not the most common kind of narrative structure but in games it is relatively rare. Example: Heavy Rain, The Walking Dead: 400 Days DLC.
  3. Players are assigned or select from a group a party of premade characters, typically of both genders, which they control simultaneously. This is typically called an ensemble cast and is used most often in turn-based RPGs and tactical shooters. Example: Final Fantasy, Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon.
  4. Players are assigned a fully developed, premade character but are allowed to choose that character's gender. The narrative built around this character has been designed in such a way that it accommodates the player's decision; ie. aside from minor details, the narrative is the same regardless of the gender the player chooses. Example: Mass Effect, Halo Reach.
  5. Players are given a choice between two or more premade characters, and frequently there are male and female characters to choose from. Often, the remaining character options play a supporting role in the narrative and are controlled by AI, or, alternately, are available as options in co-op or multiplayer gameplay. Example: Mario Kart, Hunted: The Demon's Forge.
  6. Players are allowed to create a custom character from scratch. In these games, the player is typically allowed to pick their gender as part of their customization. Example: Skyrim, Dark Souls.
  7. The player interacts with the game without the use of an in-game avatar. Example: Tetris, Angry Birds.

Metroid's Samus

Samus predates Lara Croft by a decade and is the star of one of the game industry's oldest and most successful franchises.
Samus predates Lara Croft by a decade and is the star of one of the game industry's oldest and most successful franchises. | Source

How Common Are Female Protagonists?

After an examination of 400 video games spanning a variety of genres and platforms, I came up with the following statistics:

  • Over 90% of all games have a playable male character, either as the lead protagonist, a secondary character with their own story arc, or as a playable option selected from a pool of premade characters.
  • By contrast, just under 50% of all games have a playable female character, and often this role is minor (a single chapter or scenario), or the number of female options is limited compared to the number of male options. (For example, there may be four characters to choose from, but only one of them is female.)
  • There are over 6 times as many games about a sole male protagonist as there are about a sole female protagonist. In other words, for every Lara Croft, there are about six male leads.
  • Games are almost 50% more likely to feature a mixed cast of male and female characters than a sole female protagonist. In other words, developers are more likely to hedge their bets by including characters of both genders than they are to bet on a single female character.
  • About 1 in 5 games allow the player to determine the gender of their character at the start of the game.
  • About 30% of all games allow you to assume the role of a female protagonist and maintain that role for the duration of the game.

Lara Croft from Tomb Raider

When people talk about playable female characters, Lara Croft is often the first person who springs to mind.
When people talk about playable female characters, Lara Croft is often the first person who springs to mind. | Source

Gender Disparity in Playable Characters

According to the ESA's statistics, the relationship between games focused on male and female protagonists should be approximately 1:1 (11:9). According to my current data, the existing bias is 212:34, or about 6:1; ie. there are approximately 6 times as many games focused exclusively on male protagonists as there are games focused on female protagonists. Bad, but not as bad as the results that other researchers have come to.

Six to one is a pretty significant disparity, but this only accounts for games that are specifically about a single predetermined protagonist of a specified gender. If we include those games that give the player the option to select their character's gender at the beginning of the game (Mass Effect, Skyrim, World of Warcraft, etc.), the gap narrows considerably to 299:121, or approximately 2.5:1. In this case, male players are only about two and a half times more likely to be able to play through an entire game exclusively as a character of their own gender as female players. This is still a sizable gap, but not as discouraging as the gap between male and female-only franchises.

Nilin from Remember Me

Remember Me's lackluster sales are often pointed to as evidence that female protagonists are bad for business. Portal seemed to do just fine.
Remember Me's lackluster sales are often pointed to as evidence that female protagonists are bad for business. Portal seemed to do just fine. | Source

Gender and Genre

There are other factors to consider as well. For example, this data doesn't take into consideration male and female preferences when it comes to genre or platforms. It's entirely possible that in those genres preferred by female gamers (for sake of argument, let's say that point and click adventure games and mobile puzzle games are two of those genres) the gender disparity is negligible or even reversed. Without further research,however, the impact of these preferences is impossible to quantify. Of course, even if it turns out to be true that women are adequately (or over) represented in these genres, it's possible to argue that this preference is based on a 'chicken and egg' scenario, where women prefer playing games in these genres simply because they find them more inclusive.

Ultimately, at this point in my research, it seems clear to me that there is an undeniable disparity, or unfair bias in favor of male protagonists, even if it is not, perhaps, as glaring or abysmal a disparity as other researchers have suggested. With any luck, developers will recognize this disparity for what it is: an opportunity to provide new experiences to a hungry and underserved market.

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Jade from Beyond Good and Evil

Jade is often cited as one of the best female protagonists in the industry. With any luck, we'll finally get a sequel.
Jade is often cited as one of the best female protagonists in the industry. With any luck, we'll finally get a sequel. | Source

Let the Game Industry Know How You Feel!

I have included a few polls to collect data on gender demographics, gender preferences, and the impact that the gender of a game's playable protagonist has on your decision to purchase a game. I know gender identity can be a touchy subject for many people so please take my word that the polls have been designed in good faith with no intent to exclude or offend anyone.

Does the gender of the main playable protagonist affect your decision to buy a game?

See results without voting

What's your gender?

See results without voting

What gender do you prefer to play?

See results without voting

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5 comments

Alexis Cogwell profile image

Alexis Cogwell 9 months ago from Indiana/Chicagoland

It's crazy how many more male gamers there are in the world, and maybe it IS due to the fact that there aren't playable females in many games. I play World of Warcraft, and never run out of options, but that's just one game. I never thought about it the way you just did, thank you for sharing! :)


Molly Layton profile image

Molly Layton 21 months ago from Alberta

I heard the developers of Remember Me had to fight tooth and nail to fight with Capcom to have a female protagonist. Honestly, I don't think manly-man heroes will ever leave, but getting a more even male to female ratio could get more people interested in games. The hidden object genre is mostly targeted to young women, and mostly has female protagonists, so maybe your idea of the avatar's gender being related to the target market's gender is correct.


j-u-i-c-e profile image

j-u-i-c-e 2 years ago from Waterloo, On Author

@Ithlia: I don't think the trend will ever go away entirely, but I do think things will get better. I think companies are aware that it's an issue now, which is a start. Thanks for the read and reply.


Ithlia 2 years ago

I have read a lot of forums where someone will complain about the lack of a playable female character. This complaint almost always draws several unkind responses. For me, as a female gamer, especially when playing an RPG, I just can't relate to the game through a male avatar. I have tried several times. My son gave me a copy of The Witcher 2 and told me to just get into the story. I started the game three times and I just couldn't muster up any interest in the character or what happened to him. I tried with The Risen because it was on sale for a great price. Again, no interest after a few hours game play.

I really wish I could enjoying playing a male character, I would have a lot more game choices but as it is I have given up buying any game where I do not have a gender choice. Game companies are apparently ok with alienating a portion of the buying public so I doubt there will ever be a change in this trend of male only avatars.


RandallJonas profile image

RandallJonas 2 years ago from Canada

When I read this, I think about Hollywood films and how we have men represented in so many of them. They are stories about men often and women are secondary. And also I see how when male actors age - they are still allowed to act in films in general but women very often get thrown away. I see it in the music industry. It just makes me sick and sad - if you can believe I have this empathy. And so I ask myself what is it one can do - thankfully countries other than the US and to a much lesser degree as we are a smaller population and do not have "Hollywood" Canada, do not do this. I see many women in films from other countries and they are not this "archetype" projected in North America. I still watch all these "guy" movies - I admit. And on a positive note - there are film with women in them where the woman or women are potent, present and the focus of the story. There is also ageism but that is another story.

Thanks for this post! It is excellent and very well written - thoughtful too.

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