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BioWare debates “accepted” industry view that female stars don’t sell

Thursday, 28th March 2013 15:54 GMT By Dave Cook

Dragon Age 3: Inquisition lead writer David Gaider has said at GDC that the industry will not fully embrace the notion of female stars unless there is clear financial motivation to do so. The old belief is that female character don’t sell, and this is a view Gaider would very much like to see challenged.

Speaking with RPS at GDC, Gaider said, “The thing about accepted industry wisdom is that you can’t question it. Everyone just agrees. It’s weird. The things that the industry decides are treated as incontrovertibly true until someone else comes along and proves them definitively wrong in a way that we cannot ignore. Then, of course, everyone jumps on it.”

“To say that about female protagonists – that they just don’t sell [is myopic]. Over the last ten years, how many titles have had female protagonists? And we’re supposed to accept, from those particular titles, that a) that constitutes a pattern, and b) the only reason those games were unsuccessful is because they had female protagonists? That is a real leap of logic… There is lots of that in the industry.”

Widespread change in attitude is possible Gaider stressed, but it would take something significant for it to happen.

“If you were to ask me what would make the industry change its mind about female protagonists, it would take some game coming out and being completely financially successful such that people in the industry couldn’t say, ‘Well, it was just because of this. Not because female protagonists are suddenly marketable,’”

He added, “It has to be something they can’t ignore. The only way the industry can’t ignore something is when money is involved.”

Lately we’ve seen a few prominent examples of this narrow-mindedness at play. First, Naughty Dog told VG247 that it was asked to push Ellie to the back of The Last of Us box art. The studio refused.

Second, Beyond: Two Souls developer Quantic Dream revealed it was asked to show star Jodie Holmes brandishing a gun on the game’s cover. They also refused.

What do you think it would take for the money and marketing men to stop rubbishing the idea of female lead characters in games?

Thanks GI.biz.

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32 Comments

  1. salarta

    If female protagonists don’t sell, the core reason they don’t sell is because of the way they are treated differently from male protagonists. Female protagonists worked just fine, in some cases even better, during the PS1 generation compared to this generation. And keep in mind, back then there were even fewer female gamers back then; it was an even more male-dominated industry than today. Despite the views that the women in those games were “eye candy,” the reality is that even in cases when it was true, in terms of actual ability and personality, the women were typically treated as just as capable as men. Hell, the Metroid franchise wouldn’t still be running if female protagonists were unmarketable.

    I think we’re at a state where we need another, newer Samus Aran to snap people out of their judgments. Give the players a character where their sex is at first completely undefined, and reveal at the end that it was a female character: that all the things they thought were the realm of men, can apply to women too.

    I say this because the current trend of how women are represented in games is either “they’re sex bombs loaded with fetishes” or else “they’re fragile creatures that need the influence of men to save them or force them to be better.” Women are being treated in today’s games like they’re a different species of humanoid, a more sexual, more fragile, weaker species. The tropes people claim to hate for female representation have merely had a minor facelift: bimbos with a little extra wit and sexual aggression, or damsels in distress given a little agency to try to do something about the source of their distress, naturally with men giving them that agency.

    For all the talk about trying to make characters “relatable,” every video game starring a female protagonist this generation with the exception of Chell from Portal has gone out of its way to present women as unrelatable.

    #1 2 years ago
  2. G1GAHURTZ

    WHY!?

    Why do I ‘NEED’ to play as a woman?

    I don’t want to play as a flippin’ woman! I just want to shoot n00bs!

    #2 2 years ago
  3. salarta

    @2: And why is that? Because women are treated like they’re too different from men.

    That’s probably too much of a generalization and you have your own very specific and variable reasons, but that’s the cause somewhere down the line. What it ultimately comes down to is that women are no longer seen as equals to men because they’re no longer treated like equals. Both video game companies and consumers are under the impression that the only way to get the experiences they want is with a man or even an entity that isn’t human (e.g. a robot), and that a woman running the show would lead to an entirely alien and uncomfortable experience. Go out of your way to treat women entirely differently from the same way you treat men, and you get people that think of women as an “other.”

    The industry used to have a slew of female characters that were up to snuff in spite of some of them gradually becoming more and more sexualized. But the companies that own those characters have spent this generation turning those women into the very model of what makes them think of female protagonists as unmarketable, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Once female characters are treated like male characters in all the important respects (reaction to crises, the kind of remarks they make, how people talk to and act around them, the skills they can employ and how they use their bodies, etc), we’ll see games with female protagonists start to sell and start to be taken as a viable creative direction.

    #3 2 years ago
  4. Sanwiches

    @1 @2, so much text.

    I don’t want to play as a female character either. The only female char I liked anyway was Kerrigan a long time ago, but I didn’t play as her, I played as a commander under her command.

    #4 2 years ago
  5. Djoenz

    @1&3
    He was not serious ;) lighten up geez..

    Whats up with all this talk about female protagonists lately. I usually dont play with female protagonists because they are rare in games.. Its a shame really.

    I absolutely loved everything about Tali from Mass Effect. She was always in my crew.
    Ergo Proxy anime has one of the best female protagonists imo and Ghost in the Shell.

    My point is it doesnt matter what gender is the protagonist as long as she/he kicks fucking ass!!!!!!!

    Somehow I feel like Tomb Raider 2013 started some rumble in the bronx hihi. Lara Croft I love you.

    #5 2 years ago
  6. Djoenz

    Beyond Two Souls. Im glad they chose Ellie ;)

    Edit: Jody.

    Uhm I mean Jodie.

    #6 2 years ago
  7. Max Payne

    How would they know it doesn’t sell if there are only couple of front cover
    female games ?Beside Tomb Raider Mirrors Edge sold around 2.5 mill and game was short/linear Sp only. Portal also sold amazing. Only game that I am aware of that didn’t sell well is beyond good and evil.
    And how many games actually exist with female in lead ?

    #7 2 years ago
  8. zinc

    @2, it’s not about making you play as a women, it’s about letting women play as women.

    Still, the mans right. It’ll take a ton of market research on how much female gamers drop on their hobby & a successful series game before things change.

    #8 2 years ago
  9. salarta

    @5: If he wasn’t serious then sorry, but I didn’t pick up on it being a joke from what little’s there.

    I think the new Tomb Raider has indeed started a lot of discussion, but I don’t think it’s been for the better. I think it’s just further promoted the idea that women are too different from men, and spawned a lot of less respectful attitudes toward women. I’m sure that was not the intent of the team or of Rhianna Pratchett, but where I used to see Lara admired for her strength and skill and depicted as a strong model, of late I’ve mostly seen her depicted as a victim.

    I had a lot more text and I cut it down because people bitching and all. What it amounts to is that I’ve mostly seen the new Lara used to promote and/or sexualize violence and victimization (not being a survivor; it typically shows her used and abused or dead/dying). I think if the new Tomb Raider starred a male character, such content would not exist, and either the character would have been depicted less “realistically” or the game would have had worse sales. I think the new Tomb Raider opened a can of worms that is actually going to hurt female character representation in games, but groups like BioWare give me a little hope that maybe it will ultimately lead to more equal treatment of women in games due to what other creators make in reaction. There’s a lot I could say there, but I’ll keep it at this much.

    #9 2 years ago
  10. silkvg247

    @9 I dunno man, if you actually play Tomb Raider Lara becomes a lean mean fighting machine. I don’t think the game does anything different to any other adventure game with a male protagonist who becomes stronger over time e.g. farcry3.

    As I continue to stress, the only way more women will become gamers will be if games include women in the first place. And if nobody is willing to do that then we have a catch 22.

    #10 2 years ago
  11. roadkill

    I also would not like to play as a a woman. Why? 1. Because I’m a guy and 2. Because women in most games don’t make sense.

    #11 2 years ago
  12. Kalain

    @10

    I think for that to happen, the following has to happen:

    1. Get women more interested in development than what there is at the moment, without trying to force them into it, like several Feminist movements I’ve seen do. If a female doesn’t like it, don’t force her into it. Same goes for males and MRA’s.. etc etc
    2. Get schools to start putting more thought into how to get the different genders into courses they wouldn’t normally take. For instance, my son’s IT course has 3 females on it with the other 40+ male. The Beauty course has 0 male’s in it out of 65 (thats the highest number of students on a course).
    3. Get society, as a whole, to move away from “It’s a Man’s job” and “It’s a Woman’s Job” mentality.

    When you have more women in development, you’ll get different ideas and viewpoints. This is only a good thing for all forms of development, not just games.

    #12 2 years ago
  13. Gnosis

    @11: And how exactly don’t they make sense?

    #13 2 years ago
  14. salarta

    @10: The part of that I think needs to be stressed is “becomes.” Lara does not start out that way, and it’s the way she is when she starts out that raises issues. The new Tomb Raider introduced a version of Lara that “can bleed”… how many games with male characters are about stressing that you can watch him suffer? How many games with men feel the need to specially note that the man can feel pain and suffer trauma? Why couldn’t Lara’s story have started out the same way a man’s would have? If a man was in the starring role, his journey in the story would have been about how an amateur becomes an expert, rather than trying to be about how a victim becomes a survivor.

    I think the newer Tomb Raider is another example of how women are not seen or accepted as equals. I think it uses Lara to tell a story that is stereotypically the realm of women: victimization. Obviously that’s not true, both sexes can be victims, but I think it’s the stereotype of the industry, exemplified by such situations as the damsel in distress trope. The idea seems to be that if you want to tell a story about a female protagonist, she needs to be abused and traumatized until she’s forced to act tough or else be a saucy minx, but if you want to tell a story about a male protagonist, he doesn’t need to specially suffer and he doesn’t need to be forced to change his whole identity to fit the situation. He simply does what it takes to the best of his abilities.

    This is why I think Chell is the only truly good female protagonist this generation. She didn’t have to be used and abused, and she didn’t need to show her boobs or make sexual puns. She is not a damsel in distress, nor is she an anguished victim. You don’t see her wallow in despair at being forced to live like a lab rat, sobbing over having no family and terrified that she could die at any moment. For a character that doesn’t talk and you hardly see, that exists almost entirely as a proxy for the player, she comes off to me as the best female protagonist of this generation. She’s treated like a person, and her gender is never part of the equation, not even in the insults GLaDOS makes. Yet the rest of the industry seems to think women need to be insulted, abused, sexualized, etc in ways men never are.

    #14 2 years ago
  15. roadkill

    @13 In Mirror’s Edge it makes perfect sense to be able to play as a woman. But in a shooter for example. Women can handle hard assignments. A few men can barely do it. It brakes the immersion if the main character is a woman.

    #15 2 years ago
  16. zinc

    ^ Breaks the immersion for you. Not a female gamer though. Which is the point. Creating more immersion for the growing demographic of female gamers.

    Its not about removing male characters. Its about providing for the ladies who like videogames.

    #16 2 years ago
  17. Gnosis

    @15: Yeah, but shooter are not “most games”. I’m talking about games like Bayonetta or Prototype. Game’s that don’t need “logic” or have the means to bypass that problem. Whether it’s magic (FF, Dragon Age), some crazy super powers (Infamous) or some sci-fi gadget / futuristic technology (Metroid). It is possible to avoid the “logic problem”. Not in every game, sure. But nobody is talking about that. It’s more about female characters that are interesting and fun to play.

    #17 2 years ago
  18. Clupula

    I’ve found that the women I know usually respond quite positively to games with female protagonists. Mass Effect, Tomb Raider, Portal, Mortal Kombat, Dragon Age: Origins, Skyrim, even Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw are usually big favorites with the women I know. I’ve always been very big on introducing women to videogames and usually I find either Bayonetta or Heavy Rain to be the best two to turn someone who usually just watches over her boyfriend’s shoulder into someone who will sit down and play for hours. Of course, the protagonist doesn’t have to be female for them to get into a game, but I think it definitely crosses a bridge.

    Amusingly, the women I know, when they play Resident Evil, don’t usually care if they’re the male or female character (although I do hear a lot about how beautiful Leon’s hair is in RE6).

    #18 2 years ago
  19. Gnosis

    “even Bayonetta and Lollipop Chainsaw are usually big favorites with the women I know”

    Actually, that brings up a very interesting point. I know that women usually don’t have a problem to play sexy female characters. Even some of the oversexualized ones like Bayonetta or Juliet. Of course they’re always some exceptions… (I’m looking at you, DoA Beach Volleyball) Still, if it come for example to MMORPGs women tend to choose sexy races. So I don’t think this is a problem either. Cause I know that there always are ppl who’d start protesting, when someone demands more interesting and deep female characters. Apparently that means automatically that they have to be ugly for that. But the two things are not complementary. You don’t have to sacrifice sex appeal to get a believable and interesting female character.

    #19 2 years ago
  20. Clupula

    As far as sex appeal goes, Bayonetta and Juliet have one big distinction in that while they are sexualized characters, they’re smart characters. I’ve seen the same women who love Bayonetta get very annoyed at how Samus was treated in Other M and think the DoA games are for losers.

    The big thing is to not make the characters look weak. They can be shaking their asses and talking in sexual puns, but if the characters come off as idiots or submissive, then the women I know tend to get turned off.

    In my experience, characters simply showing off skin isn’t usually enough to get a woman to not want to play a game. But if they play and think, “This girl’s a fucking idiot,” then they usually don’t want to continue.

    #20 2 years ago
  21. Djoenz

    @10

    Thats nonsense. Every protagonist male or female has a past. What about Heavy Rain? Basically a victim throughout the whole game till he saves his son.

    About Lara she is a normal typical young adult that loves her job as a archeologist. All she wants to do is explore ruins, tombs and secluded environments. She becomes stranded on tht island and has to survive. Her first kill a deer. She does it reluctant but she needs to eat. I dont even think her initial thoughts were to survive just for her own sake but also for he crewmembers. She wanted to find them. Then her friend vanished. She gets caught. She gets groped and what not and is scared to dead. She had to kill him. She cries but needs to continue. While in the background they are rounding up survivors from the shipwreck and shooting people. These people are ruthless. Unfortunately she cant go further cause there are two psychos in front of her. She yells “you dont have to do. This! ” They are throwing molotov cocktails.

    Killer instinct mode is on.

    Transition might have been too fast but imo it was well done and besides it remains an action adventure game not a drama.

    I found it to be well balanced. Script was ace.

    Everyone has a different personality so does Lara Croft in this reboot/origin story. To me it made sense.

    #21 2 years ago
  22. Clupula

    @21 – Did you mean #9?

    #22 2 years ago
  23. Puggy

    Well, I would say most females lead roles feel like you are either playing a small fragile puppet, or a male, who accidentally got a female model overlay.

    Everyone says you should get rid of stereotypes and yes, that is a good way of thinking, yet the usual paradigm persists, that you have to give the audience what they expect (to a degree), or they will feel confused, estranged and stupid, thus hating the product you have just offered.

    So how “should” a woman act in a game? Like a man, kicking, screaming cursing, killing? If yes, what difference does it make, how the Avatar looks then?
    Women always being influenced by men? And that is a bad thing? Well if you want it to be a bad thing. Though why did Cloud go after Sephiroth? Why did Dante face his brother? Usually males are influenced as much by females as it is the other way around. That does not make it a bad thing. Just something to consider there.

    I also found the reaction in that new Metal Gear Video interesting. They crawl through that hospital and you see the rear of the guy you are following. Everyone laughing and making fun of it. If it would have been a female, there would have been news posts and complains all over the place.

    #23 2 years ago
  24. Vice

    As much as I hate female gamers, I just love it when an eye-candy female is a lead character. I never even touch male character in a game if female is available to control and I really pity those people who played male Shepard. They lost probably good 30% of a game’s fun and awesomeness.
    But yes, as I said, she must be an eye-candy, while kicking ass. That new female lead in a Remember Me game is an example of how you NOT do a female lead. Skinny as hell, no boobs, not really pretty…. They gotta have BOTH looks AND personality. That’s the way women are, you can’t just make an unattractive female lead and get away with it, you just simply can’t. But you can make a silly eye-candy and bath in success.
    In any case, Lara Croft is what I’d call a perfect female hero. Attractive, great boobs, everything, smart, brave, resourceful and no stupid “romantic interest” <– now THAT let me tell you is a real killer, you NEVER create an attractive female character and give her some dude to romance (hello, Parasite Eve-2 failure). No normal male gamer would ever like that.
    Tldr: female character must be very attractive, with big boobs, sexy outfits very much welcome, she must be smart, charming, resourceful, independent and absolutely single. That's pretty much a formula for a sucessful female lead.

    #24 2 years ago
  25. roadkill

    @16 I never said “never make that option available”. Just make sure you have a male option in there. I don’t care about anything else.

    #25 2 years ago
  26. zinc

    ^ Lol, you know you’d feel if there wasn’t a male character to play? That’s how female gamers feel ALL the time… Which is the point :-P

    @vice, You need to pull you flies up mate, your insecurities are showing.

    #26 2 years ago
  27. roadkill

    @26 Well I’m sorry about that but.. there’s not much I can do. Though, if it’s something they don’t agree with they should fight for it.

    #27 2 years ago
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    #28 2 years ago
  29. IL DUCE

    I think female protagonists can sell but for me personally I don’t like playing games as a female…most games I play I like to project myself onto the main character thus making it difficult when I’m playing as a female…so that may be a feeling that a lot of people have, I do think there’s a place for them though and that’s why I like games like Fallout, Mass Effect and other RPGs that let players have a choice in the matter

    Not to say I’d never play a game with a female lead though

    #29 2 years ago
  30. Rafa_L

    From other games generations, I remember playing as Jill Valentine, I chose her over Chris in the first Resident evil, and then in the third. I also played Lara for the last years and a character that I liked despite an weak game was Nariko.

    When I have an option I usually chose a male character, but no problem with females. I also don’t think they need to be portrayed as men, they are different, for better and for worse, but what we see is usually caricatures of women, especially when it comes to sexuality.

    #30 2 years ago
  31. salarta

    @30: I don’t think female characters should be portrayed like men for EVERYthing, but for most things, yes. I think most games that spend time on female characters this generation go out of their way to emphasize the women acting and being treated completely different from men, rather than treating them like a person who also happens to have some uniquely female qualities.

    #31 2 years ago
  32. Rastaban

    I’m a female gamer, want to play female characters, have money to pay for games. Shrugs. What’s the big deal? Skyrim kicks ass. Why can’t other games follow suit?

    I just read that post by Vice above about Remember Me and the average looking female lead. ::perks up:: Think I’ll buy it and try it. I don’t mind if the female lead is attractive, independent, single – all fine with me – but I do like realistic, not a caricature.

    I don’t care for stereotypes. I’m there to play the game in full, to be treated with respect and I want to have fun.

    It’s weird. You know so many of us female gamers have money to spend on games and yet so many of the games are made as though we don’t exist and have no interest. One comes out that caters to both male and female like Skyrim and we’re on it like white on rice. Not surprising.

    #32 1 year ago

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