"'We had [some companies] tell us, 'Well, we don't want to publish it because that's not going to succeed. You can't have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.'"
That's what game developer Jean-Max Morris was told when he tried to sell publishers the upcoming cyberpunk-action game Remember Me, which tells the story of Nilin—a woman who hacks and "remixes" the memories of others as she attempts to reclaim her own. But Morris wasn't about to change the story or Nilin's gender, whatever weird objections he faced. "At one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy," Morris told Penny Arcade. "We had people tell us, 'You can't make a dude (like the player) kiss another dude in the game; that's going to feel awkward.'" Thankfully, not every game publisher shut its door, and Remember Me will be released by Capcom this June for Xbox 360, PC, and PS3—female protagonist and all.
But not many game developers share Morris's determination. Ken Levine, another creative director, reacted angrily to criticism at last year's PAX East convention that his Bioshock Infinite character Elizabeth—whom many critics said the game was actually about—was hidden from the game's box art in favor of the buff male lead, Booker. Levine's view on the controversy was much simpler: We should ignore Elizabeth's disappearing act in the marketing and just "play the fucking game," he said, to much cheering. (He later apologized on Twitter.)
But perhaps Levine was just being economical. Many developers have to bow to "market pressures" that, in their perfectly neutral and objective fashion, refuse to admit women leads. After all, gamers won't buy games that star women. Tragic, yes, but the free market is what it is. The invisible hand mustn't sully itself with girl cooties.
The reality, of course, is more complicated. As Morris suggested, developers and publishers often flat-out reject women leads and either trash the games entirely or substitute in male leads. The game Starfox Adventures, starring the eponymous (male) Starfox of the combat-pilot franchise, began as a game called Dinosaur Planet that starred a woman named Krystal. In the redesigned Adventures, she became an unplayable damsel in distress for Starfox to save.
The "economic" argument is built on wish-fulfilling vapor. Geoffrey Zatkin, the COO of EEDAR, a firm that compiles gaming industry statistics, recently revealed that "Games with a female-only protagonist…[received] only 40 percent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually."
In other words, even when a woman-led game gets greenlighted, it has to do more with less—and the likely market failure is taken as more proof of the "objective" claim that women-led games don't sell.
The gaming industry doesn't like risks, and it has fixated on the straight, white-male lead as safe. But the effects of this timidity harm women in and beyond the world of gaming. The syllogism often runs: Games are played by men, men only want to play as other men, therefore all games should be about men. Not only does this ignore women gamers, it lends fire and fuel to stereotypes that make men more resistant to identifying with women—squandering the unique power of a medium based on interactivity and virtual embodiment, and contributing to an empathy gap between men and women.
But to return to the syllogism: Developers don't adequately fund games with women leads and then they act as if the market has spoken when those games fail. When it comes to marketing video games, true parity hasn't even been attempted (though the recent success of Tomb Raider may be a harbinger of change).
Games illuminate new universes and give us a unique way to see and experience them—a goodly chunk of which can, and should, be seen through the eyes of a woman. A look through Nilin's eyes in Remember Me is a great place to start.