Despite the fact that, according to the ESA, gamers are about 40% women and girls (to be really general), it doesn't seem that the world of developers and marketers has caught on terribly to these stats. Or to many things, actually.
The standard hero in video games tends to be the embodiment of a pretty narrow view of what the gaming industry believes their demographic to be. Young, straight, white as a full moon, male, and apparently as barrel-chested as a Marvel Comic character.
Sure, some games, like Bioware's Mass Effect and MEII and Dragon Age: Origins (and the DA2 demo I played at this post's writing) allow you to choose from a gender binary without any hit to your stats and only minimal changes to overall plot dynamics with regard to who you are allowed to form intimate relationships with and how the story can ultimately end, but the details are relatively minor as interactive RPG events go. Even Fable III (being my first thorough foray into the Fable series) allows you to choose to be the Prince or the Princess, changing only the name and gender of your love interest; everything else is the same. (Thanks for that bone, Peter Molyneux.)
World of Warcraft allows you to play a woman of any race or class across the board without penalty to ability. Even the ridiculously, absurdly, difficult JRPG (to play and pronounce!) Deamon's Souls decided that it would be OK to allow you to be a female hero if you so choose. But if you look carefully at the covers, adverts, and video promos for these games, you'll pick up on something: The hero is almost always depicted as the default male.
That's because the option to be a female hero or Playable Character (PC) is just that: an option. It's the other choice, the only other choice, something tossed into the character creation just in case some girls come along and decide a game might tide them over until their soufflés are ready. With very few exceptions, the default playable character is always a white man, and the exceptions, being so notable, make the rule. In fact, these exceptions are, almost without fail, sexy women in chainmail bikinis, marketed specifically for the gaze of those believed to be the dominant demographic.
But a default gender isn't the only problem. Games like MEII and DA:O from BioWare have a one up on most other options, and that is setting aside my frustrations with titles like Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed (where I wanted to play a woman but was denied, and was stuck either not playing at all, or playing as a dude). Often you are stuck with the white het dude as your PC, and if you want to continue the game you had best deal with this. MEII has a variety of non-white options that you can adjust to get something that might represent what you are looking for. With DA:O, I was able to make a PC that closely resembled myself (well, my ass is something closer to pre-pregnancy, but I digress), but I am often misracialized, so that isn't the best example of a success story. My point is that there isn't a lot of room for non-white Playable Characters in gaming. There is no excuse for this in my humble opinion, but I've heard plenty of attempts.
One main argument I hear for why there are so few non-white PCs in gaming is that many games are set in places based on Medieval Europe, where white people were apparently in the majority. This always reminds me of Bao Phi's retort, that there were way more people of color in Medieval Europe than fire-breathing dragons, or in the case of Final Fantasy XIII, people who could pull motorcycles out of thin air.
I've also heard that it's too hard and too expensive to make games with adjustable avatars, because the interface has to be adapted for the entire gameplay for
each one. I guess I just don't feel bad that developers have to do their job to sell me a game that appeals to me. If you want to sell me a game, make one that I like. If you want me to spend sixty bucks on it, make it one that I will love putting myself into.
I read and hear many reasons why there are so few women protagonists in games, and why there is little diversity in PCs. Many of them don't hold water, to me, and like Brinstar at The Border House says, it doesn't make sense to continue to chug out many of the same games with the same vanilla characters. Why wouldn't you want to create games that have well-rounded and diverse characters which would be something new and possibly competitive in the market? It seems to me that in addition to misunderstanding the gaming demographics, these companies don't have a sense of what might be competitive. Although, when we look at how a game like EA's Mirror's Edge was received (not as well as it should have been), we see that perhaps there is something to this argument, though I am more inclined to believe this is the result of the loudest people being the ones who objected to not being allowed to objectify an Asian female protagonist.
But why? Why is it that we see "gamers" as being comprised of a certain demographic? Or rather, why do game developers refuse to see the the rising numbers of the rest of their market? What will it take to expand gaming past the Default Hero?