Tucked away on a small Parisian street assaulted by aromas of croissants and coffee and red wine exists a small team of game developers that form Dontnod Entertainment. (I actually have no idea where in Paris their office lives, but that’s how I like to imagine anything that comes from France. I’ve been to Paris and secretly know the truth, but let’s not let facts get in the way of my imagination, okay?)
You may have seen Dontnod making an appearance on various articles around the web lately, as one of their devs, Jean-Maxime Moris, spoke about how publishers were turning their noses up at their new game, Remember Me, because of its female lead. The story was covered on Penny Arcade, Gamasutra and Eurogamer and probably a whole host of other reputable game mags with, I’m pleased to say, more than a hint of ‘what the fuck I don’t even’.
There’s so much I could say about women in video games. It’s a huge topic of discussion with many possible avenues of discourse, but for the purposes of not creating a messy noodle soup of an article, I’ll try to stay on one tangent - and that is, why games with female leads have less than 40% of the marketing budget of games with male leads.
Remember Me makes a good central pillar for this discussion; it’s relevant, current, and full of idiotic quotes from idiotic publishers to aptly drive home the point. To set the scene, let’s take a closer look at the game’s female lead, Nilin, and what her creators wanted to achieve by giving their game a female protagonist. Remember Me is already pushing boundaries of standard game design; it’s an action game, but there are no guns and no killing. There’s no co-op mode, no multiplayer, and the lead is a mixed-race female.
In an interview with CVG in November, Jean-Maxime Moris talked about having a lead that’s not a stubble-infested, muscle-bound testosterone junky;
“We wanted Nilin to stand out. I think these sort of issues become self-fulfilling prophecies; people saying that only white males sell so then everyone only does white males. If you start believing these things you get your head inside this cold marketing strategy that you cannot get your head around. It becomes a pretty fucking racist and misogynistic way of thinking about lead characters.”
In another interview with Penny Arcade , Moris explained that putting a female lead in the game was a natural conclusion -
“It was not a decision,” he said. “It was something that just felt right from the beginning. It's one of those things that we never looked at from a pure, cold marketing perspective because that would have endangered the consistency of the whole game.”
The fact that Remember Me has a female lead - one which, through the narrative, the player guides through a series of deeply emotional journeys - was a subject of some derision among publishers who were looking at the game. This is where ‘female protagonists and marketing budgets’ comes in. Dontnod faced some pretty confounding statements in the process of presenting their game to publishers who shunned the promising venture on the sole basis of it having a female lead.
“We had some that said, '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,'” Moris told the Penny Arcade Report. “We wanted to be able to tease on Nilin's private life, and that means for instance, at one point, we wanted a scene where she was kissing a guy. 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.'”
Fortunately, the French developer’s brain is inside his cranium, and not his genitalia -
“I'm like, 'If you think like that, there's no way the medium's going to mature,'” he said. “There's a level of immersion that you need to be at, but it's not like your sexual orientation is being questioned by playing a game. I don't know, that's extremely weird to me.”
So let’s focus on what publishers are really saying here. It’s awkward for ‘a dude like the player’ to ‘kiss another dude in the game’. Presuming (rather tenuously) that these publishers are aware of us rare creatures called Female Gamers, there are undertones of ‘it’s okay for girls to play guys that kiss other girls, but it’s not okay for guys to do it’. What does that say? Let’s take it at face value and pretend that that theory is based on factual emotional response - that would mean women more tolerant to gender-differences than men. ‘Women don’t mind vicariously kissing other women through male vessels because we’re down with that, yo. It’s only guys that make it awkward.’ Let’s carry the conclusion a step further. ‘Men make it awkward, which is clearly homophobic, and homophobia is wrong - but instead of nurturing a more accepting and less judgemental society, we’re going to pander to these homophobic tendencies by only fully supporting strong masculine leads in video games’
It sounds silly, doesn’t it? But the fact remains that games with female leads get less than 40% of the marketing budget of their male-lead counterparts. I’m not one to throw around numbers willy-nilly, so let’s dive into the gory details.
There’s another article on the PA Report where the author interviewed the COO of EEDAR, Geoffrey Zatkin. EEDAR, for those unaware, is a video-game research and consultancy firm. Numbers is their thang.
Zatkin limited his research to shooters, RPGs and action genres - genres where the lead character is clearly visible and not, for example, ensconced behind the obscuring framework of a car in racing games. From a sample of 669 games that had protagonists with clearly discernible genders, only 24 had female protagonists, and most of these were in the Action genre. Only one of those 24 was a RPG. From those 669 games, only some 300 offered a gender choice on character creation.
Zatkin then looked at a three month period of game-sale data chosen to encompass initial sales and to negate the effects of end-of-the-month releases. What he found was that across those three months, the female-lead games did not sell as well as those that were male-only. Another piece of interesting information that was gleaned from the research; games that offer both genders on character creation have better reviews than games with male-only leads, but the games with male-only leads sold better. During those three months, games with an exclusively male hero sold 25% better than games with an optional female hero, and 75% better than games with an exclusively female hero.
The obvious conclusion to draw here is that if you’re looking at making a game, you’ll lose sales by adding the option to choose between genders - but you’ll lose significantly more sales by making a female-lead-only game.
Don’t dump your code just yet, though - there’s more going on here than meets the eye.
From yet another article on the PA Report , another bout of research completed with EEDARs help showed that there’s only really one thing that can overcome a negative review - and that’s marketing. The more money you have to spend on TV ads, magazine articles and shelf-space, the better your game will sell.
“Games with a female only protagonist, got half the spending of female optional, and only 40 percent of the marketing budget of male-led games. Less than that, actually,” Zatkin told the PA Report.
Remember that quote from Jean-Maxime Moris several long-winded paragraphs ago?
“I think these sort of issues become self-fulfilling prophecies; people saying that only white males sell so then everyone only does white males.”
Zatkin’s theory is that games with female leads are considered niche, and games with niche markets are in general given smaller budgets.
Niche; a specialised market. A ‘subset of the market on which a specific product is focusing ... It is also a small market segment.’ (Courtesy of Wiki)
Are female gamers a niche market? Let’s dig out more numbers, yay! From the ESA’s ‘2012 Essential Facts About the Computer and Video Game Industry’;
Forty-seven percent of all players are women, and women over 18 years of age are one of the industry's fastest growing demographics.
Today, adult women represent a greater portion of the game-playing population (30 percent) than boys age 17 or younger (18 percent).
Niche market my pert Welsh butt. FORTY SEVEN PERCENT. Does three percent from fifty a niche market make? I don’t think so. So where are your excuses now, publishers?
There are, of course, a few noteworthy female-lead games we could call out to demonstrate that they do, in fact, sell well and that they are, in fact, popular and well-received games. Tomb Raider (though Lara Croft’s presence as male-targeted eye candy puts a bit of a skew on whether the game can really be considered an exception), Portal, Beyond Good & Evil, Dreamfall. Tomb Raider is no doubt the most (financially) successful game of those listed; the others are all highly acclaimed and have a cult following. Beyond Good & Evil was very highly praised, but just didn’t sell very well. Poor marketing, mayhaps? Did it not sell well because the female lead doesn’t have an hourglass figure with ample bosom and legs that go on for miles (I’m looking at you, Lara)? (On an aside, it’s interesting to note that in 2005, Eidos reduced Lara’s cupsize from a DD to a C in order to appeal more to the female gamer, as well as scrapping her more revealing outfits. That later release of Tomb Raider fared less well than its predecessors, however, with a +30% drop in share value in a single day...)
There’s a lot I could say about the femininity of female leads in video games but that’s a subject for another article, I feel. I could wax lyrical about how Samus Aran is a fantastic example of a non-sexualised female lead in body armour so full you wouldn’t even know there was a woman in there until she got her kit off - and that’s where the perfect world ends, when Metroid players are rewarded for their progress with stills of a highly sexualised Samus in her skimpy undies. Way to ruin a good thing, Nintendo. Where are my pin-ups of Prophet in his Calvin Kleins? I played Gears of War - when do I get to see Marcus Fenix in a thong, oiled muscles bulging? Why doesn’t John-117 strip down to naught but his helmet when I nuke the flood from orbit?
Oh wait, I know why. Because that’s unfairly sexualisation of men. Come on, guys, you’ve got something to complain about here too, y’know - isn’t it degrading when the only way you can save the world is with a musclebound six-foot-everything super-soldier? Isn’t it more liberating when a man like Gordon Freeman with all his bespectacled charm is the hero of the hour with little more than brainpower, technology, and his impenetrable silence?
Oops, there’s that tangent I said I wasn't going to take. Ahem.
I conclude that it IS a self-fulfilling prophecy. Games with female leads sell less because they receive less of a marketing budget, which in turn makes them less popular. We need more studios like Dontnod Entertainment and Valve. More Chells, more Jades and more April Ryans. We need publishers to take risks, we need the people that dish out marketing budgets to establish a state of equality. The male gender ISN’T largely homophobic and very probably doesn’t even interpret playing a female character who’s kissing a male as them kissing the guy themselves. Videogames are escape; they’re immersions into other worlds and if your character is female, then for all intents and purposes, you become that female as soon as you press play. This isn’t a rant about feminism and women demanding equal representation; it’s about showing the bigwigs in suits who push the budget buttons that us gamers are all open-minded folk and it’s not weird if girls play boys and boys play girls because we’re all grown-ups here. Right? Right.
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