After last year’s E3, we produced a gender breakdown of the games showcased at the press conferences held by Sony, Nintendo, Microsoft and other companies. There was a lot of discussion during last year’s show about perceived improvements to female representation, and while the numbers indicated that things could have been worse, they also showed that they could be a lot better. 9% of games featured last year centered on playable female protagonists, with 32% centering on playable male protagonists.
This year, however, it’s unfortunately clear that whatever positive momentum may have existed on this front going into last year’s E3 has dissipated. Of the 59 games showcased at press conferences held by Sony, Microsoft, Bethesda and Ubisoft, as well as on the first part of Nintendo’s Treehouse stream, only a paltry two feature exclusively female protagonists, and both of these games were returns from last year’s E3: ReCore and Horizon: Zero Dawn. (Bound is a gorgeous-looking game with a female protagonist coming to PlayStation but it was not featured during the press conference.) Meanwhile, 12 times as many featured games–24 in all–are centered on defined male protagonists or groups of men. These games include the newly announced titles Days Gone, God of War, Dead Rising 4, and Death Stranding.
We were encouraged to see, however, that the showcase of Dishonored 2 once again focused on the playable female character, Emily, and that in the trailer for Mass Effect: Andromeda, the female version of protagonist Ryder was featured, whereas with the original Mass Effect trilogy, almost all promotional materials used the male version of Shepard. Dishonored 2 and Mass Effect: Andromeda were two of 29 games in which you either choose to play as male or female characters, or in which the gender of your character or characters appears to be unspecified, such as Fe. Of course, the option to choose is welcome. However, a purely binary understanding of gender was once again on display, with no games indicating the ability to choose from a wider range of gender identities and expressions. Furthermore, the fact that a whopping 12 times as many featured games center exclusively male protagonists than exclusively female ones indicates that the video game industry still has an extremely long way to go before approaching anything resembling gender parity.
This massive discrepancy means that for now, games continue to reinforce the deeply entrenched cultural notion that heroes are male by default. We live in a culture that regularly encourages girls and women to project themselves onto and fully empathize with male characters, but rarely encourages boys and men to fully project themselves onto female characters. When players are encouraged to see a game universe exclusively through the eyes of a humanized female character, it helps challenge the idea that men can’t or shouldn’t identify with women as full human beings.
Games can be a powerful tool for generating empathy. But as long as games continue to give us significantly more stories centered on men than on women, they will continue to reinforce the idea that female experiences are secondary to male ones.
Of course, the games presented during these press conferences don’t reflect the sum total of video games or games culture. They are, however, how the biggest developers and publishers choose to represent themselves at the industry’s largest annual event, and as such, they are a strong indicator of what some of the most powerful forces in the industry consider emblematic of the best and most exciting things that gaming has to offer.
How we came up with our data:
We counted only those upcoming games which were given full trailers, announcements, or demonstrations on stage, so games that only appear briefly in montages or sizzle reels or for which only a very small amount of teaser footage is shown (such as the upcoming Star Wars game from Visceral) are not included.
Survey on combat:
Of the 59 games featured, only 11 are nonviolent or appear as if they might not have mechanics involving combat or violence. (The card games Gwent and Elder Scrolls Legends use cards to symbolize battle, but we opted to count these two as nonviolent games.) In other words, about four out of every five games showcased employ combat mechanics, meaning that the player is either required to or can choose to engage in violence as a means of conflict resolution. (Last year, the ratio of games incorporating violent mechanics was closer to three out of every four.)
This isn’t about passing judgment, or equating the cartoonish pirate ship battles of Sea of Thieves with the far more realistic gun violence of Ghost Recon Wildlands. Rather, the data is presented simply to indicate how prevalent violence remains as an element in games across the board, because when violence is seen as a core component of game design, it limits our sense of what is possible and of the kinds of stories that can be told. There remains tremendous unexplored potential for games as a medium, and it’s necessary that the industry put more effort into exploring new mechanics and storytelling techniques rather than continuing to rely so heavily on established norms if the medium is ever going to achieve that potential.