Do games need a gender and racial face lift?
In an article, I ran across here, ("New Media and Society" by Sage Publications) the authors investigate the game representation of age, culture and gender with a focus on whether games reflect them accurately.
First, the actual outcome - that games have a different population between the categories than real life - should come as no surprise to anyone. Indeed, if they came out to be the same, I would cry foul as that means reverse descrimination is going on - or more specifically that people are creating characters and their roles according to mathematical formulae rather than merit.
However, if we analyze the data and notice trends that are arbitratry, then perhaps the highlighting of that data can serve some good in getting people who write stories and create characters to think more about a wholistic view of everyone and everyone as equals.
Indeed, I hope that this happens and that some consider it already.
The article makes an assertion that I certainly think holds some water:
Harwood and Anderson (2002) have suggested that representation on television is at heart a proxy for other social forces – that is, groups who appear more often in the media are more ‘vital’ and enjoy more status and power in daily life.
Even in games I think that's true. More specifically, when we surround ourselves (or immerse) in a continual cast of characters where certain things are emphasized and others are not, even passively, that we become conditioned to them. Thus, we favor the same traits and view the minority emphasis as a minority overall, even if in reality it may not be.
That is human nature, and it is the crux of the reason for studies like this.
They have many examples, only one of which is gender, but I am going to focus on that for the purpose of this post.
Gender is the first example:
The US population is 50.9 percent female and 49.1 percent male (Smith and Spraggins, 2001). In contrast, 60 percent of gamers are male and 40 percent are female across all age brackets
(Entertainment Software Association, 2009)
This is certainly congruent with common knowledge, at least the finding that more males play games than females. (If it were even, then the divide would be closer to the actual gender divide.)
The findings about the content of game character genders is more interesting however:
Male characters are vastly more likely to appear than female character in general. The overall difference of 85.23/14.77 ...
85% bias to male in a market of 60/40 is pretty large. That means that 40% of the consumer base is likely to not be able to identify as their character 85% of the time. This is certainly food for thought and perhaps for designers to consider in their creation of characters.
It gets worse however.
When females do appear, they are more likely to be in secondary roles than primary ones.
In the study, a primary role is one the human player controls for the game. A secondary role is a role belonging to a character only controlled by the computer.
Whether meaning to or not, there is a high risk here that we are telling players that males are superior to females when it comes to in-game characters and who is able to be successful at accomplishing fantasy acts of heroism.
And that's a sad message.
It's probably not intentional. I don't think that designers actually sit down and say "we can't have a *girl* save the world." (If they do, they should be drawn and quartered...)
More likely, it's reflective of one of two things. Unconscious bias - in which case more attention to the matter is a good thing. Or market analysis. There is a school of thought that women are more likely to play men in games than men are to play women.
But really, the solution should be easier. Without a strong reason not to, you should give your players a choice.
I'm a male IRL - but I will play a female any time I'm given the choice. I do so because I identify with them more, especially in terms of personality and interests. I actually like romance and the like. I am put off by having to play a male character in a game. I'll do it, but it bothers me.
I can only imagine how much more it bothers many of the women out there.
So do games need a gender and racial face lift?
I think so.