Monday, March 3, 2014

How rare ARE female protagonists?

I have a tendency towards big-picture, idea-based sort of thinking when it comes to forming opinions, and the kind of opinions I share here are not an exception.  I was reading some forum thread or other about female protagonists in games when the discussion turned into an argument over just how rare female protagonists really are.  Now I'm of the mind that there is no "right" amount of female protagonists in video games as a whole, nor do I think the gender of the protagonist is even very important when it comes to how good a game is or what kind of audience it is targeted to.  But I realized that I do take for granted the conventional wisdom that there are substantially fewer games with female protagonists than male.  Some people in the thread insisted "substantially fewer" meant "practically zero" (which I think is being willfully blind), some were like me thinking more like maybe ten or twenty percent, when someone went to Steam and decided to search on the new-fangled tagging system for "Female Protagonist" and came up with something like one percent of games tagged that way.  This justifiably got people discussing the issues with searching in that way, including the fact that many types of games don't have protagonists at all (like strategy games), or allow you to choose your gender, and so the other 99% certainly should not be considered games with a male protagonist.

It got me thinking about my own preconceptions about how the video gaming space is made up and what I take into my thoughts about it, so decided to get some quick informal numbers in a way I could trust and understand the limitations of the collection method: by doing a survey my own collection of games :P.  I came up with these gender-based categories based on the character(s) you control in a game, as opposed to which genders are a part of a given game, to keep with the idea of female protagonists that a player may be asking to identify with:

Male Protagonist: The character you control is male, or if you control multiple characters, all of them are male
Female Protagonist: Same as male, but for females :P
Mixed: You control multiple characters with at least one male and one female
Choose: You get to choose the gender of your character
Genderless: The character(s) you control don't have genders, or the gender of your character is unspecified (as is sometimes the case for silent protagonists)
None: You don't control a character at all but instead play "yourself" manipulating things in the world directly as a player (such as in puzzle games)

To make sure I didn't make uninformed decisions, I limited myself to games that I have actually played long enough to know who/what is being controlled, rather than the marketing materials for a game.  And to keep it quick, I went through the two convenient lists I had for games I've played: my Steam library and my Xbox achievement record.  Because I am apparently incapable of getting sick of a series as well, I had to make a decision about what to do for multiple games within the same franchise.  To try to keep from double-counting, if multiple games in a series featured the same protagonist, I only counted it as one game, but if games in a series featured different protagonists, I would count those games separately.  So for example, I counted only one Splinter Cell game as the tally for Sam Fisher, counted two Assassin's Creed games for Altair and Ezio, and counted all of the different Call of Duty games separately to reflect that in theory (were they not military games), each new one could have a female protagonist if it wanted.

Like I said, my impression is that something between 10-20% of video games have a female protagonist or mixed protagonists with at least one female.  Before I went and counted, I also thought about it and guessed around 20% of my games allow you to choose your gender, and around 10% have you not controlling a protagonist at all.  That left my impression that a small majority, 50-60% of games, involve controlling a male protagonist.

Here are my results from the quick-and-dirty survey of my recent/conveniently-accessed gaming history:

Male: 65 (42%)
Female: 12 (8%)
Mixed: 17 (11%)
Choose: 29 (19%)
Genderless: 17 (11%)
None: 16 (10%)
Total Counted: 156

I've been writing this up as I went, choosing how I would count, then making my predictions, then counting them up, then summing them up, so I have just calculated the percentages at this point.  And I have to say I'm pretty happy with how close my vague impressions were on most counts!  My guess for "None" games was a guess on how many puzzle and racing games I've played, and "Choose" was based on how many RPGs I figured I had, so if nothing else I have a pretty good grip on my own genre habits ;).

I do admit that I did not expect the female protagonist count to be quite so low.  I did qualify my prediction for games with female protagonists by including games where you control at least one female (so including the "Mixed" category), but only because I usually group them together in my head as "examples of why people that say there are no females in video games don't know what they are talking about."  My vague impression was that there would not be quite so many multi-character games in that bunch, though, leaving less than 10% with female protagonist(s) alone.  I also wouldn't have guessed in a million years I had so many games with ambiguous or ungendered protagonists, so that was interesting.

As some final notes to put my personal counts into context, I am quite fond of action/adventure games that I can dig into and marathon through, which usually have a clear protagonist that you control that is decidedly not a proxy for you as the player, probably giving me a lower percentage of no-protagonist games than someone who might be more well-rounded than me :P.  On the other hand I do not really play JRPGs, so multi-gender casts probably aren't as well represented in my library as they are in the realm of all games.  Finally, my Steam library is the home of my Humble Indie Bundle games, so a good chunk of my list is downloadable indie titles as opposed to what you might see on the wall at a retail store.

If you would like to bore yourself, check my categorizations, or just look at a list of games from the past several years for the funsies, you can head into the post to look at my lists.

Well since you're here, I'm going to also bold games that I recommend that it you might not have tried.  If my list of other games seems up your alley, maybe give these a look too.

Dear Esther
Metro 2033
Puzzle Agent
Advent Rising
Alan Wake
Batman: Arkham franchise
Binding of Isaac
Dark Void
Darksiders II
Deus Ex Human Rev
Fable 1
Far Cry 3
Just Cause 2
La Mulana
Lone Survivor
Payday 2
Prince of Persia franchise
Sleeping Dogs
Super Meat Boy
Walking Dead Season 1
The Witcher franchise
Castlevania Lords of Shadow franchise
Halo Master Chief games
Halo Reach
Splinter Cell franchise
Grand Theft Auto IV
Grand Theft Auto V
Assassins Creed 1
Assassins Creed 2 and additional games
Bioshock Infinite
Spec Ops The Line
Red Dead Redemption
Call of Duty 4
Call of Duty MW 2
Call of Duty MW 3
Call of Duty Black Ops
Call of Duty 2
Call of Duty 3
Half Minute Hero
Space Marine
Battlefield Bad Company franchise
LA Noire
Dead Space franchise
Castle Crashers
Bioshock 2
Army of Two franchise
Half Life franchise
Ninja Blade
Rainbow Six Vegas 2
Far Cry 2

The Cat Lady
Gone Home
Longest Journey
The Swapper
Walking Dead Season 2
Portal franchise
Mirror's Edge

Mass Effect franchise
Fallen Enchantress
Political Machine
Baldur's Gate II
Dark Souls
Euro Truck Simulator
EVE Online
Fallout New Vegas
Mount and Blade
Uru Live
Saints Row 4
The Secret World
Rock Band
Kingdoms of Amalur
Jet Set Radio
Dragon Age
Dragon Age II
Fable II
Fable III
Skate franchise
NHL franchise
Fallout 3
Amped 3

World of Goo
Atom Zombie Smasher
King of Dragon Pass
Viva Pinata
Dirt Franchise
Need for Speed Franchise
Geometry Wars
From Dust
Burnout Franchise
Forza Franchise

Dawn of War
To the Moon
The Cave
Costume Quest
Don't Starve
Kentucky Route Zero
Left 4 Dead
Orcs Must Die
Borderlands 1
Borderlands 2
Gears of War

Pixeljunk Eden
Space Chem
Battleblock Theater
Trials Evolution
Quantum Conundrum


  1. This is what Anita Sarkeesian should have at least done with her 150,000 dollars :P Anyway, those figures don't seem outlandish to me and I'd bet they're pretty close to the general reality, one gazillion puzzle games excluded. Still, while I agree that 'there is no "right" amount of female protagonists', with up to 30% women playing more historically male games such as action games and shooters (games where protagonist gender is usually well-defined and fixed), I would have expected to see a figure a little higher than that. The video games industry is still young, though, and I fully expect the numbers to catch up in the future.

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  3. Last year I started putting together a list of all the games I'd played in my lifetime that had female protagonists. The list became so huge that I eventually stopped adding to it. I was shocked to find that around 25-30% were female (not even accounting for games that have character creation) - a far cry from the feminist rhetoric we've been hearing for the last few years.

    Personally I think that perception of female characters being "rare" stems from a lack of willingness to sample games from outside the western AAA mainstream.

    It's easy for critics to point the finger at the likes of Call of Duty and Grand Theft Auto for not having playable women in them, but the fact of the matter is: when those games are able to make a BILLION dollars in a few days, even without "catering to a female audience", they really don't need to change what they're doing. But by focusing on the most high profile blockbusters, these feminist critics are often completely overlooking the smaller, niche stuff that *is* providing them with strong female leads, often with little to no fanfare.

    Anyway, I uploaded my own list to Pastebin, so please feel free to take a look (the format is a real mess; like I said, I gave up on it!).