Beyond Ms. Pac-Man: Is the typical player character (finally) evolving?

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman

The Question

As the percentage of women who play games has grown, has the way games have been made changed to reflect this?

Short answer: Probably.

The Google, Hollywood, and Academia1 used to all agree: Nerds were always d00ds.

Bbbbzzzzzttttt! The Holy Oracles of the 19th, 20th, and 21st Centuries (the InterWebs, Boob Tube, and Ivory Tower, in some order) have failed you. The archetype of the Gamer Nerd living in his parent’s basement hasn’t been a terribly accurate depiction of an average gamer since (at least) the 1990s. When the punchline for a no-life gamer who tosses Shannen Doherty out of his bed references a hockey team that hasn’t existed since 1997, mayyyyybe it’s time to reevaluate a narrative trope’s relevance.

The intransigents have lost. The gamer d00d, boys-only club is long gone, but is the gaming industry (starting) is starting to adapt to this new reality?


Looking for Evidence

Great question! I’m glad I asked! Now, how do I get info on this out of such a collection of biased sources? Is there a handy-dandy database of sales data on games over the past 20 years or so? What, no? Ok. How about a top 100 list? How about user numbers?

Dammit. How much people spend on games is not the same as how much people play them, particularly given the varying costs of big studio and indie games, PC and console and mobile games, and subscription v. one-off games. It would be a nightmare to normalize even if I could get the numbers. Which I don’t think I can. User numbers are very very hard to come by for non MMOs, which means that is also a no-go.

Hmmm. Where can I get some historical measure of a large enough sample of games on a common scale?

Dingdingdingdingding! ::environmentally-friendly LED lightbulb pops into existence over head::

Reviews. The one thing common to almost every game regardless of platform, almost always on either a 1-10, 1-100, or 1-5 scale. And, even better, Metacritic has already aggregated the reviews for me on a common 1-100 scale, going back to 1996.2

Score! ::happy source dance::3

Sure, numbers of women playing games are harder to measure, so it makes perfect sense to approach the problem from the other direction; it’s a lot easier to see who game studios (big and small, corporate and indie) think is playing their games. One can get a relatively clear picture of the demographic to which the industry is trying to appeal by taking a look, in aggregate, at the figures with which game designers most want their users to identify: Player Characters. While not necessarily meaningful at the level of an individual game, if one looks at, say, the top 100 games in a given year, patterns start to emerge. If that pattern looks like an 80s action hero, all muscles, BFGs, and bad attitude astride a mountain of faceless nazicommiezombiedemons, then the clear implication that game studios think the audience for their products is overwhelmingly male (and a little sophomoric).


The Pilot

So, is this project a worthy use of my time? More valuable than, for instance, going to the roof to drink beers and look out over the City? This calls for a Test! Break out the Erlenmeyer flasks and micropipetters!

When putting together an is-it-worth-it-type pilot study, one really just has to simplify. What sample size strikes the right balance between validity and time-suckage, knowing that I’m going to have to code each game manually?

The super-scientific, guaranteed to be accurate4 method to custom-tune your pilot sample size? Wing it. Top 20 sounds about right. Will it be significant? Doubt it. Will it show enough to tell me whether I should spend the slog hours to do a top 100 study? Likely.

And….. drumroll interregnum….it did!

Step 1 – Decide how to code player characters by sex. First, I asked the question, would a young girl just picking up gaming be able to play as a character of her sex without going through any extra effort? That led to a coding of each game into 5 categories, which grouped into 3 main areas:

  • Female player character with no extra effort
    • Female PC
    • Default female PC but can be male (either a default setting or an overwhelming sex imbalance)
    • Custom, ambiguous, or ungendered PC
  • Male or default male PC
    • Default male PC but can be female
    • Male PC
  • Not applicable (no discernable PC, for example, a puzzle game like Tetris)

Step 2 – Map this scale onto each of the top 20 games for each year from 1996-2015. 5

Step 3 – Make pretty graphs and see if they mean anything or are just nice wall decorations.

Step 4 – Acclamation.


Pilot Results

Holy shit, there was a surprisingly high percentage of female and custom player characters back in the Stone Ages of gaming, the primordial soup of the virtual landscape, a time when Apple was a struggling desktop computing company desperately clinging to market share in the educational sector, the 1990s.

Figure 1 – Can a female player create a female PC?

Click image for full dashboard

So, I didn’t expect 40% of the sample in 2000 to fall into the “Female PC with no extra effort” category. Going into this, the expected result was that gaming companies would have targeted the most visible market for their products, pimply sophomoric boys, resulting in a slowly rising pink line. In most cases, there tends to be a lag between the changing tastes or demographics of a market and the adjustment in the creative output of the entertainment industry. Clearly, something else was going on here that complicates the story (sweet!). At the same time, the data shows a pretty strong confirmation of the hypothesis that an increasing number of gaming studios have been trying to design games that are open to female players.

WTF, early 2000s? I dub thee “Bro Valley,” a land where sports games6 are lauded, RPGs are passé, and story-driven games give way to shiny new graphics as a way to move next-gen consoles. Or it could be something totally different. Even if the follow-up shows console evolution or genre shift has nothing to do with this dip, I’m still keeping the name Bro Valley.

Speaking of interactive narratives…

Figure 2 – The rise and fall of story-driven games7

…is there some particular type of game that the industry, collectively, thinks appeals to female gamers? Perhaps!

Click image for full dashboard

It’s interesting how closely the trendlines between story-driven games and female-friendly PCs mirror each other for such a small dataset. Math, ever the jerk-faced skeptic, whom I shall henceforth refer to as “Mr. Leonard”, suggests a mild 0.2555948473629948571109846348 correlation coefficient between the two datasets.

Figure 3 – How are games with female-friendly PCs rated?

So, is there any pattern to how critics have viewed women protagonists in their games?

Click image for full dashboard

Mayyyybe. Looking just at the rough trendlines, Bro Valley seems to overlap with a period where games with male and default male protagonists aren’t as poorly thought of relative to their custom or female counterparts, but it’s super-messy with such a small sample. Worth running again when I have the complete dataset, but definitely not meaningful enough to say anything for sure.


What’s Next?

Does the question about whether the gaming landscape is becoming more sexually diverse have some legs?

Indeed! In the Metacritic Top 20, there’s actually a higher percentage of games that meet our hypothetical gamer girl criteria than male-focused ones (45% to 35%). In the 20 years of the sample, only 3 years have male+default male as less than 50% of the top 20 games (1996, with a huge small sample size caveat, 2014, and 2015). If this holds up for the top 100, this would represent a huge shift in the gaming landscape over the last couple of years. While the reasons behind both the dearth of female player characters a decade ago and their increasing frequency in the last few years are still relatively unknown, it certainly appears from the quick pilot that there’s enough of a trend, at least at among the very best games each year, to justify further digging.

The next step is to go through and pull and code the data for the top 100 games, rather than the top 20, which should get us much more meaningful numbers.9

If that pans out, the fun begins, digging into the why behind these changes.

Buckle up. This should be fun.



Notes:


1 For a few examples, see: Brett Lehman, “Physical and Nonphysical Bullying Victimization of Academically Oriented Students: The Role of Gender and School Type,” American Journal of Education 122 (2015):133-59, Lori Kendall, “‘OH NO! I’M A NERD!’: Hegemonic Masculinity on an Online Forum,” Gender & Society 14 (2000):256-74, or Christopher Louis Cardiel, “Are We Cool Yet?: A Longitudinal Content Analysis of Nerd and Geek Representations in Popular Television,” MA thesis, Portland State University, 2012.
^

2 Note: 1996 only has 19 games total that met its minimum criteria of 7 or more reviews. The number of games reviewed rises rapidly at the turn of the century. From 19 in 1996 to 52 in 1999 to 343 in 2000 to 545 in 2001. In 2015, 867 games qualified. The list of gaming publications (print and online) that Metacritic aggregates can be found here.
^

3 Pun. Drink!
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4 Guarantee only valid at relativistic speeds or to sentient beings with 8 or more dexterous appendages.
^

5 Games were only counted in the year first released and for the highest-rated platform. All other ports, reboots, 3D/HD editions, and DLCs were considered duplicates.
^

6 With the exception of tennis, sports games almost always default to male athletes or teams. It wasn’t until FIFA 2016 that a soccer game even incorporated the (highly popular and profitable) US Women’s National Team, which one would think was an obvious move for someone to have tried since 1999.
^

7 Which were coded based on the following criteria: is the narrative arc of the game a significant reason why people play the game? Shooters were generally the hardest to sort, ranging from titles like Bioshock (hell, yes, the story matters) to Doom (nnnnnooooppppppeeee) to some much harder-to-pin-down games like Call of Duty (we landed on “no” after some debate).
^

8 Blah, blah, sig figs, blah, blah. Mr. Leonard lives in a world of comically ludicrous precision. And it is glorious.
^

9 The top 100 games also almost always includes the majority of games that have significant economic success. Very few titles are widely played and sell like hotcakes while being universally panned. As a composite, Metacritic, inherits the grade-inflation typical of most rating systems, and, thus, anything below about the 75-80 range is usually considered a flop.
^

About The Author

Architeuthis Rex, a man of (little) wealth and (questionable) taste. Historian and anthropologist interested in identity, regionalism / nationalism, mass culture, and the social and political contexts in which they exist. Earned Ph.D. in social and cultural History with a concentration in anthropology from Carnegie Mellon University and then (mostly) fled academia to write things that more than 10 other people will actually read. Driven to pursue a doctorate to try and answer the question, "Why do they all hate each other?" — still working on it. Plays beer-league hockey, softball, and soccer. Professional toddler wrangler. Likes dogs, good booze, food, and horribly awesome kung-fu movies.

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