Beyond Ms. Pac-Man: Both the best and the worst games have an increasing percentage of female player characters

By: Patrick W. Zimmerman

The question

We asked this back at the beginning of the series, but it bears repeating. The question that has guided this whole project has been: has the way games been made change to reflect the growing numbers of women and girls who play the games? To put it another way: more women are playing games than ever, so can a young girl who is just getting into gaming play as a character that looks like her?

Ok, so we’ve established that the highest rated games these days have an increasing percentage of female-friendly player characters. Great. But is that just because games with women (or customizable) characters are getting higher ratings? Is taking the top 100 more representative of what is in favor with game reviewers than it is of wider trends in how games are made?

How to tease this out, then? Let’s ask: what does the bottom of the ratings barrel look like?


The short answer

Looking at the 100 worst-rated games of each year from 2000-16, it’s pretty clear that a similar pattern holds, that more games over the last few years are being released with female or custom-sex player characters.

What does the bottom of the barrel look like? It looks like this.

That’s right, each of the last three years has beaten the previous all-time high (27%, in 2011) for female-friendly PCs (explicitly female main characters or easily customizable gender with either a female default or no default) by 5% or more. Those same years have seen the three lowest male-default PCs. This isn’t necessarily obvious, as there are a fair percentage of games with no player character at all or one that doesn’t really apply. Think a lot of racing games or strategy games like Risk; “the red countries” does not constitute a gender.

That, you smart readers will have already seen, constitutes a trend.


Combining the top and bottom of the ratings

Ok, 100 games aren’t enough? What happens when you combine the top and the bottom to double (and spread out) your sample?

Same trend, just as clear. Before 2014, no year had ever seen more than 22% of the games in the top or bottom of the ratings have female or custom player characters, and the years since that have produced 32%, 35%, and 32%. It’s officially a thing that’s happening.

One thing that you’ll notice is that the Top 100 also show a higher percentage of female-friendly player characters at the beginning of our time period, the early 2000s, though this was more due to the popularity of games with custom player characters than ones that were explicitly female.

The marked dip in number of female player characters that we dubbed “Bro Valley” when looking at the top of the ratings ecosystem disappears (it just kind of stays flat), instead, it looks like what was really going on during the mid-2000s was not so much a proliferation of d00dz but an expansion of games that had no discernible PC sex at all. Racing games, strategy games, and puzzle games all were produced in fairly large numbers while the narrative-driven adventure game genre all but disappeared for a few years.

The recent spike in female-friendly PCs is not simply a return of customizable characters in RPGS or MMORPGs (i.e. World of Warcraft), although those have become more common, as well. You’re starting to see sex / genre combinations that were almost unheard of before. Women aren’t just the protagonists in adventure, Japanese RPGs, or interactive stories anymore, there are a growing number of action-adventure games (even including some not starring Lara Croft). Most notably, these days it seems that most of the survival horror genre has the player take on the role of a woman, including a fair sprinkling of damsels in distress and, um, Ripley, and others who do not so much fit that archetype.


Methodology dos and don’ts

The big thing is wondering if the two ends of the quality spectrum are indicative of the whole. Taking the top and bottom 100 represents 23.3% of the qualifying games for 2015 (7 or more critic ratings) on Metacritic, for example, though it covers more and more of the total the further back in time we go (1996, for example, only has 20 games that qualified).

There are two reasons that we’re comfortable with using both extremes as a proxy for the whole. 1) Game design tends to mimic the top of the ratings rather consciously, trying to reproduce the latest successes in a pretty unforgiving market. 2) The bottom so closely mirrors the trend over the last few years, that it would be very surprising if the rest of the dataset was that far off. We suppose that it’s possible games that have female player characters are either loved or hated by the critics to a greater extent than other games…but we doubt it.

Also, PC sex is something that we have to code manually. It’s not listed explicitly on any gaming site that we know of, so it’s a combination of looking at screenshots, reading reviews, and looking at pronouns. For every. Single. Game. Anyone who wants to volunteer to hit the middle 660 games for 2015 (for example), we salute you and will offer you all the help we can.


What’s next?

There are a couple of big questions that this study has prompted:

  • How have female-friendly player characters performed on the marketplace relative to games with no pc or a male one? The main issue with this is finding accurate sales numbers for games, which can sometimes be a bit dicey.
  • Does the trend continue, or is it going to be a few-year long fad (like the no-pc games of the mid-2000s)?
  • Why have game designers jumped on the lady train? While, from an ethical perspective, it doesn’t really matter why females are finally becoming more represented in games (just that they are), it’s much easier to say whether or not this is a long-term change in how games are produced or simply a fad if the causes behind it are less opaque. The best way to do something like this would be a series of interviews, oral histories, and the like with the game studios themselves.
  • Has the target demographic (gamer girls) noticed the uptick? Do they preferentially go for female and custom player character games, or does it make no difference to them? Are game developers barking up the right tree (and to what extent)?

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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