Gender in Videogames – A Historical View

Over the last few weeks I’ve been looking at the gender split of playable characters in video games. The overall result isn’t exactly surprising, but the detail within the data does offer a few new perspectives on the issue.

Before I get to the numbers, I’ll just explain how I got them in the first place. Firstly, I looked at VGChartz.com and copied their list of game sales on all platforms. I then took that list and selected only games that sold over a million copies. This gave me a list of 1914 discrete SKUs, and 1522 discrete games. There are a few issues with my method. I’m relying on the accuracy of VGChartz to provide a list of million-selling games. It is entirely likely that there are a small number of million-selling games that are not on VGChartz and will therefore not be part of my analysis. Also, this is not a random selection of all games, which is why I’m guarded in the way I present my data. This data should not be confused for all games, but it is a pretty good indicator of popular games.

After selection, I looked at the games in the list and asked two questions: Is there a gendered playable character in the single player campaign or primary playable mode? If so, what genders are playable? A game was determined to have male playable characters if the player played as a male character (Super Mario Bros), could pick a defined male character (Borderlands) or could create a character with male gender during character creation (Mass Effect). Likewise a game was determined to have female player characters if the player played as a female main character (Tomb Raider), could pick a female character (Guitar Hero III) or could create a character with female gender during character creation (Destiny).

My analysis goes back as far as 1992, I had analysed 1410 discrete games at this point, and the number of games listed on VGChartz from before that period was patchy at best, making meaningful analysis pretty difficult. Of those 1410 games, 1088 had gendered main characters, just over three-quarters of the games analysed. The headline figure, which as I’ve said before will come as no surprise, is that of the games analysed that had gendered characters, only 42.6% had female characters available to play. The corresponding male figure was 96.4%.

The trend over time is more interesting, because I think there is a misconception that female representation has improved. My analysis shows that, for the games I looked at, this was not really the case.

Gender of Playable Characters in Million-selling Games by Year 1992–2014

The figure hovers around 40% and has done for over 20 years.

Is there a difference in representation depending on Genre? Funny you should ask:

Gender of Playable Characters in Million-Selling Games by Genre 1992–2014

The genres with the most obvious difference between male and female playability are platform games and shooters. Roleplaying games have improved significantly over the period:

Gender of Playable Characters in Million-selling RPG Games by Year 1992–2014

This also shows that you can balance the gender of your protagonists without removing male options.

Platform games have not improved, and recently have become less diverse:

Gender of Playable Characters in Million selling Platform Games by Year 1992–2014

And Shooters have a similar story to tell:

Gender of Playable Characters in Million selling Shooter Games by Year 1992–2014

The numbers for Shooters seem to improve slightly in 2014, but there were only 5 titles in that genre released that had broken 1 million sales when this article was being researched. Of those only two, Destiny and Titanfall, featured female playable characters. Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare does allow players to create female characters in multiplayer, but because it has a prominent single player campaign that doesn’t feature a female playable character it is not included in the female playable numbers. For clarity, if COD:AW had been regarded as having female playable characters, the figure for Shooters in 2014 would have changed to 60%, but the overall figure for all games in the period 1992 to 2014 would have changed from 42.6% to 42.7%, so would not have changed the overall conclusions of this article.

It is obvious that gender representation in Video Games is pretty poor and has been poor for some time. Certain genres are improving dramatically and provide representation to men and women, allowing players to have an avatar in-game that they can relate to more closely than before. This has not been done at the expense of male representation. More options have been given to players rather than less. Surely this is a good thing? Does Link always have to be the Hero of Time? Would adding Zelda as a playable character be a bad thing?

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