Last week, the Penny Arcade Report interviewed Jean-Max Morris, creative director of the upcoming female-led game Remember Me. After going into the game’s cyberpunk roots, Morris discussed the publishers who wanted nothing to do with a female protagonist. “We don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed,” he paraphrased. “You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.”
As the article made the rounds, I couldn’t help but notice what gamers were getting excited about elsewhere. Tomb Raider had just slipped to number two in the UK sales charts, after two weeks at number one. StarCraft II: Heart of the Swarm had already sold 1.1 million copies in its first two days. Indie developer Supergiant Games, the folks behind Bastion, announced their new action RPG, Transistor, which features a leading lady. Their booth enjoyed two hour lines at PAX all weekend. I’m told that the lines for Remember Me were comparable.
I don’t think it’s gamers who have a problem with female protagonists.
That disconnect is what’s been bugging me the most about that article, more than all the girls-have-cooties implications. I read these blanket statements about how male gamers are supposedly allergic to female protagonists, and it doesn’t mesh with my impressions of the gamer community at large. I’m not even talking about stances on gender issues here. I’m talking about why people buy the games that they do. I have a bias in this, I know, but even so, I can’t shake the feeling that the publishers who say these things are failing to understand why gamers actually play.
There are two components to my thinking on this — how I go about playing, and how the guys I know go about playing (spoiler: they’re basically the same thing). I’ll start with myself, even though I’m not the sort of player being considered by these publishers. My purchasing habits strike me as pretty standard for a long-time gamer. I play shooters, RPGs, action games, and anything else that tickles my fancy. My carefully planned monthly budget includes a portion for games. I preorder new titles. I buy DLC. Take away my gender, and I’m exactly the sort of gamer the industry wants.
I developed these habits despite a lifetime of playing heroes that, more often than not, don’t look like me. A male protagonist does not stop me from playing. A male protagonist does not prevent me from developing an emotional attachment to his character. Do I gravitate more toward female protagonists, when they’re available? Yes, if I’m interested in the game itself as well. But will I turn away from an enticing game just because I can’t play as my gender? Of course not. What draws me to a game above all else, regardless of whose story it is, regardless of if there are even any women in the game at all, is whether or not it looks fun. I may feel more at home with a female protagonist, but I’ve got no problem connecting to a hero with a beard and a gravely voice. Gents, correct me if I’m wrong, but seeing as how we’re all human beings here, I imagine that for the most part, you and I react to differently-gendered protagonists in much the same way.
But okay, I’m not the target audience. Perhaps my experiences are moot. I obviously can’t speak directly to what it’s like to be a male gamer, but for what it’s worth, I have spent the better part of my life interacting and socializing with them. We like the same sorts of games. We play with equal enthusiasm. We talk about talent trees and boss fights and weapon upgrades. We sit and watch E3 together. We send each other articles on game releases and industry news. And not all of the male gamers I’ve known or even befriended have shared my views on gender portrayal. I’ve debated these things plenty with people I’ve gamed with. I recall being part of a group that got in a somewhat heated squabble over the Jennifer Hepler debacle before we all sat down and played Descent together. Our opinions on such topics may differ, but set them aside, and we’re buying the same games, and playing in the same way. From a gameplay standpoint, we’ve got the important stuff in common.
So let’s talk gamers in general. You can split us into two groups: those who are drawn to game mechanics, and those who are drawn to story (and yes, there’s a lot of crossover between the two). For those who are keen on mechanics, the protagonist doesn’t matter much. The setting and the story may affect how devoted they become to the game, but these players can and will overlook just about anything if they love the mechanics. The guys of this sort that I’ve played with have no qualms about choosing a female character, so long as her abilities are what they’re after. They’re far more concerned with class than gender.
A story-focused gamer, however, is looking for one of two things: a good story about someone else, or a story in which they can be the star. The latter hinges upon character customization, which nowadays usually means variable gender protagonists. Everybody wins. But for gamers who are happy to play as a pre-defined character, what they don’t want is the same story they’ve seen a dozen times before. They want to experience something new. Otherwise, what’s the point? You can only go through the same narrative so many times before you get bored. These players won’t care what the protagonist’s gender is, so long as the story is engaging.
If we’re talking about courting core gamers (I dislike that term, but there it is), protagonist gender seems like a non-issue. I keep thinking back to Transistor, a game helmed by a dainty lady with a buster sword. The people at PAX weren’t lined up for her, or despite her. They were lined up because Supergiant Games makes great stuff, and because Transistor looks awesome. I’ll confess, seeing that the game had a female protagonist was a side bonus for me. You know what I was primarily excited over? Combat that allows you to stop time and plan out attacks. I had already started digging into that cake before I appreciated the icing. I think a lot of gamers go about choosing games in the same way. Again, I can’t speak for the guys out there, but I’d be very surprised to meet a male gamer who turned up his nose at a combat system that appealed to him solely because he had to play a female character. That seems like an uncommon mindset.
But what if these publishers aren’t talking about core gamers? What if the concern here is the untapped market? Appealing to non-gamers is indeed a consideration you see throughout the industry (for better or for worse). This has been said by others many times before, but if the goal is to interest as many new gamers as possible, how does it make sense to focus only on straight white men between the ages of 18 and 25 (not to mention, how insulting is it to imply that such people are incapable of relating to anyone other than themselves)? And I may be off base with this, but I tend to think that someone who has never bought a game before is probably not going to start with a new IP. They’re going to pick something that they’ve heard of, something recommended by a friend who already plays it. A gamer. A gamer who will be recommending the game for its mechanics, or its story.
I am sure there are some men out there who might be put off by a female protagonist, just as there are women who might feel similarly toward male protagonists, but in my experience, this just isn’t the case for most. Give a gamer — of any gender — a good game with a solid story and fun mechanics, and we’re happy. (That’s not to say that character gender doesn’t matter at all. That’s a whole ‘nother article.)
And as for those hypothetical men who would feel “awkward” about seeing a female protagonist “kiss another dude” — okay, putting aside how immature that notion is, I feel compelled to note that games make me feel awkward all the time. Every time a game puts me in skimpy chainmail without offering an alternative, every time the women in the game are only there to be rescued or ogled, every time a game imparts the message that women are weak or vapid or just not good enough, I am left feeling awkward. And yet, I love games anyway. I’m still here, going bleary-eyed over strategy guides and handing over my hard-earned cash. If I can remain this loyal after the onslaught of awkward that games have put me through, then trust me. The dudes will be fine.