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If we got angry about this kind of thing we'd be angry all the time

Gears of War Art Director: Everybody Likes Our Female Characters, But Nobody Likes Female Characters

The quotes from Chris Perna, art director of the Gears of War series, that have been floating around today actually say something a little more complicated than can be reasonably slimmed down to a single headline. A slightly longer summary? Perna says some puzzling things about gender presentation in character design, acknowledges that he’s proud of the playable female characters of the Gears of War franchise and that he knows that a lot of women fans of the series find those characters to be empowering, and then turns right around and shores up the self-fullfilling prophecy that games with female lead characters don’t sell.

He told Xbox magazine:

[Female Gears of War cosplayers] feel empowered. They put on that armour and they walk around with these massive weapons and I think they get a kick out of it – I get a kick out of seeing it. From what we’ve heard, when they play the game they feel empowered and they feel good.

He credits the game’s character design, particularly how it doesn’t feel the need to give its female characters what he considers “feminine” qualities, with creating this feeling in female fans. But when asked if this means that the Gears of War franchise will ever see a female lead, his answer is:

That’s certainly interesting but I don’t know. If you look at what sells, it’s tough to justify something like that.

In fact, if you actually look at what sells, and not just how much it sells for, you will find that games with female leads also receive less than half the advertising budget of games with male leads. At the same time, they review nearly as well. To put it mildly, a pervasive, industry-wide assumption that female-led gains don’t sell and therefore are not worth the risk, and that even if you do make them you probably shouldn’t spend too much money on them, seems a very likely explanation for this discrepancy. You don’t even have to take my word for it, in fact, this is also the opinion of Geoffrey Zatkin, CEO of EEDAR, top marketing research firm for the videogames industry. If you assume that your female-led game will not sell well, and so deny it resources that your male-led title has, then, yeah, that lady-led game is not going to do as well. And you’ve got all the evidence you need to start making the case, just to pick one example, that men intrinsically have trouble thinking of female characters as a hero they want to embody.

It’s too bad that Perna appears to say that creating a game around characters that he believes women identify with and feel empowered to embody doesn’t “justify” itself based on a false assumption. There are many steps the video game industry can take to make their games and communities more welcoming to women. Acknowledging that at least one of the reasons why games with female leads don’t sell as well as the overwhelming majority of games based around male leads might be because everyone “knows” that games with female leads don’t sell well is a small one.

(via Joystiq.)

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  • Anonymous

    Ugh. I’m so sick of this. (not you guys of course, just this dumb philosophy)

    You know what games don’t sell? Most of them.

    If the percentage of women characters in games are low, then the percentage of them selling will also be low.

    I’ll also tell you that for every 10 women characters in-game I find less than half to be ones that I want to relate to, thus lowering the numbers of relatability for women even further (surprising that I don’t find squawking sticks with balloons for chests relatable).

    Okay, I’ll get off my soapbox.

  • TKS

    I’m kind of annoyed at the concept of “to make a woman heroic, you must take away her femininity.”

    Lets make games where characters are both feminine and heroic/well rounded. These are not mutually exclusive concepts.

    (I think he’s confusing “feminine” with “sexualized.” I kind of think a lot of people do this, which is another hell of a problem.)

  • TKS

    Get back up on that soapbox. I like the cut of your jib.

  • Anonymous

    Around 40% of gamers today are women. With a proportion like that, even a game mostly aimed at a female audience has enough of a potential market to succeed. And it’s not true male gamers are all turned off by a female lead. I’m pretty sure the Tomb Raider games could have suceeded with a better proportionned Lara Croft.

  • Matt Graham

    I deal with this outlook from friends and peers every day because I like female protagonists in my own work.

  • Anonymous

    Agree! It’s as if there were a real-life lack of women to base these characters on when we know for a fact there isn’t. (and your jib ain’t so bad either!)

  • Matt Graham

    I like you two.

  • Matt Graham

    It will, the new game, which reboots her design and the whole franchise, hits on March 5th. She’s slighter of figure, but finally has a real athlete’s build and proportions.

  • Rebekah M. Jones

    This! I mean, it’s kinda weird for me to watch this conflation as some who is rather… fluid? In my gender expression. I love wearing adorable dresses with killer pumps (my favorite pair has kitties on them!) and bright red lipstick. But I am also saving up money to get chest bindings and a more masculine-yet-sleek wardrobe (and I am looking forward to mixing and matching in the future. Frilly High-heels with a well-cut suit? Yes please). I feel just as powerful in my feminine drag as in my more masculine/tomboy drag.

    I think a big problem is also conflating “feminine” attitudes and actions with feminine looks. Like, the “I’m in the middle of a battle and my nails/high-heel just broke so I’m going to whine and cry and make something I yell at the enemy about” instead of what most feminine women would do in that situation which is “I’m in the middle of the battle and my nails/high-heel broke so I shout out a quick “F***.” and toss the heels/ignore the nail as I continue on without missing more than a half a beat”.

  • Sara Sakana

    And I think you’re confusing “feminine” with “stereotypically girly.” Which is also a hell of a problem.

    “Femininity” does not mean “wearing makeup and skirts and having long hair and liking pink.” Judging a woman’s “femininity” based solely on her appearance is gross and misogynist as hell, and you need to knock it off.

    “Femininity” means “being a woman.” Period. All women are feminine.

    When you say a woman is “unfeminine,” you are at best saying she is somehow being a woman wrong. At worst, you’re implying that she isn’t really a woman.

  • Mordicai

    You know, Skyrim is pretty good with the in-game gender dichotomy. Also, my bad ass female orc would beg to differ with the idea that dudes can’t make the mental leap into identifying with a woman.

    (Also, the idea of a woman is…somehow weirder than being a DIFFERENT SPECIES? Or of being in outer space/magic kingdom/wherever? That is how alien I’m supposed to pretend women are? Sheesh, exhausting.)

  • Anonymous

    I think you’re jumping the gun on making the assumption that by saying something or someone is unfeminine that they are “being a woman wrong”. Saying that something or someone is not “feminine” is simply stating that yes, they are lacking in rather gender specific traits of what defines “Femininity”. Whether you find that to be offensive and sexist is neither here nor there as no one’s is outright stating that what is gender specifically Feminine is restrictive and automatically means that a woman who does not allow themselves to be defined by those standards is suddenly not a woman. Also I don’t remember them stating anywhere that Femininity is defined by the presence of Make Up and Short Skirts or anything in between.

    Not only that but the idea of “Stereotypically Girly” is also pretty offensive. It makes an implication that anyone who falls into this image is apparently immature. Childlike, even. Being Feminine doesn’t mean you automatically wear ten pounds of make up (or ANY make up, even), let alone liking the color pink.

    It sounds a bit like you also have some rather twisted sexist trains of thought that you need to get over if your knee jerk reaction to this proposition is to get offended and make an implication that the idea of “Femininity” (as proposed in these circumstances) is in and of itself offensive.

  • TKS

    That wasn’t what I was saying. I am sorry that my message was not delivered well enough; I will try to explain my position.

    I do believe that “femininity” is a socially constructed concept that is distinct from being a woman. It is more than “wearing make up and skirts and etc…” but there are traits that all of us (of all genders) have that are culturally designated as “feminine” and “masculine.”

    The problem I am alluding to is that “heroism” is most commonly associated with”masculine.” Because of this, we have constructed the idea that in order for a someone (of any gender) to be seen as heroic, they must abandon traditionally feminine traits.

    I am not, in any way, suggesting that in order to “correctly” be a woman that you must be feminine. There are all sorts of women and all sorts of people, and more types of people should be represented in video games. Based on my personal observation, in order for a woman to be the main protagonist of a video game they must be a) hypersexualized or b) “just another dude.”

    Does that clear my position a bit better?

  • Anonymous

    Unless TKS edited hir post, I didn’t see “wearing makeup and skirts and having long hair and liking pink” anywhere in hir post. And if that’s the case, then you called hir out on a pretty stretched assumption.

    All TKS said was that a heroic female doesn’t need to actively be made “less feminine”, which addresses a real issue of attempting to make female characters more “manly” in order to make them heroic, which is a terrible conflation and only supports patriarchal concepts of masculinity as heroic or capable.

    You are right that the concept of gender binary is false. A woman is a woman, no matter what social traits and norms she exhibits, and should be treated as such. Non-stereotypically “feminine” women are just as valid representations in media, but TKS only pointed out that the all too prevalent idea that “female hero = masculine female” is false. I didn’t see anything suggesting that ze also thinks that women who exhibit non-stereotypical behavior are aberrant or negative.

    Likewise, the language here is complicated, because in rejecting the divide of “masculine” and “feminine”, you also have to reject the terminology, which leaves one unable to address the real phenomena of the promotion of stereotypically categorized feminine behavior or the rejection of it as invalid from a patriarchal, machismo standpoint.

  • Anonymous

    It makes me wonder what devs think when looking at any of the Tomb Raider games or the cult hit Beyond Good & Evil. Do they think that because they had female leads and became popular, they are flukes?

  • Melissa Reneé Cantey

    so they’re saying women have the balls to play games cross gendered and men don’t. soon developers might take a leaf out of the MMO’s book and make gender choice lead. some games do this or will allow parallel story play like gears. it’s genius how they set up campaign with the sections of parallel. developers: do this. make games1 & 2 local players and gender choice. most games have more than one main character anyway even if they are NPC or one player controls all. you’ll sell more games with multi local player and gender choice

  • Becca Feiner

    I get really angry when you damage my high heels. Of course, at the time I’m usually wearing stomper boots so I have a quick and easy response to the damaged high heels I was carrying around for some reason… ^_^

  • Becca Feiner

    My very male feminist husband plays female characters 80% of the time. Of course, when it comes to role-playing games, he often plays them in ways no woman I know would really act, but for video games it’s more of a choose a, b, or c sort of situation most of the time anyway.

  • Kim Pittman

    I always like to point out that if you count up the huge number of games that have male protagonists, and count their success in relation to sales, then it is actually very close to the same percentage of games with a female protagonist and their successes in relation to sales. The misunderstanding comes when you try to compare the 150 or so games EVER MADE with female protagonists to the hundreds of thousands with male protagonists. Of course if you say, only 20 games ever with female leads sold! but don’t point out that is a 13% success rate, which is actually better than games with male leads.

  • Dan Wohl

    Skyrim is how I wish all games were when it comes to gender. Both genders available, totally customizable, and it doesn’t make any meaningful difference to the events of the game.

  • Mordicai

    Right? Jarl, dude or lady, whatever. Merc, dude or lady, alright. Mage librarian? Orc. Yeah!

  • Rebekah M. Jones

    Well, I do to, but if I wore it to the battlefield as a part of my costume I would see it par of course. XD

  • Devi Sage

    It is an industry falsehood that lady protagonists don’t sell games. One perpetuated by (dude) developers and heads of companies. This is an incredibly TIRED go-to ‘fact’ that they commonly pull out of their hat in order to justify and continue to justify the same grizzled (usually dark-haired) hetero white dudes to be leads of the majority of games.

  • Aeryl

    I think people are starting to disassociate this a little, but I don’t think it helps.

    If you asked any of my friends, family or coworkers if I am feminine, the answer would likely be a resounding No. But at the same time, if you looked at what I wear, skirts, sexy boots, blouses in bright colors, long fancy nails, I stopped doing heels after I tore a ligament in my ankle, but I used to wear them nonstop. All of those clothing choices signify me as feminine, but my loud and abrasive manner, my love of body humor, geek stuff, and politics and my refusal to wear makeup 99% of the time mark me as distinctly non-feminine.

    As I told a coworker who crossed a line with me when it came to discussing my aesthetic choices, just because I refuse to conform to traditional femininity, does NOT make me a defective woman.

    And yes, if any of us were in battle and we suffered an injury to our feminine appearance, we would do what we do everyday in life, swear about it and move on. If there is an emery board handy, we’ll file off the edge and keep going.

    Not that hard.

  • Dee

    I personally get furious when women and men alike tell me that female Shep from Mass Effect isn’t “feminine” enough to be considered anything more than a reskin of male Shepard. But it is a valid criticism because enough people have said it — or so the numbers tell me.

    As someone who has worked as a marketer in the gaming industry, I have a vested interest in pinning down how best to sell to developing demographics — more specifically, to all my fellow feminist gamers (note: I purposely did not say female gamers). And as a professional you cannot solely operate on hunches or ideas of what “feels right or wrong.” Generally, when you don’t know how to solve a problem — and I argue that gender representation in video games is a longstanding problem that isn’t going to be solved anytime soon — you go with metrics in order to replicate successful consumer behavior.

    And obviously, we can all agree that this is not always the best way to do things, but it IS a solid and safe approach. No business ever wants to lose money.

  • Anonymous

    “(Also, the idea of a woman is…somehow weirder than being a DIFFERENT
    SPECIES? Or of being in outer space/magic kingdom/wherever? That is
    how alien I’m supposed to pretend women are? Sheesh, exhausting.)”

    Good point! Also I must say yeeees lady orcs are awesome!

  • Kathryn

    Still has above-average breasts, though. Which is a bit of a shame.

  • Kathryn

    Beyond Good & Evil was, initially, not a commercial success. And with Tomb Raider one could easily factor in her sex appeal as being a reason why. She wore tight clothes, had huge breasts and so on. And the advertising *added* to that.

  • Kathryn

    It’s true games with female leads aren’t the biggest sellers. That’s because the biggest sellers are titles with huge marketing budgets or an exploitative business model. So you’re talking World of Warcraft, Mario, Sonic, Call of Duty, Grand Theft Auto, etc. And you’ll find most games where you can play women are those where you have character selection – Mass Effect, Elder Scrolls, Fallout, etc. – not those where a female is the actual lead.

    It’s always seemed to me that female leads tend to be present in more abstract titles, like Mirror’s Edge (which ended up being a commercial success, but not as much as they’d hoped, why the sequel seems to be in a state of existential flux). And if you look back over the history of gaming, women tend to find more success – as characters – in adventure games. You’ve got April Ryan, for example, one of the most iconic women in gaming (assuming you’re a PC gamer…). So when you consider what kind of games developers typically use female leads for, it’s really not that surprising that they are perceived to sell less.

    I don’t think Skyrim, Fable, etc. really handled the gender thing well. Skyrim barely acknowledges you as anything, let alone as your gender. Everyone talks to you in the same boring way irrespective of what you look like. Fable 3 was a bit better, but it still felt kind of the same. And Divinity 2… Sigh. Good game, but again, no real ‘gender’ recognition.

  • Emily Krebs

    Agreed. Big part of the reason Anya’s constant cursing bugged me when I played the Gears 3 Beta (I note they did tone it down for the final release, though I suspect that might be because most players felt she talked too much, period). I mean, the female character who curses way more than the boys to prove that she’s just as hardcore as the men and so earns respect for that crudeness is just so rote. How about a lady who kicks ass with her actions, not through meaningless words meant to make her seem “more hard.”

  • Joanna

    Tomb Raider was successful because it was so different at the time. It stayed successful because of the sex appeal.

  • Joanna

    Personally I think fem Shep was a better character than bro Shep. The voice actress was immensely better and more relatable and not because of her gender either.

  • Iceteck

    Does that really matter? Personally, I’ve loved Tomb Raider right from the very first game. She’s an amazing character who just gets on with things (while doing very cool backflips)… She was actually my childhood hero – I never even considered proportions. Who cares if she has above average breasts? half of all women have above average breasts!

  • Matt Graham

    Going back to my first comment down at the bottom, that concern is the sort of thing that makes it frustrating to work with a female protagonist, as a writer and artist. I’ve had a chat with writer Becky Chambers about it.

    No matter what build I choose to draw, it’s not correct to somebody. Personality, sense of humour, and emotional
    reactions? Not accurate to somebody. The character’s job, interests, or stance on things that drive the story? Doesn’t work for some people.

    I used to want to try and make sure I wasn’t erring on sexism or negative stereotypes, especially because I grew up with heroines like Kitty Pryde, Buffy, Lara Croft, Tara Chace in Queen and Country – I don’t look at them as strong female characters, I look at them as strong characters. Lately I’ve given up, because there are so many different ways people interpret an idea, or twist an idea to fit an agenda, all I hope for is that the character’s design and personality resonates with someone like you. If one person gets it, it’s a victory.

  • Matt Graham

    I’m more drawn to her eyes and that iconic M shaped mouth.

  • Robo

    part of the issue is that the art director references “blonde hair and implants” in longer sections of the interview :/

  • Robo

    the thing with Bethesda games – while i love them a lot – 233 hrs in Skyrim etc., they ignore gender/default treat you like a dude without actually calling you a dude (and sometimes they do call you a dude because someone didnt correctly flag the gender identifiers in the dialogue). I totally agree on the gender distribution though – that is awesome.
    example of Skyrim calling my lady a “lad”:

  • Robo

    Jennifer Hale is the best at what she does. She totally made Shepard who she was and hit all the lines out of the park.

  • Anonymous

    Sorry if it wasn’t clear but I was speaking in reference to what TKS stated.

  • Mordicai

    Yeah, I think I caught a similar “slip.”

  • Anonymous

    “More realistic” (or closer to Victoria’s Secret than Hustler) isn’t necessarily “better.” Would Mario be better without a giant head and stumpy limbs? The original Lara was cartoonish in the way that many female cartoon game characters were, and while I don’t disagree that her secondary sexual attributes were exaggerated, it seems extremely hollow to exalt the redesigned Lara as inherently superior or less sexualised, because she’s still clearly depicted as a very attractive female who wears a skimpy cleavage-revealing top. The games are more realistically rendered, but that doesn’t make them less sexualised.

  • Anonymous

    If sex appeal mattered, then Tomb Raider contemporaries Bloodrayne, Fear Effect and the like would be much more famous. Lara’s bust size and attire was irrelevant in the context of the game, and I’d go so far as to say that the sex appeal was almost entirely a result of advertising and cross-promotion rather than anything in the games themselves. There was obviously something more to the games than that going on.

  • Anonymous

    Yes, it was “cartoonish” but a sexualised cartoon. I don’t mind seeing an attractive character on screen (male characters also usually look much better than average) but Lara Croft breasts were so big, they stood out in a medium that always sexualised its women to begin with.
    The new Lara is in the same ballpark as Nathan Drake, which is what they should aim for.

  • Anonymous

    So throughout time (back when misogyny was much more rampant) books like Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland could have female protagonists and become popular world classics.

    But in the vidja-game world of 2013: “No way bro, I never play as a fuckin’ chick…” :

  • Cluisanna

    Yes, I agree… I have played 5 fem!sheps and one male!shep and the male one has so much less emotion and depth because of the bad voice acting.

  • Dee

    I personally think so as well. However, I’ve heard from a few male gamers that they felt she was too “butch” and that she “overcompensated” by being too “emotional.” I never got any of those impressions, but these particular gamers said that these qualities are what made her feel like a gendered protagonist and so they didn’t enjoy playing as her.

    … That kind of commentary drives me up the wall, but that is what this industry is working with.