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.