One Man Too Many

Whilst there’s a considerable amount of evidence to substantiate Activision’s supposed belief that ‘female leads don’t sell games’ – in that the majority of blockbusters appear to be male led – there’s also an equally substantial set of female-led sales figures to suggest otherwise. Yet, anybody attempting to argue either side is undoubtedly fighting a futile battle and is, unfortunately, missing the point. They’re also omitting the bigger issue at hand.

The question, then, isn’t whether or not women are commercially viable as triple-A protagonists – Samus Aran and others attest that they can be – it’s whether or not they can rival their male counterparts and maintain a publisher’s bottom line.

It’s obvious that the dedicated amongst our beloved hobby tend to congregate around particular franchises; the greats are quickly immortalized, and the failures are long, long forgotten. So, when the industry depends primarily on male protagonists, those characters – Nathan Drake, Master Chief, Marcus Fenix – are often held up as an example of the gender’s ability to shift units from shelves. But they’re just a small, small percentage out of the many failed, many generic male leads of which, again, are long forgotten. If the number of female leads increased exponentially, of course, you would have just as many failures, but it’s just as likely that there would be just as many triple-A titles. Is it irrational to think that the lesser female-led titles would long be forgotten? And the blockbusters, immortalized?

A female-led video game, it seems, could rival or outsell any male-driven franchise – it appears that the industry just doesn’t give the idea a chance.

Fable and Mass Effect, for example, pride themselves on the illusion of choice. That, one would presume, inherently includes freedom of sexuality and gender – the freedom to choose what’s between your legs (and what you do with it). Yet, despite this, the box art for both of these critically acclaimed, financially successful franchises perpetuates the male identity. Why is Shepard’s standard identity – again, according to the game’s artwork – male? And this is a far from recent trend. The original incarnation of Resident Evil, despite featuring both a male and female protagonist, seemingly left Jill Valentine out to dry, touting a well-armed Chris Redfield to solely occupy the game’s cover.   

Left 4 Dead and Borderlands, to cite another example, are predominantly male-centric in characterization, with just a single woman occupying a space on the roster in both titles. But it would be easy, too easy, to label the status quo as blatant gender discrimination – it may simply be symbolic of the medium’s producers and its consumers. If this is the case, then the commonality of the male lead explains itself. A man playing as a male lead is more likely to associate with that character. Moreover, I’m more likely to empathize with him if he were 150lbs, bald, and wrote for Scrawl. The closer he matches my physical, emotional and situational attributes, the more likely I am to invest in that character – isn’t that why we have character customization?

Again, though, such an issue stems far beyond video games. And, if anything, is telling of the medium’s limitation in both its themes and its genres. You would find it difficult to dispute the claim that games – including even the likes of Mario – lean towards representations of combat. So, imagine the film Predator with a female lead, or look at The Expendables. It could be said that the typical video game isn’t too dissimilar from the typical action film; both are intellectually underdeveloped, emotionally lacking and partial to the idea of a man killing stuff in the face of insurmountable odds. Of course, there are plenty of exceptions to the rule (in both mediums) but it’s a rule nonetheless.

Video games, it seems, have fallen into the ‘gender association’ trap. Like almost everything else, it has been assigned to a specific sex. But isn’t that ridiculous? Pink is not feminine. It’s a color, it has no sense of identity and is, from what I understand, biologically lacking. And what happens? People conform to that identity, in that men may tend to avoid that particular color just as much as the opposite sex might choose to embrace it. Could publishers and developers be catering to a male audience, via male leads, and therefore be further alienating those outside of the 18-35 male demographic?

There’s no denying that, even from just a quick glance at my personal collection, video games appear to be a testosterone-infused affair. In fact there’s little evidence to suggest that female leads don’t shift units, simply due to overwhelming lack of them. Think ‘Activision’, and not a single female lead springs to mind. Moreover, Activision’s supposed focus-group stance reveals the mega-publisher’s unwillingness to take risks. Should they change the protagonist of next year’s Call of Duty to a female solider and it flops, then they can tell me that ‘female leads don’t sell games’.

Oh, and Final Fantasy XIII says ‘hello’.

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