In recent years, the face of the average video game consumer has changed. About 40% of regular video game players are women, but gamers are often stuck with the same tired video game tropes: the damsel in distress, the scantily clad adventurer, the disempowerd sex worker, and the overall passive role of women in video games.
While these unfortunate trends remain, new ones emerge, steering innovative game designs and storytelling through the inclusion of female representation.
One of those trends is the merging of game genres, with video game mechanics becoming an active part of everything from education to escape room challenges. As gaming moves forward, how are women and girls represented in these games? What can video game developers do to improve representation?
State of Representation of Women in Video Games
Despite the increase in women playing video games, a 2019 look at video games reveals that representation for women in video games is still poor. In fact, it’s worse than it was in 2015, just after the tide had started to turn in favor of women in gaming. The study produced some key statistics:
While 65% of analyzed games permitted the player to select or create protagonists of more than one gender, only 5% presented a default female protagonist (down from 9% in 2015).
Only 21% of E3 conference speakers were women, displaying a lack of representation in the industry itself.
Only 15% of presented games were nonviolent in nature, providing more options for people socialized to embrace and fetishize violence.
Why Is Representation Important?
The position of women in video games shapes how video gamers think of themselves and others. It’s critical for women and girls to see themselves represented in as many stories as men and boys so they don’t have to question their own abilities.
Additionally, when video games primarily show women as the targets of violence or the victims of war, the player may receive negative messages about women in their daily lives. Representation affects how we treat each other, and 75% of women and girls who game indicate that representation of female characters in video games is important to them.
With alternate reality interfaces and other types of video games becoming more integrated parts of our education, representation is especially critical. These games aren’t simply for leisure; they’re part of how we learn and are used in classrooms today. If only 14% of the characters are women in the games children play, this significantly impacts learning experiences, showing once again that men are the “default gender.” In an educational context, this is particularly problematic and we have to do better.
How do we improve from here?
Offer Personalized Gaming Experiences
Whether in the classroom, on a gaming console, or in an integrated play experience like an escape room, providing gamers with a personalized gaming experience can mitigate some of the issues stemming from lack of representation.
One option involves offering bespoke experiences. As evidenced by Amazon’s mastery of data analysis and personal recommendations for its shoppers, most consumers prefer a personalized experience — not just something catering to their gender or other demographic.
In no genre is this more relevant in role-playing games (RPGs), in which players are invited to take on the role of the hero. RPGs can include customized character creation, as in Elder Scrolls series, or they can provide a more literal role to play, such as when participants take on a specific role in a tech-enabled escape room.
When RPGs and personalization are combined, they can offer players a feeling of empowerment. By succeeding in quests and adventures, players often underrepresented (including women) can demonstrate to themselves and others that they can overcome obstacles in a fantasy scenario — and, with this feeling, maybe they’ll also be empowered to do so in the real world.
Players crave power, agency, and empowerment, especially if they lack it in the real world. Personalized gaming solutions can overcome some of the bias inherent in video game design. While the number of women in video game design has increased to 22%, this level of representation still does not reflect the fact that there are two times as many adult female gamers as there are young male gamers. Personalization can alleviate issues caused by lack of representation on the developer side, even if it isn’t an ideal fix.
Moving forward, game design studios, individual developers, streamers, other influencers, and video game players themselves should move towards a more personalized model of story progression, character selection, and character development, giving in to the player’s desire to have agency and do something heroic in a story. This is especially true for gaming experiences in the classroom and experiences like escape rooms and VR, which encourage players to physically represent the roles of the characters they play.