Friday, 15 November 2013

A Diverse Cast of Characters

On Tumblr there's a couple of images going around showcasing video game mascots from the late 80's to now, and how apparently every single one of modern gaming mascots is a 20-35 year old white dude with short hair, a stubble and a scowl with the exception of Chell from Portal 6 years ago. So I'm going to take the time to do some ranting of my own.

A Diverse Cast of Characters
A Rant to an Invisible Fanbase

Okay, I don't disagree with diversification in gaming but the people arguing in favor of it really need to clean up their act. The "We Can Do Better Than This" on one of the images itself is fairly innocuous, but a couple of blogs spreading the images complain about there only being 1 female character and have the line "THIS IS NOT OKAY" underneath them. Yes, I want more diversity in video game protagonists too, but the apparent lack of diversity doesn't annoy me nearly as much as its opposition pretending we have to start from scratch in fixing it.

So ... presenting a list of 8 characters as representative of the last 10 years of video game "mascots". Right. Five of which I managed to avoid because they are from games I haven't even played.  

Okay, elephant in the room number one: none of these previous characters have gone away. Only Raziel is really starting to drop into obscurity. A lot of the others even had major releases in the last year. You can't really mourn women being archaeologists when you could last be one in March of this year. Or how about that Nintendo crossover fighter coming up that features literally half of the characters from before the early 2000's?

Cole MacGrath, Nathan Drake, Marcus Fenix and Chell could arguably be considered mascots, but I think for the BioShock franchise the Big Daddy has more of a right to call himself a mascot (but he's evidently too interesting for this list). I had to look up what the guy from The Last of Us' name is, I guess marketing has put too much emphasis on the female character Ellie. As for Soap MacTavish ... really? He might be the main protagonist of the 3 Modern Warfare games but while actually playing the first Modern Warfare (in which he's actually the main player protagonist), he might have as well been a bar of soap for how much I actually learned about him. I hardly call that mascot material.

Like I often said in previous posts, this is once again people giving free advertising to the things they don't like to see and pretending the good things don't exist, just so they can give more weight to their complaints. You can just as easily fill up those 8 slots with 8 athletes from the covers of sports games released this year alone and say it is not okay that all these jocks are filling up gaming protagonists. That's not even a stretch considering the average FIFA game sells at least thrice as many copies as The Last of Us did.

The Supposed Market

Mass Effect was indeed marketed with that particular representation of Commander Shepard, but the problem there is that we are talking about a game that allows for character customization. The female version of Commander Shepard turned out to be so popular that for Mass Effect 3, she was also put in the spotlight. So on one hand I'd grant Shepard mascot status, on the other I have reservations about calling a character a mascot if he doesn't necessarily appear in the game at all. Especially since this list seems to already mix up mascot with player protagonist.

Inclusion of Female Commander Shepard in Marketing

The effect female Shepard's popularity had in the attitude shift in marketing is also emblematic of what happens when enough people actually do speak up. I said it before and I'll continue to hammer it in. The people publishing these things want to make a profit above all else, they are perfectly willing to change their strategy if it means more money in the bank. You aren't going to change them by attempting to pull the ground beneath them. You have to highlight what you do like and ask for more of that.

We have a lot of people complaining about what they don't like, but these same people vanish in smoke when they actually get what they claim to want. Are you out there and do you actually want these things or are you just here to complain about sexism? The Internet exploded when it was revealed publishers didn't want to publish Remember Me because a female protagonist wouldn't sell (Link broken). Instead of all the blogs chewing these publishers up, a more convincing counterargument would be the game's massive success.

Except that's not exactly what happened.

Remember Me vs. Duke Nukem Forever

No, I don't consider it a fair comparison between Remember Me and Duke Nukem Forever. I just want to show Remember Me couldn't even scratch at the sales of a widely hated game. This is hardly a rare occurrence. Games with a female protagonist do very often sell worse than games with a male protagonist.

The Castlevania games on DS shows the same strange phenomenon quite clearly to a certain degree. These games are all similarly rated and fairly similar in gameplay style (so I won't entirely rule out gamer fatigue), nevertheless its sales numbers are strangely ordered by player character. Solo male protagonist at the top, both male and female protagonist in the middle with only a slight drop in sales, and a larger drop with a solo female protagonist. This is especially strange, when at the time of release, Order of Ecclesia was widely praised for breathing new life into the franchise. They even cross-promoted the game by having main character Shanoa as a roster fighter in the Wii game Castlevania Judgment.

Sure, every time you mention things like this it will be pointed out that the lack in sales have to do with a lack of marketing budget or the game being released at the wrong time. However it also showcases how this huge supposed untapped market really isn't there, or at least not visibly so. After all, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic didn't become a powerhouse of a franchise among adult males because Hasbro started marketing to them. They simply showed up when a few people discovered it was actually pretty good and its popularity spread through word of mouth.
One of the few times I can remember when this happened anywhere recently in the gaming community with a female protagonist is with Bayonetta, after it was sold at a reduced price and not profitable enough anymore to be picked up for a sequel until Nintendo decided to bite.

Yes, there is the occasional game that really manages to do decently out of the gate like Portal, Mirror's Edge (you know, that low-hanging fruit a certain colorful character keeps parading as the best games ever) and Tomb Raider, but exceptions aside the problem is not just a one-way street solely to blame on marketing or developers not trying. For there to be effective marketing, there needs to be a visible market.

And I again want to reiterate: I also want more variety in the mainstream gaming community. I also think the quality of white male characters has dropped to exceedingly bland. I love strange ideas for player characters. I love female player characters. I just tire of seeing lots of people complaining while I seem to be the only one walking to the store to actually pick up these games. It's the annoying cycle of people yelling at me because I'm supposedly on the wrong side of the fence while I'm actually investing my money on the things they claim to want while I'm the one watching it all fail. Boy, that was one hell of a sentence.

Ignoring the Indie Market

Unless there's something to chastise the indie scene for, it often goes largely unnoticed when it comes to positive examples. No, we'd rather directly force the big budget triple A developers on top to instantly drop everything they are doing and cater to our sensibilities. The problem with doing it like this is that we are tearing down existing infrastructures for what is essentially a gamble on their part. 

So with my suggestion above to highlight the things you like, how about you also help cultivate the little guy? After all, a triple A developer doesn't magically fall from the sky.

This ...
... also started out like this.

So instead of complaining that Nintendo isn't drastically altering its formula right away to accommodate a solo playable Princess Zelda, is it too much to ask to put some of that effort into showing some support for an existing game inspired by The Legend of Zelda that already has a female protagonist?

Ittle Dew (2013)

I mean, why are we approaching these issues as if we absolutely need to redistribute a very finite amount of resources? Is it honestly that impossible for several different groups and fanbases to coexist together that we must tear down what other people enjoy instead of building stuff of our own? Diversity isn't just a tool to bludgeon other people with. Diversity includes the norm and things you don't like.

Now in a few hours Contrast will be officially released. I got my pre-order waiting to unlock. So how about we stop complaining and finally put our money where our mouths are?

While you're at it, go check out Blood of the Werewolf. It's not normal I can easily break into top 10 on leaderboards.


  1. The mascots from the late 2000's seem more like a list of notable characters and not a mascot by which a franchise is recognized by. It's interesting that the later ones are also all realistic human and not cartoon characters, looks like gaming has changed. What was the last major release to feature a non realistic humanoid?

    To me a popular mascot is something I see on a t-shirt, and the ones I've seen have been creepers, pip-boy, and angry birds.

    1. The fact that graphics can now accommodate for such character models might have something to do with it. Guess they went a bit into overdrive that way.

  2. I totally agree with you about diversity not being a bludgeon. That's the problem with places like Tumblr. This is why I say that, at least in Tumblr-land, they don't care about equal representation as much as they care about being offended. So of course they'll ignore the indie market until it veers toward the dreaded "normal", then they'll get up in arms about unequal representation.

    So of course they'd use "diversity" as a bludgeoning tool and an unsubtle guilt-trip. They don't care about diversity, they care about being offended, and having some kind of moral high ground.

    1. Yeah, after being swarmed by a couple of them on Twitter it quickly became very obvious these people aren't willing to have any sort of debate, they are just looking to be offended by things.

  3. MAN, you're liking that Ittle Dew game. XD
    Honestly, I kind of hope to see more adventures of Ittle.

    1. I only need to finish it in less than 15 minutes to get all the achievements now. I hear there's a level editor on the way so Steamworks will hopefully lengthen the game. :D

    2. Oh man, a level editor would stick SO MANY MORE HOURS WORTH OF FUN.
      Especially if you get to add your own cutscenes. XD

  4. Also, Contrast is really fun. Honestly, I can't belive it's taken us this long to have the whole "Play as a little kids imaginary friend" hook- it seems like something that could be used for more diverse adventures.

    1. Yeah, I fell in love with the setting and art design alone.

    2. Yeah, that art direction is beautiful. XD I also love the fact that the other "Real people" are just shadows to you, since you're the imaginary one.

  5. Very insightful, Vicsor. It's remarkable how little I've heard about Remember Me since its release.

    I read an article a while ago about how "we are all to blame" for the rise of downloadable content in recent years. Developers like Bethesda would make a huge profit from DLC like Oblivion's Horse Armor and it's those kinds of success stories that make developers want to continue making DLC.

    This is the opposite of that. There are games out there featuring female protagonists, like Remember Me, but even with the Penny-Arcade report raising its profile, it didn't sell.

    Basically, people need to vote with their wallet. Give a developer a reason to make games with female protagonists and they will make them. Since they're running a business, that reason has to be that they have the potential to make money from it.

    "I just tire of seeing lots of people complaining while I seem to be the only one walking to the store to actually pick up these games. It's the annoying cycle of people yelling at me because I'm supposedly on the wrong side of the fence while I'm actually investing my money on the things they claim to want while I'm the one watching it all fail. Boy, that was one hell of a sentence."

    I'd like to shake your hand for writing that sentence. Especially since I'm getting Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk for Christmas, a game that features a predominately-female cast.

    1. Yeah, I just got me a copy of Remember Me on Steam (had it on my 360 but I'm more PC when it can be helped) and I absolutely loved it despite its flaws. I get that it's not for everybody but that game really deserves more love than it got.

      Which I find especially infuriating in regards to gaming journalists now praising Gone Home to the heavens for its story while some of the same ones (I checked) found almost irredeemable flaw with Remember Me. Remember Me is a story of a dystopian future dealing with themes such as rampant abuse of social media, corporate interests and their control over humanity, morality, the nature of the self (especially relating to memory) and the virtues and downfalls of familial love. Gone Home ... has lesbians ... who ran away together.

      And then they dare say that the public spitting out Gone Home is what's preventing gaming from growing as a medium.

      Sorry, I'm rambling. I needed to get that off my chest but it was too long for a Tweet and too short for a blogpost. :D

  6. Hey Vicsor, thank you so much for such a level-headed post on women in games. Your points and suggestions are so much better than Sarkeesian and her ridiculous fanbase's.

    Wonderful read, I'm bookmarking this blog.

    -- an anonymous game developer

  7. Terra is not a mascot. Moogles and Chocobos are.

    Sub-Zero could be a mascot, but I'd say it's more the uniform style he shares with Skorpion and Reptile.

    Whoever made the second image really cherry-picked the "mascots". The Weighted Companion Cube and the Angry Birds (all characters) are notable mascots from the mid/late-2000s.

    1. Yeah, those images are not representative of anything at all. It's just more propaganda.

  8. They changed the damn name, that's what happened to that game. Son of a bitch.

  9. The most sane post about women in games I've seem so far. Thank you sooo much!

  10. Hello

    I red your article and I wanted to show you this article. Which show you the gender ratio between men and women in video games is not what ERSB claimed.

    About the complaint about the lack of diversity. People are vocal about why there are not more game like Beyond Good and Evil or Mirror's Edge. They seem to forget they didn't sell well. And among the fanbase most, we found more men than women.

    There were a shitstorm about the lack of female protagonist at the xbox one lauch game but what they people tend to forget. It has been already done before with both the PS3 and PSVita, they didn't appeal more women than the Wii and the 3DS.

    The funniest thing is there are already games with plenty good females characters and played mostly by women and no one care even the feminist. Look here for more details:

  11. Heh... I just dislike this influx of white 20-35 year old dudes with shaved heads and perma stubble - because it's too overly realistic and isn't as imaginative as say, a Mario or Kirby game. Childish as it looks, it's also not in an environment I'm generally used to.

    The best idea I came up with that isn't some sort of fangame is a game about a magical Bee that's shaped like a triangle - designed to be cute and friendly, while the levels are really hard.