If 2020 had been a normal year, then the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo would have happened this past summer in Los Angeles. If E3 had taken place, then some of the gaming industry’s biggest studios and publishers would have held press conferences watched by millions of gamers around the world heralding many of their biggest upcoming releases. And if that had happened, then for the sixth year in a row, we at Feminist Frequency would have compiled data on the announcements to determine whether or not female representation in video games is actually getting any better.
However, 2020 has been anything but a normal year, and Covid-19 necessitated the cancelation of E3. The expo’s relevance was already in decline, with companies increasingly relying on direct video presentations they could release to eager audiences of gamers at any time of year; but this year, studios wishing to reach prospective players during the summer months had no other option. So we, too, have adapted. This year, our collected data reflects games featured in video presentations by major studios and publishers that took place between June 11 and September 10. Specifically, we looked at two Sony events, two Ubisoft events, one by EA, and another by Microsoft.
Last year, our fifth year of collecting data from E3 press conferences, we concluded that, for all the increased awareness and conversation about representations of women in games that had occurred over the past decade, in terms of the raw numbers, female representation was just not getting any better, with only a paltry 5 percent of games featured at last year’s event specifically focusing on female characters. Now, here’s the good news: Statistically, this year represents a significant improvement, with about 18 percent of games shown featuring female characters. In fact, this represents a new high, almost doubling the previous (dismal) record of 9 percent from 2014, our first year collecting this data.
This year also marks the narrowest divide between games featuring defined female protagonists and games featuring defined male protagonists that we’ve yet seen, with games starring male characters making up 23 percent of this year’s total, or just 5 percent more games overall. In previous years, there have always been at least three times as many games centering men as there were centering women, so the fact that this year both values are at least in the same ballpark is definitely a welcome development. However, while we should perhaps be cautiously optimistic about these numbers, we also shouldn’t break out the champagne just yet. It will naturally require another year or two before we can begin to determine if this shift reflects actual changes that are taking place, or if 2020 is a one-off statistical anomaly that will quickly see a return to the status quo.
Reasons to question whether or not this shift represents widespread change include the fact that more than one-third of the games centering female characters came from just one event: Sony’s June 11 presentation, dubbed The Future of Gaming, the first-ever event focused on the games of Sony’s next-generation console, the PlayStation 5. We’d like to hope that this means Sony recognizes that a significant percentage of potential PS5 buyers are women, and that they featured those games as part of a conscious, ongoing effort to win over those players. A new console generation could bring about significant change, and Sony’s influence within the games industry is vast—the PlayStation 4 has sold more than twice as many units over its lifetime as Microsoft’s competing Xbox One—so if this does reflect a larger strategy on the part of the console maker, the repercussions in years to come could be very significant indeed. Our hope is that both Sony and Microsoft make more deliberate efforts with their upcoming next-gen consoles to dismantle the false but enduring notion that gaming as a cultural domain is primarily for boys and men.
Such a shift would require not just a change in the content of games, but also in who holds positions of leadership and creative decisionmaking within games studios. Historically, these companies have been overwhelmingly male-dominated, a problem with repercussions far beyond just matters of representation, though the past few years have brought about the beginnings of a much-needed reckoning with all these imbalances of power and their consequences. While it’s impossible to discern anything concrete about whether or not more women are being hired at big studios (and whether their cultures are undergoing any real change) from video presentations like these, we can take note of who gets to represent these companies on camera, and in this regard, this year’s events cast a dim outlook, and illuminate an area still needing considerable growth. Overall, only 23 percent of on-camera presenters in these showcases were women; in each presentation, women were outnumbered by men at least two to one, and sometimes much worse than that. We’ll know change is happening when we start seeing more women—particularly as creative directors of studios or project leads on major titles—showing up in these videos.
Each year when we present this data, some people invariably point to the fact that games which allow players a choice between a male and female character, or games in which you control an ensemble of characters made up of people of different genders, make up the biggest percentage of all (55 percent this year), and wonder why that isn’t, on its own, enough to satisfy us. The answer is quite simple. Of course we welcome games that allow players the option to create and customize their own characters, but this is categorically different from games that feature defined, specific characters. Each person who plays Horizon: Zero Dawn, for instance, or The Last of Us Part II must step into the shoes of a defined female character, and experience the game’s efforts to get them to identify with and relate to that character. In an industry whose output was for decades dominated by male heroes, what we most want to see is a shift toward at least an equal number of games that require players to take on the role of humanized female characters.
While we believe that increased and improved female representation in games is vitally important, it’s also necessary to note that it’s just one of many things to consider as we look for games to tell stories that represent and humanize a far broader spectrum of humanity than games once did. Better representations around race, sexuality, and gender identity are also crucial, and a great deal of work remains to be done in these areas as well. It’s worth noting that this year’s games The Last of Us Part II and Tell Me Why both featured trans characters, and in recent years nonbinary characters have also appeared in games from time to time. Naturally this is a trend that we hope to see become far more common, and it’s something we’ll be keeping our eye on in the years to come.
This is a wildcard year, there’s no question about that, and the future feels quite unknown. Will E3 return in 2021? Will the releases of the PlayStation 5 and the Xbox Series S and Series X bring with them a new level of focus on female characters, as companies increasingly realize that women play and love games too? Is this year’s statistical shift just a blip, or a sign of lasting change? We hope for the best, but we’re not ready to celebrate just yet.