A while ago, I worked out the percentages of female protagonists in the nominees for The Game Awards 2015. This got me wondering – how have the numbers of women in the lead roles of nominated games changed? Has there been progress?
As I said in my very first census, raw numbers can only tell us so much. Nonetheless, they’re worth looking at.
First, let’s look at just the ladies. The graph below shows the percentage of nominees that were either games with solely female protagonists (i.e. not including player choice or those that also had male protagonists) or real women who were nominated for awards (e.g. in voice acting).
There’s been some up and down, but there’s a clear upward trend overall. It’s also worth noting that early on most or all of the nominations were for real women as opposed to female characters; for example the 3% of nominations who were women in 2003 were all voice actors. I mention this not to diminish their achievements but to point out that this means that no games with female protagonists were nominated in this year, so women could only see themselves (and only had voice acting opportunities) as secondary or minor characters. Compare this with the many great female-led games from 2015 (Her Story, Life is Strange, Rise of the Tomb Raider, to name a few) and there’s a clear sense of progress.
There’s a similar trend when you factor in not only games that just have a female protagonist but those that allow players to choose their character’s gender and those that have protagonists that are both male and female.
Once again, it seems there has been progress, especially since 2012 (and especially if we assume that 2015 is merely an anomaly). Of particular note is that, aside from the spike in 2008 (which seems to have been caused by the release of critically acclaimed games with player choice of protagonist gender, like Fallout 3 and Fable II) the level hovered within a couple of percentage points of 25% between 2005 and 2011. To put this into perspective, from all the games chosen as the best in the industry for six years, you could only play as a woman in a quarter of them. In 2014, by comparison, you could play as a woman in over half. (Hopefully this kind of number will return in 2016 to level out the drop from 2015.)
So, there has been an increase in female-led games and the ability to play as a woman in games nominated for Game Awards. There are many potential reasons for this progress.
It’s worth noting that these numbers do not technically all come from the same game awards. The Spike Video Game Awards ran from 2003 to 2013, and then The Game Awards created by Geoff Keighley picked up from there. It’s possible that this change in directorship influenced the peak in 2014. However, considering that the jury panel for the 2015 awards included just one woman out of 52 participants, it doesn’t seem like TGAs were making a particular effort for inclusion or representation.
Nonetheless, there has generally been increasing attention paid to the representation of women in games. Not to say that women haven’t always been playing games and discussing the representation of female characters, but that there seems to have been more dialogue between developers, critics, and players in recent years for various reasons such as the rise of social media. Greater recognition of female fans has led to the inclusion of female playable characters in big franchises such as FIFA and Call of Duty.
On the other hand, game awards have also been paying more attention to indie games, which seem to have always been more receptive to including women in lead roles for a variety of reasons. Recently, smaller games with female leads such as Her Story, Cibele, and Sunset have been receiving critical acclaim, whereas earlier game awards focused solely or at least primarily on AAA titles.
These are the reasons that I can think of for this progress. It’s probable that all of these things and other factors contributed to the increase in women in the games that were nominated. Whatever the reasons, it is encouraging. And we can all just be glad we don’t have a “Cyber Vixen of the Year” category like we did between 2004 and 2006.
Nonetheless, there are some important caveats. Like I mentioned, raw numbers don’t tell the full story; how these women are presented and how their stories are told are obscured by mere counting in much the same way as the nomination of voice actresses says nothing about the prominence of their characters. It’s also worth noting that what I said in my piece about the 2015 Game Awards with regards to the categories for Trending Gamer and Esports Player of the Year all being men also held true for the 2014 Game Awards, suggesting it’s still difficult for women to be visible in these industries. Similarly, I did not count exactly (though I would like to eventually), but my impression from looking over the nominees would also indicate that they are still painfully white, and that there’s a long way to go for more racially diverse nominations.
Overall, as with so many things, a step forward is to be celebrated, and then examined to see how we can better make the next step.