Greater inclusion and diversity in video game characters remains top of the agenda for Australian players, amid a positive industry shift away from stereotypes and towards greater nuance and customisation in characters.
Ready player one: Video games level up on gender diversity
The majority of Australians – 87 per cent – say diversity is important in video games, according to Bond University’s most recent survey of 1,219 households in 2023.
Gender diversity was important for 77 per cent of Australian players.
Flinders University game design researcher, Dr Lauren Woolbright, says things have improved dramatically in the decade since Vanillaware’s 2013 game Dragon’s Crown, a game she calls “a poster child of bad female design”.
“They worked really hard on what in the industry we call ‘jiggle physics’ – you can guess what that means,” Woolbright says.
“In this game they made their fantasy boobs – there’s just so much of them!”
Male characters in games have a history of unrealistic bodies too, Woolbright adds.
“I call it the default man, where you get the white guy, chiselled jaw, a little bit of scruff. It’s just cookie cutter, [there’s] so many of them. And it’s just boring.”
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But Woolbright says as players continue to demand greater diversity, games studios are shifting in a more positive direction, often with independent studios leading the way.
Games are increasingly featuring more female and gender diverse protagonists, along with greater choice for players to design characters as whoever you want them to be.
Madeline Di Nonno, president and CEO of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media is also feeling hopeful about the industry’s intent to do better on gender since the institute released its landmark report on video games in 2021.
Since the Institute began its work analysing representation of gender across different forms of media – across film, television and games – it has seen progress. After releasing its first analysis drawing attention to gender stereotypes and the lack of female representation in popular films and television in 2008, Di Nonno says researchers have seen gender parity for female lead characters in the highest rated family programming and largest grossing box office films.
Watch: Cosmos Science City brought together four people working in video games, including Woolbright. You can watch the entire conversation here.
Now the Institute is focussed on achieving similar outcomes in video games.
Its landmark 2021 study analysed diversity by examining representations of gender, race, LGBTQIA+ individuals, disability, age and body size in the most popular video games and across 27,564 characters.
The report shows male characters outnumbered females 4 to 1. Across all characters around 80 per cent were male compared to 20 per cent female.
Among leading characters, the share of female protagonists was slightly higher at 28 per cent, although still the minority.
Those female game characters were more likely to be visually or verbally sexually objectified and shown in revealing clothing compared to male characters, the report finds.
Representations of male characters tended to be stereotyped too, Di Nonno says.
“Within the male characters, almost 90 per cent of the leads are white […] there’s no LGBTQIA+ it’s pretty much 0.03 per cent,” she says. “What you’re looking at are very white, heterosexual men and boys.”
She says more than 80 per cent of male characters in video games displayed at least one of these stereotyped masculine norms: acting tough, a phenomenal physique, “heterosexuality, homophobia, aggression, risky behaviours”.
Di Nonno says these masculine norms are important to shift because they can have a “profound influence on not only the health and wellbeing of boys and men, but also how they treat women, and a direct correlation to violence against women”.
“Boys should be taught that expressing themselves showing emotion showing empathy, caring, are valuable attributes,” she says.
But she says the institute’s interactions with the video games industry since the 2021 report suggests there’s strong positive intent to do better when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
“We’re hopeful,” she says.
Di Nonno says the Geena Davis Institute will be releasing a second, follow-up report on video games in September along with a significant new initiative on video games.
Ron Curry CEO of Australia’s Interactive Games and Entertainment Association says a more diverse workforce is part of the solution.
“It’s obvious to us we will only get diversity of games if we have diversity of creators,” he says.
The Australian video games workforce currently comprises around 75 per cent male, 21 per cent female, and 4 per cent transgender, non-binary and gender diverse employees, he says.
“Studios are working hard to attract and retain diverse candidates,” he says.
In contrast, the latest survey by Bond University shows video game players increasingly reflect broader society in terms of gender and age. Around half – 48 per cent – of Australian players are female, 52 per cent male and 0.1 per cent non-binary.
The survey shows a majority of Australians in age groups stretching between 1 and 84 years are playing games on a regular basis.
Woolbright says players want to see that diversity reflected in digital characters.
“I think everyone is hungering for more options, and more nuance and more customisation. And as culture is sort of cracking open and allowing for better, different kinds of gender expression, it’s really important to have private digital spaces to play with gender,” she says.
This story first appeared in Cosmos magazine.