Let’s be honest - the gaming industry falls short when it comes to diversity and inclusion.
Characterisation often fails gamers with hyper-sexualised female characters wearing skimpy - and hardly battle-worthy - clothing (think: chainmail bikini), exoticised and harshly stereotyped POC characters and a whole host of other issues in terms of representation of other groups (e.g. the portrayal of disability). This underperformance doesn’t only apply to games; the industry itself has been rocked by high-profile harassment and discrimination cases at big name gaming companies and the toxicity in the gaming community is rife – the notorious GamerGate scandal is just one example of this.
In our study on diversity and inclusion in gaming, we focused on the representation of women in games and the subsequent effect on female gamers’ experiences. Our aim was to understand what measures could be taken by developers to achieve proper representation and how to use these insights to inform marketing campaigns, champion adequate representation and boost revenue. Our methodology included 8 x 1 hour in-depth interviews with avid female gamers and a 3-day drop-in clinic for 8 x 35-40 minute interviews with casual gamers (mixed genders) Our qual research informed our quant, a 10-minute survey answered by a panel of 200 gamers of (mixed genders).
Gamers want well-written storylines featuring complex and realistic characters
Whether slaying dragons in a medieval MMORPG, shooting lasers at aliens in a Sci-fi thriller or trekking across zombie-infested wastelands in a Survival RPG, gamers tend to agree on the importance of character designs and portrayals. Gamers want realism and complexity in their characters as important signifiers of game and story quality. In fact, for many gamers, character authenticity is their main reason for choosing – and continuing to – play a game.
Respondents felt they enjoyed games that had characters with a sense of depth and believability, regardless of how fictitious the game’s overall storyline was. However, gamers across both genders and gaming frequencies placed a higher priority on fun, engaging gameplay experiences over characters’ genders.
Diverse customisation options facilitate and enhance the immersion of female gamers
According to a recent Gamer Study, 46% of British gamers are women. Additionally, 32% of gamers surveyed in the UK stated desire for fully customisable characters, with a strong preference by the majority for having characters or avatars that resembled them. The findings from our study largely matched these figures; most of the respondents in our sample expressed wanting better customisation options in the games they played, with female respondents in particular placing a high value on variety, choice and personalisation with regards to character or avatar design.
One of the respondents we interviewed noted, “Even though I don’t see myself as a fashionable person, when it comes to playing games, I do really like having that option and experimenting. It adds to the fun of the game itself." Another female respondent suggested that by “giving people more options around character creation, you can create women that represent you, which would make [the gaming experience] better.”
Poor female representation is a signifier of a poorly designed game
The consensus from our findings stretches beyond the basic sentiment of female representation being important – we already know this. What our survey in particular confirmed was that the perception of games in their entirety was affected by the level of effective representation it portrayed. 66% of respondents agree that more games should have playable female characters so if producers fail at this simple requirement (beyond being ‘pleasant on the eyes’), then they have failed from the beginning.
The fact that gaming is literally made up, that we can create whatever kind of character we’d like to, means that when there is a lack of representation, this is an active choice from developers. Gamers stretching from casual to avid competitors see this as a direct message that developers are not concerned in quality and are therefore not as likely to engage.
Idealised representations of each gender are a concern for both male and female gamers
Overwhelmingly, the representation of women wasn’t the only focus for respondents- both men and women cared about how male and female characters are presented in games. Aspects of gaming such as character and costume design, box art, marketing materials and advertising all play a part in perpetuating idealised body images that aren’t realistic or accurate.
Both male and female respondents expressed feeling this way, with two separate male respondents remarking on the hilarity of fraudulent characters sporting “like 18 abs which isn’t realistic”. We should remember that the “very entrenched views about gender” that we must interrogate on a daily basis span beyond women presented with non-existent waistlines. Men are presented in similarly non-sensical ways and this too has an effect on their perceptions of themselves.
Diversity in characters is a ‘nice to have’ in gaming marketing
One of our more surprising findings is that gamers don’t mind a lack of diversity in characters featured in video game marketing. We found that marketing which clearly portrays game genre and storyline is far more important than specific female representation on box art and other marketing methods. A well portrayed storyline in particular would intrigue our respondents to find out more about the game advertised.
However, this is not to say that developers and marketing teams have a free pass to create lazily designed female characters and poorly thought-out campaigns. We found that inadequate representations of characters, such as female characters portrayed in a sexualised way, would deter purchase from our respondents, especially by our female respondents.
Here are three steps developers can look to implement in future releases to better engage female gamers:
Create female characters that are reflective of real women
Female characters must be created to be reflective of the shapes, sizes, interests, skin tones, sexualities (and more) of real women. These characters must be created with rich backstories and engaging gameplay experiences – they cannot be placed in games to shape the storyline of a male character, as a love interest or otherwise. Better inclusion of women in the development process will help facilitate this creation of female characters outside of the male gaze.
Proactively improve the female gaming experience
Women want more diverse customisation options – take this into consideration when developing games and consider including it in some way to make your game more enjoyable for your female players. Consider using brand partnerships with non-gaming brands to achieve this.
Our respondents also wanted to see more action by developers in the online multiplayer space; better moderation policies, creating safe spaces for female-led multiplayer teams and educating non-female players on acceptable behaviour in online gaming modes.
Market to everyone
There’s no denying that men form an important part of video game audiences BUT developers should make an effort to think about their female audience and what will appeal to them too; a big impact can be made with considerations to the seemingly small elements to a campaign, such as the tone of voice used.
We enjoyed exploring how gamers grapple with their own identities when choosing what games and characters to indulge in and the variety of factors which affect this. In the future we hope to see a greater attempt at innovative character and plot development to appeal to an even wider audience - one that is keen to play as someone who accurately represents them or who is authentic to the context of the game.