June 7, 2013

Why I’m using female lead characters

Back in October, you may recall me writing a bit about the challenges I’ve faced in writing female lead characters. Today, I’d like to talk a bit more about why I have chosen to have female leads–and in the process, hopefully convince some of my fellow developers to follow suit.


We tend go through life with a lot of unconscious assumptions about “the way women are” and “the way men are” ingrained in us. Inevitably, we are shaped by our social norms–and just as surely, we are shaped by the stories that we tell each other to justify those norms. There are observed psychological quirks in the human brain that play into this dynamic, things that show up over and over in studies, things with names like expectation confirmation and the just world hypothesis.

The bottom line is, it takes work–actual conscious effort–not to fall back on stereotypes when interacting with, thinking about, or writing about people from different groups. But that effort is important to make. The lazy route, merely writing what is expected, leads to predictable stories and characters that are nigh indistinguishable from the characters in other tales.

That need for effort applies equally to all characters regardless of their sex; however, the stakes are higher for those of us who would write female protagonists into our games. Female leads are comparatively rare, and are therefore subject to greater scrutiny when they do appear (see e.g. Lara Croft). There are a lot of well-intentioned people out there who will be sniffing around for any bad assumptions I’ve let slip through in my own attempts at writing female leads, and I fully expect that they will (quite justifiably) hold my feet to the fire for any such mistakes.

The question arises: is it worth all that extra pressure? Why not just write another game starring a male lead? My reasons follow.

Reason 1: Realism

This first reason might seem counter-intuitive at first–but if it does, it’s because our intuition doesn’t have a very strong grasp of human history. Political leaders, warriors, scientists: name a field of human endeavor, and there have been women there participating right alongside men.

There are numerous recorded instances of actual women from history doing things that one might mistakenly think were solely the province of men. Like commanding fleets of pirates. Or commanding armies. Or serving as a cavalier in the royal army. Or exploring new lands. Or leading revolutions.

Warrior Women: officially A Thing since whenever women started existing
And it wasn’t just limited to isolated examples like Boudica, Jeanne Baré or Sarah Emma Edmonds, either. There is actually a pretty solid archaeological record establishing that women warriors were not just a thing, but a really common thing going all the way back to antiquity. Women warriors fought among the vikings. Women competed as Roman gladiators. One out of every five warriors from ancient Scythia were women.

Sometimes they disguised themselves as men; other times, they simply wore the same armor as men did. In either event, because female warriors wore the same armor and used the same weapons as males, the only way to confirm that any given set of warrior bones belongs to a female is to perform DNA testing. DNA testing of bones is a relatively new technology, and consequently, archaeologists have historically underestimated the number of warrior women populating the annals of human history. For example:

DNA tests on the 2,000-year-old bones of a sword-wielding Iranian warrior have revealed the broad-framed skeleton belonged to woman, an archaeologist working in the northwestern city of Tabriz said on Saturday.

“Despite earlier comments that the warrior was a man because of the metal sword, DNA tests showed the skeleton inside the tomb belonged to a female warrior,” Alireza Hojabri-Nobari told the Hambastegi newspaper.

So, with this background, ask yourself: is it “realistic” to make games where all the generals, all the pirates, all the rulers, all the front-line fighters are men? You might say that this depends on the society portrayed in the game world–but to a large extent, it really doesn’t. Different societies from different periods of history have had different mores and different rules governing who could fight–and yet, if you look at the links above, there are women fighters represented in virtually every society, including the ones where women explicitly were not supposed to fight at all! Heck, there are numerous documented instances of women risking their lives to disguise themselves as men and fight just in the U.S. Civil War alone. Female rulers are everywhere in history, too, including societies rigidly stratified by gender roles. Society’s rules mattered, sure, but they didn’t keep determined women from participating.

The bottom line: no matter how devastatingly sexist the society I choose to portray in my games, no matter how combat-heavy the mechanics, there is no historical precedent for excluding women from leading roles. The protagonists of Telepath Tactics are female in no small part because it’s just not realistic for a world to have no female heroes. It’s time that the world of Telepath had a few.

Reason 2: It defuses gender stereotypes and improves storytelling

So! Tropes Versus Women in Games. Some of you love it; some of you hate it. I’m not going to stake out a position on that here. What I will say, though, is that no matter how you feel about Anita Sarkeesian or the way she talks about games, and no matter what you think should be done in response to the things she criticizes, those tropes she mentions are inarguably real. I don’t know how anyone can sit through minute after minute of footage of games using the exact same tropes over and over again and then still deny that those tropes exist. They obviously exist. Further, it’s also pretty obvious that the use of these tropes is upsetting to a lot of people.

“So what should we do?” you might say. “Just stop using them? Cease to tell stories that we’ve been telling for centuries?” Well, as a matter of fact, we could–that might be a pretty good example of the whole “stop being lazy and just leaning on your default assumptions” thing I mentioned at the start of the article. There are worse things than striking out in new narrative directions and telling new stories.

But there’s another solution, one which doesn’t require us to abandon old tropes wholesale. Elizabeth Simins (whom you may know as the artist behind Bad At Games) made an interesting point about Tropes Versus Women in Games on Twitter the other day, shortly after the release of its second episode. I’m going to start by quoting her; I’ve arranged the tweets from top to bottom for readability:

Elizabeth Simins

Elizabeth is right: the problem isn’t with the tropes themselves. The kidnapping of a lover or a loved one, just to pick one example, works well as a source of character motivation regardless of the protagonist’s gender. It neatly establishes the antagonists of the story. It is immediately relatable and emotionally powerful. In short, it is exactly the sort of thing that is effective for just about any audience.

Fundamentally, it isn’t the guts of this trope (the kidnapping and rescuing dynamics) that are upsetting to people; it’s the inflexibility with which the roles are applied to characters of different genders. Why is the rescuer always a guy? Why can’t it ever be a woman rescuing her boyfriend (or girlfriend, for that matter)? That’s where the gender stereotype comes in: the fact that when this trope is used, boys are always in an active role and girls in a passive role.

Once these tropes stop getting used so lopsidedly, there won’t be anything left for anyone to be angry about: they’ll just be patterns for structuring a story, not a relentless retelling of the same default assumptions about gender roles in game after game.

It’s worth mentioning that these gender stereotypes, while obviously demeaning to women, also caricature and pigeonhole men. Media representations of men tend to enforce traditional attitudes toward masculinity. Time after time in games, men are portrayed as muscle-bound, gruff, stoic, emotionally stunted–and above all, violent.

Of course, these concerns about the representation of men don’t “cancel out” concerns about the representation of women; an attitude of “you have a problem and I have a problem, so let’s just not solve either of them” accomplishes nothing. Using female protagonists can be a fruitful way to turn tropes on their heads, replacing dull, predictable, restrictive gender roles with something more interesting.

In short: female protagonists can help address a complex and thorny problem that is harmful to just about everyone, and it costs me nothing to be a part of that solution. In the end, it’s just one more reason to feature female lead characters.

Reason 3: It’s the right thing to do

But thou must! (Be a dude.)
Have you heard the one about the dad who modded the Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker so his 3-and-a-half year old daughter could play as a girl? His name is Mike Hoye. Here was his reasoning, as told to Ars Technica: “I’m not having my daughter growing up thinking girls don’t get to be the hero.”

He didn’t just make that concern up out of thin air. A couple of years ago, EEDAR did a survey of hundreds of games from the most recent console generation. Of those that had gendered protagonists, they found that less than 3.6% had exclusively female protagonists, while more than 55% of them featured exclusively male protagonists:

Looking at a sample of 669 games that had protagonists with discernible genders, only 24 had exclusively female protagonists. Action had the most female protagonists, shooters had even less, and role-playing games had exactly one game with a female only hero. In all three genres, a little under 300 games gave the option of a female lead. That includes games where you can choose your gender or create your own character.

That isn’t an accident, either. Game publishers have recently been outed for quite deliberately refusing to take on games with female protagonists. To name one example: developer Jean Max-Moris recently related his experience with trying to find a publisher for the female-led title Remember Me.

By the time Remember Me was shown to prospective publishers, it was too late to change Nilin from a woman to a man, and this was enough to cause potential backers to abstain from publishing the game. “We had some that said, ‘Well, we don’t want to publish it because that’s not going to succeed. You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that,’” Moris told the Report.

Speaking personally as a game developer, I loathe the thought of contributing to a games culture in which there are hardly any female role models. I imagine a young girl sitting down to play games and rarely ever seeing that the hero is of her own gender. Over the years, I imagine her subconsciously internalizing that pattern. Girls don’t get to be the hero; boys get to be the hero. It gives me a sick feeling in my stomach. Why would I want to contribute to something so insidious? It’s just horrible. So that’s reason three: my conscience compels me.

Reason 4: It’s good business

I’m going to let you in on a little secret–and by “secret,” I mean “publicly available information that everyone should know but some folks apparently don’t.” Women are no longer just a “growing” demographic in the world of gaming; they’re actually very close to parity with men, right here and right now.

In 2012, the Entertainment Software Association conducted a demographic survey to determine who plays games. Among the results: 47% of game players are female and 48% of the most frequent game purchasers are female. (p. 3) So not only are there now roughly as many women in gaming as men, women are actually punching slightly above their weight in terms of buying games on a frequent basis.

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And yet, as we saw above, women are dramatically underrepresented when it comes to leading roles in games. Let’s recap those numbers for the sake of illustration: 47% of gamers are females; 48% of the most frequent game purchasers are females; and 3.6% of seventh generation console title protagonists are females. Does something about that seem a little off to you? Because it certainly does to me.

It does not take a rocket scientist to figure out that maybe we should be trying to appeal to nearly one-half of the gaming market. That is a whole hell of a lot of customers to just casually dismiss for the sake of lazy storytelling.


The numbers don’t lie. Women are every bit as much a part of the gaming ecosystem as men, and yet they receive only a small fraction of the leading roles. Is it any wonder that many women are upset? (I can assure the reader that men would not be happy in a world where male characters were constantly getting kidnapped or killed in games to set up the plot, and yet were actually heroes in only 1 out of every 30 titles.) This phenomenon is unrealistic, it makes no business sense, and–perhaps most importantly–it’s just plain wrong.

So I’m using female protagonists. After all, the stories we tell shape the way we think about the world. Life mirrors art; and I want my works to reflect well.

Special thanks to Foz Meadows and Kameron Hurley for writing thoughtful articles that have helped clarify my thinking on this matter, and to Elizabeth Simins for the great illustrations.

Emma Strider

  • Ninja Corn

    Insightful and brave!
    Thanks for honoring all genders…
    Hugs from the female didgeridoo player that recorded with Ryan!

  • Guest1

    “I can assure the reader that men would not be happy in a world where male characters were constantly getting kidnapped or killed in games to set up the plot, and yet were actually heroes in only 1 out of every 30 titles.”

    Wrong. Men would not care give a crap about this. Why? Because men are not women. There’s too many bridges to build and mountains to climb to worry about something stupid like this.

  • IvoShandor

    Aren’t you making an assumption about women when you suggest that females cannot derive the same amount of enjoyment from video games as men unless women can also play as a lead character matching their gender?

    Don’t the numbers you cite suggest this is not the case?

    If 50% of game purchases are made by females, and only 3% of titles include female protagonists, then doesn’t this suggest the lack of female protagonists is *not* a barrier for females when purchasing games?

    Moreover, what incentive do video game developers have to produce more games with female leads when half of their video game sales already come from females?

  • CraigStern

    Actually, I did not say that women can’t derive the same amount of enjoyment from a game starring a male character. This isn’t about any given game and its choice of a male protagonist–it’s about an overall industry trend of using women as props for advancing the stories of heroes that are themselves almost never women. Those are different problems.

    I’d be careful about drawing unwarranted conclusions from the data up there. We know that roughly half of all gamers are women, but that tells us nothing about which games woman gamers buy! It’s quite possible that they skew heavily toward games without exclusively male protagonists (games with female protagonists, games where you can pick your gender, games without a gendered protagonist, games without any sort of protagonist at all, and so on).

    But even if they don’t–even if women play the exact same sorts of games that men play, and in the same proportions–that doesn’t mean that they don’t have a right to be upset about the fact that they’re never portrayed as heroes in those games. You can both love something and still have a problem with it. After all, if women didn’t care about video games, I doubt they’d bother complaining. 😉

  • missdk

    Says person who has never lacked representation.

  • scortched earth

    This is the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard. If there’s one thing I know for sure, it’s that a majority of men cannot handle being the target of sexist discrimination. It’s amazingly predictable how guys will get upset when they hear “I don’t need a man’s opinion” or “You wouldn’t understand, you’re a man.” Women deal with that kind of discrimination every single day. But god the way you guys whine when you have to go more than a few second without being the center of the universe.

    Also, what are you even arguing? That men don’t care about the content of video games? That men would enthusiastically embrace a world where their precious video games were marketed almost exclusively to women? Are you some kind of moron? How completely devoid of self-awareness must you be that you could say something so idiotic?

  • Fan of CraigStern

    Awesome article. Thank you for being part of a better world <3

  • sherirubin

    To add to Craig’s thoughtful reply…

    You said:

    “Moreover, what incentive do video game developers have to produce more
    games with female leads when half of their video game sales already come
    from females?”

    My answer:

    Because if games are already making over 5B a year in the US with half of gamers being female think how big the industry could grow, how many more games could be made, how many more developers could be employed, and how many more gamers would exist (which in turn would make games more mainstream, accepted, and less vilified) if we created more of those games?

    The market was getting saturated and growth was stagnated (there’s been declines/plateaus in sales off and on for a bit now in many areas) because of how little it could grow until developers and publishers started catering to more diverse audiences (see WiiFit and WiiSports, for example, in opening up games to so many age ranges). By creating games that more audiences would be interested in it’s just good for everyone (except TV and film who lose some of their audience time to games :>).

  • Namaste

    Thank you so much for this thoughtful, thorough and positive piece. I’m a longtime female gamer (e.g., GoW, Fallout, Bioshock, Skyrim, Mass Effect; MMOs like Wizard101, DCUO) and I always invest more time in and derive more enjoyment from games where my character is female; I am more likely to buy a game where I have the option to customize my character and choose to be female. Yes, let’s honor all!

  • Jo Yardley

    That’s cute dear.
    Now go build us a little bridge and climb a little mountain, don’t you worry your pretty little head about this kidnapping thing.
    We’ll rescue you.

  • Feathers

    Wonderful! As a (fiction) writer, I use writing as a creative outlet. Why would I want to write the same old stories over and over again, when there are so many other ideas out there? And why would I want to play the same games, ditto?

  • Robyrt

    I don’t think the realism argument really holds up here. While female rulers, fighters, etc. are not unheard of in history, they remain quite rare, and certainly any historical military-themed game that swaps out a male character for a female one would need to provide some explanation of how that role came to be filled by a woman. In many cases, like your Civil War example, any women involved in the battle would be posing as men the entire time, so there wouldn’t even be a name or character model difference for the less than 1% of combatants who were women. Even modern armies which accept women in front-line combat do not exhibit anything like a 50/50 split, which is what tends to happen when games try to be gender-inclusive.

    In a fantasy or science fiction setting, none of this applies, of course. That’s part of the fun of creating a fantasy world.


    You’re an inspiration! Their should be more people like you! :’)

  • Andrew_Mc

    Actually, Guest1 (Why is it always the most egregious trolls that remain anonymous?) it’s because we men–I doubt a woman would respond like this–aren’t subjected to the kind of discrimination that women are. We get to bask in male privilege.

    I can’t guarantee you without actually experiencing it, but I can be pretty damn sure that if the shoe were on the other foot, we would be every bit as hurt by this as women are. Hell, I’m hurt by this because I know that this is the experience of all the female gamers in my life. My girlfriend is one of them. A little empathy wouldn’t hurt.

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  • JR

    I don’t think your points are off-base, but I do question the necessity of needing to address the fact that a role is being filled by a type of character who doesn’t fit the stereotypical (or even statistical) expectation. Isn’t the goal to move beyond marked gender/race/sexuality/ethnic differences? To write women who take on “men’s roles” without needing special qualification in the plot line? Writers and developers have the power to stop assuming that the audience will be surprised by seeing a female protagonist, which in time will lead the audience to stop being surprised by female protagonists.

  • SmartyPants

    I never put that much thought into why all the protagonists are male. I always just assumed that most men are the ones creating games, so they make male characters because they know their own gender best.

  • Hum. What you put out quite realistic and convincing, I think after reading many posts may also be affected somewhat by what is here.

  • LordDon

    I’m just getting around to reading this now, recently adding the production blog for Telepath Tactics to my RSS reader. This post has made me even happier for my decision to back the game on Kickstarter. Kudos to you, Craig! The games industry could use more like you.

  • Matt Miller

    Whenever I create something I’m always afraid of using females predominantly because I feel like I won’t represent them accurately. Same goes for members of vastly different cultures.

    This makes me glad that there are folks in the creative world with the skills and experiences to write interesting characters of any gender, race and creed. 🙂 Let’s hope this equality thing catches on eventually!

  • Um. you said very well, the main character can do so again what we can know. You have to change a few thoughts on this.

  • suntiger745

    Can I have this in a video game? 🙂


  • GuyWithSomeWords

    I agree with this being a worthwhile change or objective, although I believe going into all the psychological and historical clap-trap is excessive as a reason. Fact is, we simply want to present to current women and the female youth adequate possibilities and inspiration to be courageous, influential, outgoing, and adventurous.
    But beyond that lets get realistic. The very fact of the matter is that the gaming industry has found out time and again that female leads often make a game more popular, although it may often be dependent on having rather race-y and sexy graphics to achieve that result.
    So although I commend the action and the so-called stated intent, I do not commend all the psychological and historical balderdash. The reason I do not commend it is because it really isn’t all that material, certainly not any longer.
    We do things for a reason. More women than men are in medical school now and graduate as doctors. Women have always been capable, many mothers were career-oriented: when I was growing up and I’m over 50, many were teachers, principals, post office workers, retail buyers and managers, journalists, writers, and so on. It’s just a pathetic joke for us to believe that such women were never seen as either smart, influential, or sexy. At least a third of all men fine brains and a career sexy, and another third love to know that their “old maid” (since these are the pathetic scum amongst men) can pay for his drugs, pay his bills, and otherwise provide for his being a slacker with vices while seeming as sexy as Johnny Depp, or as pathetic as Johnny Depp’s characters. (Hey I gotta slam all I can while I have the chance, to break the psychobabble on the fly)
    So, sure, provide some inspiration to all our daughters and some options to players. But please don’t overstate the importance in today’s world. Seriously, I expect that women are the driving force of progress now, while our boys are majoring in how to remain boys in a world that requires some discipline and some results. I’ll leave my purposefully overstated opinion to counter the others — because I can guess without reading that most other opinions will lay on two other extremes but not see the balance as I do.
    It’s a game, make it your own.

  • Pinkk

    Very good article. However, Remember Me did fail, just as they said it would. Need a better example than Remember Me.

  • Kamfrenchie

    The link to th survey ends on a 404 for me.

    I’ve heard of it, but doesn’t it use a very broad definition of games and gamers ? Like, by counting mobile phone games players ?

    Because i doubt you would even have 40% of female players in dark souls, Guild wars or even Skyrim.

  • Ike

    A problem to me with writing males writing female protagonists is that writers tend to be too kind to the female characters.

    They’ll happily beat up their male characters, have their arms chopped off, have them groveling on the ground and humiliated, because that’s what happens in a harsh world.

    Meanwhile, they don’t dare to go near a woman being beaten up, raped, instead she fights ten guys stronger and bigger than her and comes out without a scratch.

    That’s the challenge I think society has in writing female characters. We’re too kind to them when putting them into violent worlds. They’re not going to just do cartwheels and beat up everyone. They’re going to get beaten up, killed, raped, tortured.

    Game of Thrones kind of gets it right, it has plenty of female characters which are both admirable and flawed, and some of the flaws are uniquely feminine flaws, but the males also have some despicable flaws which are uniquely masculine.

  • Ike

    Put another way, I’m usually looking for a kind of reverse discrimination from males writing female characters, the sword-wielding princess-looking girl with make-up and long hair who somehow fights better than any male in the story.

    It makes no sense.

    When I see what I consider to be really believable female characters like Brienne of Tarth, she’s stronger and more capable as a warrior than most men because she stands taller than them. Her hair is short so as to not be a disadvantage, she’s ugly (much uglier in the book) and looks like a troll.

    That’s believable. Having a girl who looks all pretty somehow be miraculously stronger than guys, unless it’s one of those silly worlds where the guys are also pretty and any argument about realism might as well be dismissed as a joke, makes no sense.

  • Ike

    With Brienne, she’s the type of character who might have a menstrual cycle but grab a rag filled with her period blood and choke a man with it. That’s realism for you, and it works without feeling like it’s discriminating against women in any way. It defines a truly strong yet *believably* strong woman: ugly, an outcast to society as a result of it, yet strong as hell anyway (and yet still bested by some men, most likely).

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  • Outmuscle Your Fork

    It’s a tricky thing as I see it to write convincing female action stars since I often feel like they’re extremely contrived. There are only a handful that come to mind that felt really convincing to me, and included among those are Ripley from Alien(s) and The Bride from Kill Bill.

    Both have very similar qualities:

    1) They’re both antiheroes at least in the beginning (Ripley being the hardass in the crew and The Bride being an assassin). That antihero aspect is very important as I see it to compensate for the tendency to put female characters in an overly flattering light.

    2) They’re both driven by strong maternal instincts. The Bride is fighting for vengeance initially and later to be reunited with her daughter who she discovers to still be alive. Ripley likewise yearns to be back with her daughter in Alien and, later in Aliens, those maternal instincts transfer to Newt who becomes the impetus for her to summon the courage to face the alien queen alone (which symbolically becomes a sort of maternal battle of two females interested in protecting their young). That maternal aspect is crucial as I see it to remind us that these characters are indeed female with strong maternal instincts that males can sympathize with and with which females can empathize.

    3) They’re still unashamedly female with all the inherent strengths as well as weaknesses that brings. Ripley wasn’t even a superior soldier in any way; she was only convincingly so tough in Aliens because of those strong maternal instincts and former experience with the xenomorphs where she luckily survived which the marines around her lacked. The Bride was a master assassin and Kill Bill was a bit more stylized and unrealistic but her deadliness was due to skill (it wasn’t like they made it out so that she could outmuscle a guy if they were to grapple in close quarters).

  • Outmuscle Your Fork

    We’re still bound in our expectations by biology and knowledge of history as cited in the article itself. If history is used to justify what we can convincingly depict in fictional works, then we can’t arbitrarily make females out to be soldiers holding their own and fighting in the front lines alongside of men without a very convincing explanation for why they’re able to do that in all sorts of aspects (physically, socially, etc) as well as why they would even be interested in doing that in the first place. Otherwise it comes off as forced/contrived and a blatant contradiction of what surrounds us on a daily basis.

    We’re still living in a world where we segregate MMA fighters and refuse to pit male fighters against female fighters (unless they’re transgender and identify as the opposite sex, at which point there’s still tremendous controversy and claims of “unfair advantage”). We’re still living in a world where no woman on the planet can likely beat male Olympians like Usain Bolt at running the 100m dash. There has to be some type of very convincing explanation for why a female soldier would be as competent if not more than their male counterparts until the very world we live in changes completely where males and females are equally elite in all physical aspects which is unlikely to happen any time soon with millions of years of evolutionary and social history distinguishing the two sexes.