Just How Important Are Female Protagonists?

By | 2017-08-31T12:58:17+00:00 August 29th, 2017|Analytics, Video Games|21 Comments

The availability of female protagonists in video games and the push for more playable female characters has been a hot topic in recent years. For example, articles on the gender breakdowns at E3 or reasons that game companies provide for not having playable female characters often engender a great deal of discussion.

In this blog post, we’ll use survey data from 1,266 gamers to explore just how important female protagonists are to gamers, and how this varies across gamer segments.

Data From the Gamer Motivation Profile

Here at Quantic Foundry, in addition to the Gamer Motivation Profile, we also have additional research surveys that gamers can participate in. These surveys tackle a variety of game preference questions, and allow us to link gamers’ responses back to things like their motivation scores, gender, and age. 1,266 gamers participated in this research survey.

See how you compare with other gamers. Take a 5-minute survey and get your Gamer Motivation Profile

In the survey, we asked gamers to rate the importance of “Having the option to play a female protagonist” on a 5-point scale from “Not Important At All” (1) to “Extremely Important” (5).

75% of Female Gamers Rated Female Protagonists as Very or Extremely Important

The majority of female gamers (56.8%) rated the availability of female protagonists as being “extremely important”—this was more than 3 times higher than the number of male gamers who selected this response option. The most commonly selected response among male gamers was that female protagonists are “somewhat important”. Overall, 75% of female gamers rated female protagonists as “very” or “extremely” important.

Despite the gender disparity in the response, it still bears pointing out that roughly 1 out of 3 male gamers rated the availability of female protagonists as “very” or “extremely” important.

The Importance of Female Protagonists Doesn’t Change with a Gamer’s Age

The correlation between age and the importance rating of having a female protagonist option wasn’t significant (r=.05). This means that older gamers are not more or less likely than younger gamers to care about having a female protagonist.

Casual Gamers, Whether Male or Female, Are More Likely to Care About Female Protagonists

In the Gamer Motivation Profile, we ask gamers to self-identify as a Casual/Core/Hardcore gamer and provide the descriptions below for the categories. There isn’t a standardized industry-wide definition of these categories; in our survey, we decided to define the categories along an axis of gaming frequency and dedication.

Overall, casual gamers are most likely to rate a female protagonist as being important. The more hardcore a gamer is, the less importance they place on the availability of a female protagonist. Between the casual and hardcore gamers, there is almost a full 1-point drop on a 5-point importance scale.

This difference holds true for both male and female gamers—i.e., this finding isn’t simply because more female gamers identify as casual. Note that among male gamers (the second chart), the percentage of gamers who selected the “extremely important” option drops by almost half when we go from casual to hardcore (from 21% to 12%). And even though the importance of a female protagonist does decline among hardcore female gamers, roughly 2/3 of them still rate the availability of a female protagonist as “very” or “extremely” important.

Gamers Who Want Female Protagonists Score Higher on Design, Fantasy, and Story

In the Gamer Motivation Profile, we measure 12 gaming motivations, identified via statistical analysis of how gaming motivations cluster together. Thus, we’re able to examine how gaming motivations relate to the importance of having a female protagonist option.

Gamers who care more about the availability of female protagonists scored higher on Design (lots of customization options), Fantasy (being someone else, somewhere else), and Story (interesting plot and characters). The correlations ranged from r=.14 to r=.26, and were similar for both male and female gamers.

This combination of motivations suggests that the range of customization options helps to enhance these gamers’ sense of being immersed in a role in an alternate world and engaging story. In this light, the availability of a female protagonist is less about the presence of a female body, but more about the “immersive possibility space” within which to explore. Or with a Lego analogy, the problem with not having blue Lego blocks isn’t that it’s missing blue specifically, but that it’s missing a primary color. And in hindsight, it would have been good have also asked about male protagonists to have a direct comparison.

The Opportunity in Action-Adventure Games

The motivation findings suggest that the availability of a female protagonist would have the largest impact on games that already target Fantasy and Story. This would include story-driven Open World games, many Action-Adventure games, and MMOs. Given that MMOs almost always provide gender choice, this opportunity is already tapped there. But since story-driven Action-Adventure games (which don’t always provide a female protagonist option) attract gamers with higher Fantasy and Story scores, the availability of a female protagonist would likely have a large impact in these games in terms of audience appeal, especially among female gamers.

What Do You Think?

If you think it’s important for a game to have the option of playing a female protagonist, tell us why having this option is important to you in terms of your enjoyment of the game. Is there anything that you feel is often misunderstood when the gaming community discusses female protagonists? Let us know in the comments below.

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About the Author:

Nick is the co-founder and analytics lead of Quantic Foundry. He combines social science and data science to understand gamer behavior in large-scale game data.

21 Comments

  1. Richmund M. Meneses August 29, 2017 at 11:54 am - Reply

    I absolutely believe we need more female protagonists. These white guy protagonists with an aftershave and violent tendencies are starting to become clichés at this. We want female protagonists that are strong and relatable. We need to appeal to a bigger audience and we need female characters that females cam identify with and feel empowered by. And I’m a young Asian male !

  2. Angela Williams August 29, 2017 at 12:39 pm - Reply

    Part of the reason female options are so important is that I get a sense of welcome. When there are only male options, it’s like the developers are saying, “Go away; we don’t want your kind here”…like they had a specific audience in mind, and it didn’t include me.

    On the flip side, when there are female options, it automatically makes me think the game was meant to be more inclusive, and probably has a deeper premise and more playstyle options. Wrong or right, that’s the message I get.

  3. Dgamer August 29, 2017 at 1:51 pm - Reply

    Some thoughts.

    1. You’re asking people what is important to them when instead you should be analyzing what they buy. People may say that something is important to them, yet don’t really support this by their behavior. If female protagonists are important to women gamers, it should be reflected in sales, too. Horizon Zero Dawn might be a good example to see if this happens.

    2. There might be the “senran kagura” effect

    Using another fandom, anime, you’d expect the big titles to appeal to women would be shojo like Sailor Moon Crystal, but a lot of women fans instead go to things like Yuri on Ice, or sports anime like Haikyu. Senran Kagura is a game with an all female cast that targets heavily to males…a “boob fighter” as it were. But it might be the case that the reverse could be true…some women gamers might like an all male cast, but targeted more to them. With more of a wish insert observer who is less of a protagonist.

    A very good anime example would be Axis Powers Hetalia, which has a heavy female fandom despite very little female presence in the anime. Or a current anime, The Royal Tutor, which is about bishonen (beautiful male) protagonists where there are very little female characters of note at all. Or even older…Star Trek is what spawned the slash fiction genre, and yet the original series had only uhura, who was not much of a character in the scheme of things in terms of actively influencing events.

    It’s a tough thing. I wish the industry well in finding the right balance.

    • Nick Yee August 29, 2017 at 2:21 pm - Reply

      Good point on how the target audience can be signaled without explicitly relying on the gender of playable characters. Dream Daddy Dating Simulator also comes to mind.

      • Allan August 29, 2017 at 2:25 pm

        @Nick Yee

        It’s only anecdotal, but my experiences on Twitter as well as as a developer myself is that there’s no shortage of people that enjoy Dream Daddy Dating Simulator also asking for a “Dream Mommy” equivalent, and already resigned to the reality that it’s unlikely to happen.

    • Allan August 29, 2017 at 2:23 pm - Reply

      What people buy is also determined by what is available. There’s an implicit equivalence asserted that if women buy content that doesn’t feature women, it assumes they aren’t as interested in this content.

      As a result we find ourselves in our current state with both movies and games: There belief that “content is made heavily for male audiences because women will buy it anyways. If we move away from it, women may still buy it but men will not. So the only safe choice is content geared largely for male audiences.”

      Telling women that they should only support games with women protagonists is functionally telling them that they shouldn’t really take part in the pastime.

      In essence, it reinforces the self fulfilling prophecy

      • James Berg August 30, 2017 at 9:51 am

        This is a great point, thanks for sharing

    • Marian Griffith August 30, 2017 at 12:28 am - Reply

      I think that the question as asked is the correct one.

      It is changing, slowly, but until recently women and girls could not ‘vote with their wallet’ simply because there was almost no game that they could buy that had a female protagonist. Even today most games offer an option to play a female protagonist alongside an abundance of options for male characters. The number of games that has an exclusively female protagonist AND high production values (like having decent to good graphics, polished gameplay, a story that makes actual sense and is even engaging to live through) is rare. Unlike games that have an exclusively male protagonist, which are a dime a dozen,
      And most of the time even if the game does have the option for a female protragonist, the publisher ‘forgets’ to advertise that fact. If they are not actively trying to suppress female protagonists (e.g. the publisher tried to pressure the developers of mirror’s edge to change the protagonist to male, then hid the gender on the box art and made only a token effort of promoting the game. Even today publishers shy away from female protagonists out of fear for ‘controversy’ by a small but extremely vocal group that wants games to remain ‘only for boys’)

      The lack of options make a study which game women buy statistically polluted, and as mentioned by others, it creates a self fulfilling prophecy. The more significant question of ‘would you buy games in a different genre than you usually play if there is an option to play a female protagonist’ is both pretty heavy handed and well outside the scope of the gamer profile survey.

      That female gamers place great importance on female protagonists while male gamers do not is hardly surprising. Any group that is underrepresented in games would like to see greater representation, and the group that is represented by default by and large does not see the problem as it does not affect them. I am reasonably certain that if the question had been about more people of colour as main protagonist the gender distinction in the answers would not have been as stark.

      To me it seems predicatble that a higher percentage of casual gamers and players who gravitate towards design, fantasy and story feel it extremely import to have more female protagonists. These categories have a higher percentage of female players as well. I am curious how (and if!) the percentages shift between the different profile clusters. E.g. if the women who play FPS games place the same extreme importance on more (and better) female protagonists.

  4. Avona Starsurge August 29, 2017 at 5:03 pm - Reply

    I would also like to state that the transgendered perspective probably aligns strongly with the female one, since all Male-to-Female transgendered people want is to be female and games fulfill a lot of these wishes.

  5. Tia E August 29, 2017 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    On numerous occasions, I have stopped playing a game, or never gotten it at all, simply because there was no playable character I could identify with or enjoy playing as. Some games, I have ONLY completed because there was a female character available to play as only in co-op mode (I’m looking at you here, Resident Evil 5).

  6. Ellen August 29, 2017 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    Hi Nick, did you also ask the complementary question of the importance of “Having the option to play a female protagonist”? I’d be interested to see how that compares- as it may mean the difference between “no choice: male/female only” vs “choose male or female” in a game.

    • Luke August 30, 2017 at 12:05 am - Reply

      I have to concur that it’s a fairly important distinction to be making: there’s a world of difference between female avatars for MMORPGs where differences between genders are mostly cosmetic (there are a rare few exceptions, but the big ones are largely cosmetic) and having actual female protagonists like in Horizon: Zero Dawn and Tomb Raider (2013). Avatars aren’t people and therefore don’t relate to each other or the larger game world outside of what the players project onto them, whereas in the latter examples, you can actually see how the protagonists’ genders affect their own personalities, how other people see them and the combine effect that has on their being their in-game ‘heroine’s.

      That’s also why I’m not surprised that those motivated by Story (like me) are those who want to see more female protagonists: compare the difference your choice of gender has in Bioware’s RPGs has on the game to the effect it has in World of Warcraft or other larger MMORPGs.

    • Nick Yee August 30, 2017 at 10:33 am - Reply

      I’m assuming you meant “play a male protagonist”? Unfortunately, we didn’t ask this question. We also noted in the blog post that this would have been nice to have in hindsight if only to have a comparison baseline.

      • Dan August 30, 2017 at 6:37 pm

        Here’s the thing.

        “How important are female protagonists” is a subset of “How important is the gender of a protagonist”.

        Without asking the complimentary “How important is a male protagonist” you cannot make the statement that female protagonists are unimportant, without clarifying by stating that “it may very well likely be that gender plays no important role to the gamers that said female protagonists are unimportant to them.

        Sloppy, but I’m sure there is a good excuse for sensational claims here. Like hits?

        I know, for myself, the gender of the protagonist is meaningless as long as there is either a good narrative or good gameplay. I suppose that’s why I classify as hardcore.

      • Marian Griffith August 31, 2017 at 3:09 pm

        I wanted to reply to Dan, but for some reason couldn’t.
        Your suggestion that gender is unimportant seems rather implausible in the face of the evidence presented here. When two thirds of the female gamers indicate that gender is extremely important to them it is clear this is not irrelevant /to the gamers who don’t feel represented/. The factor four or five between male and female gamers who indicate that being able to play a female character is not important to them also indicates that gender is relevant especially to players who are not normally represented. For male gamers it is easier to place no importance on gender representation because nine out of ten games default to a male protagonist and male experience.

        The difference in importance placed on this is much smaller between genders with those who identify as hard core gamers. This does point at these players not caring about the gender of the protagonist. However hard core gamers also tend to focus on the mechanics and not on the protagonist or story.

      • Nick Yee August 31, 2017 at 4:12 pm

        (The blog defaults to 2 levels of indented replies, so the “reply” option is not available at the 3rd level.)

        Echoing Marian, while there may be some ambiguity as to what gamers mean when they say a female protagonist isn’t important to them, it’s quite clear what very/extremely important means in this context, and that there is a large difference in response between male and female gamers.

        I also want to push back on the idea that the question “How important is the option of having a male protagonist?” is an equivalent complementary question. Assuming equivalency is ignoring the fact that gender representation in game protagonists is currently highly imbalanced. The importance of an uncommon vs. ubiquitous feature aren’t the same thing.

        Some gamers conveniently adopt a “gender blind” approach since this tends to preserve the status quo (an overabundance of male protagonists). In the history of gaming, there have clearly been many mediocre male protagonists, but we’ve never questioned the gender of a lackluster male character. The implication that female protagonists only deserve to exist if they’re well-written is a double-standard. It’s another way of saying a woman can only do the job of a mediocre man if she works twice as hard.

  7. Michael Austin August 30, 2017 at 9:45 am - Reply

    I want protagonists I can relate to of either gender (Aloy! Amelie!). It’s interesting to ask what makes people able to relate to a protagonist at all- I find gender is largely irrelevant for me personally, and it’s more outlook and motivations. The biggest problem I’ve had in traditional AAA is that all the male protagonists have the same personality, and it’s one that doesn’t connect with me. (“My personal conflicts are because I can’t communicate!”)

    I remember picking up Borderlands 1. Going to character selection. Going back and forth between the characters for an existential 10 minutes. Uninstalling the game.

  8. Aria August 31, 2017 at 6:04 pm - Reply

    I would be in the core area of gaming and yes I think it is important especially for immersion. I’ll play games that I find interesting if its a male only but I do get more enjoyment out of playing a female to me I’m a woman playing the game so having a woman doing the things in it is far more immersive to me it a bonus I can make her however I want her to look. I don’t have to get my male brain in gear to relate its one hurdle down I can just pick a female character and enjoy from the start. As apposed to must get male brain must find things to relate to then must think like a male while I play his game and be essentially his shadow I’ve only had rare males where I can be totally insync with their motivations or thoughts while in a game. First male I’ve had in a long time do that to me was Joel from last of us yet I still wished I could replay the game as Trish I thought her personal and a change for her also would’ve been unique to see.

    But more on point I’ve always made it a point to buy women lead games so long as I have an interest in the game as well so I won’t go buy a game genre I’m not into solely because its a woman but if there is a woman and she’s playable I’m more likely to pick it up and buy it quicker then standard male lead. For instance I was planning on getting Ghost Recon Wild lands because it looked cool (subject wise) but was bummed about its all male line up but I was still willing to make the purchase though I’ve played hundreds of male lead shooters before so when I found out I could be a woman commando I was more willing to buy and play the game I looked forward to it and it was very fun playing with my friends as an all female insurgent group, they too like playing as women (thought they’re male) and it just looked really cool to have this appearance it gave the game subject a new twist and flavor.

    Another example I hate uncharted I tried several times to play as Nathan and I can’t get behind him. Now they just released an uncharted with women leads and I’m willing to give it a go one more time specifically to see if having them will improve the subject matter as I love tomb raider and this is just tomb raider with a side kick so I’ll find out if I find uncharted more playable now as appose to when it was Nathan.

    On the flip side to this I’m looking forward to Vampyr specifically because Don’t Nod did such a unique creative job with the subject matter of life is strange and Remember me both games have a lot of potential and try to use themes not usually covered in the way they did them so now I want to see how they deal with a male only character because they made rather compelling female ones.

    I think there is scarcely any game that can’t have a female protagonist in it. Usually I get the lame excuse of its ” historically inaccurate” though you can fine examples that disprove the idea. To me its a cover for we didn’t want to even try we’d have to be creative or think more of how could the story get more interesting or complex due to having a woman lead or playable option. Developers and publishers sometimes over think it women can have the same motivations as men to do things but they think otherwise it seems at points. Midevil,, war past to future, pirates, racing, fighting/wrestling, there is less then 1% game subject matter I could look at and go yes I agree a woman shouldn’t be or would be impossible to be in this game as I’m a woman playing your game I just broke your game logic by basically playing it I’m in your world so a woman in your world isn’t a gravity breaking thing for me as I’m there. In the rare instances were I could see that a woman being excluded is natural or it is how it is/was then that’s that but I do think women can be leads and playable for more titles and subject matter then what developers or their publishers believe they can be.

  9. Christopher Barney September 2, 2017 at 1:56 pm - Reply

    I think it’s important to distinguish between games that have the ability to create a female avatar and games that present the action from a female perspective.

    If I can create a female character in a game with a modern (not sci-fi or fantasy) setting but everyone in the game treats me identically to a male avatar I’m not fooled. The game world is telling me that everyone is gender blind but my experience of life tells me that is not true.

    Games allowing a female avatar and games with a female protagonist need to be distinguished in research.

  10. ReinaHW September 3, 2017 at 6:28 pm - Reply

    I feel that female leads in games are very important for several reasons:

    1: They can open up new doors in creative potential for character personalities, motives and back stories that aren’t just about some gruff, buff white man with stubble being angry for whatever reason

    2: It helps to make video games more welcoming to the female gamer demographic of all ages and for future generations of female gamers, instead of games like Rockstar’s stuff being the usual ‘No girls allowed, we hate you’ drivel all the time that drives female gamers away due to not feeling welcome at all.

    3: It helps to start get the gaming industry and video games as a whole out of the rut of the whole ‘Boys Only!’ nonsense that limits the potential for video games and the industry in being more diverse and open minded for a change.

    4: It provides a new perspective and a new way of approaching situations that don’t always need to rely on rampant testosterone fueled violence to solve, women are capable of being pretty cunning after all and usually tend to have to rely on other means to handle a problem.

    5: By being more welcome to female gamers, there’s a strong chance of stereotypical attitudes towards non-cis gender, non-heterosexual non-white men and women to start being phased out which would be a huge help in doing away with the so-called ‘humour’ that is nothing more than bigotry for cis het white men to laugh at and keep alive in the real world as usual.
    It would also help with reducing the disgusting attitudes towards women of all skin colours and body types that is so constant in gaming.

    6: It would be a massive breath of fresh air in a very stale market.

    And there are more reasons. I’ve been gaming for thirty three years and come across very few female leads, especially any done in a non-sexualised way, when compared to the over abundance of male leads. Male leads bring nothing new every time, it’s always either the same dull cis gender, heterosexual white man who’s angry for whatever reason or someone who is little more than a walking racial stereotype to make racists feel happy about their ignorance.
    The tired excuses that females are hard to animate – which is nonsense, that females don’t play video games – they clearly aren’t paying attention, and are too hard to write because they don’t understand women – well maybe if such men would just shut up once in a while and listened then they would understand us just fine, women are very easy to write as actual people if you would stop regarding us as sex toys and punch bags for your insecurity – are a prime example of a strong unwillingness to progress and grow up.

    Video games, as an industry and as a market, need to progress, they need to be more welcoming, they need to be more diverse and they need to move beyond the kind of frat boy mentalities that are so prevalent.
    Change is life, it’s well past time that the video game industry accepted that. Technology has improved but video games are still as backwards and sexist as ever, that seriously needs to change.

  11. TomasV September 7, 2017 at 9:32 am - Reply

    I am not sure that this question presents any interest whatsoever .
    Are female (or male or human or dwarvish or … ) characters important in games ? Yes ? No ? What of it ?
    Already in Everquest 20 years ago the players had the choice of gender and I know of no MMO which wouldn’t propose a gender choice .
    It is simply a basic feature of character creation – you choose gender, race , class and sometimes other features like religion etc .

    And finally the in game demographics will mirror rather accurately the players demographics e.g for MMOs male players are majority so in game characters are male in majority too .
    As for the NPCs , they are and have always been basically a mix of genders too .
    Even in single players games since Ultima 3 and this was almost 40 years ago through the whole series of Dragon Age there is a mix of genders both for PC and NPC characters too .

    I would say , and this is really a tautology , it may be useful to have a gender mix in a game (especially in MMOs) for PCs and NPCs but it is not forbidden for creative authors wanting to explore uncharted régions to imagine an environment where only 1 gender exists .
    The customers will always vote with their wallets – they buy what they like and don’t buy what they don’t like .

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