Does Sexism Trump Even The Profit Motive?

Anita Sarkeesian received a ton of dismissal, much of it abusive, for the above tweet. One of the few common responses to complaints like hers that even tries to take the form of an argument is that game manufacturers or filmmakers or others who neglect to create stories around female characters are simply slaves to market forces. It is implied that if people wanted female characters creators would of course make them. And then sometimes we’re explicitly told that they are not going to make them just to appease feminists unprofitably. (Because of course feminists don’t speak for a sizable consumer base!)

To an extent this may be an empirical question. I hope psychologists can do some really important research that figures out what exactly people really do (or could) want and what really do (or could) sell. But a lot of these remarks that just dogmatically assert that the games couldn’t sell and that there could be no market for female-led games usually sound more like a desire for feminists to just shut up and a willing contentedness with the first reasonable sounding excuse for the status quo to come down the pike.

What I want to know is when good capitalists ever waited around for demand before deciding to profit off something? When did capitalists ever assume that the nature of human desire was physiologically fixed by biological forces beyond human tampering? The whole way capitalism works is by creating demand in people for things they didn’t previously want. The whole goal is perpetual growth. So I find it suspicious that game companies assume that not even girls would be more likely customers were there more female lead characters. I get why they assume that girls and women are more likely to play games with male leads than boys and men are likely to play games with female leads. Girls and women have had to adapt to identifying with male led stories overwhelming all their options their whole lives. But why aren’t they concerned at all about the untapped market of those girls who are presently altogether uninterested in video games? Do they really think they’re reaching every girl they possibly could? Do they really assume that the only reason far more boys and men seem to play video games than girls and women is that girls just are inherently less interested in video games? Is there any reason to assume that? Actually, let me put that a more salient way: is there any reason to lose money over that assumption if it’s wrong?

When overwhelmingly male creative and business people who should want to expand their market any way they possibly can are actively neglecting and thereby alienating a huge potential buyer base just because those potential consumers are female, could it possibly be that their sexism and self-absorption are actually what is overwhelming even their business sense? Could it possibly be that this is the result of lopsidedly male executives and game designers having a sexist failure of imagination that completely underestimates girls’ and women’s minds? I mean, is that at least possible? Isn’t it at least worth thinking about?

Now, I’m not going to call everyone who genuinely thinks that this is just market determinism a mysognist who hates women and equality. But here’s the problem. If you care about equality, you should care about girls having as many role models, as many heros of stories to identify with, and as many games they’d love made for them as possible–or at least an equal number to those that boys have. If you love and care about girls and boys equally, why wouldn’t you at least want this.

So, maybe you think that the market forces and girls’ brains make it impossible. But why would you be hostile (and even abusive) to those expressing frustration over this situation. And why wouldn’t you think about exploring whether maybe the situation isn’t irremediable before firing off a dismissal of the whole concern. Wouldn’t it be better if girls could be able to enjoy and want video games more? Isn’t that an extra good thing for them to choose from? Wouldn’t it be awesome if they did have more video games and movies they could see people like them as lead characters in? If all that might take is more female representation in board rooms and creative rooms, and you’re a fan of egalitarianism, wouldn’t that be fairer and more likely to yield results that are good for girls and boys alike?

What’s that? “Special treatment?” You don’t want “special treatment” for girls and women? So, if women in creative rooms and board rooms could be presumed more likely to create products that increased the number of young girl consumers that’s still not a justification for hiring and promoting more women? Not even if by their very gender they would have insights that would sell more products to others of their gender? Even in this rare sort of case where gender would actually be a kind of qualification, it wouldn’t count? “Equal treatment” means lopsided numbers of men in power making products only for half of the potential buying public? Equal treatment means 100% of the new games catering to fantasies of being a strong man rather than a strong woman. “Real egalitarianism” avoids completely the golden opportunity to play games featuring powerful leading women they can identify with? That’s “real egalitarianism” as opposed to that supposedly female supremacist feminist kind? It’s only real egalitarianism when the outcomes are lopsidedly in favor of males both making the decisions and boys reaping the rewards? Any deliberate correction to this power dynamic would be doing unearned favors to women and girls?

Give me a break.

If you oppose girls having more role models, lead characters in stories, and games to play, and if you oppose making conscientious efforts to increase women’s participation in creative and business decisions that could open up whole new profitable markets, and instead you want to just lazily assume the status quo is unchangeable and angrily silence those who dare to question it, then you do not show any true interest in women’s equality. Whatever you think about the facts, your heart simply is not in it.

(Thanks to Alyssa for standing up to your friends on this and inspiring me to finally get around to putting these thoughts down.)

Your Thoughts?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Brian Murtagh

    Last I checked, Mirror’s Edge sold pretty damned well and there is a sequel in the works. Portal also did pretty spectacularly well and already has one. (The sequel admittedly did not have ‘Chelle in it, but the fact there was one speaks to its success).

    That’s two phenomenally successful video games starring female protagonists who (to put it delicately) did not share Lara Croft’s physique. It follows that such protagonists and games are not an insuperable bar to the making of profits.

  • 3lemenope

    I preface this by saying it might sound a bit obnoxious (so try to bear with me), but it’s something that’s been bugging me about the whole “market forces prevent us from putting in female protagonists” thing.

    I’m a straight, cis male gamer. When given a gender option for a game protagonist, I usually pick female. FemShep all the way! I do this not because I identify with being female, really, or for any story-driven reason (when the stories differ). The reason is entirely aesthetic:

    I’m going to be staring at my character’s back side for upwards of forty hours.
    The scenery might as well be pleasing.

    Since aesthetic concerns are integral to enjoying the gaming experience, I don’t think this is a trivial issue. I also think it cuts slightly against the argument that including female protagonists is an undiluted good thing for gamer’s perceptions of females generally. As much as a game character is a conduit for the agency of the player, the character representation itself is a puppet, a manipulable object with no agency of its own (or very little; cutscenes!, so long as you don’t have to press X to not die). It’s a bit different when it’s a female player playing a female character, since there the body morphic identification of the player with the character helps to bridge that dichotomy of agency. Straight male players of female characters are stuck staring at her ass.

    And I know I’m not the only male gamer who feels this way. So even if (extremely dubiously) it is asserted that there are few female gamers, there still would be solid reasons beyond the ethical ones to include female protagonist characters. We also have a few A-list games that do have strong female protagonists (The Longest Journey/Dreamfall, Tomb Raider, Portal, Mirror’s Edge, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, Resident Evil, etc.) which proves in the pudding that there is no essential bar to well-selling female led games, which makes me think that the argument on the side of “MARKET FORCES!” knows they are full of it and it is pretextual for not wanting to break up the ol’ boys club.

    EDIT: I’m pretty sure what I’m articulating is the main driving force behind this trope, too.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Well that and FemShep generally has better voice acting and facial rigging. I’ve never been able to get a non-default MShep look good in dialogue shots. He always turns into this alien thing with lips that don’t quite work right.

    • 3lemenope

      True. In that particular case I have to admit I started for the FemShep, but stayed because Jennifer Hale is an awesome voice actor. “You BIG. DUMB. JELLYFISH!”

  • Katie Graham

    For a long time, strong female leading roles in video games meant manly-toughness with large breasts. You can see the evolution of this into strong-but-still-feminin if you look at the latest Tomb Raider game. The Last of Us also features a 14 year old girl who is tough, but not “trying to be a boy” tough, which is refreshing.

    • Verbose Stoic

      Fatal Frame and Suikoden III did this long before that. From what you say, the main character from “The Last of Us” is pretty much the same sort of character as Miku from Fatal Frame, my favorite female protagonist ever.

  • Kristofer Rhodes

    I think your argument is a good one. I also think, though, that another factor discouraging game makers from using female protagonists is that the publishers don’t want to sell a statement along with the game, because adding a statement is much more likely to decrease the audience than increase it. But having a strong female character is more likely to seem like a statement. And so there is reluctance.

    I have no empirical evidence for this, it just seems like a plausible partial explanation to me.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    I don’t know. There’s more than enough strong-selling games with female characters to disprove the claim that they can’t sell. And I wonder how much of those figures are inflated by the dominance of professional sporting league brands and “realistic combat” sims. The one article I could find on last month’s sales figures put Tomb Raider and Bioshock Infinite (depending on whether you see Elizabeth as the protagonist or not) in the top 5.

    In spite of the complaints of a vocal minority, the fact of the matter is that games that are gender-agnostic or offer characters of multiple genders sell too many copies for female characters to be a sales-killer The disparity is in AAA games with male only vs. female only protagonists.

  • Laurence

    Remember Dan, Anita Sarkeesian isn’t receiving abuse at all, she’s merely receiving stout criticism and backlash for pointing this out.

    • Laurent Weppe

      And of course, the vandalism of her wiki page and the release of a flash game about beating her were good spirited jests. Also, closing the comments on her youtuve video was obviously a cowardly attempt to censor her oh so intelligent and reasonnable youtube commenters

  • Notung

    There are lots of good games with female protagonists, but I agree that there are nowhere near enough. I must confess that I have had the thought that I wouldn’t be able to immerse myself in a game with a female protagonist (simply because I’m not myself a woman), but after playing games like Tomb Raider, Hydrophobia, Portal and Mirror’s Edge I’ve found this to be flat-out false. A forteriori it wouldn’t be an argument against having a female protagonist anyway, since games aren’t made just for me to play!

    My only issue with Sarkeesian’s tweet is that it’s difficult to know who to blame for it. It’s not any one person’s fault, since it’s not like game developers all get together to work out the gender ratios of their main characters. It’s not like organising a conference, where you can say “hang on, we haven’t hired any women – better rectify that!”. I suppose the best way is a consciousness-raising effort; don’t demonise people – just make them aware that there aren’t nearly enough games featuring female protagonists.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Why not blame the specific company called out on the tweet, Microsoft, in contrast to Sony and EA who both pitched games with female protagonists as part of their future offerings? I guess I read the tweet a bit differently than most as a criticism of a specific company (whose platform has previously been criticized for bias). It’s another dimension on which Microsoft lost the PR war at E3.

    • 3lemenope
  • Feminerd

    Mass Effect- Given the opportunity to make a female Shepard, thousands of people, both men and women, did so.

    Heavenly Sword- it did incredibly well for a short game from a minor studio; it made a profit. If it had been priced lower (full $60 price point for a ~10 hour game was a poor decision), it probably would have done even better. The most common complaint was the game was too short for the amount of money paid. I never saw a single complaint that the main protagonist and the ‘sidekick’ character were both female.

    Any MMO ever- you can build both male and female avatars. There are usually more female avatars running around, even though many MMOs have a majority-male player base.

    Any PC RPG like Skyrim- People build their avatars there. Many people build female ones.

    Any PC hack-and-slash like Diablo- People pick their avatars there. Many people pick female ones.

    I could keep going … but I don’t think I have to.

    • Verbose Stoic

      Western RPGs are heavily based on D&D, which always had the choice. JRPGs don’t have that history, and so would tend to be a bit cautious in changing what seems to be working. And let’s not get started on FPSs …

    • Feminerd

      Oh yeah, FPS’s are really bad. There’s lots and lots of games and game genres that don’t have female protagonists or playable characters. That’s because the executives and design teams don’t want to, though, not because people wouldn’t buy them. And that, right there, is the whole point of Mr. Fincke’s post.

    • Verbose Stoic

      My main point here is that since all of the things in your list are Western RPGs, you have to look at the history and expectations to see if those are good examples. Western RPGs have a tradition of gender choice because they started from D&D and D&D always had it; if it wasn’t added people would have complained about it since they would have expected it. However, the other genres don’t have that history, and so might lose some audience with female characters. Now, as I said in my long comment, I don’t think that’s the case, but it isn’t really a fair comparison of what will happen now to compare a genre with a long history of gender choice to genres that didn’t have choice of protagonist traits at all, let alone gender.

    • Feminerd

      Ah. I had missed your point. Thanks for the clarification.

      I disagree that it isn’t a fair comparison, though. Yes, everything on my list is a Western RPG, but Final Fantasy has always had strong female characters and even leads some games, and that’s a JRPG. I just forgot to add it at the time. I also played Aion for a bit; it’s a Korean-built MMO. Same thing as Western MMOs- male and female avatars available, many female ones running around.

      Now, that may be because those are all still RPGs; the genre differences are a valid distinction. Platformers and FPS’s are much, much worse at female characters and leads than RPGs. The Western/Eastern gaming thing, though, doesn’t hold up.

  • Bugmaster

    I believe that one specific piece of criticism leveled at Anita Sarkeesian was that several games at E3 did, in fact, feature female protagonists. Off the top of my head, these are Transistor, Mirror’s Edge 2, Beyound: Two Souls, and Dragon Age 3 (where you can create a male or female protagonist as you see fit, as is the case for most games in the Western RPG genre).

    This is a serious factual error. Either Anita didn’t bother to spend five minutes researching the topic, or she simply didn’t care.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Sarkeesian’s actual tweet specifically discussed Microsoft’s XBox One press conference and not the separate events by EA Games who made the Mirror’s Edge and DA:I announcements, or the Sony Playstation 4 event that included the Transistor announcement.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Oh, and Beyond: Two Souls looks like it’s going to be a PS3 exclusive, so it’s not related to XBox One at all.

    • Bugmaster

      Ok, but in that case, it’s possible that the real conclusion here is not, “all gaming companies mistakenly avoid making games with female protagonists”, but rather, “MS is about to lose a bunch of customers to its competitors”.

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      I do think there’s still a problem when, at the end of a day with presentations by Sony, EA, and Microsoft, you come away with only four games with female protagonists, and none to go with the official unveiling of what will be Microsoft’s flagship gaming system for the next half-decade. So I think the argument that there is a bias in the industry is still a valid one, it’s just one one that can be framed in all or nothing terms.

    • Bugmaster

      I assume you meant, “one that can not be framed in all or nothing terms”, in which case I agree.

      But “there’s a bias in the gaming industry, and Microsoft is about to lose market share because they’re more biased than most” doesn’t sound nearly as punchy as Sarkeesian’s tweet. As far as I can tell, her own approach is biased in favor of sensationalism, which is why I dislike it.

  • Laurent Weppe

    The “market forces” argument is probably tangentially right insofar as game developers, especially in the AAA industry know by experience how to cater to thirsty-for-power-trips male adolescents and fear that learning to please another audience would involve a handfull of costly blunders.

  • John Kruger

    I am more and more convinced as I look at this problem that the big driving factor in unequal gender distributions in games or movies is ignorance.

    I would love to see an experiment where people are asked to create a brief bio for 10 fictional characters. I am willing to bet that with no other criteria the gender ratios will be skewed towards the gender of the creators. After all, a large part of this type of entertainment is identifying with main characters and inserting yourself into a fantasy environment. If predominantly male game designers don’t put much thought into it, the gender ratios are going to be off, market forces or otherwise.

    The other big problem is that when large companies actually do try to market to a neglected female gender, they sometimes do so with wildly patronizing and misogynist ideas that pollute the entire effort. I wold point you to Sarkeesian’s YouTube video on LEGOS as an example.

    • tsara

      So… ignorance combined with unwillingness to do the market research that I thought was pretty well standard? I suspect there’s some misogyny behind the market research!failures that result in the patronizing/misogynist efforts, too. Misogyny and overconfidence: I know what women want. I don’t need to see if I’m wrong.

      /is not making sense.

  • CBrachyrhynchos

    One of the reasons why I’ve been rather obnoxious about saying that “twitter messages are not news” is that they are reactive, contextual, and time-dependent. In this case, Sarkeesigan couldn’t have reported on the announcements by EA and Sony during the Microsoft XBox One event, unless she developed magical time-travel powers. Microsoft took the first slot of the day. She did tweet and blog about Mirror’s Edge, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Transistor, Beyond: Two Souls, and Super Mario 3D World as they were announced during a rather long news day for her.

  • Bugmaster

    But here’s the problem. If you care about equality, you should care
    about girls having as many role models, as many heros of stories to
    identify with, and as many games they’d love made for them as
    possible–or at least an equal number to those that boys have.

    Is it possible for boys to have female role models, and for girls to have male role models, or are role models strictly segregated by gender ?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      they’re not strictly segregated by gender, but it’s not negligible whether you have ones that match your gender even available to identify with in certain distinct ways that you don’t quite cross gender. Especially when we’re talking kids. But, yes, solid role model women would be as good for the boys as for the girls.

    • Bugmaster

      Isn’t the reverse also true ? Can solid role model men be as good for the girls as they are for the boys ?

      I tentatively agree with your main point — it seems like it would be easier to identify with one’s own gender. But I have no evidence either way, and I don’t know if this is more true or less true of children specifically.

      In any case, if what you say is true, and the reasons for it are social (rather than biological), then it seems like we should be working to change the situation, so that both men and women can identify more strongly with people as humans, not with people as representatives of their own gender.

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The problem is that we live in a culture in which certain virtues are presumed to be masculine and not feminine, so if all girls have are men embodying those virtues, they may have the notion that they’re only for men reinforced.

    • Bugmaster

      In this case, shouldn’t we also demand more male protagonists who embody the traditionally feminine virtues ?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      Sure. Why not?

    • Dan Fincke Camels With Hammers

      The only question is whether they will naturally fit the genre as much. Video games are typically oriented around characters’ bravery, toughness, and resourcefulness, and not their nurturance. In the meantime, it says more about the assumption that women don’t have the stereotyped “masculine” virtues than that men don’t have the stereotyped “feminine” virtues that women are inadequately represented as admirable protagonists in games.

  • Verbose Stoic

    I talked about this a fair bit when I had a short-lived column on a short-lived gaming site, and right now it seems to me that the default protagonist is male and that female protagonists are only created when there is a specific reason to do so: to buck the trend, because the story works better with it, etc, etc.

    So, what’s being complained about is that the default protagonist is male, and for companies to change that default — or even mix it up consistently– in my opinion two things have to be true:

    1) Companies have to be convinced that they won’t lose money if they do so.

    2) Companies have to be convinced that they’ll gain money if they do so.

    Without both, companies have no reason to change the current conditions. Now, on these, I think that 1) is true and has been proven to be so; having games with female protagonists don’t usually cost sales. An argument can be made that if female protagonists, in at least some genres, became common it might, but that seems to me to be fairly specious, unless, say, it’s in the FPS/action genre and the characterization makes the protagonist utterly unbelievable, but that’s not likely to happen. However, I don’t think that 2) is true, or at least that it hasn’t been proven to be true. Even in the examples here, the games sold about as well, but didn’t do any better; they didn’t drag in a new group of female gamers to boost sales, or lost sales from other groups so that they are successful, but not MORE successful.

    So, if the profit argument is that creating female protagonists will bring in more sales because female gamers are more likely to buy games with female protagonists than with male protagonists, then the counter to that is obviously that the same thing should apply to male gamers. So, if that’s true, then 2) will not be satisfied and 1) might occur if the genre is one that just appeals more to men than women. Now, again, I don’t think that’s true … but then that leaves the only argument for 2) dead in the water.

    So, for me, a big part of the problem is that there is no attempt to address 2). I can name a number of games that had female protagonists that are never, ever mentioned. Fatal Frame series: 6 protagonists in the three main games, 1 male. Silent Hill 3 had a female protagonist. Suikoden III had three protagonists, one of whom was female, and who could be the main character depending on player choice. And the one that annoys me the most: Persona 3 PSP, which added a female protagonist as a choice … which was a lot of work for them, considering how it required them to re-do S-links which were a major part of that game. And no one mentions it at all in these discussions.

    For the most part, what I see as a casual observer of gaming commentary is that there is a lot of talk about the lack of female protagonists, and a lot of talk about games that try and get female protagonists wrong, but relatively little talk about games that try and promotion of them, even if they get it wrong. The games I listed above may or may not be A-list games, but they aren’t obscure either (Obscure, which had an even gender split if I recall correctly, WAS obscure [grin]). Fatal Frame tends to get mentioned in the same sentence as Resident Evil and Silent Hill when you talk about classic survival horror. Suikoden gets mentioned somewhere around where Final Fantasy does when you mention classic JRPGs. Silent Hill 3 was the basis for the latest Silent Hill movie. The Persona series is fairly well known among gamers. And yet they didn’t get the press and never get the press for trying to do female protagonists. Heck, even this tweet is an example: how often does Sarkeesian go out and promote all the games listed in these comments that do have female protagonists, instead of simply criticizing companies that don’t do it? She might have made comments on the other games; I don’t follow Twitter and don’t follow her. So if she has, then count that as a bad example. But it is always a source of frustration to me to read all the criticism and then read in the comments “You’ve forgotten [list of games” and then still NOT see the ones I mentioned above.

    The biggest thing that gaming columnists who care about the lack of female protagonists can do is promote the games that try, give them free advertising and attention, and increase their sales. But far too often, the games are either ignored or simply criticized for getting things wrong without acknowledging that they really seem to be trying, and none of that will prove that 2) is the case … and if you can’t do that, then again gaming companies have no reason to change their default, and so female protagonists will be limited to cases where the company has a specific reason for that game to do so, and not in general.

  • John Alexander Harman

    The hypothesis that there is little market for games or movies featuring female lead characters has a literary corollary: it predicts that there should not exist a New York Times bestselling military science fiction series starring a female protagonist and featuring numerous other female characters in as wide a variety of roles and with as wide a range of personalities as the roughly equal number of male characters. That corollary turns out to be false, casting serious doubt on the hypothesis.