Jun 20, 2013

Women Don't Sell in Video Games?

It's been the rallying cry of game developers the world over looking for an easy answer to the lack of titles with female protagonists. It's such an ingrained mantra, that games with female leads receive less than half the marketing budget of games with male leads, creating a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy.

This last weekend, however, the latest game for the Playstation 3, The Last of Us, blew people away with its sales figures, out-selling even Man of Steel on its opening weekend. Granted, for the majority of the game the player controls Joel, the male protagonist, and the game is centered on the traditionally male hero, but there are sections at the beginning and latter parts of the game where the player controls the female characters Sarah and Ellie.

Games companies and critics of those of us calling for more women in games insist that games with female protagonists, or even women on the game's cover, don't sell. In fact, The Last of Us could be argued to have a similar character set-up to Bioshock Infinite, which also features the player as the male protagonist while the female protagonist is controlled by the game's AI. The idea that the game wouldn't have sold as well with Elizabeth on the cover is one of the reasons often cited for why it is Booker alone, standing in a gritty, manly fashion with a gun over his shoulder, who gets a spot on the cover. This in spite of popular opinion being that the game is, in fact, Elizabeth's story, not his.

Well let's look at this a little more closely.

Released March 2013. Female and male protagonists, male character on cover. Top-selling PC game of  the month, over  878,000 physical copies sold in March, taking the top spot for the month from Tomb Raider.
Released June 2013. Male and female protagonists, both on cover. Takes in sales beating Man of Steel's opening weekend, which made $125.1 million in the US.
Released October 2008. Male protagonist, no character on the cover. Sold 1 million copies in 4 months.
Released November 2008. Female protagonist, on the cover. Sold 1 million copies in 3 months.
Released March 2013. Male protagonists, two men and one woman (though it's difficult to tell in the picture that she's a woman) on the cover. Sold 425,000 copies in its first month, considered disappointing compared to the sales of previous entries in the series.
Released March 2013. Female protagonist, on the cover.  Sold 1 million copies in  48 hours.
Released April 2012. Male protagonist, but  there's a girl right in the middle of the cover. Sold 1 million copies of the first episode in the first 20 days. To date, over 17 million episodes have been purchased worldwide
Released April 2012. Male protagonist, on the cover. Sold less than it's predecessor, which sold under 2 million in it's first year. Poor sales were cited as a reason for Activision Blizzard shutting down Radical Entertainment.

In each of these cases, the sales of the games with women on the cover are easily holding their own against those of games where women are absent. Certainly, it is clear that the gaming community are focused on the quality of the game itself, and not the gender of the character(s) featured in the box art. Hopefully game companies will start to take a serious look at the sales figures and realise that it's long past time to let go of this outdated notion that gamers won't play games with women in them, or that women on covers must be depicted with revealing clothing, in contorted poses designed to draw attention to T&A. The sales figures speak for themselves. A good game, well-promoted, will sell, regardless of who is on the cover.


  1. I must agree with you, Mr. Shortt. It is all falderal. These days I tend to only play open-ended games that let the player choose to make male or female characters, but like you said, the sheer number of games being sold that only let the player play a women, like Tomb Raider, tell me most men don’t mind taking control of a woman in a video game or seeing her on a box as I am sure a vast number of the sales of Tomb Raider are from men. And if I’m not mistaken, many men use female avatars in MMO-RPGs as well. I think GuildWars depicted women on the boxes for their games almost exclusively, and they were quite popular as well.

    Personally I think it is a conscious attempt to keep women out of games and keep gaming a distinctly male world. They are trying to pull up the ladder to their tree house while yelling out, “NO GIRLS ALLOWED”.

    1. You know, I'm inclined to believe you're on to something. If the numbers say that games with women will sell just as well as games centered around men, then there's no logical reason not to add more variety to new titles. It has to either be an erroneous assumption that these games are selling in spite of a female presence, or an active intent to keep gaming as a "Boys Only" club. Both are preposterous, but the latter is a genuinely worrying thought.

  2. It's an impossible argument, there's so few games with primarily female protagonists that it's statystically unanalysable... yeah, awesome word.

    1. I agree that there aren't many games with women as the lead, but when the few that strongly feature women in major roles are selling on par with male-dominated games released at the same time, surely that's grounds to produce more?

    2. Not only produce more games with female leads, but also force publishers to admit to themselves that there is a place for women in games and the industry itself. Publishers need to pull their heads out of their rumps and realize what most gamers know, that women have a lot to offer the gaming industry and that we want to welcome them into the gaming world with open arms.

      Some of my best experiences in gaming have had a woman at my side, and it didn’t matter if they were skilled gamers or novices who spent more time attacking me when I was on their team. It was all fun and games, so let the girls play is what I say.

    3. Exactly. In all honesty, I suck at video games. I play on Easy Mode most of the time because I want to be entertained, not feel like I have to spend hours (which I don't have) building up my skill or my character's abilities to just get on with the game. Every person I know, regardless of gender, who plays video games regularly is better than me, and I hate the attitude that you need a certain skill level to be worthy of a given game. Seeing that attitude applied all the more to women drives me crazy.

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