My videogame collection goes all the way back to the early 90's. It would go back even further, but a few years ago I was struck with a rare fit of cleanliness and tossed all of my floppy-disk based games. Most of the floppies had degraded to unreadable by then and it seemed pointless to keep them around. Now I regret doing that. If nothing else, I'd love to read over some of those old manuals.
Of the surviving games, about a fourth of them involve gameplay where you don't play as anyone in particular. These are puzzle, strategy, or simulation games where there is no "main character," and you're just playing as some abstract guiding intelligence. Then there are 22 games where you can choose to play as either male or female. Of the remaining 75 titles where you play a fixed character:
- 69 are games where you play as a man.
- 6 are games where you play as woman.
The six games I own with female leads are Portal (Chell), The Longest Journey (April), Beyond Good & Evil (Jade), American McGee's Alice (Alice), Silent Hill 3 (Heather), and Heavy Metal FAKK 2 (Julie). The only thing I can say in my defense on the last one is that it was in the bargain bin. I'm sure I've missed some female-lead games, but I've missed plenty of male-lead games as well, and I'll bet the male / female breakdown of my collection isn't too different from the industry at large. (Yeah, I don't have Lara Croft or Samus Aran in my collection, but I also don't have any Mario, Solid Snake, Fox McCloud, Sam Fisher, Sonic, Kratos, or Link. Call it a wash.)
And before anyone asks - yes, we're going to completely ignore the genre of Japanese games where you either play as women or rapists.
A ratio of 11 male leads for every female lead is pretty abysmal, and probably a lot worse than the actual mix of male to female gamers. Sometimes I try to picture what things would look like if the ratio was flipped and character-driven games were relentlessly about women, with a male-only game coming along once every few years and being hailed as a ground-breaking idea or a novelty. I think that I would find it odd. Would I play fewer games? Probably not. I'd just play different games. Maybe I'd steer clear of those endless action games where you play as a sassy ass-kicking femme fatale who saves the world so she can make kissy faces with her trusty sidekick Captain Beefcake. Maybe I'd stick to the ego-less world of strategy and simulation games. In any case, it would certainly feel like most games weren't made for me.
I just got done playing Overlord 2, a game where you collect a number of increasingly trashy mistresses as you progress through the story. If it were flipped, it would be a game about a woman who assembles a man-harem of fawning guys with square jaws, oiled abs, and no dignity. Call me a rampaging homophobe, but that "reward" would probably de-motivate me more than anything else. One way or another, this game is going to drive some of the potential audience away, not because of gameplay but because the context in which the gameplay takes place is simply tuned to a single gender. I know there are women giving this game a pass, and I don't blame them.
The standard practice in both movies and games is to have a male lead with a female love interest character. The game just tells one story:
1) Male lead and female companion.
But this is videogames we're talking about. This is a world where anything is possible. Can't we just add an option to play as a female?
One of those floppy games I tossed was the 1994 adventure game Ecstatica, where you play as a wandering male adventurer who stumbles into a demon-infested town to purge the land and ride off with the beautiful young sorceress in the end. But! You could also choose to play as a female... who rides off with the beautiful young sorceress in the end. Whoops. It came off not as an edgy game tackling lesbian issues, but as simple laziness on the part of the developers. So if we're going to add female lead characters we probably need to change the gender or identity of the supporting cast. Maybe the romance character will change gender along with the player, or maybe (as with the BioWare games) there will be a fixed cast and changing your gender will simply change your romantic options within the group.