Best practices for creating diverse characters

This article summarises the best practices for creating more diverse characters from Finnish game studios’ interviews conducted as a part of the Gender in Play project.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

Why bother making more diverse characters?

The main reason is because players would like to play using more diverse characters.

40 % of players in the U.S. prefer full character customisation, and most choose characters that resemble them. Half of the players want companies to take a stance on social causes (1).

A highly diverse audience plays games. Accoring to NewZoo report, 46 % of players in the U.S. and U.K are women, 20 % are Latinx, 16 % are LGBTQIA+, and 31 % have a disability, often related to mental health. Similar numbers can be found from different sources, casually women making about half of the player base (2).

Another very good reason is to consider how you, as a game maker, can influence the world.

Being the most profitable entertainment industry in the world, 3,5 times more valuable than movies, games have a huge possibility to affect worldviews and either build or break stereotypes (3). Research made in the film industry has shown that stereotypes repeated by media do not only affect the attitudes of others but also the self-image of those belonging to that group (4). If someone like you is always presented as a helpless princess or an enemy, that can have consequences on how you view yourself and how others treat you.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

How well are game companies scoring on making more diverse characters? 

Previous research studying game characters’ representation has demonstrated that the most typical game character is a white man. Numbers tell the same: according to Statista, in the year 2020, 23 % of game protagonists were men, 18 % women, 3 % non-binary characters, and 54 % of games had multiple options. Four years prior, women characters were only 2 %, and nonbinary genders did not exist. The year 2019 study of game protagonist by gender from E3, a major gaming event, listed only 5 % of female game protagonists and 2 % gender-ambiguous, compared to 22 % of male protagonists. 

Best practices for making diverse characters, developers’ tips

All quotes are from the Gender in Play interviews, where we interviewed Finnish game developers about diverse character development and gender-based violence in games. 

Aim for diverse characters

When there is a will, there is a way. Setting the diversity of characters as a goal starts to guide the actions toward that. It might provoke some questions; for some of them, you can find the answers below.

Aim for a diverse narrative and design team

"Have [add here any aspect of diversity] people on your team! Because they are gonna have these experiences, and they can tell you whether something you have written for the game is believable and good and all of that stuff. And they can tell you if there's something that's like big yikes or a big problem."

Team diversity is the easiest way to add diversity to characters as long as everyone on the team has the right to have their say and the diversity is valued. Adding more diversity to your team adds different opinions, experiences, and knowledge. A variety of opinions can bring great insight and value to game design.

"The cultural diversity is a challenge for us too. Everyone is native Finns, with very similar backgrounds, middle-class. If we go to a foreign culture, we have to be pretty careful, because we don't have anyone who says that hey, have you considered this aspect? There is a danger in it that no one is going to say that to us."

Have a look for Jenni Varila’s article “Diversity matters because you matter“. Varila calls for finding ways to lure rock hard female talents to work in the studios article in order to add more diversity in women characters.

Consult the members of the community

If you can’t have enough diversity on your team, no problem! Consult the members of the community you are writing about. There are professionals offering consultancy services, councils that can help, and private people with first-hand experience and background in the culture for which you are writing.

"It really requires that you dare to ask and dare to contact and throw yourself in, and possibly dare to hire someone who then belongs to that group of people."

But please pay them for their consultation.

Disclaimer: If you are writing a space odyssey happening in a faraway future, in an alien land, it might be challenging to find anyone to consult. It is still possible to stay mindful of the story and characters, as shown by Housemarque in Returnal (2021).

Do the background research

If you are writing a game about existing culture, check the facts! Do not rely on and repeat the existing, often ethnocentric stereotypes. Rather, seek a deeper understanding. Ask questions like “Why is this important?” and ”What is the aim?” Ask an expert if you are unsure; do not assume.

Respect your characters and their cultures

If your character represents an existing culture, and moreover, if it is a minority culture, respect the nature of the culture and your character. It does not mean that the game gets super serious, but you should know what is sacred to the culture. Once again, it helps if you have a person who is from the culture.

Do not just place diversity

While diversity issues have become more widely discussed, we have seen the rise of placing one character in the game that then represents diversity. Diverse characters should have their own story, role and reason to be in the game. Blackface is not okay anymore in real life, either.

Give players multiple options

Let players choose what kind of characters they would like to play! Nowadays, it is getting easier to create a game with a selection of protagonists or even to let the player build the character they like. Leave space in a game for the players to create and develop their characters. Collect data to determine what kind of characters your players prefer.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

Double-check the gameplay and story

It is always a good idea to revisit your gameplay and story regularly and seek for stereotypes and gender-based violence – it would be even better if you have someone else doing this. Ideally, it could be someone who does not have similar background to your.

Make sure that all characters have similar possibilities to develop

They do not need to be exactly similar development options as that might be a bit boring, but there should be a possibility to win and advance to the same levels with every kind of character.

Ensure that the actions of characters representing minorities (women, non-binary persons, non-Western ethnicity, sexual minorities) are important gameplay features on their own and not only necessary because they are aimed towards supporting men characters.

Take advantage of the body diversity

Not every woman, man, or non-binary person looks the same. We are different in our bodies, skin colours, height, weights, body decorations, disabilities, scars, and so many other levels. This kind of variety can strongly add to the personality of your characters and make them more relatable.

Image credits: Tuuli Hypén

Use character diversity to create new game mechanics

Diversity can be a source of inspiration for game mechanics too. A few times in our interviews, Bentley, a turtle in a wheelchair from Sly Cooper was mentioned as a great example of creating a new kind of game mechanics and play experience. There is a vast amount of similar new mechanics to be used.

Use randomly generated diverse characters when reasonable

When needed, randomly generated side characters celebrating a variety of ethnic backgrounds and body types, clothes, hairstyles, and so forth can bring more variety to your game. Still, it would be nice if the main character would not represent the most typical characters in games.

Collect ideas and feedback from everyone in the company

Collect game ideas from everyone in the company. Keep the idea box open; you never know what comes out. Create a company culture where it is okay to comment on others’ work in progress, and perform development reviews often, leaving space for everyone to comment.

"It's very important to us that everyone has a say. And everyone has a spark in that project."

Coming up with new game ideas

When you want to make your next hit game, you should find interesting stories worth telling. Our interviewees hinted at a couple of ideas: tell stories from a different perspective, break the stereotypes and feel free to break historical or cultural facts – there have always been people who were breaking norms!

We wish to express our gratitude for everyone participating in our interviews. 

Endnotes:

1. For more information, please see the NewZoo’s recent article ‘Diversity, Equity & Inclusion in Games: Gamers Want Less Toxicity in Games and Want Publishers to Take a Stance’ (link takes you to NewZoo’s page).

2. Statista (2022). Distribution of video gamers in the United States from 2006 to 2021, by gender. Available online at https://www.statista.com/statistics/232383/gender-split-of-us-computer-and-video-gamers/.

3. For example Statista: Gaming: The Most Lucrative Entertainment Industry By Far. Available online at https://www.statista.com/chart/22392/global-revenue-of-selected-entertainment-industry-sectors/.

4. For example Geena Davis Institute has made a various studies about the media representations and their cultural aspects, see https://seejane.org/. Their study “The Double-Edged Sword of Online Gaming: An Analysis of Masculinity in Video Games and the Gaming Community” shares similar findings than our research for Gender in Play project.

Gender-based Violence in Games: Game Developers’ Perspectives

Gender in Play is a project by We in Games Finland and Council of Women of Finland that examines the character development and world-building within Finnish games studios’ games from the perspective of gender equality and representation. The project runs 2021-2022 and is funded by the Ministry of Justice.

Introduction

This article provides insight into how game developers reflect on gender-based violence in games. It is based on interviews conducted as a part of the Gender in Play project among Finnish game studios and connects to a previous article resulting from this project on how gender-based violence is reflected in games made by Finnish developers (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021a).

Gender-based violence in games is not just about physical violence against women characters; it can be, for example, sexualisation , misogynistic speech, silencing, or repeating negative stereotypes about one gender or certain character types in a game. Recognising different forms of gender-based violence usually requires paying attention to the context of the game world and gameplay – that is, playing the game. For a more in-depth definition of gender-based violence in our project, please have a look at our article, “What is gender-based violence in games” (Myöhänen 2022).

Methodology

As part of the Gender in Play project, we interviewed Finnish game developers about diverse character development and gender-based violence in games. 

Semi-structured interviews were conducted in ten Finnish game studios during autumn 2021. Participants were selected based on a previous quantitative study on Finnish games during 2018-2020 (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021b), highlighting studios that seemed to put effort into character representation. Studio locations were evenly distributed throughout the country. The size of the game companies varied from small, publicly funded indie studios to the biggest players in the Finnish game industry, and the size of their games ranged from small indie games to large-scale financial successes. Game platforms ranged from mobile to console and PC. 

With four of the interviews, two or more people from the game studio were present,  making the number of participants 16 persons. Their job titles included CEO, Creative Lead, Narrative Writer, and Game Designer. Interviewees identified as women, men, and transgender, with just over half identifying as women.

Six different interviewers conducted the interviews. Due to Covid-19, all interviews were conducted over Zoom or through a similar online tool, and recorded for transcription purposes. Interviews lasted between 20 and 80 minutes, with the average length being roughly one hour.

Pseudonymised interviews were coded thematically. Parts containing discussion about gender-based violence were marked, analysed, and grouped; findings are presented in the upcoming chapters.

Does this study reflect the whole Finnish game industry?

The Finnish game industry consists of around 200 active game companies. The median number of studio employees is eight (8), the average being 25. (Neogames 2021.) There are some game studios in Finland that employ more than 100 people (this is considered as a large game company in the Finnish context), but most companies are labelled ‘small’ based on their headcount.

Based on the participant selection and small sampling, these interviews do not represent the whole Finnish game industry. Hence, any generalisations drawn from these results or depictions where these results are portrayed as representing the entire Finnish game industry should be cautiously made. However, there are some features in the results that might indicate some of the ideas are becoming more common. It is also worth noting that the interviewee selection includes some major players of the Finnish game industry, whose reachability is many times bigger than average.

Our interviewees had some common features worth highlighting. Most of the people interviewed were well-versed in questions about gender-based violence in games, especially when it came to physical violence against women or stereotypical characterisation in games. All the people we interviewed intentionally tried to avoid stereotypical representations in their work, in general, giving a lot of thought to different character representations. These and other themes raised in the interviews are presented in the following chapters.

Results

The themes rising from the interviews included four larger themes which break down into smaller sub-themes. The results and notions related to gender-based violence from our interviews are divided into the following main chapters:

  • Breaking harmful stereotypes
  • Demarcation of real-world and game-world violence against gender
  • Equal opportunities for all characters, even in death
  • Writing gender-based violence in games

In the following, whenever it is not meaningful for the context, all interviewees are referred to as “they” when their gender is not a matter of significance.

Breaking harmful stereotypes 

All of our interviewees were well aware of character stereotypes that are typically used in games, and many felt an urge to break them. The reason most often mentioned for that urge was that breaking the stereotype would create more interesting and relatable characters and narrative. If the interviewee was from a minority background, it was relatively common to list this aim as an intentional goal.

"It would be easy to always go with the stereotype, but then it's kind of more delicious and story-tellingly more interesting to break the stereotype. If you create that stereotype, then you must break it at some point to turn it into a story. So, they can be used but it has to be done smartly. It must also be respectful, with a meaning to respect that source of the stereotype, or who that person is and what culture he or she is from."

Stereotypes themselves are not harmful, as many of our interviewees noted. For example, in mobile games, it is important to create characters that are easy to grasp quickly, due to the nature of the platform and game types that are typical to mobile play. One AAA developer said that they do not want to play into harmful stereotypes, but they use a lot of stereotypes and tropes in design by subverting them or using them for effect rather than as the basis for a whole character. However, almost everyone repeated that they intentionally tried to avoid harmful stereotypes which have a negative impact on a certain group of people.

The interviewees’ aim in recognising and using the stereotypes was not just to turn the character representations upside down, but to also find some depth and interesting storylines for their characters to develop.

"When you write and think about those different characters, you don't always even realise what those stereotypes [you are using] are, and still they are always there to be found. It's a huge source of inspiration for you when you realize what those stereotypes are. How can I turn this other way around? How can I make something great out of this and at the same time make people think, ‘well, this is not the typical case now’? ‘How have I always thought this needs to be the case’?"

Yet another damsel-in-distress

Among gender-based stereotypes, the damsel-in-distress is perhaps referred to the most in games. It also raised most anticipation among the interviewees. One man producer wrapped up the feeling: “I was terribly tired of these princess characters myself as there was, in every game, a princess with flowing hem who was just smiling.” One woman narrative writer thought aloud: “If I would do a princess that needs to be saved, I would rather do… actually, I have written one princess in a game that needed saving. It was a man.” These developers wanted to create independent women characters that are capable of acting and solving game quizzes, but even more than that, the character had to have some dimensions. “A paper-thin representation” of a damsel-in-distress was not enough, as one interviewee concluded. 

Picture by Tuuli Hypén

Amazonians, a new norm?

Opposite to a helpless princess, at the other end of the spectrum, is women who are represented as great warriors. This was noted in several interviews, with one narrative writer describing that phenomenon as follows: 

"The role of women and the representation of women in games has plucked us and me so much. The fact that women are always Amazons. They are warriors and tomb raiders. They have super-trimmed bodies and so forth. They are always forced to be either a warrior or a prostitute – or a witch. It largely follows that teenage boy fantasy selection."

Some interviewees stated openly that representing women as warriors is not necessarily a good thing. As one interviewee pointed out, “We do not want to give an impression that the only way to be cool and valid is to be a soldier or have a masculine role”, continuing, “That’s why it was really important to also have cool feminine characters”. 

Still sexy b*tches

Hypersexualised women characters have been under discussion quite a lot, and continue to be. Our interviewees stated clearly that it is not the way they are interested in continuing.

"We had that conversation about how sexy and all these characters are. That it would be an easy solution that let's make these now insanely sexy and sell this game to men. But that was the line again we didn't want, as the company, to cross."

Previous qualitative research conducted in this project showed that the woman protagonists of the examined games were not dressed in extremely revealing outfits (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021b). Still, there is some pressure to use feminine outfits for woman characters. In a similar tone, one of our interviewees asked whether a woman soldier would have time to apply perfect makeup while in the middle of a war. 

One game developer shared their worry about how stylised, young, and beautiful woman characters can alienate players from the real world and create unrealistic expectations of real women, thereby paving the road to objectification. 

"My interest here is how some game characters, for example, manga characters or even game characters in general, alienate those who play those games from the reality of what a woman is. I think it's kind of more complicated violence against women."

Body as a battleground

As in real life, women’s bodies in games are expected to follow a specific standard. One game developer listed the requirements for a woman game character: she should have an hourglass figure, a beautiful little chin, big lips and big eyes, long lashes, and pretty hair. Anything breaking this body type will face, if not resistance, then at least questioning. 

"In the early part of the project, when there were just plans for what the main character would look like, there was also feedback from the team about how one can define that it is a woman, since the body does not look like a woman's body. It's not very shapely. [Our character] has relatively wide shoulders and no makeup and is old and so on. I needed to tough it out that it is a woman, even if it lacks these so-called typical features."

The body types or other visible issues were also discussed in terms of game villains. “Why do the bad ones always have scars or a certain kind of clothes”, wondered one game developer who then thought about how seeing a scar as the trademark of an evil character may hurt people carrying scars in real life. These stigmas were something of which our interviewees were aware.

Is there a gender-based personality?

It is not only the body that should follow the stereotyping rules – personalities should also do so. One developer reflected on the design process where they ended up making a forthright and saucy woman character, and a timid and quiet male character:

"This character design process happened so long ago that [I cannot remember] was it even completely conscious. Partly it must have been conscious, but when it started to develop, we noticed that this was going to be a lot of fun. We were just happy that, well, these all are personality traits that most certainly are not gender-specific in any way."

One developer noted that personality traits are not gender-specific. Our interviewees did not consider reproducing stereotypical feminine or masculine personality types to be sustainable, partly because such characters were considered boring to play.

A good example of consciously trying to avoid reproducing personality stereotypes was provided by one developer whose game had a character that was a sexual minority. The developer received player feedback praising them for not repeating the cliches attached to this minority. Another example of not repeating gender personality stereotypes can be seen in the character of Selena Vassos in the game Returnal from Housemarque (Rodrigues & Sićević, 2021d).

Picture by Tuuli Hypén

Limitations in representations

Our questions mainly addressed gender, but it seemed equally important for some interviewees to break the harmful ethnic stereotypes present and have their characters represent different ethnic backgrounds. 

Even though computer technology has advanced in huge leaps during recent years, it still creates challanges for some representations. Technical difficulties faced in supporting different ethnicities were mentioned: for example, a game engine’s lighting options might favour fair-skinned characters.

Some interviewees also discussed language. English is the standard language in games, and for some indie developers, it might be impossible to include several languages in their games at a high enough quality. These technical and production budget reasons will hopefully be solved in the future through further advancements in technology.

Demarcation of real-world and game-world violence against gender

In game making, the real-world and game-world violence might collide from both directions. How much should the fantasy be affected by the limitations of real-world patterns and vice versa, when it comes to something as serious as gender-based violence? Following are the viewpoints our interviewees addressed.

Bringing age realism into games

Several of our interviewees highlighted the need for realism related to the age of woman characters. Age discrimination exists in games (Rodrigues & Sićević, 2021a), and characters that are supposedly older still tend to look remarkably young. As one of our interviewees mentioned:

"… And to avoid that, the character is visibly rejuvenated at that point. I'm for this idea that if there is a woman in her fifties, goddamn sure she already has wrinkles at this point, and you can't get over it. She can't be visualized as a 30-something fresh face. And if someone manages to be a fresh face in their thirties, they at least have eye bags and similar."

Another interviewee mentioned how it would be absurd to have a military leader that looks 18 years old, because this position would require experience and that explicitly equates to a higher age. Yet another game developer was slightly devastated as their player feedback showed how players relate more with an older secondary character than the younger main character.

Representation versus reality

A different angle to realism is how much it can be bent in games to favour gender representation. This was especially the case with games based on particular historical times or cultures. A game is not a history book, as one game developer stated: even when the game is based on history, it is still pure fantasy.

Another interviewee analysed the same topic from a cultural perspective. They noted that  the culture their game was set in—the interviewee’s culture—had distinctive gender roles, but there were real-life examples of how these roles were broken, with women doing men’s jobs, for example. This developer saw no issue in breaking similar boundaries in their game.

The question of realism also applies to instances when a game maker has to consider how much their game should include violence that is typical in real life. Should the real world violence be reflected in games, if the game character would most likely encounter it in real life, or that is essential for understanding character’s experience?

This case was discussed in-depth in one of our interviews: the game depicted a real place and time and the game character represented a minority gender that faced a constant threat of physical and psychological violence just because of their gender. The violence was not a core aspect of the game, but excluding the violence could create toxic positivity and distort the reality too far.

Women can be violent, too

In real life, women can be violent, too, yet stereotypes or idealised images might imply otherwise. One game developer received player feedback about having woman soldiers in games, even though this was, in this case, also historically correct. Similarly, another game developer had negative player feedback on women acting violently in their game, even though the game had its roots in real-life events. Yet another game developer noted how representatives of the feminist movement were violent against transgender persons at a certain time in history, raising a question if that is something that should be included or excluded from game words.

Harmful player feedback

One less discussed phenomenon concerning game-related violence is intentionally harmful or threatening player feedback, and how much it affects game development. Some players might fiercely harass game developers, if they do not like some aspects of the game. This process is well known by game developers, as phrased by one of our interviewees:

"Not everyone dares to bring [diverse game characters] to market, or they bend to make the character as a feminine woman in order not to raise any conflicts with the audience."

Some interviewees mentioned about comments they got of their characters. The comments were related to women being feminine enough; homophobic comments about homosexual characters; comments about women acting violently in the games; remarks about ethnic minorities in the game; and woman characters not being sexy enough. Still, many interviewees were almost surprised by how few negative comments their diverse characters had attracted.

Equal opportunities for all characters – even in death

The interviewees were also asked whether characters receive different treatment based on their gender in the game studio’s games. One form of psychological gender-based violence in games is choosing not to incorporate similar development options for certain characters that make those characters weaker and would not encourage players to select them. Historically this was the case with women characters. Characters might have different skills, but it takes careful balancing to give all characters equal opportunities to succeed and develop in games. 

Picture by Tuuli Hypén

Equal opportunities for every character to develop appeared to be something that game studios have considered. The impact of cultural conventions was noted, and many actively tried to challenge their thought processes when designing characters, like the following indie studio leader and designer pointed out:

"That's the goal. Of course, it's difficult to completely escape the way that society has sort of brainwashed us to think less of many female characters, but I think it is important to try to actively combat those preconceptions that you might have of what a female character should be like and what a male character should be like. But yeah, of course the goal is that all of the characters have the same opportunities to develop."

Publishers for gender inequity

Sometimes it was not just questioning one’s own biases, but questioning the attitudes of other remarkable instances influencing the game content. One game developer expressed how they had to defend the decision for equal development opportunities for all game characters to their publisher, and explain to the publisher that it was exactly their intention and how they wanted the game to be.

A publisher might gain considerable power over the game’s content. When the publisher finances the entire game development process, the game company’s funding is tied to milestones that the publisher needs to approve. A publisher’s opinion is not irrelevant to that game company, since that might mean delays in milestone payments.

In some cases, the publisher might affect gender representation on a larger scale. One of our interviewees stated the following:

"Previously, we made an offer for this [similar kind of game they had published later]. One reason for rejection was that we had a girl main character. Boy players don't perceive it as a character they would engage and that drives away boy players, even our girl character was very tomboyish and a fully qualified action character! Apparently, gender-based upbringing is still strong, even though the situation has improved considerably in recent decades. But it is still there, the necessity to think about whether the players agree. Well, the girls agree to play with every character. They don't have any problems. But raising boys is a bit like… you're girly and tit-cheeky and similar, if you play with a girl character or play with girl dolls."

Equal opportunities do not mean similar treatment for all

One of our interviewees, who had created significantly diverse characters in their game, pointed out that it might sometimes be necessary for the gameplay to have some differences in how the characters are treated. When asked if they think that woman characters receive different treatment than man characters in their games, they answered:

"That is an interesting question.[--] That's maybe not always even a good thing. In some cases, it's very good to not sort of do things differently based on the character's gender, but there are some considerations [--]. It's good to keep in mind stereotypes and everything, when you're working on the game, so you can avoid them in cases where it's going to be harmful, and I guess that's one of the reasons. And also, in a game that actually is about exploring how the world treats, for example, sexual minorities or people of different genders. It is important to know those differences." 

Another developer explained how, in their games, they put extra effort into woman characters and their treatment, even to the extent that woman characters might get nicer treatment than men. 

Best practices: keep the list

Best practices are the topic of our next upcoming article, but one deserves to be mentioned here.

If the game has plenty of playable characters, some developers have come to the solution of keeping a list of character qualifications that includes features like gender, ethnicity, body type, or such, to make sure that there is a diverse representation in games. In one case, the list included the deaths of side characters in order to avoid certain genders or ethnicities being numerically over-represented in death.

Writing gender-based violence in games

One of our interview questions was whether gender-based violence in games has been a topic of discussion in the game studio. 

Our interviewees claimed that gender-based violence was rarely discussed formally in the studios, but there seems to be informal discussions between creatives in companies about the topic. Some interviewees presented that there was no need for such discussion, mostly because their studio did not make violent games, their design team had representation of various forms of diversity, or they already monitored their production in order to avoid misogynistic or otherwise hateful actions against certain game characters. 

The trust of certain individuals in a company, or in a design team, to notify a possible act of violence against a certain group of people was eminent. It is important to note that even though such reporting is good work practice, it would be even better to discuss these practices openly. It can be a heavy extra task for one person to check and follow possible violations of violence against certain, or several, groups of people. 

Related to physical violence, there were tendencies to avoid placing women antagonists in action games and, on a larger scale, to represent antagonists as para-natural or otherworldly forces to avoid murdering humans.

Picture by Tuuli Hypén

How would you feel about doing violence for a living?

Drawing or designing violent games, or hypersexualised characters, for living might not feel emotionally good for some game industry employees. It should be clear that if the game’s content makes an employee feel awkward, and they feel unable to work with the topic, they should not be forced to do so. There is still too little information on this issue too, but as in every case, making a generalisation might be misleading. As one of our interviewees mentioned: “I like to play around gloomy stuff because my life is pretty joyful and happy after all. So in a way, I use that as an opportunity to safely research those darker sides.”

The shadow of Lara Croft

Lara Croft was mentioned various times in our interviews. It was an extra question at the end of the interview; however, Lara was also mentioned many times spontaneously during the interviews. A typical example of this was pointing out that when a woman protagonist in an action game dies in-game, Lara Croft -kind of deaths that execrate or sexualize the event should be avoided. 

Being the first notable woman protagonist, it might be that Lara Croft has set some long-standing standards of do’s and don’ts in woman game character design (see also Jenni Varila’s article “Diversity matters because you matter”). But many of the studio creatives we interviewed had several good examples of more relatable, more interesting characters who would set even better benchmarks when creating a game with a women lead character.

Conclusion

In this article, we have covered how game makers construct and understand different aspects of gender-based violence in their games. We specifically wanted to understand how different forms of violence were considered and discussed by game developers who have included women main characters, or other characters representing minorities among game characters, in their games. 

The developers interviewed were aware of different aspects of gender-based violence, and they considered many aspect of gender-based violence when developing the character. Although discussions around gender-based violence were rarely part of the development process’s formal agenda, they were discussed within the development process. All of our interviewees were very much aware of stereotypes and oversexualised women characters, and took into account several intersectional layers too.

Our interviewees saw room for improving character design in games, but on their behalf, they did their part in making game characters more diverse and equal. As one of our interviewees concluded:

“Our actions will likely change the way these things are experienced. If we, and enough other developers, diversify our designs, even the louder critics will eventually get used to the fact that noticeable breasts, for example, aren’t always mandatory in female character designs.”
Picture by Tuuli Hypén

We wish to express our gratitude for everyone participating in our interviews. 

References

Myöhänen, T. (2022). What is gender-based violence in games. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/what-is-gender-based-violence-in-games/

Neogames Finland (2021). The Game Industry of Finland Report 2020. Available online at playfinland.fi, or https://assets.website-files.com/6076c3887b3a876adff7a25a/60b880eddf1741d278871bec_FGIR-2020-Report.pdf

Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021a). Gender-based violence against women characters. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/gender-based-violence-against-women-characters/

Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021b). Gender in Play – large-scale content analysis about the character representation and diversity in Finnish games. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/analysis-character-diversity-games-large/

Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021c). Women character representation and diversity in Finnish games: a qualitative analysis. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/women-character-representation-and-diversity-in-finnish-games-a-qualitative-analysis/

Rodrigues, A. and Sićević, N. (2021d). Gender in Play: character diversity. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/gender-in-play-character-diversity/

Varila, J. (2022). Diversity matters because you matter. Gender in Play publications, available online at https://weingames.fi/diversity-matters-because-you-matter/

What is gender-based violence in games?

Video game violence has been the topic of intense discussions for a long time, but gender-based violence has not been a part of this debate. That was reflected in comments we obtained from game developers when we began our Gender in Play project. The commentators considered whether gender-based violence applies to fighting female protagonists in action games or female fighters in fighting games. To address this discussion, we specify what gender-based violence includes the following:

  • Physical violence against women or gender minorities due to their gender.
  • Sexualisation and objectification of a body, like pornographic images or sexualised views on violence in video or audio materials, overemphasised feminine body features, voyeuristic camera angles focused on private parts of bodies, and sexualised screams and moaning.
  • Misogynistic speech: the use of offensive language directed towards one gender.
  • Silencing in dialogues and narrative. Do certain characters speak and are they spoken to? How many lines do they have compared to other characters?
  • Not to incorporate similar development options for characters of certain gender
  • Repeating negative stereotypes in character design, like the concept of a “weaker gender”, damsel-in-distress, and “exotic sexy savages”.
Image by Tuuli Hypén

In our study, gender-based violence did not include physical violence against female protagonists when the female characters had full agency, were able to develop their skills equally to their male counterparts, were as likely to be the saviours as men, and were not represented as one-sided stereotypes or only seen as merely a representative of their gender (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021b).

We planned to include an analysis of gender-based violence in our quantitative research, but came to the conclusion that it was hard to recognise gender-based violence in games just by looking at the marketing materials provided, gameplay videos, or short gameplay (Rodrigues & Sićević 2021a).

Gender-based violence in games, if not blatant, is well hidden in structures, as in everyday life. Looking into the existence and the features of gender-based violence in games requires the person to pay attention to the context of the game world and gameplay; that is, to play the game. To analyse that more in depth, we conducted a qualitative study that included eight games where we took a deeper look at the different forms of gender-based violence. This can be read here: Gender-based Violence against Women Characters.

References

Rodrigues A. & Sićević, N. (2021a, June 23). Gender in Play – large-scale content analysis about the character representation and diversity in Finnish games. We in Games blog, https://weingames.fi/analysis-character-diversity-games-large/

Rodrigues A. & Sićević N. (2021b, December 16). Gender-based Violence against Women Characters. We in Games blog, https://weingames.fi/gender-based-violence-against-women-characters/

Notes about WIGFI vision and values

We in Games Finland’s board accepted and published WIGFI’s vision and values at the beginning of this year. They can be found here:

Our vision and values are not set in stone; on the contrary. We want them to stay up-to-date and to reflect the variety within our organization and the Finnish game industry. If you have any feedback for our vision and values, please send a message to me or use any of our channels that best suit you

Two years of making  

Drafting our vision and values started at the end of the first operational year of WIGFI. In December’s board meeting, the board 2019 summarised thoughts and experiences from the first year, wrote them on post-it notes, and tagged a wall full of post-its. Then these ideas were left to rest.

Why? WIGFI is not a homogeneous group. We are diverse in so many ways: we identify as women, non-binary, men, students, professionals, C-level people, parents, singles, entrepreneurs, persons with disabilities, persons of color; we have different religious views, sexual orientations, generational experiences, and we come from various cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds. We can be many of these at the same time and even more that were not listed here. We unite in diversity – and in the fact that we are interested in making video games.

So it is possible, even quite likely, that when a small group of people representing many collects what we are and what we want to be, something might be missing. The very nature of diversity is to realise that your worldview is not shared by everyone. Giving ideas a bit more time, discussing them with many, and publicly asking an opinion can help to make the outcome better.

Listening and communications is <3 of what we do

Because of the diverse nature of our members, our experiences vary a lot. When some people might feel that there is nothing negative in a given situation, someone else might find the situation overwhelming. Nobody is wrong. The experience is different.

What would be wrong in a given situation would be to say “there wasn’t anything negative in that situation”. We can’t deny other people’s experiences. But neither can we deny other’s opinions. 

We are strong supporters of open discussion in our forums, as we believe that communication is the only way to understand others. We want you to share knowledge, listen, inspire, encourage, and to help others.

Following that, we are strong supporters of the possibility to disagree. If you feel that the opinion someone has presented is not quite right, you have all the right to say it aloud on our channel. 

But we hope for civilised discussions in our channels and events. There are plenty of ways to disagree, and we urge you to find a constructive way. It is very likely that the angry or uncompromising words will echo back. In our word, none of us is more important than the other. There is no need to find consensus, but there is a strong need to accept that others have different opinions.

We are the organisation our members want this to be

Our members make us what we are. In our annual meeting, our members define the focus areas for the next year. But everything we do is based on the ideas from our active members who are willing to work for the things they see important. So if you feel WIGFI is not doing the right thing: come to our annual meeting, raise your voice, and join our activist making this little corner of the world a little bit better place.

Questions and Answers about Finnish Labour Laws for Game Developers in Finland

This blog post is done in collaboration with Game Makers of Finland.

Earlier this autumn, We in Games Finland, Game Makers of Finland, and IGDA Helsinki collaborated in organising an online talk on the labour laws in Finland and the rights of employees. The event was specifically targeted to games industry employees.

This blog post includes questions sent anonymously for the event and after that. These questions cover some typical cases discussed in the games industry, so we believe that the answers will benefit all.

Answers are written by Maria Jauhiainen, lawyer and social impact specialist from Insinööriliitto. Please note that as the cases may vary, it is advisable to contact asiakaspalvelu@ilry.fi for further advice in the event of a dispute. 

As IPR rights are an important part of the games industry, there will be a separate post about IPR rights coming up!


Q: Can I download the slides?

A: Yes, totally. And I hope you got them already 🙂 (Editor’s note: slides of the Labor Law event can be found from here.)


Q: Can an employer intervene in an employee’s leisure activities, for example, if a person wants to stream their play? Or make their own game with own computer and or programs?

A: In principle not (the employer cannot intervene, that is), but there can be some limitations. A person cannot engage in anything that would compete with the employer’s activities or how the company makes money or harm the company in any way. Anything else is in principle – like said – allowed, but for that, you cannot use the company’s devices, ideas you sort of get from the company, your working time, or the company’s programs for this unless you get permission from the company.


Q: What are the employee’s rights to his/her own idea or artistic work (like graphic art)? What is a fair agreement for all parties on the use and rights of this work?

A: This is quite a complex question, but in principle, the work that you do in order to fulfill your working duties, the result of your work – all the results of your work – will belong to your employer. The rights that will remain with the employee are the so-called fatherhood right (to have your name mentioned in connection with the work) and the right that the work is not changed without your permission. The right to use the work for commercial purposes and to disseminate it belong to the employer. If the work has been done without an actual connection to one’s working duties and if you have not gotten “inspiration” for it from fulfilling your working duties, then the chances of it belonging wholly to you, are greater. There will be a separate post about IPR rights coming up!


Q: Non-competition agreements: Are they even legal in Finland for non-executive positions?

A: Unfortunately, yes. They usually rule out only shop-floor level/blue collar workers, and if you do something a little bit “brainy” work where you are involved in the company’s core work and that you get to hear the company’s trade and business secrets, it’s very likely to be legal in your case.


Q: If you are on unpaid leave (lomautettu) for over 6 months, can you disregard your 6-month non-competition agreement and start at another company immediately?

A: After the 200 days of furlough (laid-off) and if you are let go by the company or if you resign yourself, that is true: the non-competition agreement doesn’t apply to you anymore.


Q: If I have a fixed-term contract first (6months) after which I get an open-ended contract immediately, do I still need to go through the probation period?

A: No. Once is enough for one employment and for the same tasks.


Q: Quite many game companies in Finland are co-founded by a bunch of friends, how does union serve entrepreneurs – and does it at all? Or what is your suggestion for the entrepreneurs where they should get the support if/when needed?

A: Yes, we do serve entrepreneurs! Just send your questions to our Customer Service asiakaspalvelu@ilry.fi, and we will try and find you all the answers you need.


Q: What if, due to lack of resources, I am asked to take up other responsibilities in addition? Do I really need to have an addendum to my contract? What if initially asked temporary, but they become a more permanent part of my working day? Can you be let go off if refusing to take up responsibilities initially not mentioned in your contract?

A: My advice would be to make a temporary agreement about the new duties and yes, write them all down. And temporary so that it will start and end, especially if the employer just tells you “to fill in for a little while” without extra payment. And make it clear to the employer that if the extra tasks become a permanent part of your working duty, they also have to pay you more. In that case, you can also call our Customer Service (see contact info below) and ask them to connect you to our salary advisors as to how much more you would deserve extra money for the new tasks. But if you start doing the new tasks without anything written about above and you have been doing the work for a long while and then refuse to do them anymore, then yes, you can end up in trouble with the employer. Since refusing to do your work can be seen as a big neglect on employee’s part in the eyes of the law.


Q: I don’t live near Helsinki. If I have to move to Helsinki area because of my work, do I have a right to a better salary because of the increased cost of living, or am I meant to just suck it up?

A: Unfortunately, there is no direct right, but it can be used as a powerful negotiation tool, because where you live or have to live will have a big effect on your living costs. The best way is to call our Customer Service first and ask them to connect you to our salary advisors so you can come up with a precise sum of what to ask for when negotiating about the move with the employer.


Q: How well all of these Finnish laws transfer to other EU/non-EU countries?

A: Sadly, mainly only to the other Nordic Countries, not elsewhere. The employment laws are at their best in the North of Europe.


Q: When you say that the collective agreements usually give better benefits for employees, could you make sure you also mention that most game studios give much better benefits than any collective agreement to their employees?

A: I will remember to do that 🙂


Q: There are many creative artists working in the games industry. Part of an employment contract should mention Intellectual property. However, many people are uncertain of their rights in this area. This is especially relevant as the EU Digital Single Market Copyright Directive comes to force. Can you confirm that it is actually the employee who is first owner of copyright in an employment relationship and there is no regulation in the copyright act that compels an employee to give up complete ownership of their copyrights (exceptions to software).

A: Unfortunately, I cannot.

There will be a separate post about IPR rights coming shortly.


Q: In Finland it is common for firms to exploit loopholes in the law and hire professionals under “työharjoittelu” agreements (work-based training). This is where they can exploit professionals who are job seekers trying to get a ‘foot in the door.’ Can you confirm that it is illegal to commercially exploit creative work made by an “intern” who is actually receiving benefits from Kela rather than wages or other remuneration.

A: This is a little bit tricky, since the companies can get people who fulfill the requirements for työharjoittelu or työkokeilu and it’s legal unless otherwise proven. We are aware of some exploitation happening there, but since it’s Kela and the employer involved in this equation, the real exploitation cases seldom reach our ears. My best advice is to contact Kela if it’s obvious that the employer is just making improper use of the system without any real intention of hiring these people afterwards. When you let Kela know, it is more likely that the company will not get the subsidized trainees anymore.

But combining this question and the previous question, there is one major difference related to internship:

The intellectual property rights apply when the work has been accomplished in a working relationship, meaning when the employer actually pays the employee money. In an internship, the money is coming from Kela in this case, so all the (copy)rights will remain with the maker.


Q: I work in a game industry company, and my work contract is a full-time and fixed term. The employer made my full-time work to part-time in the middle of my fixed-term contract, based on financial and production-related grounds. At the same time, the employer has hired other employees, full-time and part-time, also for the same and similar tasks that I do.

The employer has emphasized that the change is not a lay-off but a permanent part-time job. No other employees will be changed to part-time or laid off. The employer has also emphasized that I have not been offered or will be offered any other job and no job other than this part-time job is available.

Thus, my working time has been reduced from full-time to part-time, which has a significant impact on my livelihood, but the employer has hired other employees at the same time. Since the contract is fixed-term, I have been under the impression that the employer must provide work until the end of the contract, and offer the other possible vacancies for fixed-term employers before the others.

Has the employer violated the Employment Contracts Act or the information sector’s collective agreement, and if so, what are the consequences? How are such violations generally monitored? For example, by Game Makers? What rights do I have as an employee?

A: The essential terms of the employment relationship may only be changed while the ground for dismissal is in force and therefore instead of and as an alternative to dismissal. Substantial change means, in particular, changes in working hours and pay, both of which are realized for you here. A fixed-term employment contract may not be terminated at all, unless otherwise agreed in the employment contract; of course, a mere mention of the period of notice which the employer must also comply with in the case of a change before the change enters into force is sufficient. And by law, there is no ground for dismissal if a new person has been hired or is hired after the dismissal procedure for work that the person could do. In addition, the employer must, in accordance with the law, offer a person working part-time, if he or she so wishes, more jobs if they occur. In other words, it would seem that there are matters that need to be settled with your employer.

On 1.4.2020, some changes in the law came into force on a temporary basis. According to these changes, the employment relationship can now also be terminated during the probationary period based on financial and production-related grounds if those actually exist. Normally this cannot be done. The employer cannot rely on this directly in your case either, because there have been and then apparently still is jobs.

In these kinds of matter, please contact our customer service (customerservice@ilry.fi) or directly to me (maria.jauhiainen@ilry.fi), and we will find out more and contact the employer if necessary.


Q: What are the employee’s rights to his / her own idea / artistic work (eg graphic artists)? What is a fair agreement for all parties on the use and rights of these works?

A: In these cases, the contract options are quite limited, although of course there are some contract options. In the case of a computer program and / or a database, there are no contractual possibilities, and in other cases, the commercial rights to the work (ie the right to make copies of the product and to place them on the market and for sale) always belong to the employer, but in principle – again for non-computer programs – right to modify and right to forward can be separately agreed. Moral rights, the parenthood right and the right of respect, always remain with the employee.

Take a closer look to our upcoming blog post about the IPRs, and contact us for a possible agreement!


These questions were answered by Maria Jauhiainen, lawyer and social impact specialist from Insinööriliitto. For further inquiries, contact asiakaspalvelu@ilry.fi or have a look for Game Makers of Finland’s website.

Labour laws in Finland for the Game Makers

On 15th September 2020, We in Games Finland, Game Makers of Finland, and IGDA Helsinki collaborated in organising an online talk on the labour laws in Finland and the rights of employees.

The speaker at the event was the lawyer and social impact specialist Maria Jauhiainen from Insinööriliitto (in the picture above).

The following topics were covered and discussed:

  • what could be and should be in your employment contract,
  • what is a trial period,
  • what should you agree on or not agree on a non-competition agreement,
  • how and on what grounds you can be temporarily laid-off,
  • on what grounds you can and cannot be legally laid-off,
  • how working hours are regulated and how do you gain annual holidays.

Maria Jauhiainen was kind enough to share her presentation. You may find the presentation here:

The event was recorded and can be found on IGDA Finland’s Twitch:

https://www.twitch.tv/videos/741769577

Questions related to the topic were collected before and after the event. Have a look for the important questions and their answers here: “Questions and Answers about Finnish Labour Laws for Game Developers in Finland”.

The Number of Women in the Finnish Game Industry

The following statistics about the Finnish game industry are from Neogames Finland’s biennial survey. Neogames has been monitoring the progress of the Finnish Game Industry since 2003. Every second year, the statistics are published on Finnish Game Industry reports.

There have been women working in the Finnish game industry from early years on, but the rate of women employees has not been statistically recorded until 2010 onward. The number of women is the only gender statistic collected; this survey does not cover non-binary people, or offer the possibility to self-describe gender.

In 2010, women were 16 % of the game industry workforce, the total number of employees in the Finnish game industry being 1100.

The number of women was not collected in 2012. The total amount of the Finnish game industry employees was 1800 in that year.

In 2014, 20 % of the game industry workforce was women, the total number of employees being 2500.

In 2016, the rate of women dropped to 18 %, whereas the employee total slightly raised to 2750. The most evident reason for this decrease was that one of the major companies in the industry had significant co-operation negotiations, causing redundancy of about 200 employees. There is more room for the speculation why the rate of women employees peaked: maybe the co-operation negotiations hit mostly to women, or fewer women were hired elsewhere due to a free, male-dominated workforce.

The latest survey is from 2018 when the percentage of women was 20 %, and the total number of employees was 3200.

These statistics show clearly that the number of employees in the Finnish game industry has been steadily growing, but the number of women in the Finnish game industry has stayed around 20 % for at least six years now. More women are getting in the game development, but not so many that it would raise the percentage.

The number of women in the Finnish game industry compared to others

The studies show that internationally, the rate of women in the game industry is 21-23 % per country. Just by looking at this, one could conclude that the Finnish percentage correlates quite nicely with global trends. However, according to the Statistics Finland (Tilastokeskus), 70,6 % of women and 72,7 % of men in Finland were in working life in 2018, and they note that the employment rate of women in Finland is relatively high internationally. In fact, the country that is most equally employing both genders, is employing fewer women in games than the international average is.

The casual reasoning for this is the low amount of women in STEM studies. But even compared to the number of women in the Finnish ICT industry, the amount of women in games is low. According to the Federation of Finnish Technology Industries (Teknologiateollisuus) statistics from the year 2017, the percentage of women in the ICT industry was 27,5 %.

Inside our industry, we can compare the number of women and the number of non-Finnish workers, as the latter has been collected for a few years now. The amount of non-Finnish employees has been growing from 18 % to 27 % during the years 2016 to 2018. We have succeeded in attracting the workforce outside Finland, but failed to attract women in the games industry.

Women in Games Finland’s goal is to get higher than 20 %

Women in Games Finland ry was established in 2019. Our objective is to make the Finnish games industry more diverse and equal, and make working and entrepreneurship in the industry possible to everyone regardless of their gender, sexuality, ethnicity, age, financial situation, or body and functionality.

We aim to get the percentage of women in the Finnish game industry higher than 20 %, and to get other minorities in games to be heard and seen.

We organise networking events and network opportunities online, workshops, and offer mentorship programs. Our activities also include other forms of sharing information, connections, and training to our members. Women in Games Finland shares resources and information about diversity within games and technology through its channels, and actively participates in the discussion and projects supporting these topics.

Sources:

Neogames Finland: Finnish Game Industry 2018 Report.
Neogames Finland: Finnish Game Industry 2016 Report.
Neogames Finland: Finnish Game Industry 2014 Report.
Neogames Finland: Finnish Game Industry 2013.
Neogames Finland: Finnish Game Industry 2010-2011.
Statista: Distribution of game developers worldwide from 2014 to 2017, by gender.
Tilastokeskus: Työelämä.
Teknologiateollisuus: Teknologiateollisuuden henkilöstön sukupuolijakaumat, ikäjakaumat ja keski-iät. 2017.