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.
How well are game companies scoring on making more diverse characters?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
We wish to express our gratitude for everyone participating in our interviews.
As gamemakers, our mission has always been to create unforgettable experiences that entertain, bring joy and connect people with each other. We believe that striving towards a diverse, inclusive and equal representation amongst our industry, teams and games, brings us closer to that goal and enables us to make Better Games, Together.
We want our companies to be workplaces where everyone can feel heard, valued, supported, and celebrated, as they are. That’s why Metacore, Next Games, Supercell, and the non-profit We In Games, have joined forces to build deeper connections between our industry and the LGBTQIA+ community. We have partnered with Helsinki Pride collectively because we believe that working together, we can do more, learn more and support this community more effectively.
We are fully aware that there’s still a lot of work to do, but after listening to our LGBTQIA+ community, we felt this was a step in the right direction.
What does Better Games Together actually mean? For us, it means the following:
1. Our Companies
We are striving towards inclusion and belonging within our own companies. For us that work has begun with, for example, educating ourselves on our blind spots and creating a shared understanding through training on topics such as allyship, inclusive language and non-binary genders, as well as safe working environments for LGBTQIA+ people.
2. Our Industry
We want to create a more inclusive industry. For that, we need to work together, share best practices and learn from the community, as well as each other. We believe that by working together and bringing more diverse voices into the industry and onto our teams, we can create a more inclusive working culture and stronger game experiences for our players.
We hope this is just the beginning of a long-term collaboration and we warmly welcome other games companies and organizations to join us.
Helsinki Pride Month is celebrated in June 2022, and it will culminate in the Pride Parade on July 2nd.
“Strong, independent men are the perfect fantasy boys — the untouchable is always the most desirable.” This exact quote has never been given. We don’t hear this kind of description of men.
Originally, the quote was by character designer Toby Gard in an interview in 1997 about his work, video game character Lara Croft. The creator referring to Lara this way is a good example of a Male Gaze point of view. The world has changed from the interview’s era, but Lara is still, to this day, an iconic example of a female video game protagonist. However, female characters in video games can be more than just a fantasy for men, as half the players are women.
Half the players are women. This was my mantra when I wrote my thesis about the value of female character diversity in video games. The player demographics get forgotten by the public and even by the game studios.
Girls have simply sat down with their households’ computers and consoles and played the same games as boys from the beginning of video game history. However, the archetype of a video game player is still a young adult male. Marketing has been targeted to boys, and game studios are built on cultures most suitable for men. Studies draw out the lack of diversity, and therefore research projects like Gender in Play by the We in Games Finland organisation are essential. Highlighting the core problems related to gender helps game studios to better understand their audience, so it’s a win-win.
The disparity between character diversity and the audience eventually comes from the male emphasis on game industry employees, and most of all, creative leadership. Solving the puzzle of a modern female character is a task best given to designers who know femininity personally: female designers.
Instead of a burden to game studios, I see diversity as an exciting opportunity for the industry. It does need some extra effort, like finding ways to lure rock hard female talents to work in the studios. Diversity needs to be added to game companies’ brand values and implemented in everyday work, starting from hiring diverse people to create cool diverse games.
In my thesis, one of the peculiar findings is the sexism in character references: in commonly used character design handbooks, character sheets and online tutorials. Introductions to “How to create a conventional pretty face” lead to conventional female characters. Game artists use these references that repeat the narrow image of a female over and over again. Creating a new, out-of-the-box female character needs pioneering work and discarding these outdated references.
Realistically, change is always slow. As a result of my thesis, and to help situations where design teams consist of mostly men, I created a design tool called the flip test. It works the same way as the review of Toby Gard’s comment from the 90s. In a nutshell, to see the flaws in the female character design progress, the whole concept of the character is flipped from female to male. The character is then reviewed based on how it appears as a male and the team can make adjustments accordingly. Women are like men; they are humans, and when women are treated as humans, the resulting video game character design feels relatable, regardless of the gender of the player.
I’m not suggesting characters like Lara Croft are better put to rest forever. The market has room for diversity without causing the demise of any characters. When we see female heroes in games with other qualities than just being a woman, things like being funny, complex, loveable (not equivalent to sexy), even vulnerable, and having a reasonable appearance at the same time as being feminine, in the long run, more female talents will be attracted to work in games, which then helps create a positive feedback loop to increase diversity.
I believe diversity in lead characters would help all people to enjoy games more, including men. The issues with male characters’ narrow representation persist too, and that’s not forgetting how non-Caucasian characters are almost non-existent as video game protagonists.
Most of all, creating new female leads requires risk-taking from game publishers. There is a profitable reward at the end though: standing firmly out from the crowd and making a ground-breaking, everlasting female hero. I can’t wait to see and play that game.
Jenni Varila, Creative
My master’s thesis will appear in the Aalto University database once evaluated.
Titled: Flipped Male Gaze. The value of diverse female character design in video 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”.
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.
Our president Taina Myöhänen received The Power Player of the Year award at the Finnish Game Awards 2022. This award is given for a significant contribution to the industry; Myöhänen got that from the work done for diversity and inclusion in the games industry.
“This award is not only for me, but for all of us working for DEI in the games industry. Our work matters. It is also a strong statement that DEI issues are seen important in the Finnish game industry”, summarises Myöhänen the award.
The award ceremony was held on 25th May 2022 at ravintola Töölö, in Helsinki. The gala celebrations stream recording can be viewed at https://youtu.be/imzk4dVRuE0.
I have played video games for most of my life. It’s a way to relax, to unwind, and forget about the rest of the world for a while. As a child, besides having fun, thanks to video games my coordination skills and language skills improved, and I spent time with family and friends while playing multiplayer games. Even nowadays my family and I sometimes pull up our Wii console and have a few rounds of bowling.
In upper secondary, I realized I am interested romantically in women, but it took until I was 20 to find words for my gender identity. Now that I have the words, though, it explains certain things and feelings even from childhood. I loved when games had girls and women as characters, but often I felt more comfortable playing as boys or men. When playable characters had the same skills, I would rather play with male characters. Of course, since most often the games I played as a child were adapted from series, the aspect of favourite characters came into play as well.
The first game I played that had a gender-nonconforming character you play as was Undertale. The happy feeling it gave me is hard to describe. The fans on the Internet using they/them pronouns for the character was euphoric.
Whenever it’s possible to choose the character, I like to go with alternative styles, preferably androgynous characters, if the character is spoken to. In Guitar Hero for example, I always went with the cute girl with colorful hair, since the character is more of an avatar while you play, someone you watch, and not someone you necessarily are in the game. Unlike in Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, a game I have been playing for a few years now, my first MMORPG, and such a good one, even with the scary multiplayer aspect.
The race I played with originally in FFXIV was Lalafell. They are tiny, and quite androgynous. The only way to know for sure if the character model is male or female, is to ask the player, or if the character is wearing a gender locked outfit. And quite often, no one really cared to ask, because what matters is how you play: being kind to others, doing your best, and having fun. The only time I was asked was when I was hanging out with another Lalafell player, and he asked. But thanks to the safe environment the community had, and still has, I felt safe to tell that my character model is male, but the player is nonbinary. And then I joined the Free Company the Lalafell was in. Nowadays I play as a Viera male, so essentially a bunny boy. While Lalafell was fun, I knew I would love Viera a lot as well. Some clothes look so much better, I can finally wear thigh boots comfortably!
At one point I made a Viera female to play the story from the beginning, but quickly realized I had to change the character to male. In the game when talking to NPCs, your character is referred to with pronouns, and feminine pronouns even in game made me feel dysphoric. On the other hand, it’s good to know it made me react, so I know to avoid playing characters who use she/her for the time being when I have a choice.
Dressing up the characters is one of my favourite things in games. In The Sims 4 I have at least three outfits per character for their daily wear, and since the latest update I have 20 glamour plates in FFXIV! Many options to play with clothing, especially thanks to some gender locked outfits being available to everyone now. It’s fun playing with traditionally feminine or masculine clothes, since in real life I like to do the same. It doesn’t make me any less trans if I choose to wear a ruffled dress. While in daily life I most often try to wear either masculine or androgynous clothes so I will have a smaller risk of getting misgendered, in games I can be free to express myself.
We in Games Finland, together with IGDA Finland, carried out a questionnaire in 2021 about the experiences in the game industry in Finland. The results give an overview of a mostly diverse and supporting atmosphere, but also bring to light problems when looking at the answers from marginalized groups and non-males.
This data was collected through the We In Games internal newsletter, IGDA Finland’s newsletter, and several posts on closed social media groups for game industry professionals in Finland, including the We In Games Finland Facebook group. The survey was a Google Form that was open from January 21st to February 7th 2021. There was no way to verify whether or not the respondents of the survey were actually working/studying in Finland, but we reminded them several times during the survey itself that this was meant for people working in the Finnish game industry. We received a total of 178 answers.
Marginalised groups here mean all the respondents who responded that they belong to a marginalised group based on their sexual or gender identity, religion, being a person of colour, disability, chronic illness, immigration status or by some other factor (84 respondents). Non-males are all the respondents who did not select “male” as their gender (104 respondents). 74 of the respondents identified as male.
Diversity, inclusion and equal treatment
On a scale of 1–7, 89% felt that their game studio or school is accepting of people from diverse and marginalised backgrounds (scores 5, 6 and 7). For male-identifying respondents, 95% felt this way, and 4% gave a score 4. Only one response was below the score of 4. When looking at non-male respondents, 86% gave a score above 4. However, scores 1–3 represent 10% of the respondents. Within respondents who represent marginalized groups, the figures were similar with 85% giving a score above 4 and 11% giving a score below 4. From those who gave further details about a score of 6 or 7, schools were mentioned as well as the bigger gaming studios, and Rovio got the most mentions.
Within the data, two different but simultaneous discourses or discussions about diversity are present. The practical discourse is linked to everyday work and presents as very positive towards diversity, since within this discourse the industry actually is diverse and all kinds of people are “already working here”. The political discourse instead may be linked to the larger political discussion about who “is allowed to be here”. Here diversity is seen more as polarizing and setting people in one (political) identity category at a time. This finding of two discourses, which are sometimes in conflict, could appear interesting for example in following DEI projects.
82% of the respondents said that if someone at their workplace or school came out as transgender, non-binary or similar, they would be supported and welcomed, and people would use their new name and pronouns (scores 5, 6 and 7). For male-identifying respondents, 81% felt this way, and 17% gave a score 4. Only two responses didn’t believe this would happen (scores below 4). From non-males 83% believed that their school or workplace would be welcoming, but 8% didn’t agree. In respondents who belong to a marginalized group, 80% agreed, 14% were indecisive and 6% didn’t agree. Some comments were left about not having been in such a situation yet and that some people might be unsure on how to react, so more information and educational materials would be helpful. Positive experiences described by multiple respondents were recorded and some people expressed their support in the open answers. However there was some uncertainty present, and especially non-binary gender identities were viewed as something new and as a topic people still need to learn more about.
76% of the respondents agreed with the statement “At my studio, workplace, or school, men and non-men are treated equally”. 11% were undecided and 13% didn’t agree. 87% of male respondents believed that everyone was treated equally and only 4% didn’t agree. Within non-male respondents, 68% said that men and non-men were treated equally, and 19% didn’t agree with the statement. Respondents from marginalized groups answered similarly, with 64% agreeing and 19% disagreeing. The difference in compensation was mentioned in the comments as one of the reasons why the respondents didn’t believe that men and non-men were treated equally.
When asked about how much racism and xenophobia did the respondent think exists in the Finnish game industry, 3% of the more senior respondents thought that there is none (score 1), 47% that there is very little or little (scores 2–3), 33% that there’s some (scores 4–5) and 17% that there’s a lot (scores 6–7). Of the more junior respondents, 10% thought that there is none, 32% that there’s very little or little, 48% that there’s some and 10% that there’s a lot. The comments note that there are more workers from abroad in the game industry than in other industries and that the companies are more welcoming, but that getting the first job is hard as a foreigner and people who don’t speak Finnish are sometimes discriminated against in the society as well as the game industry.
Further research on diversity and inclusion in the Finnish game industry based on the questionnaire
This article is the first one on the series that is based on the questionnaire We in Games Finland accomplished in 2021 together with IGDA Finland. In following articles, we will analyse sexual harrasment in our industry, the issue of unpaid internship, and list highlights and issues we could do better in this industry.
Our aim is to conclude this survey biannually, and compare the result to get the clear image where our industry is going with diversity. The next survey is planned for 2023.
Written by: Essi Jukkala, Susi Nousiainen, Taina Myöhänen and Licia Prehn
As our large-scale analysis showed, violence is a common feature found in Finnish action games, just like in most other contemporary video games of the same genre, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that all six examined games depict or incorporate some form of violence, be it explicitly depicted in video or audio materials or implied in the game’s story.
Considering that violence can be recognized as one of the key game mechanics of action games, violent acts that were found in our examined games were mostly dealing and taking damage, fighting enemies and destroying objects. Four games in our analysis (Control, Ignis Universia, Raanaa and Returnal) included women protagonists and the violent actions found in these games were examples of combats between women heroes and their enemies with the players’ main objectives to fight supernatural forces, bring order and/or save the world. The game Small Town Murders, however, which is neither an action nor a shooter, but a puzzle game, was not violent by definition but nevertheless stood out as a special example in our findings due to the overarching theme of murder and solving mysterious death cases as the main parts of the game’s story. The sixth game we analysed, Your Royal Gayness, did not contain any explicit forms of violence; violence was hinted through dialogue options such as controlling an army or deciding on the fate of grandmas attacked by wolves, among others.
It is worth noting that some other games included in our large-scale analysis of Finnish games released from 2018 to 2020 may also include some forms of gender-based violence that we may have missed due to not playing through all the games, and are thus excluded from this analysis. In the same vein, because different forms of violence are so prevalent in games, and some forms of gender-based violence are very difficult to detect, this is a challenging theme to examine in digital games.
Violence against women is “a violation of human rights and a form of discrimination against women and shall mean all acts of gender-based violence that result in, or are likely to result in physical harm, sexual harm, sychological, or economic harm or suffering to women“ (European Commission, n.d.). We inspected aspects of gender-based violence and violence against women characters from different perspectives, namely by looking at both images and visual portrayals as well as dialogues and narrative. The questions we asked were: which forms of violence are directed towards women characters, are women characters only receivers of violent actions or also providers, are there pornographic images or sexualized views on violence in video or audio materials (such as the existence of sexualized screams and moanings, overemphasized feminine body features and voyeuristic camera angles focused on specific parts of women’s bodies).
Positively, gender-based violence against women was not used as a central mechanic in any of the analyzed games (meaning that no game favored violent actions directed at women characters specifically because of their gender). However, as mentioned in the previous segments of the article, specific examples of aspects or features related to gender-based violence against women characters were found in some of the examined games, as isolated examples in some and more systematically implemented in others.
Based on our analysis, there are three key areas in which features related to gender-based violence against women characters were found and can be discussed:
1. sexualization and objectification of women characters;
2. women characters as participants and targets of violent actions; and
3. misogynistic speech about women antagonists.
Considering that the area of sexualization and objectification of women characters has already been mentioned as an important aspect in the previous article on women character representation, it won’t be discussed again. Instead, we will proceed to discuss the remaining two areas.
Women characters as participants and targets of violent actions
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 to understand the setting in which the game was created. If a woman character is a protagonist in an action game or a shooter, she is very likely to be a target of violent actions made by her antagonists. Through the history of video games, popular franchises with lead woman characters have indulged in violent punishments for them, as can be seen throughout the Tomb Raider (Core Design & Crystal Dynamics 1996-present), Metroid (Nintendo 1986-2017) and Resident Evil (Capcom 1996-present) series, as well as in the more recent The Last of Us 2 (Naughty Dog 2020). This can be understood as an aspect of the male gaze, which often seeks to punish women shown on the screen. Three games from our analysis – Control, Ignis Universia and Returnal – are representatives of the same game genres, however, their women protagonists are not only the targets (i.e. receivers) of violence but they are actively participating in these actions. They are equally trying to counter the enemies and find ways to defeat them in order to progress in their objectives.
When it came to violence, the gender of the characters did not seem to have been put out in the foreground. In other words, if we would exchange the woman protagonist with an imaginary man one, we wouldn’t be able to find any aspects which would explicitly state that the violent actions which were targeted towards women protagonists would be gender based. When it comes to the audio effects, however, the example of Selene Vassos in the game Returnal stood out. When the player comes too close to the tentacle-monster hanging from the ceiling in the first biome, Selene will express a gruesome moaning-like scream while being sucked into it and pulled up from the ground. It is left to wonder whether a man character would have the same moaning reaction in this situation.
The famous “damsel-in-distress” trope (i.e. a woman who is captured and who is waiting to be rescued, most often by a man) is another example of common misrepresentations of women characters which the examined Finnish games seem to have successfully overcome. In the story of Raanaa, the Goddesses were captured by evil spirits; they were, however, not saved by a man, but by a young girl. Bonnie Pirello of Small Town Murders, in an attempt to run away from her mobster husband, firstly tried to defend herself in an armed conflict, and later on, after being put under police’s protection, teamed up with another woman, the game’s protagonist Nora, in a dangerous act of disguise and tricking her attacker.
Seeing the attack on Bonnie and reading about the reasons behind her escape, there were hints which could lead towards the conclusion that Bonnie was a victim of gender-based violence perpetrated by her husband. However, we don’t know much about Bonnie’s history nor did the examined levels provide much information about the nature of her relationship with her husband. What can be stated, though, about Bonnie’s character is that the game did not represent her as a victim. On the contrary, she was introduced as someone who is not afraid and who could take care of herself, which was clearly defying the aforementioned damsel-in-distress trope.
Misogynistic speech about women antagonists
As already stated in a previous part of this article series, when analyzing the representation of women characters in games it is not only important whether women characters speak and are spoken to, but it is also important how they are spoken of. The use of offensive language directed towards women characters, especially when it comes to women enemies and antagonists, is largely present in games, is used to emphasize the antagonism between the characters and often manifests in misogynistic ways men characters speak about or act towards them (relevant examples and perspectives about this can also be found in Sarah Stang’s speech about women monstrosities in games).
In our examined games, there were two examples of misogynistic speech about women antagonists, namely in Small Town Murders and Ignis Universia. It is important to note that these examples were not only directed towards the main antagonist of the game (making them a crucial story feature, such as in Ignis Universia where the man character spoke about the “ugly head of the dread wizardess Galgatax” who brought peril to the world), but also towards less central characters which for some players might go unnoticed. This is the case of Elizabeth Higgins (Small Town Murders) who was, after her death, referred to by her son Jimmy as “that wretched old hag”, which is a misogynistic term often used in contemporary language as a means to offend or degrade women, referring to “an ugly, slatternly, or evil-looking old woman” (Merriam-Webster dictionary, n.d.).
Picture 23. Misogynistic speech in Small Town Murders.
Although the examples of misogynistic and other degrading language towards women characters found in our analysis were rare and were used as an attempt to emphasize the antagonism between the characters, such representation is nevertheless dangerous and could contribute to the harmful usage of language which showcases women as characters that deserve disciplining and punishment.
Conclusion to the Blog Series on Representation of Women Characters and Character Diversity in Finnish Games
The aim of this analysis was to examine and to highlight good practice examples which contribute to the development of complex, multifaceted and brilliant female characters who have full agency, who are not represented as one-sided stereotypes or only seen as merely a representative of their gender. The six examined Finnish games offer a great deal of positive examples regarding the representation of women characters as well as character diversity. Possibly the biggest variety of good practice examples could be found in the ways the games addressed the women characters’ backgrounds and participation; this was both the case among the big titles as well as less known games. The women in these games are accomplished characters whose actions are determined based on their professions or skills: they are in positions of power and their actions influence the course of the story.
However, there are areas in which improvements can be made. Firstly, women characters in Finnish games are often objectified and sexualized in terms of visual, aural or narrative-based elements. Secondly, the women antagonists are gendered through the use of misogynistic language and offensive attributes aimed towards them. With the dissemination of the results, and furthermore with the upcoming activities in the project, we aim to bring these examples to the surface and engage in a meaningful discussion with the games studios about possible obstacles and challenges they face in developing diverse characters in their games and how these can be overcome.
Some of these aspects were already mentioned in our articles; we found examples of diverse characters not only in regards to gender but also in sexuality, culture, roles and mental health. These cases have been discussed and highlighted as examples of good practices in character creation.
It is easy to miss the good news around these days when the information flow is massive, but one of the recent Bloomberg’s posts by Jason Schreier got my interest immediately with the title “Video Games Are Slowly Opening Up to More Black Characters”. Just reading the topic alone, I mumbled in my mind, “frickin’ finally!”
Diversity comes in many shapes, colors and forms, and it has been very insightful to be part of game making, where we, the developers, create these interesting characters from scratch and have the power to affect how they turn out.
A couple of years ago, I wanted to understand more about what the market thinks about character design, what the players need, and how we could improve our character diversity here at Nitro Games, so I made a study case.
Honestly, the results shocked me in many ways.
It became crystal clear to me how much the industry caters to the stereotypes and how simple & doable requests our players have to make them feel happy and considered. I analyzed hundreds of comments and feedback, which condensed into “normalizing normal things in games”.
We could make a drinking game out of stereotypes in games characters; “take a shot every time you see…
… an evil doctor with eyeglasses
… bikini armor on female
… US navy guy being toxic and arrogant
…You know the drill, so what can we do about this?
My study revealed many significant actions that we developers can take to offer more diverse characters with fewer stereotypes for our players! Here’s just a few to chew on!
🎨 Consider androgyne characters; plenty of my study’s comments highlighted that you often need to pick the busty babe or alpha male. Simple example: often you are allowed to pick either girl’s hair or guys hair, or have a muscular body only for the guys and thin torso for girls if you have a customized character builder – Why limit this? I won’t be telling you not to wear pink pants because it’s a “girls’ color.”
🎨 Disabilities and enchantments were highly requested – not in a funny cartoony way but in a more relatable way: eyeglasses, a hearing device, braces, cane – and one of the most requested approaches was a character in a wheelchair! Regarding eyeglasses, there were multiple mentions of the harmful swan storytelling that women can be pretty and beautiful only by removing the glasses. It’s all about normalizing these instead of making only the evil geniuses or ugly ducklings wearing eyeglasses and, by doing so, reinforcing the stereotypes.
🎨 Shades and colors! At the time of the study, we thought we had nailed one example of a dark skin character, but in reality, we were far away from what we were trying to portray. The common ground for the feedback was that developers often go with the “coffee with milk” rather than ” dark coffee”, leaving out a vast population without character to relate to. The usual excuse is about the lightning and shaders of the game, which should be a positive challenge to be able to mimic realistic lightning and tones rather than a reason to do only fair-skinned characters.
🎨 Don’t be scared to do “coarse” characters; many respondents requested to see more options for crippled, harsh, ugly, old, and even mental illnesses in character design. And please, please please, in a more profound way, not an overly caricatured way.
Ever since the study, my eyes have been more open for expanding the traits of our characters and while we still have a lot to learn as a company, developers and artists; we were so happy to hear amazing feedback about some of our characters in a game that’s being developed. We organized a playtest session to mostly focus on the technical side of things such as movement and shooting, but the one thing that caught players eyes was our female character with afro hair. Our female testers mentioned this as a positive thing multiple times.
In addition we made one character without a leg, having a mechanical leg instead, with some funny take on it as our game concept was a bit goofy and dystopian, with this choice, we were also able to give the character an unique idle animation.
Concepting by Antti Pesonen for the game Lootland
For some inspiration, please take a look at Fallout 4’s scars and pimples in the character creation, Sucker Punch Productions Sly Cooper series with Bentley in the wheelchair or Supergiant Games Transistor for having character(s) like Bailey Gilande brought up as a great example of androgyne character.
When designing the next character, take a moment to challenge your team to think about what would make the character more interesting, unique, diverse, and approachable? What would it take to make it memorable and even cosplayable! 🙌💖