Gender in Play – large-scale content analysis about the character representation and diversity in Finnish games

Following the publishing of the literature review about character representation and diversity in games, the next step in the analysis phase of the Gender in Play – Representations of Gender in Games project consisted of a large-scale analysis of character representation in the Finnish game industry.

Setting the base: examined content and analysis guidelines

The base of the analysis were games made by Finnish developers, released from 2018 to 2020. This list of around 240 games in total has been provided by Neogames. Considering the large sample and the short timeframe available for the analysis, the first step needed to be taken was deciding on the selection (i.e. exclusion) criteria which would make the workload realistic, on the one hand, and bear fruitful results in line with our project aims, on the other. Thus, when taking into account the large number of games featuring exclusively animal or abstract characters, the decision was made to only examine games with human characters, or those humanlike enough, with the presumption that those will bring out valuable results considering aspects of gender representation and gender-based violence in games. “Humanlike enough” refers to when despite not being human, the characters expressed decidedly human behaviors and performed human actions, such as going to work and having relationships. One example of such characters can be found in the game STONE, with its protagonist being a “hungover koala detective [who] wakes to find his lover Alex has been kidnapped.” (STONE on Steam, May 8, 2021) Additional to the games with no human or humanlike characters, educational, virtual reality and iWall games as well as   games based on intellectual property were excluded from the analysis. Limiting the number of games to one per company per year, our final sample size was reduced to the total number of 117 games.

Picture 1: Stone (Source: Stone’s Steam page.)

With that still being quite a large sample, the following strategies were agreed upon: 1) the focus will be put solely on the controllable characters and 2) the games won’t be played. Instead, the information was gathered from sources such as the marketing materials provided by the developers/publishers and, when available, gameplay videos, limited to 15 minutes of gameplay. This information, although very limited, paints the picture of the Finnish industry “at a glance”, as well as shows the general insight and provides key information to any interested person before buying or downloading the game.

Once the list of 117 games was finalized and the examination materials agreed upon, the different aspects of the analysis were organized. As the name of the project says, our interest lies in understanding representations of gender in games. As we also understand that there is a number of different factors that can affect how gender is experienced in society, we opted for a more intersectional approach, which in the context of this research meant looking not only at gender representation, but also the sexual orientation, the skin color, age, religious symbols and disability connected to the characters. Those were followed by specific questions regarding the presence of violence and possibly violence against women. The choice of, at this point, focusing on skin color rather than ethnicity was due to the brief nature of this analysis, which focused more on the visual and the “apparent” features in games, and thus does not allow going deep enough into the games to understand the ethnicity of the characters.

The analysis was based on the visual, written or audio materials provided by the game companies with a special attention dedicated to finding as much publicly available information as possible about the examined characters. In terms of gender, for example, with this approach a character simply looking feminine, androginous or masculine was not enough for us to mark them as a woman, non-binary or man. Instead, an effort was put into looking mainly for character descriptions and pronouns used. This led to many characters being marked as “unspecified” as we could not assume the intent of the developers when the descriptions were not clear enough. With that in mind, after the analysis was completed, the results were shared with companies whose games were analysed with a chance to comment on the results and notify us in case of misinterpretations. Although the findings presented in this article are those resulting from the conducted analysis, the information gathered from the developers’ feedback will also be provided where relevant as separate insights.

Results

Gender

Most of the games did not specify the characters’ gender (68). 39 games had character selection or creation offering at least one man and woman option. The ratio between games that offer men and women characters is almost equal, with the number of 63:51 in favor of men characters. Non-binary characters are recognized, however, in a small amount of only 3 games. Our analysis showed no indications of transgender characters.

Chart of gender of character in Finnish games 2018 - 2020. Women 51, men 63, transgender zero, nonbinary 3, unknown / unspecified 68.
Picture 2: Gender of characters in the examined games.

Skin color

The skin color of examined controllable characters is presented based on the colors’ hex codes (Picture 3). The samples were collected from the area of the skin most representative for the character (i.e. avoiding shaded areas, bright spots etc.). However, it is important to note that the samples were not collected from the games themselves but from the available materials and YouTube videos which indisputably had an influence on the quality of the sample and the overall end results. Additionally, in some cases the in-game scenes and characters were distinctively stylized, which influenced the skin color sample and might lead to possible non-realistic depictions of those characters (Picture 4).

Picture 3: Skin color gradient of controllavle characters in Finnish games 2018-2020.
Picture 4: Stylized character in Company of Crime (left) and their skin color as a hex code (right). Source: YouTube (screenshot)

Religious symbols 

Religious symbols were rarely depicted and often difficult to recognize and define. A total of 14 games included some religious symbols, specifically from Christianiaty, paganism, shamanism, or African and Ancient Egyption elements (e.g. Gods). Of particular note was the game Raanaa – The Shaman Girl which has the player playing as the titular Sámi girl as she goes through levels inspired by Sámi gods and shamanism. This was also the only game where we found Sámi characters.

Picture 5. Raanaa – The Shaman Girl. Source: raanaa.no/en.

Sexual orientation

It was not easy to tell the sexual orientation of characters, as it was mostly unspecified and irrelevant to the gameplay and story, with only one game having a character described as homosexual (Your Royal Gayness). Because of that, we chose to also look for the characters’ intimate relationships. This approach was not flawless, however, as a character being in a homosexual or heterosexual relationship does not necessarily mean they are homosexuals or heterosexuals themselves, for example. Taking all that into account, we found 8 games with playable characters involved in heterosexual relationships and 2 games with characters either described as gay or in a homossexual relationship. Finally, an interesting view on the expression of sexual orientation was found in the virtual world game Hotel Hideaway in which the players communicate and interact with others freely and have a possibility to express their own sexuality.

Picture 6: Sexual orientation/relationships of character in the examined games.

Age

This was the category most difficult to determine and gather information on; it was found that specific age of the characters and their age group is something developers do not often bring up in discussions or clearly state in the promotional materials. Therefore most of the characters in our analysis were marked as unspecified (108 games in total). However, in such cases an estimation of age has been added, so that a general view and indication of the most represented age category could be brought up and discussed. It might not come as a surprise that most of these characters were estimated to resemble the age category of young adults or middle-aged persons. Personal interpretation, however, can be misleading as it was shown in the example of the character Audrie Smoothspy from The Spy Who Shrunk Me. Audrie, who based on our interpretation seemingly fit the adult category, is actually in her 50’s as it was confirmed by the developers.

Picture 7: The Spy Who Shrunk Me Steam banner. Source: Steam.

Cases where characters’ age or their age category was explicitly mentioned in the game itself or the promotional materials were only a few, concretely: child (1), teenager (1), young adult (1), adult (2). Table 1 gives an overview of all age categories and their respective age ranges.

Table 1. Age categories with respective age ranges (as defined by United Nations for Youth and Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

CategoryAge
Child0-12
Teenager13-19
Young adult20-24
Adult25-44
Middle-aged45-64
Elderly65+

Disability

The analysis showed only 2 cases of explicit disability, one game included a character with a physical disability (a wheelchair user) while the other incorporated a character with mental disability (depression). The existence of disability (among other features such as sexual orientation or age) was very difficult to determine without playing the games. It is, however, important to note that in some games we have indeed noticed potential representation of characters with disabilities, which we unfortunately could not tell for sure from the examined materials. One such example, Lotus, a monk character from Friends & Dragons,  was actually confirmed to be blind by the developers of the game.

Picture 8: Lotus, the blind monk character from Friends & Dragons. Source: Playsome Ltd.

Violence and violence against women

Violence is a feature often present in games today so most of the examined games (87) also incorporate or depict some form of violence. Violent actions or behaviors found in these games mostly reflected the core game mechanics of fighting enemies and trying not to get hurt. When it comes to violence against women, violent actions or indications of violence against women were found in 8 cases. In-game violence is directed at women characters in different forms and it is important to make a distinction about how the character’s gender motivates these actions. Games were marked as depicting violence against women when they involved imprisonment of women characters (that needed to be saved), used gender-based offensive language towards women (e.g. “that old hag” or “the dread wizardess Galatax was rearing her ugly head”), or when violent actions were directed towards women heroes and/or villains. As it was the case in the previous category, this feature was also very difficult to determine based on the small sample of materials and the limitation of not playing the games. This limitation emphasized the need for a closer examination of the games where the examples of gender-based violence against women were found. Therefore, in the next phase of the analysis we will examine the aspects of gender-based violence against women characters in more detail, by playing the games and analysing them from a player’s perspective.

Limitations

As already mentioned, our main limitation in analysing such a large sample of games in such a short period of time was finding the best and most representative source of information. Making a comprehensive overview was rather difficult considering we were not playing the games and were basing our information solely on published materials and walkthroughs. This means that the examined content was largely influenced and our analysis steered by the choice of the providers of gameplay videos (e.g. often the videos will start only after the character selection has been made, which made it difficult to determine which characters were available at start; the character selection often depends on the person playing and as most of the video creators were men, data gathering about women characters was scarce). Furthermore, getting to know the characters, their stories and identities was not possible with just 15 minutes of observed gameplay. For this to be possible, one would need to watch/engage in full gameplay, do a thorough research of published materials and/or even ask the developers directly.

Future Steps

Considering the limitations of the large-scale analysis, a need for a more focused approach in examining character identities and the narrative elements in the games has emerged. Therefore, the next segment of the analysis will be an examination of a smaller sample of games with a special focus on:  

  1. representation of women characters and character diversity in Finnish games
  2. gender-based violence against women in Finnish games

The selected examples are games from the large-scale analysis which appeared as interesting and/or relevant examples of features mentioned above; they will be played and analyzed from a player’s perspective. As within the scope of this analysis we  cannot play all 117 games and therefore will not be able to address all interesting cases and efforts devoted by the Finnish companies, we also find it important to bring this topic into a discussion with developers themselves. While the presence of some specific groups was found to be lacking in the games analysed, there is interest and initiatives (such as this project) aiming to improve that. Therefore, in the next stage of the project, we will conduct interviews with the developers, discuss their good practice examples and challenges in creating diverse characters in the gaming industry.

Our findings about underrepresented features, as well as good examples of women and diverse characters and possible cases of gender-based violence will be added to the information gathered from the interviews and will be a source to inform and assist developers in creating and designing their future characters.

Planned actions for 2021

In the annual meeting, the action plan for the year 2021 was approved. The organisation decided to focus on the following topics for this year. If you want to help with any of the topics, contact the responsible persons! All help is welcome, and you can always contact the board or email info@weingames.fi to become a volunteer<3

We raise awareness of diversity and inclusion in the game industry

The association continues actively promoting diversity and inclusion within the game industry. Members of WiGFi will give talks at game industry events about diversity, inclusion, the association and its aims.
Contact: info@weingames.fi, the board

We share and promote best practices of diversity and inclusion in the industry, e.g. arranging events with companies willing to share their DEI practices.
Contact: events@weingames.fi, Emmi Hattunen / Essi Jukkala

The association shares fact-based information on diversity and inclusion via its own public channels and other suitable channels.
Contact: Tarja Porkka-Kontturi

The Inclusive Leadership program is an accessible eight month leadership training that aims to catalyse positive change in the way we lead, engage and retain our industry’s diverse talent. The project will be funded by Finnish game companies. The current plan is to start the project in autumn 2021.
Contact: The program is designed and led by Salla Hiiskoski.

We amplify the association’s expert role on diversity and inclusion in games

The association shares knowledge and provides fact based information on the state of diversity and inclusion in the Finnish game industry. In addition, it shares this knowledge to the international game industry in general, for policymakers, the public sector and other associations outside the games industry. Collaboration activities include, for example, working on the Generation Equality project, collaborating with Fairplay Alliance, and doing research with the National Council of Women of Finland on the Gender in Play project.
Contact: Taina Myöhänen

The association participates in the public debate around diversity and inclusion about the game industry.
Contact: info@weingames.fi, the board

We offer role models

WiGFi’s Speakers List facilitates the diversification of the conference scene by promoting the talents and experience of industry professionals. The Speakers List is our longest running project, it started right after the constitutive meeting. The project will continue for 2021 and focus on promoting the list as the most used source for seeking game industry speakers.
Contact: info@weingames.fi, Essi Jukkala

WiGFi is actively seeking possibilities to present the game industry in schools.
Contact: info@weingames.fi, Taina Myöhänen

We enhance the career of WIGFI members

The Mentorship program is aimed at WiGFi members at the beginning of their career, or at their career crossroads. The call for the third mentorship program closed at the end of February 2021, and the program is running from mid March until mid June. Planning of the Mentorship program 4 will start in late 2021.
Contact: info@weingames.fi, Salla Hiiskoski

Plans for WiGFi’s members working in middle management to advance their careers are ready, but the project launch is postponed until 2022 due to the difficulties that the coronavirus presented. In 2021, WiGFi will focus on events supporting career growth and personal growth.
Contact: events@weingames.fi, Emmi Hattunen, Dina Ramse

We enhance the position of LGBTQ+ persons in the industry

To increase LGBTQ+ understanding in our industry, WiGFi will partner with Helsinki Pride to offer education for Finnish games studios on how to support LGBTQ+ persons in the workplace. WiGFi will also act as the official Helsinki Pride partner and organise an event during Pride Week, and partner with Finnish Game Jam on organising Pride Jam.
Contact: Licia Prehn

We support gender equality in games

Gender in Play – Representations of Gender in Games project discusses gender representations. The project collects fact-based information about gender representations in Finnish games from 2018 to 2020, analyses gender-based violence in games and collects & shares best practices on creating more diverse characters in games and promotes healthier game words for all genders. The project is implemented in collaboration with The Council of Women of Finland / Making an Impact with Equality Acts project, and funded by the Ministry of Justice.
Contact: Taina Myöhänen

Our internal development

To strengthen the brand, WIGFI will allocate this year some money for visual presentations of the organisation. This includes photos of events, stock-photo-like photos for the website and other marketing materials and visuals.
Contact: Essi Jukkala

The second membership survey will be organised in autumn 2021.
Contact: info@weingames.fi

Questionnaire 2020 Results

The lion share of WiGFi members and the Facebook community are people who have been in the industry for several years. The LGBTQ+ community is solidly represented within the members.

We in Games Finland conducted a survey for its members, in order to better understand the background of its members, their desires and opinions on phenomenons of the industry. The questionnaire comprised topics on industry seniority, gender, sexual orientation, and race, opinions on the association and the reasons people might have left the industry.

A total of 111 people answered the questionnaire. It was shared on WiGFi’s Facebook page and on the member newsletter. It is worth to note that the results cover only WiGFi members and followers and not the whole Finnish game industry. We in Games Finland ry. has 250 official members and the Facebook community has 1300 members. A noticeable amount of members and followers are thus represented in the results. The whole Finnish game industry employs 3200 people.

Seniority and Positions in the Industry

The greater number of respondents, 78.4% were working in the games industry and 17.1% were not involved with the industry but would like to, and 4.5% were game industry alumni. 

These results indicate that our association members and the Facebook community are primarily people with senior to mid-level backgrounds. The members were asked for how long they have worked in the game industry: 14.5% of respondents had over 10 years experience in the industry, 8.2% had 8-10 years, 22.7% had 5-8 years, 19.1% had 3-4 years and 21.8% had 0-2 years. A tenth, 9.9% of respondents, were studying in hopes to work in the game industry in the future. 

We in Games Finland’s Questionnaire 2020 Results
Seniority in the industry

We in Games Finland’s questionnaire also touched upon the questions on why people left the games industry, and would there be anything that would make these people consider rejoining. The results show that respondents had found a better or more suitable job outside of games, or the company they worked at had been shut down. Indeed, it was mentioned that they would like to come back if a suitable position would open up.

However, there were some hints about unequal treatment at the workplace being the cause of leaving the industry. Even if this was not a common phenomenon based on these results, it is severe enough and something WiGFi wishes to dig a bit deeper in its next questionnaire. 

Diversity of Gender, Sexual Orientation, and Race Prevalent in WiGFi members

The gender spectrum in games professionals is diverse, but that the majority of WiGFi members and followers identify themselves as women.  From respondents, 88.3% identify themselves as a female, 6.3% as male and 4.5% as non-binary. The genderfluid, transgender male, transgender female, and agender categories were also represented in the results.

Most of the respondents, 85.5%, prefer to be addressed with she/her pronouns when speaking English. They/them were preferred by 15.3%, and he/him by 4.5%. The tenth part of members, 10.8%, said any pronoun would do. The results give clear insight for game companies to take into account wording in their internal communications. Companies with English as a working language could, for example, ask new employees their preferred pronouns. Game studios should make it clear to their employees that they will accept and adapt their pronoun use if employees come out as transgender or non-binary. 

A considerable part, 22%, of respondents were non-Finnish, and 15.6% were non-Finnish speakers. This follows the trend that Neogames has noted in their previous Finnish game industry report stating that 27% of the game industry workforce were from abroad. It is a common practice in the Finnish game industry to make the company language in English at the latest when the first non-Finnish speaking person joins the team. 

The LGBTQ+ community is well represented in WiGFi: 25.7% of respondents belonged to the non-straight group. It can be assumed that the percentage is higher than in the industry total as the questionnaire was directed to We in Games Finland’s members and followers. The high percentage on itself reflects the fact that in the games industry, one should not assume that heterosexuality and cis-gender are the norms. At a company level, this should be taken into account in everyday language: for example while discussing personal family relations, neutral expressions are recommended. 

SETA has published in Finnish a useful information package for employers how to take into account hlbtiq community in working life.

Another high percentage that should be noted is that 24.8% of the respondents mentioned having a non-visible disability. WIGFI’s survey did not ask for specific examples of these non-visible disabilities. However, it can be read from other studies that mental illnesses are rising in the games industry. IGDA Developer Statisfaction Survey 2019 noted that out of 28% of respondents identified as having a disability, 11% choose the psychiatric or mental illness category. Mental health issues and mental stress are commonly listed occupational health risks in our industry, and something every employer should take into account. Crunching, uncertain development cycles, the judgement of one’s creative work, and the sometimes disturbing content game makers have to create for certain games can exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems, and cause employees to need sick leave. 

For more information, check the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s page about psychosocial workload and a nonprofit organisation for mental health in games, Take This’ materials.

When it comes to race, 8.2% of WIGFI members are non-white. It should be remembered, nonetheless, that being non-white doesn’t automatically mean that someone is foreign, or that being white makes someone a native Finn. Many native Finns come from mixed ethnic backgrounds, and it is important for companies and event organisers not to assume someone’s ethnicity or linguistic abilities based on skin colour alone. 

Another noteworthy issue is that 2.8% of respondents belonged to a marginalised religion. If it is known that the employee belongs to a marginalised religion group, the best practice is to discuss if the employee has any hopes or wishes related to this. For example, for Muslims, offering a peaceful place for praying is a dignified act, and holiday acts might vary. Taking different religious practices and preferences into account when organising events is a very recommended practice.

Conclusions

The results and the open feedback give some clear takeaways for the organisation to analyse and to work for in the future. 

One of the organisation’s goals is to represent marginalised groups in the Finnish game industry- This is a constant process. The more data and feedback WiGFi is able to gather from its members and from minorities within the industry, the better the organisation can plan and target its actions. Raising issues into the public discussions and generating change in the industry is easier with the data these results provide.

WiGFi is very thankful with the heartening amount of feedback and ideas the survey respondents supplied. The organisation will review all comments, both negative and positive, and will be acting on some of this feedback immediately. Please stay tuned to the WIGFI Facebook group and website for more information!

Part of these results will be published in the Finnish Game Industry Report 2021.

For recommendations, we wish to thank SETA, Inklusiiv, Eve Crevoshay from Take this and Tarja Porkka-Kontturi. 

Thank you also for Taina Myöhänn and Felicia Prehn for analysing the results and editing this post.