Diversity matters because you matter

Jenni Varila
This article is part of the Gender in Play project publications. Gender in Play was a project by We in Games Finland and The National Council of Women of Finland that examined the character development and world-building within Finnish games studios’ games from the perspective of gender equality and representation. The project ran 2021–2022 and was funded by the Ministry of Justice.

“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.

Image: Jenni Varila

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.