Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist Matter To You?

November 28, 2012 -

Yesterday, Jean-Maxime Moris, co-founder of the studio behind Capcom's upcoming action game Remember Me, explained to CVG why the game's protagonist is a mixed-race female.

"We wanted [Remember Me lead] Nilin to stand out.  I think these sort of issues become self-fulfilling prophesies; people saying that only white males sell so then everyone only does white males."

The idea that only white males are marketable protagonists is a theory that extends beyond the medium of video games.  I've heard a lot of movie producers claim the same thing.  "Not enough people are interested in a female or non-white lead."  And hence, most protagonists are white males.

But would a fairer sexed or minority lead really keep consumers away?

I'll be honest, this concept has always boggled my mind.  The idea that someone would refuse to see a movie or play a game they were otherwise interested in due to the gender or race of the main character has never made any sense to me.  I personally don't care what race or gender a game or movie's protagonist is.  If it looks good, I'll give it a go.

But what do y'all think?

This week's poll asks if the gender or race of a video game's protagonist has any bearing on your purchasing decision.  Does it matter to you?  Are you inclined to stick with a character of a particular race and/or gender?  Vote in the poll and fill the comments and our inbox (SuperPACPodcast@gmail.com) with your thoughts on the matter.  EZK and I look forward to hearing from you and discussing the topic on next week's podcast.

"vote label" © Tribalium / Shutterstock. All rights reserved, used with permission.

-Reporting from San Diego, GamePolitics Contributing Editor Andrew Eisen


Comments

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

I find the poll is trying to address quite a broad and tricky topic with a very specific question, so it was hard for me to answer. From a personal perspective it doesn't bother me what race or gender a character is. Sometimes the choice of protagonist gender and race will be driven by marketing rather than story/world, (the gaming equivalent of whitewashing a character), which can lead to the protagonist feeling out of place or part of a terribly stereotyped story archetype where, for example, the male white hero wades in to save poor victimised minorities from their own savagery or enemies who had no problem taking advantage of them because they weren't given an iota of their own intelligence/agency/will. In cases like that, once you realise the underlying unconscious prejudices and biases that lead to storytelling of this nature, it's hard not to frown.

But I feel it's very easy for the 'I don't care what race/gender they are' question/answer combo to lead into ingrained, privileged perspectives of 'I don't even notice what race/gender the character is, nor do I care', which is often pushed forward as an anti-racist perspective. In reality, this is not so much colour-blindness but a result of an oversaturation of certain types of protagonist in gaming - namely, the straight white male hero. You don't notice because very few gaming studios dare to challenge the straight white male protagonist. Those that do can't get the support of publishers and marketing. For example, if a game stars a male protagonist and it flops, it will never be because it starred a male protagonist. If a game stars a female protagonist and it flops, publishers/marketing teams immediately use that as data to say that female protagonists are bad for business.

So let me break my answer down into a few more meaningful ones:

1) The race/gender of my character does not affect my ability to care about them, project myself into them, or enjoy the game, unless they are part of a much bigger diversity problem within a game which draws significant attention to itself.

2) There is, however, a significant lack of diversity in game characters, from gender to race to sexual orientation, partly due to the vicious cycle of marketing teams and publishers not being willing to support games with "minority" protagonists.

3) The games industry suffers from its lack of diversity by not daring to address, care about or portray the experiences of non-straight white males because a) it is not truly reaching the extremely diverse gaming audience of today, and b) doesn't bring fresh perspectives, cultures and life experiences to the storytelling and representation board.

4) Repeatedly failing to portray anyone but male Caucasians as heroes is a damaging reinforcement of society-wide messages that women and PoC cannot be heroes.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

I'm not really seeing the connection between "marketing types won't take a chance on minority protagonists" and "it is racist/sexist to not care, as a player, whether or not the protagonist is a minority".  Care to connect those dots a little better?

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

It's a simple matter of how the poll question leads into a broader issue, as I explained. An individual game's protagonist gender/race doesn't bother me. The broader industry decisions and trends around protagonist gender/race do.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

Right, but you seem to be saying ("In reality, this is not so much colour-blindness...") that the individual attitude of not caring about the protagonist's race/gender is what is somehow racist/sexist.  Not caring what race a character is seems to me to be color-blindness, by definition.

I think what you're getting at is that, in the interests of getting more diversity, we ought to be actively encouraging minority protagonists, to get things on an equal footing and away from the white male norm.  If that's the case, it's not really correct to say that it is not color-blindness that leads to someone not caring about a character's race.  You're actually saying that we ought not to be completely color-blind, that we should pay enough attention to race to encourage the use of minorities.  Or so it seems to me, anyway.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

As a female, I do tend to find video games that have a female character option to be more appealing to me. To answer the question you're asking everyone else, however, no - I would not be less inclined to buy a game with a male protagonist.  After all, that's been the majority of video games throughout my life, so I'm rather used to it.  The story is usually what's important to me.  If the character happens to be female then I do find, to an extent, that I'm able to better relate to the character.  If the character is male, however?  It doesn't make a great story any less.  Some of the most memorable games I've played have been Bioshock and GTA IV - both with male protagonists.  

The only exception I've found has been, perhaps, Bioware games.  The romance aspect of the games combined with how your character is shaped by what you do/how you react makes it difficult for me to enjoy playing a male protagonist in that type of game.  I do find it somewhat amusing playing through those games with my character, however, and then watching the differences my husband's character experiences.  

Race has made little to no difference when it comes to games I'm more inclined to play.... unless you count elves ;)

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

Nah.

I played GTA: San Andreas.  CJ's black.  I played Beyond Good and Evil.  Jade's a woman (skin tone suggests Mediterranean).  I played Mirror's Edge.  Faith is Asian and female.

And you know something?  They're all great games.  So long as the protagonist doesn't make me hate them, it doesn't matter who they are.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

I can't even fathom why it should matter at all what gender the protagonist is, which ironically often puts me at odds with feminists who expect me to be sympathetic with the fact that they don't want to play games with a male protagonist.  My lack of caring is seen by them as "oh, well you're male, so you always get what you want anyway and you "just don't get it" why we're upset because privilege male gaze blah blah blah...", rather than the fact that I just don't give a shit.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

Imagine a world where most games were for women or girls, lots of My Little Pony, Twilight, and whatever. And every once in a while you got play a game were the sparkly male vampire was the main character.

That's where the male privilege comes in. It's very real, but we're so used to it we generally don't notice it until it's gone. And yes I'm a guy, I've just experienced of life enough to develop a strong sense of empathy.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

If the games were still fun, then no, I would not give a shit.  You people really cannot even comprehend the possibility of someone not getting worked up over such a minor detail, can you?

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

I love that in a discussion about how well women and minorities are presented in games, you stereotype the types of games women would create if they dominated the industry. You are what's wrong with the industry.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

I took an extreme stereotype to make a point. That you took it seriously as my beliefs about what women or girls want to play, well that's not a good sign.

The fact of the matter is many of these games that come out today are the male equivalent of the extreme stereotype I mentioned above. FPS games are particularly bad, but even if you break down many of the more supposedly more gender neutral story driven games  you'll find all sorts of sexist stereotypes. Primarily on the women characters who are often just there to be accessories to the hero or damsels in distress.

If you want I can break down all incredible sexism and racism in the SC II campaign just to give you an idea of how much male dominance there is in gaming.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

kinda odd, the complaint i usually hear is how women don't like playing female game characters because they feel they're "over sexualized" in appearance...

and given most of them refer to lara crofts original design.. not sure i saw it then, or now.... Lara was UUUUGGGLLYYY in the original games :p

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

In the broad view of women protagonists, that is true. When you have characters such as those found in Dead or Alive or Soul Calibur, that is most definitely true. However, when a female character is meant to be the only protagonist in a game, you have a much better representation of women. eg Metroid, Beyond Good and Evil, Mirrors Edge.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

now in those instances i def see the point.

but as i said, usually it was in reference to TR (to which is the only female protaganist most people even know exists.) and yet.. even when a female character is more accordingly designed a discussion on the "problem" continues as if the character had some whacky barbie proportions (for instance i recall one such complaint over how unrealistic Faith was in ME....)

 

on another note, i feel i kinda gotta point out i'm not sure BGaE counts given the artistic style used misshaped her on purpose :)   and i still need to finish that game.. never got it the first round, and have it on my 360 waiting...

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

Don't care about gender, but I prefer Caucasian or anthromorphic protagonists.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

So, if a game came out and looked fun to you, would you be less inclined to buy it if it starred a non-white character?

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

If he was stereotypical, say like in San Andreas (which I bought anyway) then I would certainly be. If he was more like in say, Prototype 2, and more identifiable, I'm sure I'd buy it just the same. They don't have to look or act like a white person but I don't want to play a walking stereotype or to feel like I shouldn't be playing a game because I'm white and I have no clue what the characters are talking about (CJ for example) and like, well, like I don't belong.

 

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

Don't care about race, but I prefer female protagonists.  Probably because it's a departure from what I already know.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

So, if a game came out and looked fun to you, would you be less inclined to buy it if it starred a male character?

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

It doesn't matter enough to change my buying habits.  Though when I can I pick female characters when selection is an option.  For example, I made Sheppard a woman in Mass Effect, and I have created more female characters than male characters in Elder Scrolls games.  When I play fighters like DOA, or TEKKEN, I still try to opt for the ladies.  Doesn't hurt that they are nice to look at.  Perhaps sex appeal is part of my predisposition.

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

The real problem is not that people are scared by non-white male protagonists. The problem is that the industry is dominated by white males, so any minority character inevitably has an "outsider" perspective, in everything from writing to animation and art. In other words, you're not actually playing a black female in a game, you're playing a white male's interpretation of what a black female is. People aren't stupid, and notice the stereotypes and oddities that inevitably come up. The problem won't be solved until the industry's hiring practices and the social factors that play into them, are balanced to support more minorities in game design, especially in writing.

-- Dan Rosenthal

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

"The idea that someone would refuse to see a movie or play a game they were otherwise interested in due to the gender or race of the main character has never made any sense to me."

Of course, I also can't wrap my head around the idea of people refusing to watch a movie they'd otherwise be interested in seeing just because it has subtitles (assuming, of course, they don't have eyesight or literacy issues).

 

Andrew Eisen

Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

Its more to do with not wanting to be bothered to constantly read while watching a film.

I find it funny people hate subtitles but love the headache inducing 3D 0-o


Copyright infringement is nothing more than civil disobedience to a bad set of laws. Let's renegotiate them.

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Re: Poll: Does the Gender or Race of a Game's Protagonist ...

Personally I suspect that people don't want to watch a subtitled movie/show because their ability to read/parse a sentence isn't able to keep up with what is going on scene wise, ie: they read too slow.

 
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