The Future of Gender in Video Games

Since it’s inception, the world of video games has long been perceived as being misogynistic culture, catering exclusively to males. Aided by games centered around overly muscular and masculine characters like Duke Nukem, this perception pervades in our society and even in the gaming community. This image has been shifting in recent years as the industry has grown; now more games feature female protagonists and playable characters. The demographics for games have been shifting as well, according to the Entertainment software association’s (ESA) 2012 annual report, now 47% off all gamers are female. That is a 9% increase in female gamers since the ESA performed the same study in 2006. Over the next decade game developers will be forced to adapt to the growing female audience, and in doing so break traditional gender roles and usher in a new era of non-gendered virtual playspaces. All of this will not necessarily be in pursuit of an egalitarian society, rather in the quest for the almighty dollar.
There are a greater number of female gamers today is due in part to the prevalence of the home computer and now the smart phone. Today video games are an intrinsic part of youth culture, and the rising popularity of social games are helping to solidify it’s permanency in adolescence. This social aspect is bringing otherwise unattainable demographics to the gaming community, the largest being women. According to the ESA’s 2012 report, women over 18 years old represent a larger portion of the game playing population than boys 17 and younger. Now that there are a greater number of women in the market for video games, developers would be wise to cater to their desires to bring in a cash cow.
The growing number of female gamers is greatly due to the growing inclusion of playable female characters in games. These characters can help female gamers to feel represented by the industry and aid in player immersion and transformation. The Mortal Kombat series includes playable female characters in each iteration of their game, but has never surpassed three at a time. The Super Smash Bros. series has done much better, including five playable female characters in their game as well as several androgynous characters. This inclusion does more than help female gamers feel comfortable, it breaks away from gender roles by allowing women into the field of battle next to the men.
There has been a recent trend in video games of allowing the player to build their player character given a set of options, including gender. This is a marvelous tactic to ensnare every demographic. A tactic that ensures that whatever the player is, they will be represented in the game world. Until recently this mechanic was to large and unwieldy to implement into so many games. The character creation process required a large amount of data as well as processing power to execute. The developers would need to include several different files for each part of the face as well as blending tools to attach them to the characters’ faces. Now developers can make those files smaller and have better machines to work with, so this is now almost commonplace in role playing games. According to Moor’s Law, technology will improve upon itself and grow exponentially, meaning that in the future it will be even easier than it is today for developers to include a gender option option in their games. There are several widely popular, high grossing, games that use this tactic very well and indicate the future of video games.
The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Softworks) includes a gender choice option along with a bevy of options for race and facial structure. Given these tools the player can create whatever player character represents them the most. Players can create female characters that can be an archer, warrior, spellsword, or thief. The player is no longer bound to play as a certain class just because of their gender choices like in previous role playing games like Diablo II (Blizzard Entertainment). The non-player characters in the game also work to break down gender stereotypes and gender roles. The player can often find female hunters, mercenaries, jarls and sorcerers that possess equal power to their male counterparts.
The Mass Effect series (Bioware) has a gender option in it’s character creation screen, but this game differs greatly in how the player is shown in the game to Skyrim. The Mass Effect series uses cutscenes that depict the player in a third person view. Since the developers only had one motion capture sequence for all of possible created player characters, the female and male player characters do the same exact things in cutscenes. Not only does the player’s female Commander Shepherd lead her squad into war, but also demand respect by displaying masculine gestures and taking on the role of the action hero. This is the ultimate expression of an egalitarian playspace, the player’s choice of gender does not shift any of the gameplay or alter the story in any major way. The player’s Female Shepherd is just as powerful and intimidating as the male Shepherd, and is the same person in every way aside from gender.
Saints Row: The Third (THQ) features one of the most expansive character creation systems to date, and is also one of the most progressive games to date. The player can choose gender, weight, height, ethnicity, and regional accent to name a few features. This system is the greatest example of inclusion marketing, players can make their player character look exactly like themselves and star in their own video game. The player has the option to change their gender at any point in the game, given that they have enough money for the plastic surgeon. Another demographic was hooked in at this point that has been wholly unrepresented in games, the transgendered. This mere acknowledgment can be considered a huge leap forward in such a misogynistic culture as gaming. Saints Row 3 also includes a massive inventory of clothing and accessories, which doesn’t discriminate based on gender. This gender bending opens up for yet another underrepresented demographic, crossdressers and those with gender dysmorphia. Saints Row 3 does include a lot of sexual content and objectification, but it is evenly distributed to become the first game to have equal opportunity sexism. Both male and female characters are seen writhing on the streets of the red light district, and both are equally scantily clad. This is where sexism will be in a decade, not obliterated but instead open for either gender to be exploited. These may be parts of the reason that Saints Row: The Third has shipped 3.8 million copies thus far.
There are also games that avoid committing to any gender at all, and place the player into an androgynous character. These games’ ambiguity helps players become immersed in the gameworld and transform into their character; any player can immediately attach themselves to and identify with the character. Little Big Planet (Sony Entertainment) provides the player with an androgynous “sackboy” to explore the world and solve puzzles. Though the player’s title does include the word “boy,” the figure itself does not have any distinguishing features and can be dressed in clothing for either gender. Journey (Thatgamecompany) also features and androgynous protagonist, but keeps them clad in a loose, flowing robe. By avoiding gender altogether, these games create non-gendered playspaces that do not restrict or constrict.
If today’s trends continue, in ten years games will no longer pigeon hole characters into roles based on their genders, and even allow players to choose their gender. Virtual playspaces will be neutral, rife with affordances for either gender. Women can be space captains or mercenaries and men can play dress-up or cooking games, each represented by the characters on screen through gender or androgyny. In order for game developers to survive in a market that will be equally divided between men and women, they will need to adapt. Developers will need to allow for total gender inclusivity to bring in enough money to survive.

10 Years And Persistent

Video games, barring the most simple early games, have, in general, had some element of persistence.  High scores on arcade machines, all-important save files on cartridge games, and save files on memory cards shared between friends, video games’ persistent elements involve some kind of data retention.  Modern video games use multiple forms of saved data in order to better interact with their users, from online logins to the classic save file.  In the next decade, persistent elements in video games will be far more complex.  A game’s ability to remember its user allows games, an interactive medium, to interact back with their users.  Data storage on the cloud and the already ubiquitous sign-in associated with online gaming of any sort facilitates this shift towards games as a medium’s ability to ‘remember’ a player and interact with him or her based on that information with greater complexity.  Massively Multiplayer Online games will benefit most profoundly, being games hinged on persistent elements from their inception.

Persistence is a favorable quality in video games.  It keeps the player engaged more effectively over the long term than graphics and acts as a force multiplier when coupled with effective mechanics. Games today would not be nearly as far along as they are mechanically without a proper save system for persistence in progression.  It is only logical to assume this quality would be expanded upon by the virtue of more effective intercommunication as a result of the ubiquity of the internet.  Early forms of persistence were communal, arcade machines displaying a three-character tag for players who reached the top 10 was a reason to continue playing the game and achieving a greater form of refinement and control over the game’s mechanics.  As gaming was allowed to become a personal medium, persistence was needed in greater complexity in order to maintain progress through a game’s narrative, since it would be difficult to engage a player if it was known that shutting off the console or playing another game would set a player back to the beginning of a story, resetting character stats and so on.

Games that utilize persistence are almost always enhanced by it, at least in a microcosmic fashion.  Bullet decals in shooters, while not entirely important for them to be good shooters, enhance the experience of the user by showing him or some persistent effects of their actions.  Borderlands 2 can keep track of thousands of decals.  It is not only visually impressive but also immersive.   Usually, bullet decals are a reminder of the player having missed, as some games built for less powerful hardware would only track the player’s bullets, but in Borderlands 2, it becomes a chronicle of a firefight.  All the bullets that don’t hit the player aren’t forgotten by the world and such an inclusion allows the player to feel more at home in the universe as actions are displaying their reaction in the game world.  A regularly overlooked omission, when not omitted is very effective when engagement is concerned, since things feel ‘right’ that way.

As persistence became more ubiquitous in games, it became a mechanic of its own.  Animal Crossing for the GameCube was an example of how persistence as a primary mechanic could be used to engage a player, as well as an example of movement towards online persistence, allowing players to share space by visiting one another’s persistent villages over the internet.  These spaces also aged in real-time, leveraging every possible method in order to engage players with a persistent world in a game.  Utilizing persistence as a primary mechanic, Animal Crossing was both groundbreaking and largely successful for this.  People want to see the effects of their actions in a persistent world.  Massively Multiplayer Online games utilize persistence as a mechanic to assist gameplay.  Massively Multiplayer Online games are centralized around the sharing of a persistent universe with other players, whether it be ‘sharded’ into multiple copies of the same world in order to run on proper hardware, or, if persistence is key to gameplay, shared as a whole along with the game on a single ‘server’ (which can be multiple individual machines daisy-chained together to fulfill the job of outwardly appearing as one server).  Persistence is an important quality in a large, shared space, allowing players to gauge themselves against those they share space with or in order to play together.  Persistence is key to the central elements of Roleplaying Games and the importance of persistence in a game world based around a Roleplaying Game is self-evident.  Games that use similar elements for character progression hold persistence in a similar regard. The aforementioned persistent elements are only some of the more simple persistent elements available to games.

Persistence in games can be expanded into an element of realism that maintains changes made on the environment or surrounding world by a player.  Being an element of realism, it can span to full simulation.  Modern games get surprisingly close to full control of the simulation, particularly games similar to Wurm and EVE Online where items and structures are made full or in part by the players.  Persistence in games operates to provide a greater depth to gameplay.  Rather than allowing the universe to right itself, or forget things that are unimportant to a player’s progression (or things that are important, like whether a door is open or not), persistent elements are saved so the game can remember the state of things within the game world.  Persistent data doesn’t just confine itself to a game world, either.  Such data could include leanings towards stealth or straight-up fighting, what type of weapons a player prefers, the diplomatic alignment of players and so on.  Persistent data is also similar to the decisions whose effects span multiple games over the course of the Mass Effect Trilogy, pulling data from save files from previous games and using the data corresponding to decisions made prior in order to affect secondary plot points in newer games.

Persistent elements I project for games games in the next decade can include pre-existing elements, such as Mass Effect’s sequel-based persistence or greater aspects of persistence in Massively Multiplayer Online gaming as well as new forms of persistent data.  Player housing, for example, is a well-desired gameplay feature in most fantasy MMOs and its presence has expanded in the past 10 years.  Aion’s player housing is persistent per-server, each space for houses in the non-instanced housing (provided to every player as to not fully monetize that agency) is a physical location on the server, in land rented by the players.  Beyond traditional persistence, other data can be held on the cloud in order to facilitate greater engagement in games that don’t normally include persistent elements.  Popular shooters like Call of Duty already have the framework required to share information between versions of the game.  Players who favor particular weapon types could receive customized unlock paths that cater to their preferences, consoles themselves also have the framework to share across online profiles.  Sandbox games could pull from games of the same genre, in order to tailor AI reactions or story elements given previous experience with the player.  Every game within the next 10 years will include some form of this advanced persistence designed to allow games to create a profile of a user on multiple aspects that will follow them from game to game as well as more numerous persistent aspects within those games, allowing players to make the game space their own.

Persistence is a common factor in video games, enough so to be taken for granted.  Within the next 10 years, I expect it to take a greater leap to become more present in games.  For culture and society, that means a greater connection to games in general, and a gaming profile that follows a gamer from their beginning to their end.  With a more tangible connection between games and gamers, as well as more feedback from the games themselves such as suggestions and tailor-made algorithmic content, games will become more popular culturally as a medium for entertainment and perhaps even self-discovery.