When Microsoft unveiled its brand-new Xbox One console at this week’s E3 convention, Anita Sarkeesian saw more of the same. Sarkeesian—a longtime critic of gender representation in gaming and a favorite target for harassment for that work—noted that of the 13 new games unveiled for the XBox One, Microsoft presented “exactly zero games featuring a female protagonist for the next generation.” That commentary incited the typical response from some members of the gaming community: “Yeah, maybe if more women actually played video games, you dumb cunt.” Even Chris Kirk, in his piece for Slate criticizing the rank sexism that still dominates the gaming industry, recycles the idea that gamers are “almost entirely men” and that they’ll stay that way as long as video-game developers keep churning out games targeted at them.
In fact, women do actually play video games—almost as frequently as men do. The Entertainment Software Association released a report this week showing that 45 percent of gamers are female, and 46 percent of the most frequent game purchasers are female. So why doesn’t the industry develop more games that acknowledge their perspective? Sarkeesian’s critics say that it’s because women just won’t buy them. The reality is that men won’t. As one male gamer told Sarkeesian: “[F]emale protagonists aren’t as interesting as males in the gaming world. Get used to it!”
The problem is not that women don’t play games. They do. The problem isn’t just that women are vastly underrepresented as developers of games, though they are. The problem is that women are buying and playing games despite the fact that the products often don’t view them as equal protagonists. As Alyssa Rosenberg notes at Think Progress, “Being underserved by media doesn’t mean that people stop consuming it.” The statistics proffered by the Entertainment Software Association help swat down the misconception that women are not gamers, but they also help justify the products already on the market.
I’m not suggesting that women stop buying games with male protagonists. A change in the gender representation in gaming will require a significant shift in the consumption habits of male gamers, not female ones. We know that women will buy games featuring male characters, but we don’t know if the 55 percent of male gamers will consistently shell out for games featuring female protagonists. (Though judging by the outrage that ensues whenever Sarkeesian registers a gender imbalance, some of the industry’s most devoted customers do not seem amenable to this idea.) As it stands, if you want to make a game that both men and women will buy, you make a game that features men. I’d like to see an industry survey that registers gamers’ attitudes toward the gender of the characters they’d be willing to play. Then we’d see where the gender imbalance of the gaming world really stands.