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[Gamer Diary] RPG Advertising: Where Did All The Women Go?

2011 May 16

It’s a guest post! Rai got in touch with us on Twitter to see if they could do anything about our lack of posts on gaming (apart from Markgraf’s brow-furrowing loving critiques of Assassin’s Creed, natch). “Welcome aboard!” we said. Here’s the first of what’ll hopefully be a series of entries in BadRep’s Gamer Diary.

March saw the eagerly anticipated release of Dragon Age II; the follow-up to Dragon Age: Origins and Awakening (along with all the extra DLC that became available during the interim period). Dragon Age, for those of you unfamiliar with the games, is a fantasy RPG in which you guide your character through quests and the main plotline, battling all manner of nasty creatures and unscrupulous types along the way. You gather a team made up of mages, warriors and rogues who may be human, elf or dwarf, and they help you defeat the forces of evil.

One of the key features of games like this is that you can build your own character: you pick the gender, the hair style, the facial features, the class (e.g. a mage), and in some instances you can even pick the voice. I, for example, have a male warrior elf with ginger hair in Origins and in Dragon Age II my character Zakarianna Hawke is a female, white-haired rogue with a facial tattoo (you can see a visual of her below left). The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but they’re still fairly comprehensive.

Screenshot from Dragon Age II showing an athletic-looking elf in armour with short white hair and sporting a blue facial tattooOther popular games that boast this feature include the Mass Effect series and the Fable series, both of which I thoroughly enjoy. I was, however, quite late to the Mass Effect party for one very key reason: I thought you had to be male. That is to say, the advertising and marketing for Mass Effect gave me no inkling that there was any other option than to be the character that features in the trailers and the stills.

Normally this doesn’t bother me (pretty much all the games I have ever played have a male protagonist) but I read an unfortunate article that suggested Commander Shepard – Mass Effect’s protagonist – was a bit of a womaniser. So I wrote it off.

I then, much later, got a little overexcited by all the sales after Christmas in which I saw Mass Effect 1 and 2 for a little over a tenner. I asked my brother what he thought of them and ended up buying the games – turns out, you can play as a female character! Plus all the womanising depends entirely on the decisions made in-game by the person directing the character (again, my take on Commander Shepard, Drakhoa Shepard, is just below left further down).

This little surprise, combined with Dragon Age II’s recent advertising prior to its release, made me wonder why games that allow you to play as male or female are only ever marketed using the preset male appearance. For illustration purposes I have collected a few trailers courtesy of YouTube:

From those trailers alone, would you have any idea that you can actually play through as a female protagonist? If you knew nothing else about these games, I doubt there’s any chance you’d be able to guess the female protagonist option from the advertising. This could be quite off-putting to gamers (not just female gamers either) as the advertising doesn’t highlight the option of choice that you get in the game; to be a character that you want to be. It certainly put me off: when confronted with the limited information and the possibility that the male protagonist was a character I wouldn’t be able to stand, I chose to look elsewhere. Even though, for me, that elsewhere was probably going back to a First Person Shooter with a male protagonist: at least most of them don’t talk, and you forget the character when you’re facing down hundreds of Replica soldiers or when a Necromorph just came bursting out of an air vent to tear you to pieces.

Screenshot from Mass Effect 2 showing a woman with dark hair and a serious expression, wearing an orange spacesuitI’m not trying to fault these RPG games here, though they do all have some downsides – I’m just wondering why the distributors and the marketing bods decide to exclude one whole section of their demographic in one swoop. I’m sure there is some (weak) reasoning to do with demographic statistics and some blanket statements about who buys these games, but surely that’s wearing a little thin by now? I certainly got sick of seeing the preset male character’s smug face in all the Dragon Age II trailers.

Well, if we look over at Blizzard and some of their teasers for Diablo III (coming out later this year) then there are some positive developments on the horizon. They’ve begun releasing trailers relating to each ‘class’ of character for the upcoming game – all of which can be played as a male or female version – and, most importantly, they’re telling us all about it in their advertising!

Demon Hunter and Wizard are two of the classes you will be able to play as in Diablo III; the others are Monk, Barbarian, and Witch Doctor. The latter three are automatically presented as male, but Demon Hunter and Wizard are automatically presented to us as female on Blizzard’s website for Diablo III, despite the fact all five classes can be played as either. It is interesting as well that at BlizzCon2010 the 19 minutes of gameplay footage included in the press kit featured both the female Demon Hunter and Wizard as the protagonist.

Clearly, then, not all RPG gaming advertising is male-centric, and hopefully more companies will start to follow down the path that Blizzard is taking – showing the audience the variety that is available in-game, instead of just marketing it at male gamers and assuming female gamers (should such a fabled beast exist – haha!) aren’t going to get offended at being ignored or forgotten about.

They are, as I mentioned earlier, all good games (Fable, Dragon Age, Mass Effect) so don’t let the advertising put you off playing them, but equally let’s not resign ourselves to the notion that male-centric advertising will never change. It is changing; it just happens to be very slowly.

  • Rai, at the tender age of 23, has been gaming for 15 years and writing for 10 – perfect combination! Watch this space for more Gamer Diary.
  • Have an idea for a guest post, or a project you’d like to tell us (and the world) about? Send us an email.
14 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    May 16, 2011

    It’s an interesting phenomenon, this gender-biased marketing lark, especially given how a large proportion of gamers are often quite happy to play as a character different to their real life gender, for a variety of reasons (I’ve heard them ranging from “wish fulfillment” to “if I’m going to spend that long staring at someone’s ass…”). Particular in the MMORPG genre, which the Diablo series is related to if not properly belonging in, I’ve read somewhere that people who choose female characters often find that other players are more generous towards them. What I’m getting at is that there’s obviously some attraction even to male players in being able to play as a female; perhaps the marketing decision that the male demographic does not wish to play as female characters is based upon a misguided and outdated understanding of the mindset of the gaming community, and its relation to its assigned gender?

    • May 16, 2011

      Indeed, I know a lot of gamers, almost all of which are male and almost all of which have elected female characters in their RPGs at some stage. I did try to hint at the fact that it isn’t just female gamers who pick female characters so the archaic advertising is even more ridiculous. I do think that the advertising and marketing elements of these big name distributors tend to stick to what they think is “safe” but in doing so they’re not evolving with the community and are selling their products short.

  2. ZaraAudron permalink
    May 16, 2011

    Arghh, I’ve noticed exactly the smae thing with Mass Effect and Fable. I think I read somewhere that the developers said that male!Hawke was so iconic that they stuck with him for the advertising, which doesn’t make any sense because his look only became recognisable because he’s the only one they’ve used! Logic . . . systems . . failing . . .
    Surely advertising with both male and female characters would be a plus, it shows the level of character customisation that the game offers (and rpgs these days sure like their c.c.). It’s especially disappointing considering that Blizzard slammed straightmalegamer when he said that their were ‘too many gay characters’ in DAII, you’d hope that they’d be that enlightened with their marketting. Obviously not.
    Could be worse I suppose. At least they haven’t gone down the path of EA’s marketting division or gone overboard with the giggle physics . . .

    • ZaraAudron permalink
      May 16, 2011

      Oh, and for Diablo III Wizard trailer, is that a female character whose actually wearing . . . clothes? Ones that actually cover her legs and cleavage? Score. Also, didn’t the original trailer for Diablo III have only females characters in it (not including the demons)? Scrap that, that’s the Demon Hunter trailer, though I seem to remember seeing that before the others. Did they bring the female-centric trailer out first? Regardless, the Demon Hunter kicks ass! : )

      • May 16, 2011

        Yes that is an extra plus point there that I was happy about! I do believe they brought out the different class trailers at different times and I think Demon Hunter was one of the first released. They’re all out now so I can’t remember exactly the order they came out though.

        I was quite pleased with DAII’s freeing up of the sexuality for one’s Romance options, especially as the same-sex options in Origins were quite limited and tokenistic/stereotypical. I am hoping that Mass Effect 3 will make some steps to improving their lack of same-sex Romance options (at least, those that you can gain the achievement for) as this is one of the downsides to ME2, so much so I wrote an article about it elsewhere on the web.

  3. Stephen B permalink
    May 16, 2011

    I’m surprised that Mass Effect didn’t advertise the possibility of playing as a female lead, because one of the things I love about it is that once you’re in the game, the dialogue is identical for both. It’s arguably a better voice-actor for the woman, but she gets *precisely the same* hard-ass lines as the male version if you choose to be ruthless, no compromise at all.

    It’s extremely rare to have a female take the spotlight for Epically Heroic Doings to the extent that they make it happen in ME1+2. There’s less balance in other aspects of the game, but they really acted like they didn’t *care* about the gender of the lead in terms of deciding what they can do (which is brilliant).

    Now we just need to get all games up to the gender-neutrality of Dragon Age 2 in terms of who you can romance…

    • May 16, 2011

      I’ve heard several people saying they preferred to play a female Shepard based simply on the fact that it’s better acted than the male version (who I’ve heard being described as ‘wooden’ at best). The dialogues being pretty much identical is, as you say, a great feature of the game and the ability to have such a strong female lead is a credit to the series (not to mention all the other kick-ass supporting female characters).

      I am really hoping Mass Effect 3 has a more open approach to the Romance aspects, as that was more than a touch aggravating while playing through ME2.

      • Stephen B permalink
        May 16, 2011

        I think DA and ME are a good influence on each other – in DA1 your character didn’t have a voice (just text) but everyone else did. I didn’t notice it much until I played ME2, where everyone has audio and it’s a much fuller cinematic experience. They then made you fully voiced for DA2. So hopefully ME3 will learn from DA2’s superior romance options!

        • Russell permalink
          May 16, 2011

          Stephen – after the ridiculous “scandal” of the homophobe who went after Bioware for making everyone bisexual in DA2, I was surprised to learn that it’s actually easier (and thus cheaper) to make all the characters omnisexual, and that given how quickly DA2 was rushed out this was obviously a factor. I’m not sure whether this diminishes the value of it as a social phenomenon, but it does give everyone the chance to make the CORRECT romantic choice (Merrill).

          • Stephen B permalink
            May 17, 2011

            It stuns me how these games are tight on time and money.

            Example: Mass Effect, different classes have different guns, eg: those with biotics only gets a small handguns. So for cut-scenes, Bioware makes everyone pull out a pistol *even if you are a soldier who was going into the boss room with a huge assault rifle*.

            Is it really that hard to code “hold whichever gun is currently selected”? Or do 4 versions? They spend so long on dialogue and other aspects, it seems amazing how they skimp on some things. So I can totally believe the bisexuality came in to save time/cost, sadly. Hurrah for that anyway though! At least they’ll see now that 90% of the fans love it.

        • May 16, 2011

          Stephen – I certainly hope so too. I enjoy the interaction between the two series and I think ME3 will have improved romance options as there are great swathes of forum debates on BioWare’s community site from a wide variety of gamers complaining about ME2’s romantic downfalls.
          Russell – I think it still has a vital part to play as a social phenomenon regardless of whether they did it because it was easier or if they listened to fans (then subsequently discovered it was easier and went for it). Hopefully they won’t be too restrictive with ME3 even though they’re taking their time on it.

    • Stephen B permalink
      June 24, 2011

      The creators asked on twitter whether fans wanted “FemShep” to get her own trailer, so I pointed them to this article :D

      Looks like there’s enough other support out there to have made it happen, brill!

  4. Dragon permalink
    October 18, 2011

    One thing to bear in mind is that they are selling the story of the protagonist. To have the protagonist be visually a different person halfway through a short trailer would be jarring to say the least.

    Hopefully, when the *next* Mass Effect comes out, they’ll have FemShep as the primary focus of the trailers.

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