Mouse Smash

JC Lau's blog about geekery, gender and other rants

“Why don’t the characters in my apps look like me?” An interview with Maddie Messer

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Maddie Messer is not your ordinary 12-year-old girl. In March this year, she published an op-ed in the Washington Post after she noticed a disparity between male and female characters in endless runner games on her iPhone.

Although Maddie says that she loves these games, she discovered that there were oftentimes male characters, but not female ones. Or, where there were female characters, they had to be unlocked, while the default character was male. This was problematic. However, there are few statistics about the representation of gender in this genre, so, she set out to prove it.

Maddie’s research was extensive. She took the 50 most popular games in the endless runner category and counted how many male and female characters there were in each. She looked at how much it cost to purchase female characters. She drew statistical inferences from her findings, which she wrote out by hand on sheets of paper.

An early draft of Maddie’s calculations. Image source: Maddie Messer.

An early draft of Maddie’s calculations. Image source: Maddie Messer.

Of the 50 games she examined, most had characters with an identifiable gender. But of the games that did have gender-identifiable characters, 98 percent offered male characters, while only 46 percent offered female characters.

More notably, most of the male characters (90%) were available for free, while only 15 percent offered female characters for free. Instead, most female characters were not unlockable without grinding, or unless the player paid money for an otherwise free-to-play game—Maddie also discovered that the average female character cost $7.53 to buy.

In an email interview with Maddie, I asked her about her research, interests and gender representation in games.

JC Lau: Let’s start by talking about how you got started with your project. How long have you been playing games for? What attracted you to games?

Maddie Messer: I’m not exactly sure how long I’ve been playing games. I think I started around age nine. At that time, games seemed like a fun thing to do and probably kept me quiet on long car rides.

When did you first notice the different representations of males and females in games? How did you feel about that?

I first noticed differences in girl and boy characters when I was ten. At that point I didn’t think about it much, but as I got older I noticed it in more games. Something was tugging at my consciousness saying, why isn’t there equal representation of women in these games? Eventually that tug became a pull and I decided to do some research.

What made you want to do your project?

I realized that a) this problem wouldn’t just go away without someone doing something and b) in order to do anything I needed to make sure this was actually a problem.

Could you explain your research methods?

I systematically went down my list of games downloading a few, playing a few, downloading some more and recorded my data after I played each game. I looked to see if there were free girl characters and if not, how much it would cost you in dollars to buy one.

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A page from Maddie’s spreadsheet. Of the two games with female characters noted on this page, both have to be unlocked with coins or paid for. Image source: Maddie Messer

Why do you think it’s important to have a choice in your character’s gender?

If we don’t have a choice then we might feel like we are being forced to use one character who must be inherently better than the other if we are being forced to use it. If that character is male and the other is female it seems like the game is suggesting men are better than women.

When you first started doing your project, what sorts of results were you expecting? What proportions did you think you would see between males and females in games?

When I started my research I knew that women didn’t always have a fair representation in our world, but I wasn’t expecting that to extend to the gaming industry. I was expecting that there would be pretty close to 50-50 in terms of representation, perhaps with a slightly larger representation for men. Needless to say, that is not what I found.

After you had finished your research, how did you feel? Were you surprised by your findings?

I was not at all happy to find how underrepresented women were. I had been preparing for slightly worse figures than I had first imagined, but nothing as ridiculous as what I found!

Why did you decide to publish your findings?

Both my father and I knew that as good as running a study was, nothing would be done unless I got published and called attention to the problem.

Were there any other gender-based issues you came across besides just the pricing of female characters?

While most of the few girl characters were appropriately portrayed, there were several games that didn’t portray them in ways that showed that women were as smart and capable as men. Some games show girls as simply following the guy around and not doing anything. Others only show women scantily clad or in dresses, which no boy characters are wearing and signify an inability to do anything because the dress constrains them.

What was the general reaction to your article?

I have gotten lots of positive feedback from the public, as well as support from friends and family. A few people did not believe I was the one who did the study and wrote the op-ed paper. Lots of other websites have liked my story or referenced my research in their articles. Some people who commented in the Washington Post article missed the entire point, but very few of them.

The default character for the game Temple Run is Guy Dangerous. The female character, Scarlett Fox, originally had to be unlocked with coins or real-life money. After Maddie's op-ed, she is now available as a free character. Image source: Imangi Studios

The default character for the game Temple Run is Guy Dangerous. The female character, Scarlett Fox, originally had to be unlocked with coins or real-life money. After Maddie’s op-ed, she is now available as a free character. Image provided by JC Lau.

What would you say to people who say, “Okay, but you don’t HAVE to play as a female character, so what’s wrong with paying for something just because you want it?”

I would say “You shouldn’t have to pay for equal rights and representation in something as small as a mobile game.”

Or what about if people say, “Why don’t you just play the games which have female characters, if you want to be a female character?”

Then I would reply, “I do. The problem is not that I’m not playing those games, it’s that not enough games have girl characters in them.”

What do you want game developers to do, given your findings?

I would love it if all of them looked at their games to see if there was gender bias, and if there was to fix it so that there wasn’t. Or, when making future games, put in the option to play as a girl character. That’s not very realistic but some game makers have changed their games to make girls more equally represented, and that is a step in the right direction.

I noticed that your research is about endless runners. Do you think that your findings be generalized to other types of games?

I think my research can and does apply to other types of games. There would be gender bias in other types of games for the same reasons there is gender bias in endless running games: the field is primarily dominated by men who put men in their games.

What’s the most important thing you’ve learned from your whole experience?

I’ve learned that sitting around and waiting for a problem to be fixed isn’t the way it gets fixed. Problems get fixed when people decide that they are tired of waiting and do something.

Do you think you would do another similar study again, such as for race? Or would you consider doing a more extensive study on other types of games as well?

I’ve have thought about race discrimination and might do a research study in that as well, but for the time I’m working in doing a study on how willing boys and girls are to pay for characters of each gender.

I’d also like to talk about games more generally with you, since I love games as well! Do you identify as a gamer?

I wouldn’t call myself a gamer because I don’t spend that much time playing them, but I do occasionally.

What’s your favorite game of all time? Why?

My favorite game would have to be Nyan Cat: Lost In Space because it had great background music.  The object of the game is to collect as much food and money as you can before you die.

Statistically, women outnumber men when we divide gamers by gender. However, there are more men that play console games, whereas women are more likely to play mobile games. Why do you think this is?

I have no idea, but I can guess. Perhaps girls have better things to do with their time or because there are not many console games geared towards them.

How do you think that console game developers should improve the number of women who play console games? Conversely, do you think mobile game developers should improve the number of men who play mobile games, and how?

I don’t think mobile game designers need to get more boys to play their games because there doesn’t seem to be any reason.  Boys can play mobile game DOGS if they want to and there are plenty games geared towards them. However, console games could adapt to get more girl players. A start would to design more games that appeal to girls and portray them in a better light.

What do you have to say to people who think games are “boy” things to do? (I got this ALL the time when I was growing up!!)

I would say to them, “Did you know that 60% of Temple Run players are female? Seems like playing games is a ‘girl’ thing to do.”

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Temple Run Statistics. Image source: Imangi Studios

What would you say to people who don’t consider mobile games to be “real” games?

“Mobile games are real games because they are used for entertainment and that is what a game is.”

What do you think is in the future for the game industry? What changes do you think need to be made in the game industry?

I think game makers need more women in their offices and boardrooms and of those changes don’t happen soon male game designers will find a women-created game that equally represents both genders.

If you could make any type of game in the world, what kind of game would it be? If there are characters, what would they be like?

I would make a mobile game because I use those the most often and my game would follow a storyline that changes depending on your choices. This game would star both a girl and a boy character who have a variety of equally valuable skills that they employ over the course of the game.

What do you think makes a good game?

A good game keeps your attention. It is a challenge but easy enough to play that you want to continue. Also there should be a system of rewards that keeps you wanting to continue playing so you can get them.

How do you feel about having a game character named after you (and also voiced by you)?

I like being able to play the as the “Maddie” and know that it’s my voice that I’m hearing. It’s also fun to know that family, friends, and even complete strangers can play as a character that looks like and represents me.

How has your life changed since your research and story?

Because of my research I have gotten a lot of interesting experiences, such as being interviewed for several hours in order to make a podcast out of my story.  These experiences have exposed me to how the world works. For instance, now I use e-mail more often and know what proper responses are.

Do you have any advice for other girls who want to challenge norms about gender and representation?

Do it. Even if you’re not quite sure, do it because somebody has to change things. And make sure that you have all the information you need so no one can poke holes on your argument.

This interview was conducted for GeekGirlCon.

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