Horizon Forbidden West will face a sexist video game industry represented by Genshin Impact, Call of Duty, Tomb Raider, World of Warcraft and more.
The video game business has a long and troubled history of sexism and gender stereotypes. A round of scandals at several gaming companies provided a sad reminder that the industry has a lot more to do to fix its culture and finally repair its reputation. But the situation is not desperate. As a successful Sony launch shows, there is a large market for games that portray women as smart, resourceful actors rather than as pawns, victims, and objects of male desire.
An incident at a conference about a decade ago has become the poster for the cultural problems of the industry. “I love the fact that you have a lot of really strong female characters,” one woman told a panel of developers at Activision Blizzard Inc., a maker of World of Warcraft and Call of Duty megapixels. “However, I was wondering if we could have some that don’t seem to come out of a Victoria’s Secret catalog.” A little applause was quickly drowned out by a sea of boos. Instead of defending it, the developers ridiculed his suggestion.
Despite a cry at the time, the industry continued to struggle with hostile attitudes toward women. After Microsoft Corp. hosted a party five years ago with poorly dressed dancers on the platforms, Xbox boss Phil Spencer was forced to apologize. Most recently, the maker of League of Legends Riot Games Inc. has been sued for gender discrimination, while Ubisoft Entertainment and Activision Blizzard Inc. they have released several executives amid widespread sexual harassment allegations.
However, in the midst of these painful episodes, there are also signs of progress. In particular, Sony Group Corp.’s big 2017 release, Horizon Zero Dawn, shows that there is a huge market for games that don’t denigrate women.
The main protagonist of Zero Dawn is a female character who does not look like a supermodel. Set in a very distant post-apocalyptic time in the future, the character, named Aloy, fights robotic dinosaurs and seeks to prevent an artificial intelligence system from destroying life on Earth.
The game’s developers said they wanted to create a “credible and inspiring hero for everyone.” And it worked. The players loved the character and the fascinating narrative and production values of the game. Horizon became one of Sony’s most popular games, with over 10 million units sold.
The sequel, Horizon Forbidden West, is about to be one of the biggest releases of 2022 after its release in February. If successful, it should encourage other publishers to go beyond superficial female appearances and focus on better storytelling and game quality. The positive response to the title among female gamers on industry websites and social media suggests that it could also help bring more gamers to console games.
Characters like Aloy are still too rare among the main games. As a video game enthusiast, I find it awkward to play prominent titles like Tomb Raider, Genshin Impact, or Bayonetta, all of them with poorly dressed female characters. But for now, players are caught watching sexist representations of women or avoiding many of the major franchises in the gaming world. Of course, many best-selling video games are not based on creepy-looking performances, but the troubled damsel’s familiar gender troops and the use of overly sexualized characters appear too often.
An obvious path to reform would be to improve diversity among those who create games for deep-pocket developers. Earlier this month, Activision released a report showing that only about a quarter of its employees were women, a share it said was similar to that of its industry colleagues. A previous study found that women are even more underrepresented in industry executives. It’s hard to imagine that some of the worst game design decisions wouldn’t have been avoided if there were more female voices involved in the process. With its own scandal, Activision says it will do better and hire far more women in five years.
The treatment of women in video games, both behind the scenes and as characters within them, is not outrageous. Hopefully the latest round of outrage, as well as the example of Sony’s Horizon title, will drive publishers to change their culture. The time has come for them to do so.
Tae Kim is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology. He previously covered technology for Barron’s, following a previous career as an equity analyst.