The Average Gamer

It’s Not For You – Gender-based Marketing

Gender in the media. It’s always a fun topic on the internet. Here’s a 2-minute video so you know where I’m coming from.

Now let’s talk about games. Over the weekend, a load of game trailers premiered at the Spike TV Video Game Awards. Among them were the first trailers for two brilliant role-playing franchises, Mass Effect and The Elder Scrolls. Quite apart from the thoroughly fleshed-out universes and epic storylines available in both series’, I love these games because they don’t shoehorn me into the default male grunt role. Don’t get me wrong – I’m very much looking forward to playing Adam Jensen in Deus Ex: Human Revolution – but any game where I’m referred to as “he” will always lose a degree of immersion.

BioWare is one of, if not the most progressive triple-A developers in the world. They’ve consistently created female-inclusive games since at least 1998. NPCs respond differently depending on your gender and you are never disempowered for choosing to play as a woman. Mass Effect 2 even has female cannon-fodder henchwomen, which was practically unheard-of in games until very recently. IIRC, Morrowind and Oblivion by Bethesda Game Studios are more gender-neutral – most character interactions are the same whether you are male or female.

Cover art featuring title character John Shepard

When releasing sequels in two of the top-selling RPG franchises in the world, you would think that this might be an opportunity to stick your heads outside the 18-35 male demographic, wouldn’t you? Bioware have already put a tremendous amount of investment into making female-friendly games. Mass Effect is filled with male and female romance subplots. The Dragon Age series is making a respectable attempt with homosexual options.

Yet the teaser trailers for both Mass Effect 3 and Elder Scrolls 5: Skyrim both seem to cast the protagonist squarely as a man. Skyrim’s is very subtle – “But, there is one they fear. In their tongue he is known as…” The line could have so easily been “The one they fear is known as…” Yes, it’s just a teaser and for all I know the entire game is going to be about how the dragonborn dude failed everyone and that it’s up to me to save the world. I’ll come back to why that subtle line is important.

With Mass Effect I understand the argument that the franchise has been heavily branded towards this particular John Shepard for years now. I’ve blogged about that approach to Mass Effect’s marketing before (albeit facetiously). The thing is, both games so far have received incredible critical acclaim. The people who have bought and loved the first two games will undoubtedly buy the third. Mass Effect already has a core user base – why not continue the winning streak of breaking down design barriers by tackling a few in marketing as well? With the proven success of the franchise so far, EA have as close to a risk-free environment as any game is ever likely to get.

I’m certainly not calling for some insipid “find-and-replace John Shepard with Jane Shepard” tactic. Marketing can be far more nuanced than that.

Trailer editors take it upon themselves to summarize and sell the most commercial possible product, whether it bears even a fuzzy resemblance to the film it’s ostensibly promoting. Oftentimes, that means cutting different trailers for different demographics. Consequently, the same film can be marketed as a raunchy teen sex comedy, a heartfelt romance, or an earnest coming-of-age drama.

As with Skyrim, yes this was only a teaser trailer but this time last year I was hoping for more inclusiveness around the marketing for Mass Effect 2 as well. The closest we got was Miranda’s character trailer, rampant with male-gaze camera angles and talk of her following “him”. Yup, the ass-kicking female heroine will submit to the mighty John Shepard. You don’t even need to win her loyalty. With Dragon Age 2 also prominently featuring male heroes, I think it’s pretty clear what the EA marketing strategy is for 2011.

Stepping outside the world of games for a moment. If you’re a man, you’re probably at least somewhat interested in your health, right? Maybe you could do with some info about maintaining a steady weight? Perhaps you’d be into learning an abdominal workout or two that you can do in the privacy of your own home?

There’s a yearly London show that offers all this info. If you are a man, I’d put money on your never having looked at the posters twice:

It’s not for you. The marketing makes that pretty damn clear from the outset.

Every time games marketing is geared solely towards men, your average woman will hear that same phrase – subliminally or otherwise. The foretold saviour of the world is addressed as “he”? It’s not for me. The game where every single piece of marketing features a burly man staring me down? It’s not for me. The browser-based game that allows me to create my own dungeon and play socially against my friends? It’s. Not. For. Me. Though to be fair, that one may be appealing to lesbians as well. I couldn’t possibly comment.

All I’m saying is that it would nice if games marketers could stop marketing AGAINST women, especially when the games themselves are clearly designed to appeal to both genders. Is this all you need to be a labelled a rabid feminist these days?