Steampunk Games and the Gender Crisis

There have been countless words written in recent weeks regarding the gender crisis surrounding SFWA Bulletins 200, 201, and 202, and the two sides seem to be preparing for armed combat. Similarly, those very same camps have dug trenches along the Microsoft “no female protagonist in their games” SNAFU, and that battle is raging as I type this. Furthermore, the Microsoft “rape joke” at E3 has sent more troops scurrying for more ammo and perhaps even mustard gas.

I won’t chime in on those issues. All I will say is that I’m an egalitarian who despises blind discrimination for the intellectual shorthand of the observationally challenged. Nuff said.

What I do want to talk about are two particular games: “Bioshock: Infinite” and “The Order: 1886.” Before you get that look on your face, let me clarify something for you. I’m not selecting those at random, and I’m not singling them out to bash a male-centric gaming industry.

I own a business. A couple of them, in fact. I completely understand target audience, market share, advertising budgets, and the notion of “what’s hot.” I have a solid understanding of getting the best ROI (Return On Investment) for your product.

But I also write steampunk. I research steampunk and who’s in it and who’s writing it and who’s reading it.  The makers of “Bioshock: Infinite” missed a boat… by a country mile. It’s clearly steampunk, and they did that because someone on their BizDev team read an article somewhere that said “Steampunk is hawt!” That’s the entertainment industry, and I get that too. What apparently didn’t come up in any of their internal conversations was who is gobbling up the most steampunk.

Bioshock: Infinite” is a male protagonist rescuing a female “side-kick who, admittedly, contributes to the end-game with “…her world-altering control over the environment.” But it’s still a male protagonist. It’s still a damsel in distress. The folks over at Irrational Games could have expanded their market share if they’d given players the option of a female protagonist, plain and simple. That’s not feminism. That’s not an agenda. It’s not leveling any sort of playing field. That’s simply money left on the table.  

Enter “The Order: 1886” and a very tantalizing trailer, one in which two men and a woman egress from a carriage and do battle with minions of evil. Here’s SCEA’s own blurb on the game: “The Order: 1886™ introduces players to a unique vision of Victorian-Era London where Man uses advanced technology to battle a powerful and ancient foe. As a member of an elite order of knights, join a centuries-old war that will determine the course of history forever.” Thus far the opener seems to be non-gender-specific with mountains of potential for capturing both male and female consumers… and in a steampunk setting.

 There’s no argument over whether or not females are gamers. There are plenty, and anyone who says otherwise lives in a men’s locker room. There’s also no argument over whether or not those numbers are growing, and if the outcry of recent SFWA and Microsoft debacles regarding anti-feminism is any indicator, there is a large and increasingly vocal segment of the populace with disposable income to spend and the desire to spend it. There’s also no argument that steampunk fans are primarily female.

Industries look for fresh territories all the time, and only fools turn their backs on consumers who are literally begging to spend money. But that seems to be precisely what is going on.

Now I can’t say as yet whether SCEA has built “The Order: 1886” to facilitate a female protagonists, but they sure as hell seem to have the wiggle-room for it. If they go that route, I’d call that just plain good business. Here’s the funny thing about business models. Exclusion is, by definition, counter-productive. The best business model ever created is the one where every human on Earth wants your product. You can look that one up, if you like.

The makers of “Bioshock: Infinite” didn’t do their homework. There are female gamers, and steampunk is dominated by female fans. Yet their game has a male protagonist. They left a ton of money on the table. The makers of “The Order: 1886” could be sitting on the brink of a new “Tomb Raider” franchise. They could be the next studio that did their homework and picked up market share on both sides of the chromosome because they understood the trope they were working in.

Or, they could do like many of their competitors and leave money on the table.

Here’s the thing. Ten or even five years ago the gamers’ market was probably 80% or even 90% male. I haven’t done that research, nor do I intend to. I understand the strong business case for not investing design, programming and testing time to reach that small of a market share. But this isn’t ten or five years ago.  And while the split in male/female gamers is not yet 50/50, it gets closer to that ratio every day.

I’d say it’s time for the gaming industry to spend some of their marketing research dollars in who is buying what in which genres and figure out that the old model simply doesn’t apply anymore. I could point to the publishing industry’s inability to change with the times it finds itself in, but what would be the point?

Those that evolve survive. The old guard—the ones who refuse or are too entrenched to see changing landscapes for what they are—will go the way of the dinosaur.

And we won’t even have their bones to reference them with.




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