Female avatars gain grudgingly in male-dominated vidgame world

The most formidable protagonist in video-games is a 21-year-old woman who must protect her friends and fight off well-armed enemies hell-bent on dispatching her.

The game is “Tomb Raider,” launched March 5, and critics are already singing its praises as a masterful reboot of the 17-year-old franchise. In the relatively short history of videogames, that series, perhaps more than any other, has shown that players are more than willing to accept a female lead character in a fantasy action game.

But when it comes to games that are set in more realistic scenarios, women are rare — and they’re never cast as the primary hero.

Series like “Call of Duty,” “Medal of Honor” and “Battlefield” are largely male-oriented, and feature male lead characters. Women, if they make an appearance at all, are largely in unplayable supporting roles, appearing just briefly.

Moreover, considering the Pentagon is ending its longstanding ban on women in combat roles, developers are at a crossroads, and trying to decide how to proceed. How do they use this new reality of combat in their games? And can it help them bring in more women players?

Neither EA nor Activision is saying much about how this policy change will affect their games at the moment. Since the genre is so competitive and so lucrative, both publishers jealously guard any information about their upcoming projects. Activision declined to be interviewed for this story, and EA agreed to release only a one paragraph statement.

“Women play an important role serving in all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces,” said Lincoln Hershberger, VP of Marketing at Electronic Arts, Dice. “Our games strive to reflect real world events and military conditions. As such, women in our military games have appeared in a variety of combat and support roles.”

A female protag won’t be in EA’s “Medal of Honor” series — at least anytime soon. The franchise, which was meticulous in detailing real world military conditions with a focus on the soldier, was put on the shelf last year after disappointing sales. The “Battlefield” games, while also set in the real world, focus more on big themes like tanks and jets.

2011′s “Battlefield 3″ included a female fighter pilot, though, and Hershberger noted he expects to see more women appearing in future combat roles.

Even the male-centric “Call of Duty” series has slowly been making women more a part of the story. Last year’s “Black Ops II” included the first playable female character in the series since 2004, as well as a female president and a female pilot (both unplayable).

But a female lead character seems unlikely to be offered to gamers in the near future. “Real world” war games are largely played by men. And some developers think that market’s not yet ready for a primary female character in a shooter.

Chris Perna, art director at Epic Games, was asked about the potential of establishing a female protagonist in a future “Gears of War” title. (While that series is set deep in the fantasy world, its audience shares several characteristics with the “Call of Duty”/”Battlefield” player.)

“That’s certainly interesting but I don’t know,” Perna told OXM. “If you look at what sells, it’s tough to justify something like that.”

Critics of Perna’s comments are quick to point out “Metroid,” a long-running Nintendo series with a female lead. But Nintendo as a platform has historically attracted more women than the PlayStation or Xbox.

And that’s a big part of the problem. “Call of Duty” and “Battlefield” are games that have hitched their respective wagons to Microsoft’s and Sony’s systems, where players skew male. More than 60% of Xbox users are male vs. 50% of Nintendo’s.

Perhaps more important, though, neither EA nor Activision wants to risk rocking the boat.

“Call of Duty” sales might be flattening out (totals for the 2012 installment are just 1% higher in the U.S. market than they were for its predecessor), but to dramatically shake up the formula could impact the bottom line — a dangerous move, especially when this year’s game will face an additional sales threat as it squares off against “Grand Theft Auto V.”

And with stock prices flat and investors still uncertain about the next generation of consoles, it’s unlikely any publisher is willing to change a successful formula, even if it would add another dash of realism to their game.

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