At E3, Critics Renew Calls For More Diverse Video Game Characters

Even though women make up a significant proportion of dedicated gamers, there are few female protagonists in big-selling video games. The same goes for ethnic and racial minorities.

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The big videogame extravaganza in Los Angeles known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo, or E3, ended yesterday. Some 45,000 people descended on the city to get a sneak peek at new game titles, though many of them were sequels, like "Far Cry Four" and "Halo Five." But as NPR's Laura Sydell reports, along with those old titles came an old issue - the lack of diversity of videogame characters.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: There's a myth - only nerdy white guys play and make video games. At its E3 press conference, Microsoft didn't do much to change that image. There was only one female who stood on stage and spoke. Bonnie Ross heads the Microsoft studio that produces its blockbuster game Halo. She spoke for less than two minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF E3 PRESS CONFERENCE)

BONNIE ROSS: When we think about the Halo universe, we think of it as a real place inhabited by real characters.

SYDELL: Leigh Alexander, who writes about the culture and business of games for the website Gamasutra, is a diehard gamer. But says Microsoft has turned her off of its Xbox console.

LEIGH ALEXANDER: That branding has never really appealed to me. And when I watched Microsoft press conference, just, it felt very more of the same to me. I didn't experience any diversity.

SYDELL: It's a complaint that's been dogging the game industry since its earliest days.

YUSUF MEHDI: I think it's a fair comment.

SYDELL: Microsoft Vice President for Devices and Studios, Yusuf Mehdi.

MEHDI: We are very conscious about - do we have women who are up on stage for us telling the story? Playing some of the games? I think we had some up there yesterday, telling our story but we can do more - we want to do more.

SYDELL: But what was on stage reflected what was in the games. One game, among this year's titles, sparked a firestorm of the Internet.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "ASSASSIN'S CREED: UNITY")

UNIDENTIFIED CHARACTER: Help. Somebody help me.

SYDELL: The latest "Assassin's Creed: Unity" takes place on the eve of the French Revolution. The game will be available for Microsoft's Xbox but it's made by Ubisoft. There are four playable characters. Not one of them is female. In an interview with the gaming site Polygon - "Unity's" creative director, Alex Amancio said, having a female assassin was, quote, "a lot of extra production work." Twitter lit up with the #womenaretoohardtoanimate. Game critic Alexander thinks Amancio's comments are revealing.

ALEXANDER: What their response reveals is that they didn't scope for it - that from the beginning it wasn't a concern.

SYDELL: Alexander was also among many, including game designers, who question why animating a woman was so hard.

ALEXANDER: I think they must presume that they're going to have to animate all these flowing dresses and flowing hair and jiggling breasts and things like that which really interesting insight into how technical folks in the game industry view women's bodies.

SYDELL: In previous versions of "Assassin's Creed" - Ubisoft did have female protagonists. In a statement, Ubisoft says, it's committed to diversity and it will continue to look at showcasing strong female characters. To the company's credit, actress, comedian and gamer Aisha Tyler has hosted its E3 press conference for the last three years.

(SOUNDBITE OF E3 PRESS CONFERENCE)

AISHA TYLER: I am super excited to be here. And I hope you are, too.

SYDELL: Tyler says, initially, she got a lot of flak from some gamers who refuse to believe that she really plays.

TYLER: To come and tell me that something that I live with and loved since I was little kid is illegitimate, that I'm lying about it, I will literally tell somebody to their face, [bleep] you. And I have done it on this floor.

SYDELL: Tyler says she loves first-person shooter games like "Halo" and "Gears Of War." But she thinks there is a large segment of gamers that fit the white guy, loner, nerdy stereotype.

TYLER: This is a group who has been excluded and now they're turning and they're excluding. And the irony and hypocrisy of that is extraordinary. So I do a lot of calling people on that. So no one let you in your club and now you have one, you don't want to let anybody else in - and you know you're just being full of it right now.

SYDELL: Tyler says, overtime, the criticism of her has decreased. Though early gamers may have been white guys, today early half are female. And according to the Kaiser Family Foundation, African Americans between the ages of 8 and 18 spend more time playing video games than white youth. Unfortunately, 85 percent of the people making the games are white and male.

REGGIE FILS-AIME: To look at me - African-American, male - running the U.S. arm of a Japanese company.

SYDELL: Reggie Fils-Aime is the President of Nintendo of America. He said Nintendo cares about diversity, but it has a bigger priority...

FILS-AIME: We view this as a way for people to have fun. And the way the characters are or the way we approach the business, really, is from that perspective.

SYDELL: Nintendo's new lineup, notably, does feature the Princess from its blockbuster game "Zelda" as a warrior. And with its first Wii consule, which emphasized fitness games, Nintendo grew its market among women. In 2013, the global industry for games passed 90 billion in revenue. The fastest growth was in mobile and online games, which are more diverse. Critic Lee Alexander says, now that console games are being played online - the big game companies better expand their list of characters.

ALEXANDER: Online competitive games were a big thing on show at E3. And no one is really going to want to buy those and play them only with 17-year-old boys.

SYDELL: And certainly the controversy over "Assassins Creed: Unity" showed that, on the Internet, gamers are willing to fight, not only to win, but to be heard. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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