Episode 615: A 12-Year-Old Girl Takes On The Video Game Industry : Planet Money A 12-year-old girl discovers it can cost a lot more to play video games as a girl. Today on the show: video game economics and a sixth-grade smackdown.
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Episode 615: A 12-Year-Old Girl Takes On The Video Game Industry

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Episode 615: A 12-Year-Old Girl Takes On The Video Game Industry

Episode 615: A 12-Year-Old Girl Takes On The Video Game Industry

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/397321383/397387784" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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STEVE HENN, HOST:

Maddie Messer is 12 years old, and like pretty much every kid, Maddie has a long list of things that she loves - science class, donuts, the color orange. And she also loves a good videogame.

MADDIE MESSER: There's always a zip line that you have to jump to get on, otherwise you fall off the cliff.

HENN: And this is one of her favorites. Frankly, this is one of the most successful video games out there in the entire planet - Temple Run. Maddie's character is running like mad through a jungle. She's being chased by screaming skull-faced zombie monkeys.

MADDIE: If there are roots sticking out, you can just move from side to side to dodge those. And if - oh, I didn't see the rock.

HENN: This game is pretty much perfect, in Maddie's opinion, except for one small detail. The person on the screen - the person running from the monkeys - this online version of Maddie is male, a guy. That's even his name.

MADDIE: Guy Dangerous, who's the default character for this game.

HENN: And Maddie would much rather play as a girl.

MADDIE: It looks more like me, like it's more like fun for me because I'm like oh, looks more like I'm playing this game, like I'm running from the monster.

HENN: There is a female character that Maddie can play. She's called Scarlet Fox. She has red hair and a ponytail. But if Maddie wants to play as Scarlet Fox, that's extra. She can spend a dollar or 5,000 gold coins. And, you know, when you're 12, a dollar isn't nothing. And to Maddie, this whole thing just seems wrong.

MADDIE: It's not fair because like, you know, if I'm being forced to play as a boy, like why? There's no reason.

HENN: A lot of games do this. You want to play as a guy? That's free. You want to play as a girl? You've got to pay.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CAMP")

HENN: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Steve Henn. Today on the show, what happens when a 12-year-old girl stops running from skull-faced monkeys and takes on the entire videogame industry. The battle and the final score coming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPONSORSHIP)

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HENN: A few weeks ago, our producer, Jess Jiang and I, interviewed Maddie. I was on the phone all the way across the country, and, Jess, you went to Maddie's house.

JESS JIANG, BYLINE: Hi.

MADDIE: Hi.

JIANG: Hi, I'm Jess.

MADDIE: I'm Maddie, nice to meet you.

JIANG: Nice to meet you.

Maddie is super confident. She's got this great long brown hair that goes down to the middle of her waist. And she's got these beautiful blue eyes. She said the battle with the videogame industry. It all got started one day after school.

MADDIE: I was sitting in our kitchen with my friend. And we were getting a snack or something and she was playing a game that was like a little guy in a car. And I'm like, why aren't you playing as a girl? She's like, oh, there isn't really an option. She was like, you could upgrade your car but you were stuck as a boy character. I'm like hmm, doesn't seem a reason why you shouldn't be able to be a girl.

HENN: And Maddie thought really, how hard could this be to make a girl character an option? I mean, come on.

MADDIE: Like it's not that much. Maybe someone sits down for 20 minutes, does a little drawing and sends out an update. And then you're done. It doesn't really take that much effort to make a girl.

HENN: Maddie wondered just how common this was. So she decided to do her own little research project, one that any kid might love. She decided she was going to download and play lots and lots of games, with her parents' approval, of course. She wanted to see how many of these games had female characters and how many charged for them. Maddie downloaded the 50 most popular Temple Run style games. There's one called Run Tappy Run. There's Super Falling Fred. There's Stampede Run, Sonic Dash, and, of course, all the various Temple Run games. Maddie worked on this project every day after school. She went game by game, writing her findings down by hand on this big paper chart.

MADDIE: It's not fun after the tenth game.

JIANG: Maddie gave us her chart. It's five pages long, handwritten; full of all of these notes about who the main character is, if it's a person, if it's a potato, if it's an animal. And also how much it costs to play as a girl character.

HENN: And the notes are just completely charming. Next to this game Potato Escapes, she wrote, quote, "rather boring." Next to another game called Run and Jump, she wrote only boys, not fun.

Now there were some games where you played as a potato or corn. But most of the games you're a boy or a girl. Out of the 50 games, 37 offered free male characters. The number offering free female characters - just five, just five out of 50.

MADDIE: It was kind of a letdown. Like I was hoping that there were going to be more girls, but there just weren't. And I was kind of bummed, like come on. It's not that hard to do one girl.

HENN: In one Disney game, the only female character cost $30, which to Maddie, is a lot of money.

MADDIE: I think of it more as like this dollar's worth one donut to me. Am I spending 30 donuts to get this girl character?

HENN: Her favorite character on Temple Run was less, but it still costs $5.

JIANG: It is possible to play as a girl character without spending cash, but you have to play the game for a while to earn these gold coins, this in game currency. And it takes a long time.

MADDIE: So you want to jump up here to the zip line.

JIANG: OK.

JIANG: Maddie and I did the math. It would take me eight hours of playing to get the girl character I wanted.

MADDIE: Down.

(LAUGHTER)

JIANG: My reaction is to yell instead of actually swiping down.

HENN: It's a lot faster to just buy the character you want, but you have to pay. Maddie calculated the average cost to play as a girl, it was $7.53. When she told her parents about this, they said why don't you write something up about what you found? Maybe a newspaper will publish it as an op-ed.

MADDIE: I mean, when I originally was like, Dad, hey, can I do think? I was thinking, oh, maybe it'll get published in like our local paper, maybe not. And that will be the end of it. But I didn't really expect it to go to the Washington Post.

JIANG: The Washington Post. It ran her op-ed. The title - "I'm a 12-Year-Old Girl, Why Don't the Characters and Apps Look Like Me?"

HENN: And the world rushed to Maddie's side. The article got picked up by Boing Boing and a hundred other blogs. It got noticed. People tweeted about it - people from all around the world. Discrimination against women in video games is a hot topic right now. And here was another example of something that seemed just plain sexist. People were upset. I mean, why would a company do this? Why did it take a 12-year-old girl to point it out? One economist speculated on Twitter that perhaps this was not actually a mistake but a very old well-established business strategy. Temple Run and these other game makers, they were charging different customers different amounts. That's what made everyone upset. And it seems bad, but in fact, this business strategy is all around us. It's just not usually based on gender.

I mean, think about it. Airlines - they charge different amounts for the same flight all the time. If you buy a ticket at the last minute for a business trip, it's just going to cost you more. Senior citizens, they get discounts at the movies. It's the same seat that you'd buy, but it's being sold for a different price. The movie theaters call it a discount, but you could also say it's young people pay extra day.

The economist that tweeted about Maddie's op-ed was Tim Harford with the Financial Times. We talk to him a lot on this show. We love talking to him, so we called him up. And Tim has written about this. His favorite example of this two price strategy is coffee shops that charge more for using fair trade coffee in your fancy cappuccino. Now it might sound like a fair trade cappuccino would cost more to make, but really it doesn't.

TIM HARFORD: There's actually not very much coffee in a cappuccino. The main cost of the cappuccino is the rent and the staff time and then the milk. And then the coffee is really - it's just a tiny little item. And so to upgrade the coffee to fair trade hardly affects your cost at all. It's, you know, maybe one cent.

HENN: Coffee shops had figured out a way to charge one group of customers more for what was essentially an identical product - something that costs almost exactly the same amount of money to make. And when you could pull this off as a business, it's very profitable. Lots of businesses do that. And Harford says there's really nothing inherently evil about any of this.

HARFORD: You've got a business which has got a cost base. It's got to cover those costs and then it's going to try and make some profit. Where is it written that that profit has to come from every consumer absolutely equally? You know, that's just not one of the rules of the universe.

HENN: There's even a name for this kind of thing - product differentiation - or my favorite, price discrimination. Now when economists use the term discrimination when they're talking about prices, they're not talking about sexism or racism. They're talking about discriminating between two groups of customers - one group who is willing to pay more and one group who is not. And usually people don't even notice or care. If you want to charge more to business travelers, that's fine. If you want to up the price for a fair trade cappuccino, no worries.

HARFORD: So there's no malice in any of that, it's just this purely almost algorithmic calculation. But if you're not careful, you may find the algorithms lead you to strange places.

HENN: Strange places, like if you want to play a video game using Guy Dangerous it's free, but if you want to play as a female character, say Scarlett Fox, it costs you. At this point, price discrimination starts to look a lot like what the rest of us mean when we use the word discrimination. How did Temple Run end up in this spot? Tim Harford has a theory.

HARFORD: I'm guessing a lot of the coders were white guys.

HENN: Guys sitting around making a game for other guys. We decided to call up one of the guys who made Temple Run to find out what they were thinking, and it wasn't a guy.

NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: Sure, my name is Natalia Luckyanova.

HENN: Natalia invented Temple Run with her husband. And just to cut to the chase, yes Natalia read Maddie Messer's op-ed. She saw it the day it came out and here's how it felt.

LUCKYANOVA: It was embarrassing. (Laughter). It was embarrassing to read that.

HENN: There it was in black and white. An article written by a 12-year-old girl mentioning Temple Run four times, calling the price system that made Natalia so successful, quote, "ridiculous."

LUCKYANOVA: Basically, you know, we got called out for being sexist, you know, in the Washington Post, of all places. And at the same time, I think she was right because, you know, for all of our good intentions and for all of my good intentions, it's true that, you know, you start out with this male character - the male, you know, the white male is always the default. And then anything else, it's like you have to work for it. So I think she had a point.

HENN: Natalia explained to me how Temple Run ended up charging users who wanted to play as a female character. When she and her husband were first coding the game, when they were designing it, they did think about what gender to make the runner in the game - the person running from the evil monkeys. And they just thought it should be a guy.

LUCKYANOVA: It didn't look like the stereotypical sort of game that women would play. And it didn't look like the stereotypical game that kids would play.

HENN: Natalia and her husband had made games like this before and had seen statistics that in games like this, most of their players were male. Guy Dangerous seemed like a natural choice, a good way to go. And at the time, he was the only character you could play as. They decided to try making this game free and that worked. It was enormously popular. Millions and millions of people downloaded it. It was a huge success. Except for one thing - because the game was free, they weren't making any money. They needed to figure out a way to get some of those people to pay for a game they were already giving away. There was an obvious solution though - create new characters and charge for them. But who would be willing to pay? Women were an obvious category. Natalia and her husband were wrong when they assumed only guys would play this game. Sixty percent of the people playing Temple Run were women.

LUCKYANOVA: There was a huge demand for a female character. And we thought, oh, OK, like we need to add a female character here because, you know, this isn't just a boy's game.

HENN: They added a bunch of new characters, actually, all of which people could pay for, including Scarlett Fox. And people paid. Guy dangerous might be the default character, but Scarlet Fox, she makes the money. Natalia says that somewhere in the back of her mind, it felt weird to be charging for a female character, but it just kind of floated there in the background. She played video games as a kid like Maddie, and she often played as a guy. It never bothered her. Her favorite game in college was this Nintendo classic Mario Kart.

LUCKYANOVA: I consider myself a Mario Kart master. (Laughter). I loved playing as the character Wario, which is like this big, fat evil dude with like a mustache. And for some reason that was like very appealing to me as a very small woman. Like, I wanted to be, like, this big, big dude.

HENN: But when Natalia and her husband read Maddie's op-ed in the Washington Post, they saw her point. It made a ton of sense. And so they sent her an email, that day. Here it is.

You're absolutely right. The gender inequality in our games has been bothering us for a long time, particularly since most of our players are women. That's why we're planning on making Scarlett Fox a free character permanently. And we also have a number of additional female characters in the works for future updates, so stay tuned.

Maddie was thrilled. Other game companies are taking a hard look at their prices too. Disney is dropping the price for at least one girl character, and another game company sent Maddie an email. The makers of this little game called Noodles Now say they are going to add a new free character to their game, and it's a girl, and it's going to look a lot like Maddie. In fact, they're modeling it after her - a long-haired girl riding a scooter around delivering noodles. That's the point of the game. The character's name - Maddie.

MADDIE: I can't wait to like just be me - like be my character and see how they're going to put it into a game. That's really cool.

HENN: But in lots of mobile games like Temple Run, the pricing system is still kind of problematic. The female character in Temple Run, sure, she's going to be free. But there's no free black character or Hispanic character or Asian character. These characters all exist in the game, but you have to pay for them. Maria Selva, a kick ass punk Latina character is 100,000 gold coins - about $10.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELASTIC HEART")

JIANG: We'd love to know what you think about today's show. E-mail us at planetmoney@npr.org.

HENN: And thanks to Tim Harford. I should mention his book.

HARFORD: Yes you must mention the book. It's very important. All authors want their books mentioned. Anyway...

HENN: You could read more about his great examples of price discrimination in his book "The Undercover Economist" or his latest book "The Undercover Economist Strikes Back." Thanks again to our producer today, Nadia Wilson. I'm Steve Henn.

JIANG: And I'm Jess Jiang. Thanks for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELASTIC HEART")

SIA: (Singing) I've got thick skin and an elastic heart, but your blade - it might be too sharp. I'm like a rubber band until you pull too hard, yeah I may snap and I move fast. But you won't see me fall apart.

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