12 year old Maddie Messer took on the video game industry over gender inequity : Planet Money When Maddie Messer was 12 years old, she noticed an unfair dynamic in the video games she loved: playing as a man was often free, but she had to pay to play as a woman. So ... she decided to take on the video game industry. | Subscribe to our weekly newsletter here.

A 12-year-old girl takes on the video game industry (UPDATE)

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SYLVIE DOUGLIS, BYLINE: This is PLANET MONEY from NPR.

JESS JIANG, HOST:

Hey, PLANET MONEY listeners. Jess Jiang here. I'm an editor at the show. And today we're bringing you an episode I reported back in 2015. It's about discrimination, the unfair treatment kind of discrimination, but also the economic concept of price discrimination. We'll explain it in the episode. And we'll also have an update at the very end. Stay tuned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STEVE HENN: 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 video game.

MADDIE MESSER: There's always a zip line that you have to jump to get on. Otherwise, you fall off of a foot 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.

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

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.

MESSER: Guy Dangerous, who's the default character of this game.

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

MESSER: 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 a 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.

MESSER: 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.

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 video game industry? The battle and the final score coming up.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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.

JIANG: Hi.

MESSER: Hi.

JIANG: Hi. I'm Jess.

MESSER: 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 video game industry, it all got started one day after school.

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

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

MESSER: 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.

MESSER: It's not fun after the 10th 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 Escape, she wrote, quote, "rather boring." Next to another game called Run and Jump, she wrote "only boys, comma, not fun." Now, there were some games where you played as a potato or corn, but most of the games you were 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.

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

HENN: In one Disney game, the only female character cost

HENN: $30, which to Maddie is a lot of money.

MESSER: 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 five bucks.

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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONKEY SHRIEKING)

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

JIANG: OK.

Maddie and I did the math.

(SOUNDBITE OF TEMPLE RUN AMBIENCE)

JIANG: It would take me 8 hours of playing to get the girl character I wanted.

MESSER: Down.

JIANG: Ahh (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

JIANG: But 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.

MESSER: I mean, when I originally was like, Dad, hey, can I do this? - 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 In 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 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 1 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 can 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? That - 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.

JIANG: So how did Temple Run end up in this strange place? We'll hear Tim Harford's theory and from one of the creators of Temple Run after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIANG: Temple Run had an issue, and maybe price discrimination was to blame because if you wanted to play as a male character, you could do that for free. But to play as a female character, you had to pay. And Tim Harford has a theory why the male character was the default.

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

JIANG: To test out Tim's theory, we did a sort of obvious thing. We called up the team who made Temple Run.

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. 60% of the people playing Temple Run were women.

LUCKYANOVA: There was a huge demand for a female character. We thought, oh, okay, like, we need to add a female character here because, you know, this isn't just a boys' 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 Scarlett 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. (Reading) 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 Scarlet 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.

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

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

JIANG: Hey, listeners. It's Jess Jiang here now in 2022. Since this episode originally aired, Maddie's kept thinking about gender and video games.

MESSER: It's been quite a long time since this original article, but I do continue to hear about it. It is a little bit odd to have been my most famous at 13 years old, but it's work I'm very happy to continue to do.

JIANG: After she wrote her op-ed in The Washington Post, Maddie wanted more concrete data on whether other young gamers felt the way she did, that they wanted to play as their own gender. So she linked up with Amanda Jennings, a Ph.D. student at the University of Delaware, and they put together a study looking at how kids choose characters. They recruited kids at boys' and girls' clubs and swimming pools and had them play Temple Run. Then some kids were told they could switch characters for free, while others were told they'd have to pay. And they found that when switching characters was free, around three-quarters of boys and girls switched to their own gender at the first chance they got. When they had to pay to switch, they almost never did.

So most kids were like Maddie. They wanted their characters to match their gender, but games mostly only let boys do that for free.

MESSER: Our research confirmed, sort of, the initial assumptions of my Washington Post article, that kids prefer to see their character offered. They think that characters of all genders should be offered, and it really reaffirms their own identity when they have the characters of their own gender available.

JIANG: Maddie and Amanda published their study three years ago. Maddie is now a freshman in college. She still plays video games, and she thinks the gaming industry has some work to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MESSER: I think it has become more of a standard to have both a male and female character available for free, which I'm stoked about. I do think we are getting now, really, into a binary where we say, oh, there are male and female characters available, so we've done our job when that's not all of the gender options that are truly on the table. And I think that's another complexity that we'll have to grapple with in the gaming industry as well as elsewhere.

JIANG: Last year, a study in diversity in games showed about one-quarter of playable characters are female, 6% are non-binary or didn't have a specified gender, and the majority - about two-thirds - are male. The original version of today's show was produced by Nadia Wilson. This update was produced by Sam Yellowhorse Kesler and edited by Dave Blanchard. It was mastered by Gilly Moon. PLANET MONEY'S executive producer is Alex Goldmark. I'm Jess Jiang. This is NPR. Thanks for listening.

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