AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Today, some of the most popular video games in the world are made specifically for smartphones. The game Temple Run has been downloaded more than a billion times. Sixty percent of its players are women. Many of these mobile games are free to play, but if you want to play using a female character, you're often asked to pay up, sometimes quite a bit.
Steve Henn from our Planet Money team has the story of a sixth grade girl who figured this out and decided to do something about it.
STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Maddie Messer is 12. She loves science and hiking and biking and her dog, and she also loves a good video game. And one of her favorites is the classic Temple Run. In this game, you're running along a path or a swamp, fleeing from a tribe of angry zombie skull-faced monkeys. You have to run and jump and turn.
MADDIE MESSER: If there are roots sticking out, you can just move from side to side to dodge those. And if - I didn't see the rock.
HENN: For Maddie, this game is perfect, except for one thing. Her character - this digital version of Maddie - is a guy. It's even part of his name.
MADDIE: Guy Dangerous.
HENN: If you want to play as a guy in most video games, it's not a problem. If you want to play a female character, it's not as easy. Often you have to pay. And for Maddie, this was annoying. She'd often have to go to her parents and ask for money to buy a girl.
MADDIE: It's not fair, because, like, you know, if I'm being forced to play as a boy, like, why?
HENN: So she told her dad, look, these games are rigged. They favor boys. But honestly, at first he was kind of skeptical. He said prove it. So Maddie said OK, I will. She proposed a research project. She said let me download the 50 most popular running games, games like Temple Run, and I will count up how many offer female characters and how much they cost. Her dad agreed.
So for weeks, Maddie would come home after school every day and download a video game. And then she'd play it and record her results on this giant paper chart. And what she found was kind of mind blowing. Out of the 50 game she looked at, 37 offered free male characters. The number offering free female characters? Just five - 5 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 most of these games, you could unlock these characters by playing, but it takes hours. It's faster and easier just to buy them. And the average price for a female character was $7.53. Disney had one game where there was only one female character - the only one - and it cost $30 - $30. So Maddie decided to write an op-ed.
MADDIE: I was thinking, oh, maybe it'll get published in like our local paper - maybe not - and that will be the end of it.
HENN: But The Washington Post published it. People saw it all over the world. The makers of Temple Run - they read it.
NATALIA LUCKYANOVA: It was embarrassing (laughter). It was embarrassing to read that.
HENN: Natalia Luckyanova is one of the creators of Temple Run, and she was mortified. When Natalia built Temple Run, she deliberately added female characters to the game because she wanted to make it appeal to as large an audience as possible. But because she was giving away the basic game for free in the app store, she and her partners decided to charge for these bonus characters. And as a business decision that worked beautifully.
LUCKYANOVA: There was a huge demand for a female character.
HENN: Sixty percent of Temple Run players are female. And even though female characters in the original game don't have any special powers, they still bring in a lot of cash.
And Natalia had stumbled into this age-old business strategy; economists call it price discrimination. It's when businesses charge different people different prices for nearly identical goods. Airlines do this when they charge a different price for the same seat on a flight depending on when you buy it. Lots of businesses do this. But when a business begins charging different people different prices based on gender or race, it begins to look a lot like discrimination.
LUCKYANOVA: 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 - that the male, you know, the white male is always the default - and then anything else, it's like you have to work for it.
HENN: Natalia says Maddie was right.
LUCKYANOVA: So I think she had a point.
HENN: The very same day Maddie's op-ed ran in The Post, Natalia wrote to Maddie and said that her company would make one of their female characters free. Disney also backed down, too. That $30 girl character - its price is falling to zero. And one little game maker even went a step further. They decided to create a new character.
MADDIE: (As character) That's going to leave a mark.
HENN: Meet Maddie. She's a character in a game called Noodles Now, and she is based on Maddie herself. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.
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