Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Fall is here, and so is a wealth of new computer games! My significant other has just finished Uncharted II and is currently engrossed in Borderlands, and I've been playing with the superhero themed Champions Online, and the beautiful Asian influenced Aion.

Both games have surprised me in different ways, both good and bad. I'll leave comments about Aion to a different post, just noting that I'm actually enjoying it very much, and finding it surprisingly more captivating than I had expected. And I'll restrain myself from talking too much about Champions Online too, various existing reviews and blogs pretty much sum up my experiences. But I did want to comment on one thing about Champions Online that I haven't seen anybody else mention, and that's the population ratio.

What do I mean by the population ratio? In this case, I'm specifically referring to the ratio of males to females in the NPC population of the world. (Obviously, the ratio of male to female player characters is much harder for the dev team to influence.) Yes, it took me about 2 weeks to notice it, but there are almost no women NPCs in Champions Online's earlier zones at all. (Possibly there aren't any in the higher level zones either, but as the game was so broken that I gave up before getting there, I won't comment on those.)

Champions Online has a little newbie tutorial that takes you through the very basics, and then spits you out in one of two huge overland destinations: an arid American desert, or a snowy wasteland in Canada. In the desert, old nuclear tests have created a population of ferocious mutants who recently seem to be organizing for a concerted attack on the defending US soldiers' base. And in Canada, the Canadian soldiers are defending the area against an uprising of hunter-patriot revolutionaries bent on overthrowing the current power structures (or, in fact, killing anything in sight). Both zones are enormous and have enough content to carry you through a dozen or more levels.

What I eventually came to notice, however, was that none of the forces on either side of these fights were female. Despite the fact that there are no restrictions on what roles women can fill in the Canadian military, not a single soldier NPC in the Canada zone is female -- and the one single supervillain who seemed to be assisting the hunter-patriot rebels was written as a ditzy valley-girl with voiceover lines including "I never wanted to be a supervillain. But surgeries to turn someone into a cat-girl don't come cheap!" and "I'm not really a supervillain, I'm just a 'furry'who fell in with the wrong crowd." Likewise, not a single member of the US forces in the desert zone is a female, and nor is a single one of the mutants they are fighting, nor are any of the ghosts in the nearby ghost town.

Delving further into this mystery, I discovered that not only are none of the military NPCs female, but female players are actually not even given the military chest costume options in the character creator. Males get a couple of options called "military"; they're totally missing from the available female options.

Although there are a few token female NPCs such as questgivers and trainers, and a grand total of two female supervillains that I saw, overall the attackable NPC population in the first 20+ levels of the game has got to be over 95% male. Females are mainly 'flavour' type NPCs, background characters or victims asking for help or questgivers/trainers. It struck me as extremely strange when I noticed this, and it makes me speculate on how this could have happened. I could think of two possibilities:
  • It's possible that this was a deliberate design decision, mandated during the planning. "Let's make the world population heavily male." Why they would do this, I have no idea, but it could have been a case of "we're not happy with allowing our players to slaughter women, even if they are NPCs". It could even have been a case of "there's something horribly wrong with the art for our female models, so let's just populate all our zones with the males for now so we can test it, and we can switch in some females later" (which nobody then remembered to do later). Whatever the reason though, it could have been a decision mandated from On High.
  • It could be a coincidence. Perhaps two different designers (or teams of designers) were told to create the two big overland zones, and they independently failed to include any women. It wasn't a grand design decision from on high, but maybe both designers, being male, just thoughtlessly assumed that all soldiers are male and populated their zones accordingly, and nobody even noticed.
Either way, it seems to be a rather unfortunate outcome. As a female player, I feel that the lack of 'military' costume options (and yes, I did want to create a character using one, which is how I noticed the lack) is very disappointing. And more importantly, unintentional or not, I feel that the game's population is sending a rather negative message about how the dev team perceives the role of women in their world. Sure, the majority of their players are probably male, and sure, the majority of soldiers, rebels, and (theoretically) mutants in the real world may be male, but there are still female players (like me) and there are many female soldiers (and rebels) who have made unimaginable sacrifices throughout history for the causes they believe in, and in my view it seems the game is simply ignoring this entirely, which seems somewhat belittling, at best. And specific to the uniforms, correct me if I'm wrong here, but it seems the simplest design decision would be to just make a standard set of chest uniform options and then apply them to both genders unless there was a specific reason not to. And with most of the costume options it seems this is indeed the case. The military chest option is definitely not a graphically complex choice. It would therefore seem to have required a conscious decision to remove the military options from the female gender, and this makes me curious. Specifically, it makes me want to ask, "why are you intentionally limiting me?"

Since noticing this about Champions Online I've been extra aware of what I'm doing with my own population in EverQuest II; I'm currently creating some tradeskill quest lines, and I find myself checking that I haven't made too many females compared to males, or the reverse. On the whole I can't think of any great imbalance in EverQuest II, but it's easy to be influenced by your own prejudices without even realizing it.

I wonder how many other games suffer a similar bias, and nobody's even noticed?


  1. I never really noticed it until you pointed it out, but now that you have, you're right. There are hardly any female NPCs in the whole game. :o

  2. With regards to costume choices my biggest irritant was in trying to come up with a robe for my female spellcaster; it turns out that items in various slots dictate options for other slots....

    I started ticking off a mental list of female NPCs, and my initial reaction was that there were quite a few - until I realized I really could name them all which I certainly could not with the men! Also, you are right, none of the 'generic' npcs are female; they are all either a trainer/tutorial type, or involved in a quest (whether as quest giver, villian, or rescuee)

    Further, one of the primary female champions is the Witch from the desert -- who, while a quest giver, also has to be rescued (from her evil twin sister!) and whom the game makes a point of telling you is the girlfriend of the leader of the champions, all of which rubs me the wrong way.

  3. Now that I've had reason to think more about it, I'm surprised there aren't many MMOs with all-female super-races of elite soldiers ala the Bene Gesserit or the Fish Speakers in Dune. Certainly that'd be an awesome way to include a healthy shot of estrogen into game worlds--and it wouldn't insult anyone along the way. I don't see a reason why women should be left out of primary roles as NPCs in MMOs--it's not like historical accuracy is at all important for these games.

    (I also want to thank you, Domino, for finding my blog, That's a Terrible Idea, and enjoying it enough to link to us on your blogroll. We've been getting a bit of traffic from that link. For a small site like ours, every link helps. Thanks!)

  4. @sata_alvarez on twitter pointed out "There also aren't a lot of Black or Hispanic NPCs." I'm somewhat ashamed I didn't particularly think about that at all. I'd like to claim it's because I'm used to working on a fantasy game where real world races don't really apply, but that's obviously not the case in Champions Online.

    I can't quite decide if it's better or worse if it was a conscious decision to exclude women (and non-white races) ...

    (And you're welcome, Evizaer; I found your blog when you posted before, and some of your comments have been thought provoking. Feel free to link back if you like!)

  5. Many of the races in WoW don't have female models, and actually use male models to represent females (Magnataur is one example). Among other NPC races without females is the Tuskarr, the Taunka, and the Broken... who either do not have females at all, or else use recycled females from other races which glaringly do not even match the males. It's obvious that Blizzard considers females 'decorative' or 'flavor' objects and not important to include and flesh out in the development of races ingame.