Largest study of video games reveals men say twice as much as women
24 May 2023
Researchers from Cardiff University and the University of Glasgow have found a stark gender imbalance following the largest-ever study of dialogue in video games.
The first study of its kind, which is published in the journal Royal Society Open Science, involved analysis of more than 13,000 video-game characters in 50 role-playing video games (RPGs).
Academics discovered these games include twice as much male dialogue as female dialogue on average, with 94% of games studied having more male dialogue than female dialogue overall. This included games with multiple female protagonists like Final Fantasy X-2 or King’s Quest VII.
The same imbalances were found in minor characters and persisted even when taking into account player choices about protagonist gender and optional dialogue.
While the team also found the proportion of female dialogue is slowly increasing, they calculated that if this trend were to continue, it would still take more than a decade to reach parity. Furthermore, there were few characters in non-binary gender categories: only 30 out of 13,000, or about half as much as in real life.
Dr Stephanie Rennick, research associate in Philosophy, School of Humanities | Sgoil nan Daonnachdan at the University of Glasgow, said: “While we expected to find a larger proportion of male dialogue overall, we were surprised to discover how few games – just three of 50 - had more than 50% female dialogue. Players seem to share our surprise: when surveyed, they anticipated the general pattern of more male dialogue, but overestimated the number of games where women spoke the majority of the time.”
Researchers suggest that the simplest way for game-makers to address the imbalance is to add more major and minor female characters. However, they warn that more dialogue doesn’t guarantee better gender representation; There can also be bias in the content of dialogue, not just who speaks it. For example, female characters are more likely to apologise, hesitate or be polite, perpetuating stereotypes about gendered behaviour.
“Around half of gamers are female, but they experience a lot of abuse and exclusion” said Dr Sean Roberts, lecturer at the School of English, Communication and Philosophy at Cardiff University. “More diverse representation is being called for by players. So we hope that developers will consider addressing the imbalances we found in order to create more inclusive games”.
The study looked at 6.2 million words of dialogue and found 35.16% of words were spoken by female characters. The proportion of female dialogue ranged from 6% (King’s Quest VI) to 80% (King’s Quest IV: The Perils of Rosella). Female characters made up 29.37% of those they studied, which suggests the imbalance is driven by a lack of female characters, rather than them not being given enough dialogue each.
The findings are open-source, and the team hopes to work with programmers and gamers to expand the study to discover ways of making games more inclusive.
The gender bias in video game dialogue study is published in Royal Society Open Science and is available to view here.