GDC 2013: Tom Abernathy Says “Women Are The New Core”

Video games lack female protagonists, with men outnumbering the women in lead roles by a staggering amount. The reason for this is often attributed to the widespread belief that games with female leads don’t sell as well as those with male leads. One developer, Tom Abernathy, does not believe this to be the case and wishes for there to be change.

Speaking at the Game Developers Conference 2013, Tom Abernathy, who works as a narrative designer at Microsoft, says (via Gameranx) that increasing diversity in games might actually be good for business—in addition to being good in moral and ethical ways.

“Women are not a small special market on the fringe of the core,” Abernathy said. “Women are the new core.”

He draws his arguments from statistics compiled by the Entertainment Software Association and research from PopCap, both of which found that 47% of those who play games are women. Abernathy draws attention to the fact that adult women make up a large percentage (30%, to be exact) of the gaming population, whereas only 18% of the gaming population fits the mold of the stereotypical adolescent gamer—male and under the age of 18. Based on these statistics alone, it would seem crucial for more developers to cater to the demographic almost double that of the stereotypically ‘core’ audience of gamers.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t room for game developers to continue catering to teenage boys, but it’s only good business sense to diversify these titles and make it so they can appeal to adult women instead of driving them away.

Abernathy says that the game industry would do well to keep up with the times, noting that America had voted in a black president and was taking steps to legalize same-sex marriages.

“Our industry, our art, and our business stand to gain in every sense simply by holding a mirror up to our audience and reflecting their diversity in what we produce,” Abernathy said.

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16 Comments on GDC 2013: Tom Abernathy Says “Women Are The New Core”


On March 27, 2013 at 2:56 pm

Problem is, that’s not the real question. The real question is on what platform are most playing. Is it on a tablet with the easy going games, or on a pc or console with more hard core. Although I know a number of women who play hard core, most (that I know), play the easy going games on tablet or I-Pod (smart phones, etc…). Big difference there. The games for tablets and the like are cheaper and easy to come by. My games for my I-Pod cost between 2 and 5 bucks vs fifty or sixty for pc or console. Of course they will sell well. They just have to sell a whole lot more of them.
So if most the women on their charts are playing tablet or the like, it wouldn’t necessarily be a smart move to rethink everything about hardcore gaming. Granted it wouldn’t hurt to rethink some things but these charts don’t tell the whole story.


On March 27, 2013 at 3:58 pm

Problem is that the numbers don’t match what he’s saying. Women are not the new core, and unless there is a horrific virus that kills the vast majority of male gamers from 18-45 they never will be. That 47% number is a smokescreen, it doesn’t delineate between those that play RPGs and FPS and those that play angry birds.


On March 27, 2013 at 5:48 pm

Look, I agree that the information needs to be more specific. However, there shouldn’t be this knee-jerk “there are no female gamers” reaction that seems to occur everytime this subject is brought up. The truth is there are more female gamers out there than much of the game community seems to want to give them credit for. Many of them are only turned off to more hardcore games because of perceived (and at times very real) sexism.

Case in point: I have a friend who played Dragon Age. She was offended at the desire demon. It wasn’t the nudity (near nudity, whatever) that offended her. It was the assumption made by the developer that a desire demon should only take the form of a nude female. Now, I know for a fact that there are women that have played and continue to play Dragon Age. I also know for a fact that there are some women that are so deeply offended by the fact that certain creative assumptions are made at the creation of such games that only serve to marginalize a portion of the gaming community. These women, these people, enjoy playing the really good, hardcore games like any man does, but they are offended by certain creative decisions that seem to say “Female gamers don’t exist,” or “You’re a minority group in the gaming community, deal with it.”

That said, I agree with TheDog when he said that he knows some women that play hardcore games, and others that tend to stay with the easier casual games. I’ve had that experience myself. As a result, I think more research needs to be done, because I also agree that game companies don’t need to turn every decent hardcore game into a casual-fest. On the other hand, I also believe that many of the female gamers in the “casual” crowd are actually closeted hardcore gamers that have problems with creative decisions as I have mentioned above. As a result, they stick with the casual games selection rather than delve deeper into gaming itself.

Again, guys, let’s not turn this into something where we insist that female gamers don’t exist.


On March 27, 2013 at 6:10 pm

Thats why there is something called character customization. You can have both male and female in the same game as well as different races.

For example a game like God of War people can choose who kratos(different name for female) the protagonist is depending on the gender is whether its male or female. I myself would not play a game if the character is a female protagonist.

I am not sexist its that I dont associate myself as the character. I will not play Starcraft 2 Heart of the Swarm or Tomb Raider, but I am really anticipating Beyond Two Souls and the main character is a female. I mostly love games that give you the freedom to create the type of character you want to play as like MMO’s do. As long as developers gives us these options I will buy them.


On March 27, 2013 at 8:54 pm

Look, I’m not saying that they don’t exist, but it isn’t 47%, and they are definitely not the new “Core” of gaming. “Core” implies that its the majority that you can count on to buy your product, and that is not and never will be anything but the 18-45 male audience if we’re talking gaming.


On March 28, 2013 at 8:20 am

Some of these comments are too funny.

Our family owns: a Wii, an XBox Kinect, a PS3, and a Gaming Laptop

1) The Wii was mainly purchased for me……the party games are fun.
2) The XBox Kinect was purchased for my 5 yr old to play the kid motion capture games, and my husband to play the ME series
3) the PS3 was my husbands, although I use it more, mainly he uses it for internet access on our TV and watching movies
4) the gaming laptop is mine.

I play games a lot more often than my husband. He plays angry birds and words with friends. I play on the consoles and the PC. (Used to play a strategy PvP game on my phone…..but it was too addictive so I dropped out…I had my husband and some of his friends get involved in that game also so they could support me, and they were my farmers)

and if 47% of the people playing games are women, vs 18% of what’s conventionally considered the ‘core’ market……even if that 47% does mainly play a tablet or phone game….don;t you THINK that diversity in the console/PC market would be good… try to capture the demographic with the actual money?

And when women find something they like, they tell all their friends….

Plus, financially, I’m the part of the market the companies should be courting.


On March 28, 2013 at 8:20 am

@Michael: I agree that the customization thing is good, and I believe ALL games should have character customization. The point I’m trying to make is that customization of the character alone is not enough. There needs to be the capacity to customize the experience itself. I realize there are limits to what developers CAN do, but they’re not doing all they CAN.


On March 28, 2013 at 8:31 am

+1 to Foehunter82′s comments

especially this: ” I also believe that many of the female gamers in the “casual” crowd are actually closeted hardcore gamers that have problems with creative decisions as I have mentioned above. As a result, they stick with the casual games selection rather than delve deeper into gaming itself.”

(this is part of what I was trying to say.)


On March 28, 2013 at 9:08 am

Artistic tokenism ruins innovation. Gender is mostly irrelevant when dissecting what makes a character good or bad. Sadly, too many people want to play junior sociologist and force their bastardised version of ‘equality’ onto the medium whether it actually benefits the IPs or not, mostly out of personal insecurities towards how they themselves view the opposite sex. It’s difficult to have an intelligent debate on this when the only statistic ever pedalled (the 47% one) is so vague and devoid of context that it has no evidential basis on which to form an ideology, not that it stops many people. The only other fuel they have is carefully selected examples, always told from one side only since equality of representation is only important when it suits them.

It’s a shame that GameFront chooses to push agenda of white/male guilt so hard on its readership. The female readers deserve better than this condescending outlet.


On March 28, 2013 at 9:48 am

@Helmie if “Gender is mostly irrelevant when dissecting what makes a character good or bad. ”

Then why aren’t more games available with a female lead? or at least the option of a female lead?

Why do the leads overwhelmingly have to be white men? Why white? Why male?

Probably because of the thought process of people like Michael who says ” I myself would not play a game if the character is a female protagonist. I am not sexist its that I dont associate myself as the character.”

If Michael doesn’t associate himself with the character then why won’t he play as a female protagonist?
makes me think that yes, Michael DOES associate himself with the character since he won’t play as a female.

Why should female gamers be made to play as a man, especially if the storyline isn’t dependant on the gender of the lead (I don’t think Tomb Raider would be the same with a male lead, or Metal Gear with a female lead). Other than production costs, what harm is there is adding the option to pick your gender?


On March 28, 2013 at 11:45 am

@Helmie: Ah, yes. The thinly veiled “Women should stay in the kitchen” argument. Those of us who actually support equality are not insecure. We are aware that there is a problem and want it to change. It takes courage to admit there’s a problem. It takes further courage to actually try and change it. This is not tokenism in any respect.

@Hemlock: The only problem I have there is that gender selection is just the bare minimum that can be done. There is more that can be done if developers would just try.


On March 28, 2013 at 12:11 pm

Foehunter82 – as usual, you warp what anyone says that counters your belief system to turn it into an issue of discrimination in a pathetic attempt to win the argument. It’s tactics like yours that will make sure nothing ever changes for the better, you are an essence a burden to your own agenda.

I am pro equality. Equality does not equal arbitrarily moving the goalposts to make people feel better. If that’s your definition of equality then you don’t understand the term and are immediately eliminated from the discussion on it.

Thank you, enjoy your delusional paradigm.


On March 28, 2013 at 12:19 pm

hemlock3630 – I actually agree with you there, games that allow the option of which gender/race etc to play as are great. That’s not what I’m talking about, though. I’m talking about the artificial inflation of female leads as a means of ‘redressing the balance’ at the expense of narrative and gameplay elements. At the very least the issue of political correctness in media needs to be addressed on this, instead of cowardly hiding behind the ‘chauvinist’ handwave like Foehunter does because his fragile belief system won’t allow anyone else’s opinion to challenge it.

As I said, gender is largely irrelevant unless the story being told is explicitly about gender issues. That’s another case in favour of character customisation, but at the same time it’s also why I will never accept that there ‘needs’ to be more female protagonists in games. Any protagonist needs to be contextualised within the plot and ambiance of the game, so if it’s not specifically about a gender issue then the gender of the character shouldn’t even enter the conversation. It’s not a factor that determines quality. The quality comes from how the character is written, and there are plenty of dreadfully written characters of every gender/race/sexuality etc, just as there’s plenty of good ones of each.

Trying to turn it into a sexual politics issue isn’t helpful. The issue is repetition of ideas and creative freefall.


On March 28, 2013 at 3:48 pm


then why can’t game developers develop stories (like Tomb Raider) where the protagonist can be, or makes sense to be female?

Why is the default (lazy) to be a white male?

And pray-tell, where is this ‘artifical inflation’ of female leads?


On March 28, 2013 at 3:50 pm

@Helmie: First of all, I don’t do this sort of thing “as usual.” This was the first time I’ve ever remotely made a statement like that. Second, this has nothing to do with moving goal posts. The way I interpreted your statement seemed like you were trying to say “Don’t fix the problem, force women to conform.” I am not insecure on the issue, nor do I feel guilt over the issue. I see the gender selection thing for character creation to be the actual “tokenism” you refer to, as it is the bare minimum a game developer can do. If I misunderstood you, which apparently, I have, I apologize. Although you could have done a bit more to explain yourself better, as you have done in your response to Hemlock.


On March 28, 2013 at 4:06 pm

For me (male) it doesn’t matter what gender my character has, as long as there is a deep story with believable(!) characters (within the game world; e.g. Borderlands allows for some rather crazy characters and I like those too, but in a game, where I should be able to believe it’s real, the characters should match the real world spectrum much closer). Good voice acting (which actually made me pick FemShep over the one without any inflection “its” voice). A normal depiction (I neither need models nor the muscle-guy type and especially no stereotypes, those are usually boring; again: unless the game world “demands” something different like the Gunzerker in Borderlands 2, which has to have too much muscles and that’s totally ok) of the characters.

What I’m trying to say is: if the story and characters are good, I honestly don’t care for the gender of the player character. If I can choose, I choose for the (subjectively) better experience or play both versions if that has impact on the story. Hopefully game designers create more good and strong characters of both genders, I’m looking forward to share their story.