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Where are the video game mothers?

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There has been a lot of discussion of 'The Dadification of Games'. We've been seeing games about fatherhood appear almost constantly – often prestige titles which go for depth in their stories and characters. God of War, the Witcher 3, The Last of Us, Bioshock 2 and Infinite, Ni No Kuni 2, Dishonored, Yakuza, GTA V, Assassin's Creed Origins, even smaller titles like Dream Daddy, Octodad and Shower With Your Dad Simulator.

But there is often a complete absence of mother figures. In Dishonored, the mother dies at the start of the game. In God of War, the mother dies before the start of the game. In The Witcher series, Ciri's mother is barely mentioned and Yennefer is the closest thing she has to a mother figure. In Assassin's Creed Origins, we see a lot of Aya, Khemu's mother, but never in the role of a mother. In Bioshock Infinite, Elizabeth's mother appears only as a ghost to be killed. Oliver's mother is killed at the start of Ni No Kuni. Flemeth is downright evil in Dragon Age. GTA V does a lot to portray its father as dedicated and caring, but both of the mothers in that game (Bully and Amanda) are portrayed negatively. The mother in Binding of Isaac literally tries to murder her child and the mother in Pokemon literally sends her child out into the world on a whim. Mothers are often pushed to the side, turned into villains, or killed off early/before the events of the game to use as an emotional moment.

There are a few AAA games I can think of which do portray motherhood. Assassin's Creed Odyssey turns the main character into a mother… in its DLC… if you choose to play a woman – and Alexios and Kassandra's mother is a recurring character. There's also a part of Dragon Age Inquisition which, if you carry over the right save conditions from Dragon Age 2, turns Morrigan into a mother. Samara, a character in Mass Effect 2, is tasked with killing her children, but is shown with a level of emotional complexity about it that is rare for video game mothers. Portrayals of motherhood have been appearing in smaller titles. Life is Strange, Night in the Woods, and Undertale all have positive portrayals of motherhood.

However while these games feature mothers, they are never about motherhood, the way so many major games are about fatherhood. The only example that comes to my mind is Bayonetta 2, in which we see motherhood as a dominating theme throughout.

The rise in video game fathers doesn't need debating – the biggest demographic of story based, big budget games is men in their 30s and upward. And the demographics within the video game development industry are similar. In Japan, 13% of developers are women. In Canada it's about the same. Australia and the US are at 10 to 11%. The UK is only 4% female. Devs create characters they understand, gamers play characters they understand.

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I've heard the claim that women don't buy those games. While it's true that roughly half of all gamers are women, they do not go for the same games men do. Match 3 and Family/Farming Simulators are the only games where more women play than men. When we look at the kinds of games which tend to portray parenthood, we see that the percentages of women and men are as follows:

Open World: 14% Women, 86% Men

Action Adventure: 18% Women, 82% Men

Action RPG: 20% Women, 80% Men

Western RPG: 26% Women, 74% Men

JRPG: 33% Women, 64% Men

However despite this, surveys have found that women place greater importance on role play, immersion and exploration, expression and customisation, socialisation and collaboration, narrative and character, and novel outcomes. Male players have been shown to place greater emphasis on blowing things up and creating chaos, competition, decision making, resource management, min-maxing, and action packed, fast paced gameplay.

This all suggest that while women may be underrepresented as players, they would be more interested in games with deep interpersonal stories about parenthood than men. When we specifically look at these kinds of games, we see that women are more represented than those statistics suggest. 48% of Dragon Age Inquisition's players were women, for example.

So I don't believe it's an issue of women not being a big audience. There's evidence that women are more likely to buy games with strong female characters, whereas the presence or lack of strong female characters does not seem to heavily affect the number of male players. So if anything, the financial incentive should be to create more stories about motherhood, not less.

The strongest reason I can come up with right now for the lack of mothers in games, is simply the dominance of men in video game development. I suspect that the 'boards' who make the big decisions on major titles are even more male dominated than women. But there may be other reasons. I don't want to make this about sexism because I believe that ultimately developers want to make good games and investors want to make the most money possible. If people wanted to have yet another discussion of sexist portrayals of women or men in video games, they're welcome to do it. Somewhere else.

So what are your thoughts? Where are the video game mothers?

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