Looking from the Margins: Game Packaging by the Numbers

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After spending some time earlier this year exploring the cover for Remember Me and other games featuring protagonists in comparable poses, I decided to do a little further study into game packaging, tallying the types of figures featured on best-selling game covers. I’ve seen a lot of game covers in my day, so it’s impossible to say I approached this undertaking objectively; I knew I would find a lot of men, specifically white or racially ambiguous men, that the few women were likely to be scantily clad or in less dominant roles, and that people of color were likely to be shoehorned into very specific roles. Good box art, after all, reflects the game inside, and these qualities dominate the gaming industry, or we might not be here every day exploring these topics.

Despite my very realistic expectations, however, the actual breakdown of data still surprised me. For example, there aren’t fewer women here; there are next to no women here. And even in a year with a major release that featured a half-white protagonist, depictions of non-white figures are still troubling.

To start, I looked at the top-selling games of 2012, across platform, per the NPD numbers:

1. Call of Duty: Black Ops II (360, PS3, PC, Wii U)
2. Madden NFL 13 (360, PS3, Wii, PSV, Wii U)
3. Halo 4 (360)
4. Assassin’s Creed III (360, PS3, PC, Wii U)
5. Just Dance 4 (Wii, 360, Wii U, PS3)
6. NBA 2K13 (360, PS3, Wii, PSP, Wii U, PC)
7. Borderlands 2 (360, PS3, PC)
8. Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 (360, PS3, Wii, PC)
9. Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes (Wii, 360, NDS, PS3, 3DS, PSV, PC
10. FIFA Soccer 13 (360, PS3, Wii, PSV, 3DS, Wii U, PSP)

Then I began looking at the covers in two ways. First, I tried to approach from a position of ignorance. Here’s what I see, not what I know (in this scenario, for example, I would tag Assassin’s Creed III under “racially ambiguous” or “white” protagonist, because the only possible clue as to the character’s mixed race status is that he’s clutching a tomahawk, and if that’s all it took to become magically Native American overnight, thousands of people would transform every Halloween.

Number of characters across ten front covers: 25
(approximately; some figures are obscured)

Male figures: 21

Female figures: 3

Gender-ambiguous figures: 1 (Borderlands)

Female figures in revealing clothing: 3

Male figures in revealing clothing: 6
(this includes four men in sports uniforms that I would not consider “revealing” myself and also, LEGO minifigs)

jd4Every woman featured on these covers is dressed in a revealing way. Sure, one could argue that the (literally) whitewashed figures in Just Dance 4 are dressed for the club, but doesn’t alter the fact that some designer, somewhere, decided to dress these featureless female forms in much less than their male counterpart. The other woman, found on the Borderlands 2 box, is fully dressed, but her shirt has a cutaway that reveals her cleavage. You know, just in case someone missed that she was a lady. With breasts.

Intrigued, I also decided to tally the number of games that ostensibly exclude female imagery by virtue of their subject matter. No women in the NFL, the NBA, in FIFA; women are less common in war, certainly. So, based on packaging alone, seven of the ten games, from Madden to Halo, are set in a man’s world. Now, when we consider what we know about the game and not just the cover, Halo 4, at least, can come out of this stack, as we know there are sometimes women tucked away in that fancy armor. But on the face, with no outside knowledge, we keep Halo in the exclusionary set, leaving only three games with a real potential for female characters — and one of those is Lego Batman 2: DC Super Heroes, which does offer a number of female characters, but has none featured on the box, leaving only Borderlands 2 and Just Dance 4. Just Dance 4 is the only game to feature more female figures than male, with two female figures and one male on the box.

The racial breakdown is a bit more difficult to tally. The two Call of Duty titles feature heavily shadowed characters who could be ambiguous, but upon examination appear to be white.

Madden 13 and NBA 2K13 feature real athletes, of course, and this year all four cover figures are POC. The FIFA cover athlete is Argentinian, with familial roots in Italy, making his actual ethnic breakdown somewhat indeterminate both in appearance and in fact, so that cover could be put into several categories. This leaves one unquestionably nonwhite character on a game box, on Borderlands 2, where the lone female character also has some indeterminate Asian features. On this cover, she appears Asian; in other images, she is more racially ambiguous. Based on appearance alone, this means 67% of the nonwhite characters are limited to being featured on the covers of sports games.

aciiiBut we know the protagonist of Assassin’s Creed III is half Mohawk, per the story, and while little of his features are seen on the cover, when we move beyond appearance and into game knowledge, the number of POC on covers does then rise to eight, if we’re also including Leo Messi from FIFA, which gives us this:

Non-white figures featured based on appearance: 5
Racially ambiguous figures: 2/3 (ACIII is indeterminate)
Non-white figures featured (based on knowledge): 8

So no surprises here: white males dominate game packaging, and are considered the sweet spot in the game market in the common vernacular. While the ESA’s oft-cited demographics and industry report indicates 45% of the gaming population at large, across all platforms, including mobile, that same report offers no information on racial breakdown of the community. A 2009 poll by Ziff Davis, linked in this thoughtful piece by Rick Gee on Assassin’s Creed III, sheds some light on the number of POC playing games, but with no methodology explained at the original source (if it was once there, it’s now gone). As part of this project, I’ll be looking for better data on racial representation both in games and in gaming’s audience, but that is not within the scope of today’s simple breakdown.

As this project develops, I’ll be looking at top-selling games over the last several years and exploring the research that’s already been done on covers and representation. At a later date, I may also expand to back covers, as the number of women, at least, sometimes increases when back covers are included, but will not be looking at alternate or regional covers (when possible; some games have so many cover options that this is difficult), in order to keep the project more manageable at this time.

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One Response to “Looking from the Margins: Game Packaging by the Numbers”

  1. [...] been a particularly poor year for diversity in covers for top-selling games. The good news is that 2012 was an improvement. The bad news is that 2011 seems to have been the year of the muscle-bound white [...]