How one 12-year-old girl is tackling gender discrimination in one of the most popular games

Nearly 200 million Americans say they play video games. Half of that group is female. So why do such a small number of games have female main characters?

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That’s what one young game fan wondered in a moving Washington Post op-ed piece last month, titled, “I’m a 12-year-old girl. Why don’t the characters in my apps look like me?”

Her name is Madeline Messer, and she’s one of the billions of people playing the hit mobile game “Temple Run.”

You’ve probably seen the game or played it yourself: It’s one of those “endless runner” games, where your character continuously moves in one direction until that character collides with an object or falls to their death. Both Apple’s App Store and Android’s Play store are rife with such games, including licensed takes on the “Temple Run” concept from Disney, Sega and others.

The game stars “Guy Dangerous,” a white man who’s running for his life from crazed, angry baboons. To play as a female (“Scarlett Fox”), NPR’s Jess Jiang discovered she’d need to play for at least eight hours. The other option, of course, is to simply fork over some cash: one dollar.

“I think of it, like, this dollar is worth one doughnut to me,” Messer told Jiang on a recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money podcast, in reference to one Disney game charging $US30 for a female character. “Am I spending 30 doughnuts to get this girl character?” That’s a lot of doughnuts.

Messer channeled her frustration into a sadly telling study: She played the top 50 “endless runner” games on Apple’s App Store. Her discovery? Out of 50 games, just five offered free playable female characters. And the average cost to play as a female in those games? $US7.53, or seven and a half doughnuts.

“Temple Run” is, by far, the most popular game in the genre, topping one billion downloads as of June 2014. It was developed by two people — a married couple — one of whom is a female. Her name is Natlia Luckyanova.

She says the choice to make the default character a white male wasn’t conscious discrimination as much as a mistaken guess at who would play the game. “It didn’t look like the stereotypical sort of game that women would play. And it didn’t look like the stereotypical game that kids would play,” Luckyanova says. But play it they did, to the point where women make up the majority of the player base. Sixty per cent of “Temple Run” players are female.

“For all of our good intentions, and for all of my good intentions, it’s true that you start out with this male character. The white male is always the default. Anything else, you have to work for it. I think she had a point,” Luckyanova told NPR.

After reading the op-ed by Messer, the game’s development team acted swiftly. Luckyanova wrote to Messer promising to make the game’s female character into a free option. The game is also getting an update that adds even more playable females. As of Friday, the change has yet to be implemented.

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