When Pauline Stanley's 6-year-old daughter, Isabell, started playing Minecraft, she was excited to join her fellow first-grade players, who'd become obsessed with adventuring around the game's vast digital universe and building with Lego-like blocks.
But there was one problem: In the boundlessly creative world of one of the most popular video games, the only character she could play was Steve, a bulky man with short, dark hair and a 5 o'clock shadow. If she wanted to discover and build as a girl, she needed to pay extra.
"Only having boys is telling everybody this is a boy game only," said Isabell, who knew girls in her class who had quit playing the game. "It just doesn't seem fair."
It's a shortcoming that has long plagued the Minecraft franchise, which Microsoft bought last year for $2.5 billion after it sold more than 50 million copies and become a massively popular children's game and in-class teaching tool.
But the makers of the "sandbox" game first released in 2009 now say they will let gamers play with a more feminine character, named Alex, free of charge.
"Everyone loves Steve – he’s probably the most famous Minecrafter in the world, and he has excellent stubble," Owen Hill, the chief word officer for Mojang, a Swedish game studio that created Minecraft, wrote in a blog post Monday morning. "But jolly old Steve doesn't really represent the diversity of our playerbase."
Starting Wednesday, Minecraft players on Sony's PlayStation and Microsoft's Xbox consoles will be able to select Alex, a seemingly female character with thinner arms, pinker lips, and a swoop of hair around her neck. An update for the game's Pocket Edition, played on cellphones and iPads, is planned for this summer.
Alex first appeared on Minecraft versions on the PC and Mac, although her use was randomly assigned and she could not be selected in-game. In console and mobile versions, players had no female option but eight "skins" of Steve, including Prisoner Steve, Tuxedo Steve and Athlete Steve.
For all of Minecraft's blocky veneer, the "sandbox" game is incredibly intricate, allowing players to build tools, homes and nearly anything else their imaginations allow. Isabell, for instance, was tickled to learn that the flowers she had placed on her bedside table would keep dying until she installed a window to give direct light.
But because of that intricacy, the game's choices on gender had baffled fans, parents and teachers of the game, who were increasingly viewing it as the hallmark of a generation's creative pursuit. In March, the game won the 2015 Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Awards for "Most Addicting Game."
Fans of the game created detailed guides for how to play it as a girl, although they often involved paying money or changing the game's code through methods that proved too complicated for children or teachers with many versions of the game.
Nearly all of the characters, like villagers, are male, with the exception of the villainous witch. And for a long time it appeared that Mojang wasn't interested in adding female characters.
Mojang's founder, Marcus “Notch” Persson, said in 2012, "I've tried making a girl model in Minecraft, but the results have been extremely sexist" He added: "Blocky things are more masculine." In a blog post later that year, he said he had designed Minecraft to "be a game where gender isn't a gameplay element."
"The blocky shape (of Steve) gives it a bit of a traditional masculine look, but adding a separate female mesh would just make it worse by having one specific model for female Human Beings and male ones," he wrote. "That would force players to make a decisions about gender in a game where gender doesn't even exist."
Girls and women are an increasing presence in video gaming, playing more on everything from mobile apps to larger living-room consoles. The number of female gamers who said they played Sony and Microsoft's gaming consoles, the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, grew 70 percent between 2011 and 2014, to more than 30 million, data from market researcher Newzoo shows.
But a large gap still remains in who makes the games, and how the women choose to play. About 48 percent of the nation's 190 million gamers are girls or women, although 4 in 5 game developers are men, International Game Developers Association research shows. About 70 percent of female gamers said they cloaked themselves online as male characters to dodge sexual harassment, according to research cited by Danielle Keats Citron, a law professor and the author of "Hate Crimes in Cyberspace."
For Isabell, the Minecraft change will help her identify a bit with the creator on-screen while she does her favorite thing: building houses. She has a lot of them in different worlds, and her favorite is made of gold and diamonds.
"It's not perfect, but it's way better than before," she said. Next, she'd like to be able to change the way the character's clothes look. She suggests a rainbow dress.