For a 12-year-old girl, playing games on an iPhone is pretty regular behavior. Almost all of my friends have game apps on their phones, and we’ll spend sleepovers playing side by side. One day I noticed that my friend was playing a game as a boy character and asked why she wasn’t a girl. She said you couldn’t be a girl; a boy character was the only option.
After that, I started to pay attention to other apps my friends and I were playing. I saw that a lot of them featured boy characters, and if girl characters did exist, you were actually required to pay for them.
I wondered if this was a larger problem or just a feature of the games my friends and I play, so I started researching. My parents let me download the top 50 “Endless Running Games” apps that were listed in the iTunes Store for iPhones. Endless running games, such as “Jetpack Joyride” and the four versions of “Temple Run,” are extremely popular; they feature a character running, jumping, sliding and generally avoiding deadly obstacles in a game that does not end until the character dies.
I looked at the gender breakdown of the characters in the top 50 apps.
I found that 18 percent had characters whose gender was not identifiable (i.e., potatoes, cats or monkeys). Of the apps that did have gender-identifiable characters, 98 percent offered boy characters. What shocked me was that only 46 percent offered girl characters. Even worse, of these 50 apps, 90 percent offered boy characters for free, while only 15 percent offered girl characters for free. Considering that the players of Temple Run, which has been downloaded more than one billion times, are 60 percent female, this system seems ridiculous.
In one game, “Survival Run with Bear Grylls,” you can put the character in a Santa Claus suit for $1.98, but there is no girl to be had at any price. Does this mean that girls aren’t capable of escaping a bear, but Santa is? And one of the few games to be centered on a woman, “Angry Gran Run,” still offers a large number of boy characters — even when the game is about a grandmother, game-makers still make sure there are boy characters. This made me so annoyed that I did more research.
I found that when an app did sell girl characters, it charged on average $7.53, which is a lot in the world of apps. After all, each of the apps I downloaded only cost an average of $0.26. In other words, girl characters cost about 29 times more than the cost of the apps themselves. Disney’s “Temple Run Oz” charges $29.97 to become the only girl character. Sometimes there are small differences in being a boy or a girl — at one point in one of the Temple games, a boy receives a shield, whereas a girl gets a burst of speed — but nothing to warrant a huge price tag. And some of the girl characters, like the $9.99 “Emotika Diva” offered by the game “Super Running Fred,” are not appealing.
These biases affect young girls like me. The lack of girl characters implies that girls are not equal to boys and they don’t deserve characters that look like them. I am a girl; I prefer being a girl in these games. I do not want to pay to be a girl.
Not all apps have taken this route. “The Hunger Games” lets you choose between being a girl or boy for free. If I were an app maker, the ethical issue of charging for girl characters and not boy characters would be enough reason to change. But app-makers should eliminate this practice for a business reason too: If girls stop playing these games, then they also would stop making in-app purchases and stop watching the ads. If our character choices tell us these games aren’t for us, eventually we’ll put them down.