I recently downloaded and played Marvel Battle Lines, a mobile game mixing tic-tac-toe with cards depicting Marvel characters. Battle Lines is free-to-play, addicting for a time, and contains solid character art. I played this game nonstop for a month.
At first I didn’t notice the lack of female representation.
Lack of Female Representation in Marvel Battle Lines
I didn’t notice the lack of female representation because there are cards depicting women. Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Jessica Jones, and The Wasp exist next to Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor. More obscure heroines like Misty Knight, Quake, and Clea have cards as well rendered as the lesser known heroes Doctor Voodoo, Nova Prime, and Man-Thing. The Battle Lines campaign story line has roughly equal dialogue between males and females (all forgettable), the busts are unrealistic, but so are the muscles, and almost everyone was fully clothed (Battle Lines choosing to abide by Apple content restrictions, I assume). My deck of 12 cards (made to match complementary powers) was six men, four women, and two action cards. Seems gender balanced.
Then I began playing PvP.
Waiting for Women
Or player vs player for those unfamiliar with online gaming lingo. You see, to pair two players in real-time for an online match one or both players have to wait while a computer server connects them for a battle. Games will stick the waiting player(s) on a wait screen and fill it with interesting content and game tips to distract from the necessary wait time. Repetition, such as the same five game “tips,” on the wait screen, is normal as game makers prioritize development resources to the game over the wait screen. Battle Lines fills their wait screen with five individual characters taken from the card art. From my *ahem* hours playing PvP I saw enough of the wait screen to determine the character art was randomly chosen.
I also determined male characters vastly outnumber females. Like three-to-one.
How did I determine this? On any individual wait screen there is the possibility of seeing anywhere from five men and no women to five women and no men with everything in-between. Of the hundreds of wait screens I saw, predominately, it was a mix. Yet I started to notice screens with five men and no women or four men and one woman occurred often, while I never saw a screen with five women and no men.
I started to screenshot the five men wait screens. This post contains 23 of them.
Twenty-three screenshots of five male characters and no female characters.
I saw at least half a dozen more.
The half dozen or so screenshots of four men and one non-gendered being (Goose the Cat, wild beast) I deleted.
I have no screenshots of five women.
I never saw a screen of five women.
The lack of female representation went deeper. In my month of play, hundreds of hours of gameplay, and hundreds of loading screens I saw one screen of four women. One. That solitary screen of four women was so early in my gameplay I have begun to think its a false memory since it was never repeated. Men monopolize the waiting screen regularly at random, but women cannot even muster four spots more than one (uncertain) time.
Why the Lack of Female Representation?
The problem stems from volume of representation. There are more cards with male presenting figures than female presenting figures. The famous named Marvel heroes and villains are more male dominated which results in more male than female presenting cards. The Avengers (MCU)? Iron Man, Thor, Captain America, Hulk, Hawkeye, and Black Widow. Five men, one woman. (Battle Lines leans heavily on the MCU.) Villains? Only Thor: Ragnarok and Ant-Man & The Wasp’s main villains are female. Most of the names you know are male.
Popular characters have more card variations to drive interest, popularity is driven by the MCU, and the majority of MCU characters are men. This is a doubling down of the previous problem, as there are at least three different cards representing Captain America, three Thanos-es, three Thors, etc. There are multiple Black Widows and Captain Marvels as well, but if most of the famous named heroes are male creating variations only entrenches the problem.
The generic characters in Battle Lines are also more male than female. There are three or four variations of Ice Giant and Dark Elf. None are female. Sure, there’s a female S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and one of the fire demons appears to have a female bust, but their other generic card counterparts are male.
This likely stems from a caveman stereotype of men fight while women raise children. Games like Battle Lines, comics, and fiction in general often resort to stereotypes when depicting the less central “other” characters. We do not see the warriors of the primitive Other as female, since we assume they are shielding their children from collateral damage. Gender roles are easier to enforce on imaginary species.
Battle Lines might code a mild increase in the appearance frequency of famous named characters (Thanos) over henchman (Hydra Soldier), but henchmen are not absent so the weighted algorithm, if active, only mildly draws more attention to the lack of famous female characters.
Unwitting is Not Without Harm
I give the Battle Lines team the benefit of the doubt. The art is not grossly over sexualized (base Black Widow notwithstanding), the campaign mode has solid diversity, and Captain Marvel has starred in extra quests quite a bit (she did have a solo movie drop this year). I do not think never seeing five women or even four women randomly chosen on a PvP wait screen was a coded choice (if it was, that’s a whole different problem). Yet the fact that lack of gender diversity happened on random shows lack of representation built into the very systems we operate in everyday. There were 20 MCU films before a woman shared first billing with a man (Ant-Man AND The Wasp) and 21 for a woman to helm an MCU film solo (Captain Marvel). No surprise the number of women are lacking.
Still, to be casually waiting for a remote computer server to connect your tic-tac-toe card game to another PvP player and see an endless stream of randomly picked male characters subtly, unwittingly, reinforces patriarchy.
(Read more of The CNotebook.)