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A Victorian company is redressing the imbalance when it comes to female characters in digital games.

A still from Don Bradman Cricket 17

Don Bradman Cricket 17

A recent study of American gaming culture revealed a curious trend in gender beliefs and behaviour. According to the Pew Research Centre findings, 48% of people who play video games are women. Yet 60% of all respondents – male and female – believe that 'most people who play video games are men.' It seems girls are dealing with a kind of cognitive dissonance. They're definitely playing games, but they don't see themselves in the picture.

It is possible that female gamers feel like they are trespassing in a world that is built for men. And if this is the case, it's not hard to understand why. The vast majority of video games are populated with male characters, especially the sports games and first-person shooter games that dominate the charts. Historically, when female characters appeared they were damsels in distress like Super Mario Bros' Princess Daisy or male fantasy objects like Tomb Raider's Lara Croft. Today, we see tokenistic gestures towards female characters as in Call of Duty: Black Ops 3. Women may be half of the gaming audience, but they are often forced to play as male characters.

This bothered Ross Symons, who is founder and director of  Big Ant Studios, so he decided to do something about it.

Big Ant's bold move

Founded in 2001, Big Ant Studios is a Victorian game developer working across all major gaming platforms. One of Australia's oldest and largest game companies, Big Ant first specialised in driving simulation games but evolved into a leading sports title producer, releasing key titles for the local market. With AFL Live, Rugby League Live and Don Bradman Cricket in their catalogue, Big Ant is has a major voice in how we play e-sports.

As a father of three girls and step-father to another two, Ross Symons was keenly aware of how girls are left out of games, including the ones his company had produced. When his family sat down to play sports games together, his daughters had to play as male characters – at least until last year, when the newest iteration of the FIFA soccer game included an option to play with all-female teams. It was a watershed moment in video game history, spurning a revolution within Big Ant Studios. FIFA 16 was the first sports game in the world to include female characters; Big Ant would produce the first in Australia.

"It was about being socially responsible," says Symons, "It's just the right thing to do."

Bringing real women to life

In December 2016, Big Ant will release Don Bradman Cricket 17, featuring both male and females characters. It is no tokenistic gesture, but a genuine commitment from the company, which engaged players from the Australian Women's Big Bash League (WBBL) to do the motion capture for the game.

"Women's movement is so starkly different that if you simply put a female character in a game and apply men's movement it looks incredibly wrong. Women move differently in so many ways that your brain actually goes, 'That's just a guy.' Our brains are attuned to understanding the difference between female and male movement. We've had to motion capture it or it wouldn't look right or play right and people would just feel cheated," says Symons.

Donning the mo-cap suits during a WBBL practice at the Melbourne Cricket Ground, the female cricketers were thrilled to be involved. Like Symons daughters, they had gone through their lives playing sports game as male characters. The hope for Big Ant is that increasingly the visibility of women in sports games will make some contribution to the increasingly visibility of women in sport.

"There's a momentum around female sport and this can only help," Symon says, citing the forthcoming national women's AFL league and the excitement around the WBBL. "The WBBL is going to be huge this year and every bit is helping to keep up the pace." But Big Ant's ambitions go beyond cricket – all of their future sports titles will include female characters.

"Consoles are owned by families. I think we'll pick up women within those families who wouldn't otherwise have picked up the controller. I think it will also bring an awareness of women's sport to guys playing games and it might lead them to watching it on TV," Symons says. "I really hope it will have a wider social impact."

Don Bradman Cricket 17 is in stores on 22 December 2016.

Visit Big Ant Studios