When Disney announced at San Diego Comic-Con that the cast of Guardians of the Galaxy would join its phenomenally successful game world Disney Infinity, they were following a familiar path. Disney Interactive Studios built a whole new video game world just for the Guardians and their fans to fight through and their new cadre of fans. It’s a guessing game: When they built a Disney Infinity adventure for the 2013 bomb The Lone Ranger, they guessed wrong. But after Guardians took in $94 million last weekend, it’s clear that Marvel’s (and thus Disney’s) bet paid off.
That’s very good news for Gamora, the green-skinned adventurer who likes to kick and slice her way through alien henchmen. Because in the adventures that Disney Infinity builds, the female characters find themselves relentlessly outgunned. Though the Infinity franchise features a healthy balance of male and female characters, there’s an odd double standard—boys can always play in girls’ adventures, but it’s increasingly rare for girls to be able to play in boys’. It’s up to our green-skinned heroine to prove girls belong on boys’ missions.
Disney Infinity, for those still unaware, is a game system that pulls together the House of Mouse’s ever-growing library of characters into a sprawling, shared world. Disney sold over 3 million "Starter Packs" for the 1.0 version of Disney Infinity, and has generated over half a billion dollars in core game and figurine sales since its launch last year.
It’s a multiverse that was built with boy gamers in mind, but where girl gamers have carved out an almost equal space for themselves. In the process, they’ve demonstrated the purchasing power of girl gamers’ and the appeal of women protagonists to gamers. But they’ve also demonstrated how, even when girl gamers do everything to demonstrate their interest, video game makers seem determined to underserve them.
As with any heroic tale, you need to understand the origin story of Disney Infinity to understand the conflicts and triumphs that followed. The game is an impressively skillful hybrid of different types of games. To play the game on your Xbox or Playstation you use a beautifully crafted figurine that—as with the successful Skylanders—unlocks that character.
Once your character is set up, there are two types of gameplay, and each mimics other blockbusters. "The first was what we call ‘playsets’ and those were six- to 10-hour games based on popular Disney franchises," explains Disney Interactive Executive Producer John Vignocchi. The playsets offer open world adventures where a player can tackle a series of missions or just cause havoc without consequence, a la Grand Theft Auto. Each playset adventure reflects a great deal of thought about how to create an adventure that’s right for Woody or Mr. Incredible or Jack Sparrow. In its review of the 1.0 version, the gaming site Polygon raved about how the surprising way the playset adventures "offered completely different sorts of experiences."
Disney Interactive doesn’t build these immersive playsets for every character it sold a figurine for, though. Instead, they’re meant only to be played with in worlds that users build for themselves, using a tool called The Toy Box.
"The Toy Box mode was like Disney meets Minecraft," Vignocchi said, referencing the world-building game that has become so popular it’s practically a cultural touchstone at this point. As with Minecraft, players can build their own levels, and they can also use any mix of characters: Mr. Incredible can cruise with Mater the Tow Truck, and Princess Elsa can throw a "cold shoulder" at Rapunzel. And as Disney vacuums up more and more brands, the universe expands: September will see the release of Disney Infinity 2.0 and the long-awaited introduction of the Marvel universe in the form of playsets for two iconic properties—"The Avengers" and "Spider-Man"—and a new property in "Guardians."
Vignocchi says he and other 1.0 creators expected the playsets to be the main draw, but it soon became clear that it was the Toy Box that kept gamers booting up their game systems. "We were surprised how much players gravitated towards it. Our data showed that 61% of our players’ time was spent in the Toy Box." They quickly decided to make the Toy Box a focal point of version 2.0.
Vignocchi and his team approached the first incarnation of Disney Infinity thinking that the game, like its then-main competitor Skylanders, would skew around 70% male and 30% female. What they soon discovered was the an almost equal split at 55%/45%, which Vignocchi calls "a huge achievement in the video game space."
Although these figures would come as a surprise to Vignocchi, they actually reflect an industry-wide trend that seems to be all but ignored in traditional marketing circles. The gap between genders is closing—The Entertainment Software Association’s 2013 industry report showed that of the most frequent game purchases, 54% were male and 46% were female.
Despite the fact that video game marketing strategies are dominated by appeals to boys and men, "I see a ton of evidence that gaming is becoming more of a thing that kids do than a thing that boys do," says Emily V. Gordon, co-host of The Indoor Kids podcast and an avid gamer. "I see it in the people who tweet at me. I see it in my friends’ kids."
Inside the community-built Toy Box part of the game, gamers see a similar breakdown. Disney offers a trove of the best Toy Box worlds built by users, and most are made to look like a world familiar from a Disney movie. By my count, 42 of these user-built worlds were set in films with a male protagonist (like Andy’s room in Toy Story), and 35 were set in a film with a female protagonist. Again, that’s a 55%/45% split.
Disney, according to Vignocchi, is pushing for the same kind of gender parity. "We always say, there’s no wrong way to play with your toys. There’s no reason players inside the Toy Box can’t play with whomever they want however they want." That seems to be true in the user-built portion of the game. But when it comes to playsets—the smartly designed and heavily marketed adventures that get introduced at San Diego Comic-Con—Disney Infinity is still a boys’ world.
The biggest missed opportunity in the 1.0 rollout was surely its underestimation of the film Frozen. Released in November 2013, Frozen now stands as the fifth highest-grossing film of all time, and the highest grossing ever by Disney Pictures. You could not have a birthday party for kids of either gender for months after its release without hearing aa chorus of its beloved ballad, "Let It Go."
Disney Infinity made a small bet on Frozen, offering figurines of its two princess Elsa and Anna for sale. It built an immersive playset for the Jerry Bruckheimer reboot of The Lone Ranger, in addition to playsets for already-beloved franchises like Toy Story.
When the Ranger tanked at the box office and Frozen made history, the results were predictable. It didn’t matter that Frozen characters were a secondary product that forced users to build their own adventures around them. (A character from Frozen can’t play through a playset built in the world of Cars, or Toy Story.) Vignocchi says sales were "through the roof. We were airshipping Elsas in just to meet the demand."
Vignocchi says the developers’ decision to go more heavily on Lone Ranger over Frozen really came down to timing more than gender. "When we were figuring out the character slate for 1.0," explains Vignocchi, "We knew we were going to include Pirates of the Caribbean, and we wanted to showcase another live action property to show how those would be translated into the game’s art style." At the time, Jerry Bruckheimer was deep in production on Ranger, and the studio was prepping a big marketing push. Meanwhile, Frozen was still in its infancy, and Vignocchi and his team weren’t even told the plot—in fact, says, Vignocchi, they were even forced to use character concept art rather than final designs for the "Power Disc" packaged with Anna and Elsa because they couldn’t wait for the film to be fully completed.
But given the enormity of the eventual miss on Frozen—figurines of the talking snowman Olaf and the story’s smarmily evil prince are primed for the Disney Infinity universe—kid consumers might have expected a course correction with the rollout of 2.0.
Instead, this fall’s lineup seems more tilted toward men and boys (as consumers and protagonists) than ever. Of the 19 new characters with full functionality—that is, with playsets built for them by Disney Interactives—only two are female: Gamora and the Avengers’ Black Widow.
The five new characters sold without playset functionality tilt heavily female. They include three very popular heroines: Merida from Brave, the Angelina Jolie version of Maleficent and Tinker Bell. The first two of those appeared in films with over $500 million in worldwide box office, and the last is the center of the Disney Fairies franchise that has spawned 7 films. Stitch, the alien killing machine adopted by the titular little girl in 2002’s Lilo & Stitch, rounds out the familiar characters who are being launched later and without playsets. Vignocchi says that they polled the Disney Infinity community about characters they would be most excited about, and Stitch, Merida and Tinkerbell were the winners.
Part of Disney Infinity’s trouble doing service to female characters is a matter of limited options: Marvel’s most iconic characters were created in the early 1960s, and their demographics are about what you’d expect. That’s why it’s a big deal when the character Nick Fury is reimagined as Samuel L. Jackson or Thor is reimagined as a woman. The franchising reverberations are endless.
But while women characters may be under-represented in the Marvel Universe, they exist. Spider-Man’s playset debuting in September is an adventure only playable by its six male characters, most of whom could easily be interchanged with feminine fan favorites like the jewel thief/love interest Black Cat or the ass-kicking latina White Tiger. According to Vignocchi, though, the roster for this new comic book universe was dictated by the editors of Marvel, who wanted to focus on big name, recognizable characters right from the start.
The issue of gender-unbalanced franchises isn’t a unique problem to Marvel. When I speculated that a Disney Infinity 3.0 might arrive in 2015, the same year as the rebirth of a certain insanely popular movie franchise, Vignocchi would only offer a coy smile. "You know," he says, "2015 does not seem that far, far away…" But no Star Wars episode to date has had more than one important female character—although there is speculation that J.J. Abrams restore balance to The Force by loading up on female characters (played by the likes of Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Game of Thrones’ Gwendoline Christie). But we’ll have to wait and see if that comes to pass, and if they make their way into Infinity.
Gordon, the podcaster who focuses on what it’s like growing up around video games, counsels patience. "Video games are essentially about 30 years old, really," says Gordon. "It’s an incredibly new medium that has been progressing like crazy. But it's just now getting away from ‘Well, we just make the dots chase the other dots, throw in a story.’"
Gordon wouldn’t presume to speak for an entire demographic—she asserts that "girl gamers are as diverse as guy gamers"—but when she explains that she prefers games that "introduce a fun new mechanic or pushes the boundaries of storytelling and what ‘playing a game’ means," she touches upon the appeal of the parts of Disney Infinity that allow boys and girls to build whatever they want.
"With 1.0, we found that girls spent almost all of their time in the Toy Box mode," says Vignocchi. "The ability to create, the more imaginative gameplay, appealed to girls. So while we discussed female-centered playsets, we felt it would serve girl gamers better to just make sure they had strong female characters available for them to use in Toy Box."
For Disney Infinity consumers who don’t like this two-tier system—playsets and the Toy Box for boys, the Toy Box for girls—there isn’t much hope. In hitting Disney’s prized "Four Quadrants," ("young and old, male and female") Disney Infinity has just the kind of hit its company loves to roll out. The main playsets for the 2.0 version—90% male, built with their own adventures and a Toy Box to explore—will be available in September. The second wave of 2.0 characters—mostly heroines, all of them with options for adventure only where users build them—will come in November, in time for the holiday merchandising rush, just as they did in 2013.
So as Disney Infinity continues to grow and evolve, the question becomes: Is Disney reacting to gamer tendencies and feeding their needs, or are they perpetuating gender lines in a more subtle, digital way?