Skylanders toy figure in front of pink box

Let Skylanders be Skylanders

Among video games, Skylanders is championed as appealing to both boys and girls. Games journalist and Dad Andy Robertson praises the strong female characters, but finds the gender balance still wonky.

Update 26 June

A recent interview with Studio Head Paul Reiche from Skylanders Trap Team confirmed that Skylanders will now include more female characters this year, and include female versions of their main heroes.

“Last year we heard from some girl players, hey, we want more girls. So this year we’re pushing that hard.”

Let’s be honest at the start here, video-games aren’t always good at gender. Game characters often fall into cultural stereotypes of what male and female people like, do and want, and are less interesting because of it.

This matters to me not only as a game journalist, but as a father with a young family including both boys and girls. I want the video-games they play to be amazing, and this means they need to include strong, interesting, powerful female characters.

Appealing to boys and girls

Video-games exist to make money. While my family can simply reject the mainstream view on gender if we don’t like it, a game developer cannot be quite so blasé.

Skylanders started with a strong message about gender and has always been marketed without the usual gender divide. This is a video-game franchise sensibly wanting to maximise its market by appealing to all children.

If you’ve not played it, it’s a collectable toy line of figurines that are placed on a USB ‘Portal’ peripheral plugged into a games console to access the character in the game. The clever part is that all your progress and upgrades are wirelessly saved to the toy figure. Put the toy back on the ‘Portal’ and you can pick up where you left off. It’s been a huge success, taking over 1.5 billion dollars in its first three years.

Back when the game first launched I spoke to I-Wei Huang, one of the key designers about their balance between male and female Skylanders. “It was expressed to us that you couldn’t sell a girl character to boys and that’s really frustrating to us. Our argument would be that you just didn’t build a good female character for boys to want to buy.”

Huang described how they resolved this tension by ensuring that their female Skylanders were as strong as the male figures. Stealth Elf from the original game is a great example of this and has gone on to appear in each iteration and become a fan favourite. (More on I-Wei’s character designs in this Skylanders Giants interview.)

This is certainly laudable, although even with these efforts only 4 of the 30 or so playable characters from the first Skylanders game are female. It’s a ratio that has largely been maintained through the subsequent games. Not bad in a market where good intentions often wane under commercial pressures.

Swap Force’s male only heroes

The special ‘Swap force’ range brought an interesting new set of heroes. Studio Head Karthik Bala explained, “they have interchangeable parts so we had to take a gender neutral approach so they seamlessly fit with each other.” But it seemed that mixing female legs with a male torso was a step too far.

The result in Swap Force was that even with the “gender neutral” rhetoric, the characters defaulted to male. They had male voice actors and were referred to in the male vernacular. “It’s a little bit open to interpretation, I refer to him as a he.”

I asked if the male-centric nature of Swap Force was a downside with a female audience. “What we find with girls is that they love the girl characters but they also love the boy characters as well. So far we haven’t found there is any downside.”

Talking to my daughter though it seems there are downsides for her. The lack of female characters wasn’t a deal breaker, I think she’s used to playing games without girls, but her enthusiasm for Swap Force soon waned.

On a more positive note Swap Force did offer five new female core Skylanders, after only four females in total in the previous Giants selection. It seems that some consideration of maintaining this balance continues to be important to the franchise and should be applauded as a good start.

New game, new characters, new ad

The trailer for the new Skylanders Trap Team game features a boy and a girl playing together.

The trailer for the new Skylanders Trap Team game features a boy and a girl playing together.

Moving on to this year we have a new Skylanders game coming out with its Trap Master novelty characters, unveiled with a trailer starring both a girl and a boy.

At the launch event for the new game I ask Executive Producer Jeff Poffenbarger whether we would see both male and female Trap Masters this year. Happily he pretty much confirmed that Trap Team would have female Trap Masters — my daughter is already a lot more excited about it.

Skylanders should be praised here for not only keeping the numbers of female characters steady but also delivering on character, personality and presence of those figures as some of the most engaging in the set. Sprocket, Stealth Elf and Roller Brawl were all very popular with both my daughter and sons, which I think comes in part from them breaking the curvy pink mould. I should also say that she really likes Ninjini too, although this is a character shaped more like a Disney princess.

Beyond this good start there is certainly room for improvement on the gender front though. I would like to see Skylanders increase the percentage of female characters it releases, and do this by offering a wider range of body shapes and personalities in that camp.

A quick survey of male Skylanders reveals a bunch that (according to my kids) could have easily been female: Dino Rang, Eye Brawl, Ghost Roaster to name a few. In fact for a long time I thought Zoo Lou was female until someone corrected me.

Customers in control

Skylanders figurine

Sprocket, one of the four female Skylanders Giants characters.

Video games could do much better with the gender issue and we need to hold them to account for improving things. Here we have a rare opportunity for positive action. We shouldn’t forget that this is a two way street though. Activision will certainly follow the money, and if sales of female Skylanders spiked they would have to take notice.

If the usual toy boy-girl binary seems nonsensical to you then purchasing toys and characters who break that stereotype is a powerful decision. By choosing female Skylanders like Sprocket, Stealth Elf or the female dragon Skylanders like Sonic Boom or Cynder, we have a strong way to influence how the game develops in future years.

It will be interesting to see how Trap Team sells compared to Swap Force, which was beaten in 2013 by competitor Disney Infinity. Perhaps the better distribution of male and female characters in the new game will restore its fortunes as the top toy-video-game product of 2014. Either way Skylanders still leads the sector with over 1.5 billion dollars of sales under its belt from the first three years.

I will be seeing more of the game in the coming months and will be sure to include some questions that address the gender issue in future Family Gamer TV interviews, to keep track of whether Skylanders and other cross-over products let their toys be toys.

Andy Robertson is a freelance gaming expert for the BBC and runs Family Gamer TV.

Female Characters In Skylanders

Spyro’s Adventure

  • Stealth Elf
  • Hex
  • Cynder
  • Sonic Boom
  • Whirlwind

Giants

  • Chill
  • Ninjini (Giant)
  • Sprocket
  • Flashwing

Swap Force

  • Roller Brawl
  • Star Strike
  • Smoulder
  • Punk Shock
  • Scratch

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