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A 12-Year-Old Girl Takes On The Video Game Industry

You have to pay to play as Scarlett Fox, a character in the mobile game Temple Run.
Imangi Studios
You have to pay to play as Scarlett Fox, a character in the mobile game Temple Run.

Maddie Messer is 12 years old. She loves science, her dog, and a good video game. One of her favorites is the mobile game Temple Run.

In Temple Run, you run along a path through a swamp or a forest, while being chased by a tribe of fierce monkeys. Maddie loves the game, except for one thing: Her character is a guy.

In a lot of video games, the default character is a guy. If you want to play as a female character, it's not easy. Often you have to pay.

"It's not fair," Maddie said. "Because if I'm being forced to play as a boy, like, why?"

Maddie decided to test her claim with a research project. She downloaded the 50 most popular games in the same category as Temple Run. She counted up how many offered female characters and how much they cost. And she handwrote her results on a spreadsheet.

Out of the 50 games, 37 offered free male characters. Just five offered free female characters.

"I was hoping there would be more girls. But there just weren't," Maddie says. "And I was kind of bummed, like, come on!"

Maddie found that in a lot of the games, she could unlock the female characters by playing the game and amassing credit, but that could take hours. Or she could buy the character. On average, the female character cost $7.53.

In one Disney game, there was just one female character. She cost about $30.

Maddie wrote an op-ed with her research results. And The Washington Post published it. People all over the world saw it, including the makers of Temple Run.

"It was embarrassing. It was embarrassing to read that," says Natalia Luckyanova, one of the creators of Temple Run.

As Natalia and her husband were creating Temple Run, they realized a lot of the people playing the game were female. So they added female characters. And since Temple Run was free, they decided to charge for those new characters. The female characters didn't have special powers in the original game. But still, 60 percent of the players were female, and the women characters brought in a lot of cash.

Natalia had stumbled into an age-old business strategy. Economists call it price discrimination. Businesses charge different people different prices for nearly identical goods. Airlines do it when they charge different prices for the same seat on a flight. And movie theaters do it when they charge less for students or senior citizens.

But when a business charges different people different prices based on gender, price discrimination starts to look a lot like gender discrimination.

Natalia, the Temple Run creator, says Maddie has a point. "For all of our good intentions, and for all of my good intentions, it's true that you start out with this male character. ... The white male is always the default, and anything else, it's like, you have to work for it."

The very same day Maddie's op-ed came out, Natalia and her husband wrote to Maddie. They told Maddie she was right. Soon, they say, there will be a free female character in Temple Run.

Disney is also changing its pricing. They'll no longer be charging $30 for its character.

The makers of one game went a step further. They created a new character, called Maddie.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Henn is NPR's technology correspondent based in Menlo Park, California, who is currently on assignment with Planet Money. An award winning journalist, he now covers the intersection of technology and modern life - exploring how digital innovations are changing the way we interact with people we love, the institutions we depend on and the world around us. In 2012 he came frighteningly close to crashing one of the first Tesla sedans ever made. He has taken a ride in a self-driving car, and flown a drone around Stanford's campus with a legal expert on privacy and robotics.
Jess Jiang is the producer for NPR's international podcast, Rough Translation. Previously, Jess was a producer for Planet Money. In 2014, she won an Emmy for the team's T-shirt project. She followed the start of the t-shirt's journey, from cotton farms in Mississippi to factories in Indonesia. But her biggest prize has been getting to drive a forklift, back hoe, and a 35-ton digger for a story. Jess got her start in public radio at Studio 360—though, if you search hard enough, you can uncover a podcast she made back in college.