A Country For Old Men?

Max Payne from Max Payne 3 (he's getting older, too)

I have been playing through Assassin's Creed: Revelations and I love it, but I keep looking for an apothecary to sell me a Geritol potion for Ezio. The story puts him at over 50 years old, and for the Renaissance that's downright antiquated. He's not alone. In the last couple years some very high profile titles have come out with some very grizzled leading men. Even that bastion of juvenile humor, Duke Nukem, is over The Hill.

This trend been noted before by more people than me, but I always wrote it off to the vagaries of the particular story and society in general. I don't think The Expendables, for example, would have done nearly so well back in 1998. Or maybe this is just me self-selecting data due to my own encroaching need to tell people to get the heck off my lawn.

The characters may seem old and creaky to the whippersnappers’ end of the market, but in real life, I'd like to think that these characters aren’t really all that old. Snake's math-teacher-style lip ferret is iron grey, but his birthdate puts him four years younger than me. But him just being there and in the lead role — his mere presence — is part of a huge shift. Compare and contrast eight years before. While playing Final Fantasy X, supporting character Sir Auron catches all sorts of crap about his age in the dialog of the game. He's grumpy, but he didn't seem all that grey to me. Still, the 17-year-old snot-nosed lead refers to him as "old man" all the time. As you play through the story, you find out he's 35 (if you count the 10 years he's spent wandering around as an unsent ghost).

I decided this topic needed more, uh ... research. That's what the cool kids call “hanging off buildings and shooting things” nowadays, right? But as fun as it was to replay some of these games to get story information like dates and times, some good old-fashioned hitting the books came up with some intriguing indications.

I got out the heavy Google-fu, and it seems like the shift from the young punks to the old fogeys is following the age curve of their lead developer/producer/director. Back when the gang at id, Valve, and other influential houses were in their 20's, all our heroes were young. Now that those same men are pushing 40 and 50 (along with the average gamer),their leading men seem to be following suit.

In 2005, the International Game Developers Association put out a very useful report on the demographic makeup of the game industry. They list the average age of game industry developers at 31 (pg 16, fig 7). But that doesn't tell the whole story. The curve over time is skewed strongly to the left, peaking sharply between age 20 and 30 before dropping off nearly vertically before tapering into a long, thin tail off towards the older, right side. But add in hierarchical position to the numbers, and everything shifts. As a developer or designer gains in experience and authority in the industry, the average age rises. By the time you're running your own projects, it corrects to match the rest of the software-development industry average of 38, and often exceeds it. This is expected, and reflected across other technical fields. But outside of good old Clippy, Microsoft ® Office doesn't have a character to age. Games do.

All the big names seem to be aging right along with the rest of us. Here are just few examples of what I mean (where I could find the information publicly). Gabe Newell of Valve recently turned 49. Michel Ancel of Ubisoft just turned 40 in March. Ken Levine is 45. Heck, Derek Smart has a grey beard now (according to the pic on his Google+ Page. It's not just American developers; Peter Molyneux turned 52, Yoshinori Kitase is 45, and Shigeru Miyamoto turned 59 last year.

When you map the age of developers with the lead characters they've created (making sure to count in the date of the actual game story in your calculations), it starts to show a pattern pretty quickly. Here are a couple examples:

Metal Gear series

Character: Solid Snake
(born 6/12/1972)
Creator: Hideo Kojima
(born August 24, 1963)
Metal Gear Solid
(story set in 2005, game released in 1998)

Snake's Age: 33     Kojima's Age: 35

Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots
(story set in 2014, game released in 2008)
Snake's Age: 43     Kojima's Age: 45

Duke Nukem

Character: Duke Nukem
(born April 9, 1967)
Creator: George Broussard
(born May 31, 1963)
Duke Nukem
(story set in 1997, game released in 1991)
Duke's Age: 30 Broussard's Age: 35


Duke Nukem Forever
(story set in 2010, game released in 2011)
Duke's Age: 43     Broussard's Age: 48

I thought maybe it has to do with our growing tendency towards sequels. Particularly in some of the longer-lived series, the stories have been around long enough to get grey hair of their own. But even with some serious temporal gyrations, the correlations still seem to hold to a startling degree. Metal Gear Solid has bounced around in the timeline over the course of the series. In 2004, they went back to 1964 and then 29-year-old Big Boss (birthdate listed only as 1935) for Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater. But for Metal Gear Solid 4, we came back to Solid Snake as he turned 43 on the game's launch day in 2008. That keeps him right in line, two years younger than Kojima.

A minor factor here is people realizing the main character couldn't have his professional pedigree and still be that young. When the original Deus Ex came out, the protagonist J.C. Denton was 23. When Deus Ex: Human Revolution came out, Adam Jensen (its protagonist) is 34. That's partly because before he came to his current job for Sarif Industries, he was a commander in Detroit SWAT, and you don't get that job right out of college.

Another factor is the ever increasing average age of the players themselves. Last year, the ESA released their traditional annual report on gamer demographics, and it details that the average gamer is 38 years old. That whole "I hope I die before get old" thing goes right out the window at a certain point, and the concept that the average gamer couldn't go take out the bad guys at their current age is far more likely to scorch egos than drive sales.

I was tootling along with my theory when I ran smack-dab into a couple outliers. You'll note that good old Ezio doesn't follow the pattern all that closely (though it takes some extra math to do the digging). Jade Raymond is 36 and took care of the first two games, and Alexandre Breault who took over for our really grumpy old version of Ezio in Assassin's Creed: Revelations is a similar age (33 if you do some math on his LinkedIn info). Splinter Cell: Conviction (story set in 2010) has a 53-year-old Sam Fisher (born March 25, 1957) for a lead, and he gets matched up with Ubisoft's Alexandre Parizeau, who just turned 36 on April 14th.

I found a common point pretty quick: All of my outliers came from Ubisoft. That started me looking at other factors to find a clue and that brought up another interesting twist — gender.

Oftentimes, when people decry the situation with minorities and women in games, people point out that there aren't many minorities or women doing the work, and maybe figuring out why and bringing more in would improve matters. This usually doesn't get anyone anywhere. It degenerates into volleys of discussion about how you don't have to be the same as your character to write about it. And that's the side of the church I tend to sit on, particularly on an individual basis when it gets down to specific cases.

But this is a more complex situation. Writing isn't the only telling factor. Producers, marketing, and other deciders are also part of the equation. And as they age, things are shifting. They're green-lighting projects with older characters in a way they never have before. And when women are in those positions, you get even more diversity. Whenever the topic comes up of good examples of games that broadened the demographic, Beyond Good and Evil bubbles up to the top of the list, and that's an Ubisoft property. Maybe Jade Raymond's effect on Ubisoft in general and the Assassin's Creed and Splinter Cell series in particular are more important than we think.

There is a lot more here than meets the eye, but there are other cases to study. It does make me wonder if maybe the strong characterizations of the female supporting characters in the Mass Effect series (and, in part, the percentage of gamers who prefer to play FemShep) may have a lot to do with the influential work of the female lead gameplay designer, Christina Norman. She just moved to Riot Games. I don't expect them to suddenly explode with diversity, but I'll be watching their next releases with a certain interest.

It's not simple causation by any stretch of the imagination, but this discussion isn't started from supposition — this is a look at the facts and figures to go along with what is actually happening. I'm not making any judgement calls on what I think should happen here, but I think this raises a question about the makeup of an industry, a question that deserves a closer look from people with more expertise and resources than I have.

Looking at the situation from the angle of age shows that there may be some factor in the makeup of development teams that affects the representation of the characters in concrete ways, like their age. That may also hold true for other metrics like gender. Or to put it simply: When you get more kinds of people in there in positions of authority, you really do get more kinds of characters. And I'm willing to speculate that if we could get more females and minorities in positions of leadership in the industry, maybe we'd start seeing more of that effect in other endeavors.

Comments

And I'm willing to speculate that if we could get more females and minorities in positions of leadership in the industry, maybe we'd start seeing more of that effect in other endeavors.

Unless Japanese programmers are making games featuring Italians.

Interesting age trend though. I'm at the low end of the gamer age curve and I haven't been noticing this too much. Although this could be because Mass Effect and DragonAge type games don't have a well pinned down age on the main character. These games did feature a variety of side characters though.

This is great stuff, mom.

I know that as I get vaguely more old (still young at the industry pitch-perfect median age), I like seeing folks with some experience getting top billing.

Adam Jensen in particular struck me as a great character, and I just wouldn't have bought it if he was some 22-year old just out of college.

Squee9 wrote:

These games did feature a variety of side characters though.

I'd say we're getting more variety there too. Dear old Wynn (bless) felt like something of a departure. I mean yeah ... Tellah. But.

Squee9 wrote:
And I'm willing to speculate that if we could get more females and minorities in positions of leadership in the industry, maybe we'd start seeing more of that effect in other endeavors.

Unless Japanese programmers are making games featuring Italians.

Interesting age trend though. I'm at the low end of the gamer age curve and I haven't been noticing this too much. Although this could be because Mass Effect and DragonAge type games don't have a well pinned down age on the main character. These games did feature a variety of side characters though.

Thanks.

And yeah, that's why I didn't use Mass Effect or DragonAge, or Skyrim, or any of those. I don't know about you, but my latest Shepard looks looks as much like me as my son could manage in the character generator. She has long gray hair back in a bun, and he tweaked her face pretty close, too.

Good pickup on the connection between lead designer and protagonist. I agree with your general take, but one thing, Mirror's Edge is an EA Game.

I've noticed that the age of male protagonists is trending somewhat older, but I'm not sure that I've seen the same for female protagonists. DX:HR had a number of wonderful female characters in what I'd guess is their late-20s/early-30s, but overall I can't come up with too many mature female leads/supporting cast.

Lara Croft, for example, seems ageless. Personally, I'd be delighted to play a game with her in her forties or fifties, with somewhat fewer acrobatics and rather more stealth and dialogue. In a society seemingly obsessed with women in their twenties, will we ever see older female protagonists, regardless of developer gender?

RoutineMachine wrote:

Good pickup on the connection between lead designer and protagonist. I agree with your general take, but one thing, Mirror's Edge is an EA Game.

Great catch, and I'll fix this.

Squee9 wrote:

Although this could be because Mass Effect and DragonAge type games don't have a well pinned down age on the main character.

DA:O doesn't say it out the gate, but they make a point of saying in dialogue that your character is young. This was a problem when my character was wrinkled and had receding, white hair.

Michael Zenke wrote:
Squee9 wrote:

These games did feature a variety of side characters though.

I'd say we're getting more variety there too. Dear old Wynn (bless) felt like something of a departure. I mean yeah ... Tellah. But. :)

Wynn was so good.

momgamer wrote:
RoutineMachine wrote:

Good pickup on the connection between lead designer and protagonist. I agree with your general take, but one thing, Mirror's Edge is an EA Game.

Great catch, and I'll fix this.

That's on me for missing.

ATTENTION INTERNET: I totes screwed up.

I like the trend we've got now, of using older characters. It's refreshing, although I do think there's a lack of older female characters in comparison - the only one I can really think of is the woman in Gears with the grey dreadlocks, and she was only there fleetingly. Seeing Lara Croft, as Coldstream suggested, as an older woman, would be interesting.

Great article!

The trend is also happening in other media as well. Look at the likes of Jack Bauer, Jason Bourne, James Bond...others that my caffeine-deprived brain can't come up with at the moment. It also tends to be more realistic. Bad-assery comes not in your 20s but more in your 30s when experience and long term conditioning make a person better (at whatever they are doing) than youth and passion.

Does it help or hurt the article that I had to click the imdb link to know what The Expendables is?

While playing Final Fantasy X, supporting character Sir Auron catches all sorts of crap about his age in the dialog of the game. He's grumpy, but he didn't seem all that grey to me. Still, the 17-year-old snot-nosed lead refers to him as "old man" all the time. As you play through the story, you find out he's 35

Although I 100% agree with your central ideas, I would like to slightly digress and suggest that this has something to do with Japanese culture and/or language; I've seen characters in their thirties called "old man" in a lot of Japanese games, and I'm wondering if it is some title or honorific that doesn't have a direct translation.

Anyway, I agree, great read. The aging of characters, demographics, and designers simultaneously almost seems like a no-brainer; but correlating with the gender of those working on the project is clever and interesting.

Keithustus wrote:

Does it help or hurt the article that I had to click the imdb link to know what The Expendables is?

Neither, I think - The Expendables was a hugely publicised film.

wordsmythe wrote:

ATTENTION INTERNET: I totes screwed up.

Shocked and appalled.

Coldstream wrote:

Lara Croft, for example, seems ageless. Personally, I'd be delighted to play a game with her in her forties or fifties, with somewhat fewer acrobatics and rather more stealth and dialogue. In a society seemingly obsessed with women in their twenties, will we ever see older female protagonists, regardless of developer gender?

I TOTALLY AGREE WITH THIS.

I'm really put off by the torture-porn nature of the upcoming game. And even though she looks *more* like a real person than the previous Laras, it's hard to see that as a victory when she's lady-grunting through the whole game.

Very interesting set of thoughts, and I largely agree.

Coldstream wrote:

I've noticed that the age of male protagonists is trending somewhat older, but I'm not sure that I've seen the same for female protagonists. DX:HR had a number of wonderful female characters in what I'd guess is their late-20s/early-30s, but overall I can't come up with too many mature female leads/supporting cast.

I think that's because any female character of significance still has to fit some form of sexual archetype. It's sad, but I don't see it changing much soon.

Wynn is the one character I can think of, but she was pretty peripheral. Even Flemeth got the jugs out in DA2.

Yeah, that whole thing is not a topic I was going to try to address in 2000 words. Can open, worms possibly everywhere. When writing this I wasn't trying to get to the gender thing. It really did show up in the course of the research.

From what I can tell, when a girl hits 26 in games, she spins herself into a crate-cocoon, and emerges as a little old lady NPC in your nearest jRPG.

But I think it can happen. Talk to me again when Jade Raymond turns 45.

I think there's a stigma in society that the older a man gets, the more distinguished he becomes. I remember raising a few eyebrows when a bunch of twenty-something year old College girls told me Captain Picard was totally sexy. It's sort of a dream to aspire to, to be 40, 50 or even 60 years old as a man and still kick that much ass.

But with women, it's different. Like the older a woman gets the more wrinkly her skin is and further her boobs sag.

Or perhaps it's a bit more psychological, how a man aspires to be more like his father, so on and so forth.

Either way, it's founded in a lot of stuff born from and fed into our collective societal subconscious. It would be nice to see things changing a bit more.

Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

In regards to Ubisoft, I actually have a theory behind their game development philosophy. They're French.

Silly sounding, I know, but when I think of France I think art. Even their fancy expensive dishes are so painstakingly artistic. But most of all, France is where film had developed into what we pretty much know it as now. All the small, intricate details of composition, editing and mise-en-scene comes from advances made by French film makers back in the day.

Which is why it's no surprise to see interesting concepts like I Am Alive coming from Ubisoft, or to see a lot of their games try and focus on characters or different takes on settings.

Which isn't to say ALL of their games do, but a lot of them. I'd say that is part of the reason you'll see such different approaches from Ubisoft than from most Western studios.

Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

Maybe that's what a "regular Joe" looks like in Jersey.

wordsmythe wrote:
Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

Maybe that's what a "regular Joe" looks like in Jersey.

After the orange rubs off?

wordsmythe wrote:

ATTENTION INTERNET: I totes screwed up.

No worries. We've gotten used to it.

ccesarano wrote:

Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

Max didn't just get older though. His entire appearance was radically changed. It takes place only 8 years after the second game.

Coldstream wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

Maybe that's what a "regular Joe" looks like in Jersey.

After the orange rubs off?

Though Max is a case in point here, too. I didn't use him because I can't get specific dates on the 3rd game that's just getting ready to come out other than he's "several years older" this time around.

Coldstream wrote:
wordsmythe wrote:
Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

Maybe that's what a "regular Joe" looks like in Jersey.

After the orange rubs off?

Those are Long Islanders you son of a bitch! *shakey-fist*

Quintin_Stone wrote:
ccesarano wrote:

Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

Max didn't just get older though. His entire appearance was radically changed. It takes place only 8 years after the second game.

I haven't actually been following along. Still, if the image for Max they're looking for is a man that's been nearly drowning himself in a gutter because he hates life that much, then they got the perfect one.

If that's not the look they want, then...well... *shrug*

ccesarano wrote:
Quintin_Stone wrote:
ccesarano wrote:

Though let's also remember how much people hate (or hated?) the fact that Max Payne was suddenly bald and wearing a wife beater. It's okay for our older men to look like Sean Connery, but make them look like a regular Joe? Now that's just lame.

Max didn't just get older though. His entire appearance was radically changed. It takes place only 8 years after the second game.

I haven't actually been following along. Still, if the image for Max they're looking for is a man that's been nearly drowning himself in a gutter because he hates life that much, then they got the perfect one.

If that's not the look they want, then...well... *shrug*

That's pretty much a direct quote of what they were after. And from what I've seen they pulled it off in spades.

But that brings up another point. When do we get a female "regular Joe"? I'd like to see perhaps a female cop who didn't look and act like a Bond girl after two Roofie-coladas.

momgamer wrote:

From what I can tell, when a girl hits 26 in games, she spins herself into a crate-cocoon, and emerges as a little old lady NPC in your nearest jRPG.

Quote of the week, hands down.

CY wrote:
momgamer wrote:

From what I can tell, when a girl hits 26 in games, she spins herself into a crate-cocoon, and emerges as a little old lady NPC in your nearest jRPG.

Quote of the week, hands down.

momgamer wrote:

I'd like to see perhaps a female cop who didn't look and act like a Bond girl after two Roofie-coladas.

You're on a roll momgamer!

momgamer:

As a fan of anime and manga, I thought you would have the same background info. As far as I can tell, Auron being called "old man," is a loose translation of "Ojiisan" which is a cheeky and knowingly inaccurate dig at the older guy for being older; as youth in general is prized in Japanese pop culture as opposed to being limited to women in Western pop culture.

That said, thirty five isn't actually considered that old except in shonen titles and such. There are a bunch of old person archetypes in manga I've read, and again, as far as I can tell, it's normal for "The top champion" or "The top expert" in any fictional field to be some sort of guy or girl in their late 20s or thirties except in material intentionally skews very young. For reference, most of the really top Jounin in Naruto are in their thirties or late 20s, though the early story doesn't focus on their experiences as much.

It's a known (and frankly overused) trope in manga and anime that people who age well become frighteningly skilled or powerful. In Ranma 1/2, the most fearsome fighters are Cologne and Happosai.

Happosai is considered "aging well"?

As soon as I began reading this article I was thinking "man, when are we going to get an older female protagonist?" I was very pleased to see that issue actually addressed, and the fact that some people other than me would actually like to see this!

I mean, one of the reasons I play video games is for escapism, and I'm not alone. The idea of an older lady that kicks ass (not necessarily physically!) has great appeal as something to aspire to.

And the comparison with movies is spot-on. We allow much older male protagonists in movies than we do female protagonists -- about the only time you see a women older than her 20s as a protagonist is when the story is specifically about that and can't work any other way (for example, a biography of Queen Elizabeth).

Actually, I think this very thing is part of the reason the Portal games resonate so well with me. The heart of the Portal games is a conflict between two very different women. That's not something you see in video games very often, if at all.

One thing that I wish they would do is use the older protagonists to explore topics other than stereotypical action movie and save-the-world plots. One of the interesting things is that when you get older you tend to have more at stake in your life -- more responsibilities, a spouse, children, an established career, a long-held reputation, old friends... And that's an interesting space to explore.

I was playing and reading about Final Fantasy XIII lately and the one character that is pretty much universally liked in that game is Sazh. He's a likeable everyman, and his most important goal in life is not saving the world or thwarting some terrorist threat, but saving his son. It's an instantly sympathetic motivation and one we don't see often enough.

Demyx wrote:

I was playing and reading about Final Fantasy XIII lately and the one character that is pretty much universally liked in that game is Sazh. He's a likeable everyman, and his most important goal in life is not saving the world or thwarting some terrorist threat, but saving his son. It's an instantly sympathetic motivation and one we don't see often enough.

I absolutely loved Sazh. He was by far the most easy-to-empathise-with character in the game, and for some reason that's including the dude who's trying to save the life (I think? Never finished it.) of his fiancée. I really do think his age plays a very big part in it - the rest of the cast is all these young people running around, being adventurous, and he's simply trying to get his son back.

Although, to be fair, the theme of family runs pretty strongly in that game, from what I've seen thus far. Sisters, in-laws-to-be, parents, children, relationships leading towards marriage. A lot of them had different motivations, there.

I think you can also apply this theory to other FF games, as well. Steiner in FFIX, Barrett and Red XIII in FFVII - I think the wisdom that comes with age tends to offset the "omg the world is ending!!!!one" vibe younger cast members give off. That's what makes them a little more appealing - that down to earth, adult approach.