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Radical change to video games to target women

Aaron Pressman

Thor, the hammer-wielding Marvel Comics superhero, is getting a major makeover, with a female in the lead role for the first time – at least for a new series starting in October. And DC Comic’s Batgirl is losing her tight-fitting spandex.

Big changes even may be coming to characters and storylines in World of Warcraft, the Activision Blizzard (ATVI) online game widely criticized for its sexist portrayals.

As leaders of both industries gathered in San Diego this week for the annual Comic-Con show, the moves reflect a growing realization among these pop culture leaders that the old sexist, exploitative images of yore were pushing away millions of potential customers.

Comics have been leading the way, offering an increasingly diverse array of new heroes over the past few years. Marvel, owned by Walt Disney (DIS), had success with revamped leads for its Black Widow, She-Hulk and Ms. Marvel comics. Introduced in January, the new Ms. Marvel featuring a Pakistani-American, Muslim teenager, sold over 50,000 copies in its first month.

Video games trail, perhaps reflecting the dramatically one-side male/female split for most current console game titles. The audience for first-person shooting games is 78% male, for action games 80% and for sports games 85%, according to NPD. And total sales of video games have been sinking, dropping 35% since 2010 to $6.1 billion last year, according to the industry's Entertainment Software Association.

What critics call the rampant sexism in World of Warcraft prompted one female player to outline her many objections in a blog post on Tumblr this month that drew a direct response from Blizzard president Mike Morhaime.

“If comics and games do not also grow more sophisticated to keep pace with the taste of their audience, then that audience will turn to other avenues of entertainment,” the gamer, who identified herself only as Star-cunning Sorcerer, wrote.

The post followed several less-than-encouraging comments from Activision execs, including former chief creative office Rob Pardo. Asked in May about the need for more diversity in gaming, Pardo replied: “I wouldn’t say that’s really a value for us,” Pardo said. “It’s not something we’re trying to actively do.”

Blizzard president Morhaime, in a lengthy reply to his female, former customer, apologized for the prior comments and promised to do better. “We know that actions speak louder than words, so we are challenging ourselves to draw from more diverse voices within and outside of the company and create more diverse heroes and content,” he wrote.

Morhaime didn’t give a timeline for changing the company’s games and Activision Blizzard didn’t respond to a request for additional comment.

DC Comics, a unit of Time Warner (TWX), is already getting rave reviews online for its modern Batgirl approach, prompting fans to post their own artwork of the redrawn superheroine.

Marvel’s decision to switch-up Thor’s gender follows the storyline’s long history of sometimes changing the role of the character wielding the magic hammer. Writer Jason Aaron hatched the idea and Marvel was “very enthusiastic to do it,” says Thor editor Wil Moss.

“We thought it was a great time for something like this because we’re seeing a lot of great responses to some of the new female characters we’ve got in our books,” Moss said.

The moves should also help improve prospects for gaming and comic book companies, according to Wedbush Securities analyst Michael Pachter.

“It’s always good business to appeal to everyone,” he said. “So adding women characters or LGBT characters is an inclusive step that is likely to appeal to a broader demographic.”