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The hidden cost of playing as a woman, as explained by a 12-year-old

Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

The team at NPR's Planet Money, originally a crack team assembled to help make sense of the global financial crisis, does some amazing work exploring the weird financial world we live in. But it took a 12-year-old girl to enlighten them to the hidden economics of gaming as a woman, and with her help at least one game developer is changing how they do business.

Maddie Messer loves to play the game Temple Run. She was indignant, however, to the fact she had to play as a male avatar.

"It's not fair," Messer told Planet Money. "Because if I'm being forced to play as a boy, like, why?"

She embarked on a research project wherein she downloaded the top 50 games in the same category as Temple Run and researched how many offered female avatars, and if they did how much cost to play as them. Less than half did and, on average, she determined the cost of playing as one was $7.53.

So, of course, Messer did what any enterprising 12-year-old would do. She sent an op-ed to the Washington Post.

I found that 18 percent had characters whose gender was not identifiable (i.e., potatoes, cats or monkeys). Of the apps that did have gender-identifiable characters, 98 percent offered boy characters. What shocked me was that only 46 percent offered girl characters. Even worse, of these 50 apps, 90 percent offered boy characters for free, while only 15 percent offered girl characters for free. Considering that the players of Temple Run, which has been downloaded more than one billion times, are 60 percent female, this system seems ridiculous.

Planet Money used Messer's research to educate us all about something economists have been writing about for years — the concept of "price discrimination."

"Businesses charge different people different prices for nearly identical goods," Planet Money said. "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."

The creator of Temple Run agrees. Natalia Luckyanova recently wrote Maddie to say there would be a free female character in the game soon.

You can subscribe to Planet Money's podcast here. I might recommend their recent episode on the economics of Magic: The Gathering.

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