An acknowledgment first: there are exceptions. There are games that depict female characters in a real and positive way (Syberia) and that were developed by women (Assassin's Creed). This is much more common in paper-and-dice RPGs (Dragonlance), perhaps because the barriers of entry are lower meaning that if a woman can't get a job creating RPGs there is nothing stopping her from starting her own company. It should further be acknowledged that paper-and-dice RPGs especially, which will be my principle subject for discussion in this post, have improved dramatically in the last 5-10 years in terms of depicting gender, but I will discuss that at length in the post.
One more note: while most of my statements regarding gender breakdown and participation are anecdotal or based on my own personal experiences, the Wizards of the Coast gamer survey in 2000 provides substantive data. I highly recommend reading Ryan Dancey's analysis of the survey, available on Sean K. Reynolds' site.
RPGs originally developed from war games. The earliest ancestor that can be clearly tied to Dungeons and Dragons was a miniatures wargame where Gary Gygax simply used a figurine of a wizard in place of a catapult, supposedly casting fireballs rather than hurling boulders. While there are female miniatures wargamers, the hobby then and now, primarily appeals to a male audience.
I believe there are two factors that influence this, the first is that while it is often claimed that women don't want violence in their games, that is blatantly untrue (sit in on an all- or mostly-female gamer table and see). The tendency, however, is that women tend to have less tolerance for out-of context violence than men (see: Geek Girl What Rules' "Gentler Sex My Ass - The LARP Version"), and miniatures wargames are largely about out-of-context violence. The second reason is that because men and women perceive wargaming as a male activity, they tend to treat it as a male activity, often marginalizing female players; Magespace has a great rant about this. I cannot count the number of times I've been in RPGs where male players try to dictate how female players should play the game, including in-character roleplaying decisions, character development, and most especially tactics and rules. In a wargame, where tactics and rules are 2/3 of the game (the other third being painting), that means these male players are trying to play the game for the female players. Who would want to play a game like that?
When RPGs evolved from wargames the primary-male creative force and player base remained. I've commented on this before but allow me to quote myself:
it means you've got mostly men buying the books in what's already a male-dominated hobby.
And that means the books are going to be marketed towards men.
Now this becomes a Catch-22. The books are marketed to men who buy the books and remain the dominant sales audience so the books are marketed to them, etc. etc. ad nauseum.
One of the results is the real subject of this post (at last!): male game designers trying to depict women and failing.
Now it should be obvious to everyone that men can and do write women well and women can and do write men well. We've been doing it for hundreds of years and almost every great work of literature requires the author to depict the other gender at some point. While this can be difficult, it is hardly impossible. Problems arise when the authors won't even try. While there are many examples of failure, I want to concentrate on two specific types of failure. I will touch briefly on game designers who don't even try to depict female characters and go on at greater length about authors who don't make a sincere effort.
Authors who don't try include those who write games that are entirely populated by male characters, or nearly so. These can be professional designers or gamers running home games. Early games were replete with such examples, though they've become much less common. Usually they were restricted to dungeon crawls and other context-less RPGs, but frequently showed themselves when such games left the dungeons and all significant NPCs were male, while female NPCs were limited to specific cliches. Comparatively, when was the last time you saw a male as a server in a tavern who wasn't the bartender?
The second problem arose out of a failed attempt to address the first problem: authors not making a sincere effort to depict female characters. How many female characters are depicted in a way where it matters that they're women? Could you change their gender without changing the story, or are they just male characters with longer hair and who you can make a roll to seduce without weirding out the rest of the table?
The original Metroid was considered progressive at the time because the main character was a woman. In fact, this reveal at the end is considered one of the major , a D&D setting based on Gothic novels, featured primarily male Darklords; while Jacqueline Renier may appear to be a female villain nothing would change with her back story or development if she were male. Likewise, the story in 7th Sea remains unchanged if Bonnie Magee were male. Legend of the Five Rings fares a bit better with Matsu Tsuko and Bayushi Kachiko, both end up as stereotypes of the woman scorned and a tiger woman respectively (though props to the l5r writers for making Matsu Tsuko's woman scorned trope based on revenge for her lover's death rather than rejection. It's almost enough to make her a dynamic character, except she has no motivation other than honor and revenge).
I saw this as an enormous problem in most of the fan-written modules for Heroes of Rokugan II. Gender rarely mattered for characters, male or female, except to determine who was eligible for marriage and/or seduction, though there were some notable exceptions. Interestingly, the modules I consider exceptional were usually either written by someone married or in a long term relationship - in other words, someone who had regular contact with someone of the opposite gender in a variety of situations.
Even more important than depictions of NPC characters, however, are the options afforded player characters. Games are, by definition, about the PCs. While modules usually afforded equal marriage opportunities to both male and female PCs, they usually only afforded sexual opportunities to male characters, often punishing female characters with Glory and Honor penalties, while male characters only suffered such penalties if indiscretions were made public. The module Charge of the Baranghuar was the most egregious such case, actively targeting female characters for seduction, then penalizing them with Honor loss, Disadvantages, and Shadowlands Taint if they couldn't beat a roll that would overwhelm most characters.
When Wynd and I wrote our module An Arranged Marriage we specifically sought to address this issue. The central question of the module was, what happens when a female character acts like a male character? The module, which we'd originally titled, "Judgment," builds to a climax whereupon a female NPC commits a discrete infidelity which then comes to light, and the PCs are asked to decide the NPC's fate. The NPC's younger sister pleads to the PCs:
She knows all too well the pressure samurai-ko find themselves under, and she has enjoyed much greater freedom than her elder sister. She tries to appeal to everyone’s sense of fairness: how many of them have been caught in difficult situations where they appeared to be guilty of indiscretions?
In our original version we were even more explicit:
She knows all too well the pressure samurai-ko find themselves under, and she enjoyed much greater freedom than her elder sister. She appeals to the PCs’ sense of fairness: how many of them, particularly the men, had affairs and were not caught? How many of them got away with indiscretions? She will openly compare forced marriage to rape.
I will fully admit that we stacked the deck with metagame sensibilities (e.g. 20th century feminism, character history, etc.) and from a gaming point of view the final version, as edited by Rob Hobart, is probably better. That said, the point remains: male characters were allowed to sleep around while female characters were heavily penalized for it, and our module was an attempt to address that issue and make players notice.
When I write l5r modules I follow a very simple procedure to establish gender: I flip a coin. Or more accurately, I use random.org to select the gender. Only when the gender is known do I design the character, or gender is by definition interchangeable and irrelevant. How gender is relevant is admittedly inconsistent, as it should be. In the real world not every woman is driven by notions of motherhood, nurturing, romance, or other traits historically considered female, just as not every male character is driven by historically male traits. It does, however, give a starting point to consider how strongly those traits are portrayed in the character.