Video Games Need More Than Damsels and Dames

Ubisoft’s newest game is absent of women. It’s time for all of us—not just feminists—to pay attention and speak up about gaming’s biggest problem.

The Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) is regarded as the biggest, most important showcase of videogames and related technology in the world. New generations of consoles are showcased to delight gamers and, more importantly, shareholders of gaming’s future. One of the most popular franchises showcased at this year’s E3 was the latest installment of the Assassin's Creed franchise: a third-person, open-world action-adventure game focused on eliminating evil people in “elegant” ways.

Subtitled Unity, the game centers on France during the Revolution. Shortly after revealing playable characters, people noticed a complete lack of playable women. Before dismissing this as more feminists “whining,” or “just games,” it’s important to understand just why this decision matters—to creators, Ubisoft, and gamers alike.

As with many next generation games, Unity is elegant and breathtaking. You play a man, as part of the story. Indeed, every Assassin's Creed game—aside from a small segment of one—has had a man as its center. But regardless, in the Creed franchise, Ubisoft has demonstrated remarkable diversity: You could play as an Arabic-named Syrian during the Crusades, a Native American, and an African slave.

A fictional lead that isn’t another mid-30s white male is a welcome addition in a market saturated with this character-type as center in films, books, and comics. As a non-white, Arabic-named person myself, it is a genuinely validating experience being able to play a Middle Easterner in the first Assassin’s Creed game.

Thus, as someone who felt validated by Ubisoft, it was disappointing to read about its decision on women.

As part of the multiplayer portion of the upcoming Unity, it would’ve been possible to include different kinds of avatars for the gamer. But “Assassin's Creed Unity's four-player co-op will not offer female assassins due to the pressures of production work,” reports Polygon’s Megan Farokhmanesh. The games director, Alex Amancio, told Polygon that female assassins were planned for the game, but the company ran into "the reality of production.”

“It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets… Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work,” he said.

Though gamers will always see themselves as the male lead, they can see their friends as other assassins. This is where the lack of women is problematic.

Chris Pereira summarizes just why this was met with controversy.

[Ubisoft’s] explanation [lack of time, resources, etc.] was met with a great deal of criticism, in part because a total of 10 studios are working on the game, so it seemed absurd to suggest female characters would be too much work. This was only made worse when Assassin's Creed III animation director Jonathan Cooper estimated it would take only “a day or two's work" to make happen. He also claimed that, at one point, an Assassin's Creed prototype allowed you to play as a female character just by entering a particular name.

As people not involved with the creation of a game, it might be ignorant to convey anything more than disappointment. Sure, we would’ve liked playable women, but resources simply didn’t allow for it. It was a business decision, which almost never goes according to plan. Consider, too, that many at Ubisoft wanted women, that women were planned—just not executed.

Business decisions sometimes operate in a sphere almost devoid of morality. A moral decision—donating a majority of income to charity, buying expensive but “greener” equipment, etc.—could compromise a business so much they no longer exist. This is understandable and there are plenty of interesting and important debates we must have, on a case-by-case basis.

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But to understand business survival in the face of moral decisions is not to immediately accede to the business. We are still allowed to question why businesses make decisions that appear wrong, from a moral or social perspective. I say this because many people want to dismiss Ubisoft’s decision about women characters under the carpet of “business”—as if that automatically exempts them (Ubisoft and their defenders) from moral judgment.

We know that games are massive, in every sense: the games themselves, the budgets for making them, the number of people involved. Games frequently overtake films in terms of profit and production and, indeed, feature Hollywood talent (Kevin Spacey is playing, not just lending his voice, to the villain in the upcoming Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare).

And yet, the problem isn’t that there was a sudden lack of resources, it’s that playable women wasn’t priority. It’s that a “playable women option” wasn’t as essential as reflective water and realistic, muddy buildings. Many things get cut and replaced and scaled down in creating, but usually we can prioritize what must be included. Of course that presumes female representation is important. After all, it’s not like the game will feature playable Arabic-named characters.

Many are responding by saying all this is as absurd as men demanding Lara Croft be suddenly replaced by a male. Creators shouldn’t be forced to shove in a demographic just to tick off the politically correct box.

But there are a number of problems with the response that the claim is absurd.

First, Ubisoft planned on doing it. They didn’t need to alter the core-story, it seems—it was simply mechanics. Second, this isn’t about the fact the lead is a man or “should be” a woman. This is about a space that is parallel to the main story, which could’ve allowed individuals to create their own avatar, helping people feel validated and well represented. This isn’t “replacing Lara Croft” or demanding a game tick all boxes to meet some absurd idea of being politically correct; it’s asking that an option, in a menu of options, be “female.”

Reactions to this are typical now of the Internet’s reaction to women wanting personhood: claims of “feminazis” and whining women. Worse still are the assertions that this is “just gaming”—which undermines just what gaming is and what it means for people, both creators and players.

It speaks to this wider culture, as we’ve seen constantly in “geek” spaces: videogames, comics, films, sci-fi/fantasy novels, and so on. There’s a one-two punch of a major company like Ubisoft not prioritizing playable women, which feeds into the validation of men who believe gaming is for them alone. A space where women are secondary characters, need to be saved, or wear bizarrely revealing armor which protects as much as a sheer willpower would.

The segment of angry men telling women to be quiet, threatening them with rape whenever they discuss issues about women’s treatment (thereby confirming why women write on it in the first place), is aided by examples like Ubisoft’s. We all need to care because more portions of our species should be treated and regarded as persons.

It might seem easy to brush off a videogame and this issue, when you’ve been catered to as a man and if you don’t care about video games. It’s easy to say, “There are more important things to worry about”—but, actually, this is how we respond. We take cases and examples, small and big, and comment. We say it’s not right that women are disregarded in this or that way, we debate, discuss, fight. We don’t threaten. We don’t fuel an already troubling situation with vitriol, which only makes those of us who want equal treatment strive that much harder.

When I watch most television series, I see almost entirely a white cast of lead actors. Whether it’s How I Met Your Mother, Game of Thrones, or Penny Dreadful. When I play a videogame, I expect the lead to be another white man. Fiction isn’t meaningless or mere escapism—it’s a way to convey our worldviews and ideas.

When it’s always around a white person in comics, TV, film, or games, we start negating the stories and perspectives of others. When we start only having men, we do the same. I’m hesitant about equating race and gender, and use it only as an indication of how narrowly focused so much of our media is. It’s not necessarily racist or sexist in intention, but it speaks to a kind of environment that is.

The point is this: It’s problematic when it’s not priority for a company to create a game that, at the very least, allows people to have themselves represented in the game; to know that somewhere people care enough to think your gender exists in a meaningful way. We can discuss what that means in terms of the wider LGBTI community, in terms of different races, and so on. But for this case, and considering Ubisoft pulled this same move on another of their upcoming games, in the same way, we can point out our disappointment. We can highlight our disbelief and doubt, our frustration that a priority wasn’t diversity.

It is also, however, encouraging to see this gain attention and the kind of consistent disappointment being conveyed. It shows what gamers do think is priority versus what creators and marketers estimate we do. Let’s hope that in future, instead of being “inches away,” creators will grab on to the idea of greater diversity as an essential goal rather than possible addition.