E3 2014 and the Playable Female Character Conundrum
Not all of E3 this year was positive and exciting. The uglier sider of the games industry reappeared to show that it still cannot comfortably deal with women.
The whole issue was sparked off by Ubisoft when they unveiled the brand new co-op multiplayer features of the first fully next-gen Assassin's Creed title, Assassin's Creed: Unity. When quizzed on the possibility of being able to join in the co-op action as a female Assassin Ubisoft replied with,"no".
This was only the beginning of the problem. When asked to explain the reasoning behind the decision not to include the ability to join in your friends' games as a female assassin Ubisoft stated that it would be too much effort and take up too many resources that were dedicated to bringing new features to the game.
It got worse as E3 went on as Ubisoft confirmed that Far Cry 4 too would not offer players the choice of a female player character for jumping into friends games in co-op. By the time folks were talking about Rainbow Six: Siege it was Ubisoft were wary and would not commit to the possibility of playing as a female Rainbow or hostage taker. They did offer up that the game would feature both male and female hostages though.
Why are we talking bout this when everybody else already has had their say? Simply because it is an issue that we need to talk about it and the more folks that engage in healthy debate on inclusiveness in games the more likely it is that the situation will change for the better.
Is it really a problem? Yes. Many gamers won't see it as a problem as a large proportion of gamers are male and straight and they like being able to play as bland everyman heroic characters (heavy emphasis on the 'man'). The problem is though, that a growing number of women do play games and a reasonable number of them to engage very well with the Assassin's Creed franchise in particular.
It's not just women that are being under-represented or just plain badly represented in games. There are issues of sexuality and race as well to consider basically because the majority of games use a straight white guy in his late twenties or early thirties as a hero.
Industry veteran Ernest W Adams argues quite convincingly that inclusion in games is a problem far more articluately that I ever could in a column over on Gamasutra focusing largely on female protagonists. In the article Adams identifies five different commonly used arguments against featuring more female protagonists – dismissive, male chauvinist, ignorant, misogynist and financial. The first four he dismisses as groundless because they are all based on some kind of prejudice even going so far as to encourage the misogynists in the gaming community to "join a monastery where you can lead a completely happy, woman-free life" a sentiment I would happily agree with.
The final argument, the financial one, is a little more difficult to dismiss. Adams dispatches it effectively by arguing that, certainly with triple-A games, they can't afford not to start appealing to a broader audience than the hardcore, straight, 18-35 male gaming audience on whom they have survived for so long. The basic reason is that triple-A games development is getting harder and more expensive. GTA V is reported to have cost 250 million USD to develop with the same amount spent on marketing the game. Bungie's new title, Destiny is also reported to have cost around 500 million USD to develop. Assassin's Creed III and Resident Evil 6 both required development teams spanning multiple studios around the world numbering in excess of around 600 people and a swift look at the credits at the end of many other triple-A games would seem to confirm the ACIII and RE6 are not alone.
With games beginning to cost so much more it would be folly to ignore women, who make up 51 percent of the world's population, in order to continue to appease to the sexist fears of the some entrenched hardcore gamers. The rewards for creating a well-rounded strong female character in games outweigh the risks if it means that more women get interested in playing games.
Aside from Adams' financial argument there's also the problem, certainly in narrative-driven games, limiting the potential pool of game protagonists to a subset of male stereotypes limits a developer's ability to tell interesting stories and truly tackle the kind of mature issues that even more progressive games like the Assassin's Creed series and the Mass Effect series try to tackle albeit in a mildly unsatisfyling way.
There's a recognition that there is an entrenched sexism in games which is explained in a fine way by Eurogamer Editor-In-Chief Tom Bramwell in his brave editorial entitled, "I Am A Sexist". The only way we're going to change it is to talk about it and challenge those who believe gaming should be a bastion of male safety both in the gaming community and inside the games industry.
We need to be more inclusive in the games industry, pure and simple and the more we discuss it the easier it will be to come to terms with the industry's shortcomings and find a better way forward. Games like the recent Tomb Raider starring a new, more real Lara Croft and Mass Effect and Dragon Age with their attempts to offer gay relationships demonstrate that things are slowly changing for the better. If we continue the discussion then this will help. Hopefully, one day, we'll look back on this and wonder why we didn't become more inclusive earlier. I can't wait for that day.
More reading on the subject includes Ernest W Adams' excellent blog on Gamasutra, Tom Bramwell's "I Am A Sexist" editorial blog on Eurogamer, Rob Fahey's "The Lady Killers" article on Games Industry International and Brenna Hillier's energetic piece on the lack of female characters in Deep Down on VG247 entitled "Deep Down the rabbit hole of ingrained games industry sexism". Read them.
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