Like many people, I have a problem with the representations of gender in gaming, specifically a lack of female characters. Another E3 has passed and we saw a lot of really cool looking games, primarily starring white male protagonists. It shows a lack of diversity, which is rather depressing and increasingly odd. Games have stopped matching their audience, as the female player base of this medium has grown and grown.
If you had to say one good thing about the situation, it is that developers and publishers are starting to acknowledge that this is a problem. They all express a want to have more diversity in games and Ubisoft specifically have done an OK job. The Assassin’s Creed series has let us play as a number of ethnicities and Liberation on the vita even let you play as a woman. However, this shouldn’t be a token issue. It’s not a case of having your one woman and moving on; there should be a clear diversity across your range of games. There are of course some times when a specific story is being told and that story requires a certain character – developers can put who they want in their games – the issue is that the white male has become default and is not always necessitated.
This issue of default is my main complaint here and it links to a defence Ubisoft made in regard to a lack of female characters. In Assassin’s Creed Unity you can play co-operatively as four white, male assassins. When quizzed about a lack of diversity Ubisoft gave what they thought to be a reasonable excuse. They explained that games are hard to make and that every decision demands resources and money, they didn’t put any female characters in due to time and budgetary reasons.
There are a number of knee jerk reactions one can make before I move onto my major issue. One being that this excuse means we can now make a list of Ubisoft’s design priorities. At the very bottom of the list we can place ‘equality and diversity in games’ and above that we can place every single feature in Assassin’s Creed Unity. The Assassin’s Creed games are famous for intricate details and little touches, all of these being apparently more important than representing women. Let’s apply this logic to the series as a whole (apart from Liberation, obviously). They wanted to represent women, but didn’t have the time; they did however have the time to add things like animal petting (Assassin’s Creed 3), boat loads of collectibles (any game), terrible tower defence mini-games (Revelations) and hundreds of awful tailing missions (all of them). Yes we would have like to have put women in, but we thought it better to dedicate time and money to stroke-able cats.
I realise that game design is very complicated and that I may be guilty of over simplification. This being the case, I still think that the resource excuse does show a strange prioritization and ultimately rings pretty hollow. These games are made by hundreds of people (genuinely hundreds) and they have humongous budgets. Things take time, money and man power, but Ubisoft are not lacking in any of these departments. It also relegates equal gender representation in games to a bonus feature, a little extra they would have liked to have put in but ultimately it wasn’t important enough to make the cut.
They also cited animation work as an issue; they made the four characters all men because they had animated men. People may debate this, but I find it odd that they couldn’t apply these animations to women. Is it that women have to be weak and sexualized, that they couldn’t just move with a strength and heft of a man? I hope not, because that’s obviously false. Why not just add in women that are akin to your male character? They don’t have to be pretty little things that don’t match your butch Frenchman, they could be warrior women akin to Brienne from Game of Thrones.
My main problem with this issue though, is the presumption that male is the default. It’s only when they get to the stage where they have allocated all of their resources that they think, ‘it would have been nice to have a woman’. A male protagonist is taken as read; there clearly wasn’t any debate because apparently the ‘women’ issue only came up much later on. This outlook is really depressing and it speaks to a level of ingrained sexism in game development. The white male character is just the default; women and other ethnicities are optional extras or bonuses. Nobody seems to think about this at the starting point and if they do it’s often phrased as a selling point. If they wanted a female character, they could have had one right from the beginning; there is no reason why not. It’s just that the design seemingly defaulted to male lead.
We’ve played through so many similar stories focusing on white male problems, even if you ignore the gender equality debate it would still be nice to have some variety. There’s a whole world of different outlooks and tales out there, waiting to be explored. The industry really needs to get over this idea that the male is the default. Ubisoft are more than happy to carefully model and voice their male character without batting an eye lid, it’s only later that they think it would have been nice to have a woman. It’s the lack of thought and consideration that hurts. At this stage women are seen as an alternative rather than a standard, which is sad to see. I understand Ubisoft’s complaint, but it speaks to a larger issue in the gaming industry. The way forward is to stop treating the male character as the default and to allow a wide variety of protagonists to take the stage. It would be better for everybody.