The Assassin’s Creed Sexism Row is doing more harm than good

Every time we post opinions on this site we get accused of clickbaiting so we tend to avoid it, but this issue has become so significant and there are so many poorly formed arguments being expressed on major media outlets that I personally feel a need to express a counter argument.

During the 2014 E3 period Ubisoft mentioned that female characters were once on the cards for Assassin’s Creed Unity’s co-op but were dropped due to time and budget constraints. Basically it wasn’t worth the extra money and effort to include them when it didn’t fit with the creative vision. The characters you play as aren’t custom, they’re a set person and that person is a man. This kicked off a furore where some commenters have decided that this is evidence that Ubisoft hates women and that they have a responsibility to allow us to play as a woman. The best comment I’ve seen so far (that I wholeheartedly agree with) was on the Eurogamer article:

“This entire issue is absolute tabloid garbage.

CAN WE GET BACK TO GAMES NOW PLEASE.” – RudedudeJude

It is entirely tabloid garbage, there is no merit in the attacks on Ubisoft whatsoever and to support a high profile and ill informed attack weakens any related arguments by association. Campaigners for more equality in gaming will be linked to this kind of senseless outrage making them seen less informed and reasonable thus encouraging people to dismiss their views in the future.

The argument seems to be that Ubisoft not allowing gamers to play as women in a game is reinforcing endemic sexism in the media. I find it odd that this has turned into a story but not the male characters in Far Cry IV, Uncharted, Halo, Zelda or Murdered: Soul Suspect. Surely a better argument would have been ‘Where are all the games with female protagonists? The reply would have been ‘Well there’s new Tomb Raider and Mirror’s Edge and then character customisation/choice in Destiny, Sunset Overdrive, Splatoon, LittleBigPlanet 3, and possibly Rainbow Six and the Division’. But yes there could be more strong female characters,and who’s responsibility is supporting that? Is it right to attack (and make no mistake, smearing a big game announcement with stories focusing on accusations of sexism is most definitely an attack) a developer for not supporting it with every game?

Ubisoft have a right to create the games they want to create. Historically it has been more profitable to focus on games aimed at a male audience because they were the people buying games. Traditionally (although not always) people like to play game characters that are representative of them, and they like to create characters that are like them (and this is better, creating characters who you have no connection with leads to stereotypes and generalisations unless you do incredible amounts of research). As the majority of game developers are white, middle class men, and the the majority of people buying games are white, middle class men, it’s no surprise that we’ve seen the majority of game characters being pretty much the same. Ubisoft are actually somewhat of an exception, having brought us a female lead in the Vita version (now available on other platforms) of ACIII and a female lead in Beyond Good and Evil. They also were the only developer to have a woman hosting their E3 conference. But apparently this is not enough.

Of course there are women in the industry but they tend to be part of bigger teams and are maybe not as well presented as they should be. Similarly there are plenty of women buying games, but nowhere near as many as men. I’m not sure we can argue that this is the fault of the developers unless there is some kind of evidence of unfair treatment in hiring or the workplace, which should of course be looked at. Instead we have to look at why more women aren’t making the games they want to play and see? It’s never been easier to make solid games that reach a wide audience with a small steam (or even individually). Plenty of developers do this and the market is only increasing. Game Maker has recently upgraded their free version to the standard edition and Unity, RPG Maker and Unreal Engine 4 are all much more accessible than development environments have been in the past.

Instead there seems to be a feeling that it is the responsibility of larger game design teams to use that money and experience they have gained from creating male-oriented games that sell successfully to male-dominated audiences to develop new games that offer representation for a not particularly lucrative audience. I do not believe for a second that there has ever been a meeting where developers have sat down and thought ‘We shouldn’t put women in our game because we hate women’, I imagine the conversation is more ‘in our/a competitor’s last game a tiny percentage of players selected the female model, is it worth spending those resources on it again?’ Games are made by a combination of businessmen and artists. The artists have a story they want to tell, the businessmen have to fund the artists they believe will make them a profit. The concept of ‘half the population is female’ seems irrelevant here as the whole population does not purchase games. Instead we need to look at those people who do buy games and that is sadly very male dominated when it comes to story-based games. Of course maybe more women could be encouraged to buy games if they were represented better but that’s an incredibly risky and expensive venture that relies on the premise that the reason those women don’t play games is because there aren’t strong female characters, when it could be down to a number of other factors.

If you want to enforce developers to include gender equality in their games as Eurogamer suggests:

“So as a starting point, why not include a clause that governs gender representation in games? It’s not a difficult thing to pin down: if you are making a game where you can select an avatar, you have to be able to choose women as well as men.” – Eurogamer

surely you also need to include every other under-represented demographic? Every race, every language, every sexuality, every handicap, every religion. It would become a difficult or impossible task for storywriters leading to bland, vague stories (how often do you feel games that other extensive customisation really deal with you as a character well? The game gets filled with vague references to you so although you could be anybody, you’re pretty much a nobody) or developers simply deciding to avoid player choice of avatars completely. But then we still have a problem (as the Eurogamer article notes) of games that don’t use player-designed avatars. Do designers have a responsibility to make their protagonists representative of a certain gender/sexuality/age/race? Surely that is akin to censorship, enforcing creative restrictions on teams who are trying to create the games they want to make.

Of course as consumers we have the choice to support media or not, and I strongly believe that is what people should do. If you don’t feel a game represents you and that bothers you, fine, don’t buy it. I also believe that certain groups are represented poorly in gaming and other forms of media, but the solution is not to try and force people to make characters that they don’t want to make.

The solution is to either create the games yourself or support those who do. Why wasn’t there a huge amount of praise for Ubisoft when they based a game around Aveline? Or Capcom with Remember Me, or Square Enix with the new Tomb Raider? or Naughty Dog with Ellie in The Last of Us?

Trying to force people to change the art they are making goes completely against any principles of free speech and artistic integrity but it’s something that has become endemic in the gaming community. The reason for this is simple, it’s easier to blog or comment than it is to create. It’s much simpler to criticise someone else for not doing what you want than to actually do it yourself, and people are lazy. They enjoy feeling morally superior, they enjoy feeling like they are making a difference, but too many are failing to realise they aren’t making a difference, they’re making a lot of noise and harming the sensible causes they believe they are supporting. Look at how many people on your Facebook feed have ‘liked’ some charity’s post. How many of them have written a letter to their MP or volunteered? How many of them have even properly researched on simply read the thing they are ‘liking’? If you want to change the world, do something. If you want to see more strong female representation in video games, make a game. If you can’t make a game (it’s really hard) then support those who are doing it right. Fund their kickstarters, buy their games (Remember Me is so good and didn’t sell anywhere near as well as it should have), write and talk and record videos about the good examples you find.

Gandhi said “Be the change you want to see in the world”. If the conversation ends up focused on negativity surrounding games that get it wrong or don’t do enough it’s only going to deter more people from gaming. If you focus it on the positives, the strengths and the future you’re going to help create a more positive future.

 

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