Revolution? What revolution? Why gaming is still a man’s world

A scene from Assassins Creed: Unity  PIC: Xbox Media/Microsoft
A scene from Assassins Creed: Unity PIC: Xbox Media/Microsoft

The launch of a new game set during the French Revolution has incensed gamers because of its marginalisation of female characters. Since statistics show that 48 per cent of those who play video games are female, NIGEL ROBB asks why we aren’t animating more women to populate these fantasy worlds

Last week saw the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3) in Los Angeles. The focus from all the major participants was firmly on video games, with big announcements from the likes of Microsoft and Sony whose Xbox One and PlayStation 4 consoles are at the forefront of the current generation of gaming.

One of the most anticipated games of the year is Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest instalment in French games company Ubisoft’s successful franchise. Set during the French Revolution, the game features a breathtaking rendition of a tumultuous Paris, with meticulously rendered buildings and bustling crowds lining the dusty streets.

Unfortunately for Ubisoft, their E3 experience was somewhat overshadowed by what many perceived to be a glaring omission: there is no option to play as a female character in the game.

James Therien, Ubisoft’s technical director, told games publication VideoGamer that Assassin’s Creed: Unity would not feature a playable female character because it would have “doubled the work” of the development teams. Considering that Ubisoft had nine studios worldwide working on the game, that sounds like a major overstatement, perhaps a throwaway remark?

Apparently not, because Ubisoft employees were offering this explanation for the all-male line up everywhere we turned. Alex Amancio, the company’s creative director, told Polygon that “It’s double the animations, it’s double the voices...and double the visual assets.”

Bruno St-André, a level designer, claimed that adding female characters to the game would have involved redoing approximately 8000 animations.

The gaming community weren’t buying it: an almost unanimously negative reaction ensued, including the mocking twitter hashtag #womenaretoohardtoanimate, which featured comic suggestions as to why that might be the case.

And it wasn’t just the general public who objected. Jonathan Cooper, an animator who worked on a previous Assassin’s Creed title, tweeted “In my educated opinion, I would estimate this to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8000 animations.”

Anthony Burch, a writer at Gearbox Software said that having the option to play as a female character in the upcoming game Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel! was the result of “a ten second conversation”.

The Assassin’s Creed games actually have a quite reasonable record (for the games industry, at least) when it comes to representing diverse characters. Previous games have featured a black male protagonist and a playable female character. Which is of course part of the reason why gamers so quickly dismissed Therien’s excuse. Ubisoft themselves have previously had playable female characters, so why is it suddenly so difficult to achieve?

Presumably, what Ubisoft are trying to say is that the latest Assasssin’s Creed was designed from the ground up around a white male character, while the previous game was designed with a female character from the outset. Speaking to Polygon, Amancio made this exact point. Female assassins where a planned feature of the latest game, he said, but had to be cut at a late stage because of the workload.

If that’s the case, then it raises another question: why are so many games designed around white male characters to begin with?

The Assassin’s Creed franchise has always delved into history, with the current game set during the French Revolution. One of the most famous historical paintings of this era is perhaps The Death of Marat, by Jacques-Louis David. Marat, we should remember, was assassinated by a woman, Charlotte Corday, who was herself executed by guillotine in 1793. The role of women in the French Revolution is well documented. Would it be completely bizarre to have written the game with a woman at centre stage?

I think this is where the real problem lies. The games industry is still lagging far behind in its approach to story telling and character. In addition to the prevalence of white men, there are also a disproportionately high number of games set in war zones or during zombie apocalypses. Even 2013’s The Last of Us, which was rightly praised for its characters and writing, and widely regarded as an exceptional game, is still at its heart a tale of survival in a world overrun by ravenous infected mutants, which is hardly anything new.

Of course, there are exceptions. Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft is perhaps the most famous, but let’s not forget that prior to her 2009 makeover by Japanese games company Square Enix, she was often portrayed with a highly stylized, glamour model figure.

Meanwhile, Electronic Arts featured the upcoming game Mirror’s Edge in their E3 press briefing. The protagonist of the game is Faith, an engaging and original character, who also happens to be female. What was especially refreshing about this portion of EA’s conference was that the presentation was almost entirely about the character, with developers speaking in detail about Faith’s attitude, independence and integrity, in a way that clearly showed how important her unique personality is to the game.

Mirror’s Edge is being made by DICE, an EA studio based in Sweden, a country with a good record when it comes to equal gender representation. (They recently elected a member of the Feminist Initiative to the European parliament). But alas, Mirror’s Edge was just a short part of EA’s long presentation, and Faith was inevitably outnumbered by rifle-wielding men by the end of the show. In fact, out of the top 25 selling games of 2013, only one - Tomb Raider - had a woman as the main character.

There is no good reason why this should be the case. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 48 per cent of gamers are female, and of the remaining 52 per cent, I personally know many (myself included) who want more games featuring female protagonists. If video games are about telling interactive stories, then why are we ignoring the stories of at least half the people on earth?