Why We Need Women In Video Games

As you may have read already, Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio caused a bit of controversy at the E3 gaming conference by saying that there are no female assassins in the upcoming Assassin’s Creed: Unity because it would have been too much work to put them in. His exact words were:

“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. It’s not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar.”

Understandably, quite a few people were upset by the idea that putting women into a game counts as ‘extra’ production work, and the gaming media leapt on the statement. Similar revelations emerged around another Ubisoft game, Far Cry 4. Ubisoft stepped up to clarify the original statement, and Amancio claimed his wording was a “slip up”. But the furore surrounding the issue shows how contentious it is.

Ubisoft had the resources to recreate 18th century Paris, but not to include female assassins...
Ubisoft had the resources to recreate 18th century Paris, but not to include female assassins…

Admittedly, some media outlets may be guilty of fanning the flames of outrage with this story, but the amount of comments that have been added to each post on the subject show that it’s a big deal. What’s interesting, however, is how neatly divided the comments have been between people who see the ‘slip up’ as indicative of the underlying sexism in games and people who declare it a ‘non-issue’ (example quote: “Why does everything have to turn out into a battle of human rights and equality these days?”).

It saddens me that so many people won’t even acknowledge that there is a problem with female under-representation in games – and indeed their misrepresentation. As I’ve written before, women have historically been an afterthought in gaming history, and when they do appear it’s more often than not with big boobs and short skirt – i.e. women viewed from a male perspective. Strong female characters like Ellie in The Last of Us and Jade in Beyond Good and Evil are the exceptions that prove the rule.

I can empathise with people who don’t think that this is an issue, because for them it probably isn’t an issue. Such commenters are overwhelmingly male, are more than likely to prefer playing male avatars to female avatars, and are more than happy to be served up with idealised visions of highly sexualised women. Despite shifts in the gaming demographic, the majority of gamers are still men, most games are still made by men, and many gamers probably don’t think twice about it. But maybe they should.

Imagine you’re a woman (if you are a woman, this will be easy). The vast majority of games – Watch Dogs, Wolfenstein, Grand Theft Auto, etc, etc – plonk you in charge of a man. The overwhelming message is: “these are toys for boys, women aren’t welcome”. You might feel alienated. Some men claim that they find it difficult to inhabit a female avatar – if that’s true, then imagine how female gamers feel. As Leon Hurtley said on Kotaku: “Thinking about the Assassin’s Creed news this morning made me realise that if I was a girl almost every game would be [alienating].”

Assassin's Creed: Liberation DID feature a female lead.
Assassin’s Creed: Liberation DID feature a female lead.

You could argue that if the majority of gamers are men, then companies are perfectly within their rights to target that majority. And this makes sense up to a certain point – but imagine if society was run like that. Governments that continually ignore the wishes of minorities don’t tend to last long.

But it’s not just that female characters are scarce in games: publishers actively discriminate against female leads. The developers of Remember Me told how they were turned away by publishers who said: “You can’t have a female character in games. It has to be a male character, simple as that.” As Dontnod creative director Jean-Maxime Moris says, with thinking like that, “there’s no way the medium’s going to mature”.

The gaming world is sexist, simple as that. The industry has been stuck in a protracted adolescence that it is struggling to shake off. Signs of maturity are emerging, particularly in some of the thoughtful work coming out of the indie scene, but it’s a slow process. We know the reasons for this: a (largely unfounded) perception that men don’t want to play as females; the perception by many (male) gamers that nothing needs to change; and the misfounded reasoning from some publishers that games with female characters don’t sell as well (somewhat of a self-fulfilling prophecy that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny).

This thinking has to change. The relegation of women to second-class citizens in the gaming world is frankly embarrassing and, even worse, damaging. Think of all the children playing video games who will grow up thinking that it’s the norm to play as a man and that women always have secondary roles. Is that how we want women to be perceived?

So how can we fix this? Some people have floated the idea of publishers enforcing ‘quotas’ for female characters, but such positive discrimination smacks of tokenism. However, there does need to be a change in how developers approach the way they make games. I’d wager that much of the perceived sexism in games is unintentional – it just doesn’t occur to male-dominated design teams that they need to include women or, in the case of the Assassin’s Creed affair, it comes up as a secondary concern. An easy way to change this would be to circulate a simple checklist at the start of development:

  • What gender will the main character be?
  • Why?
  • Can we offer a choice of genders?
  • How would the female characters in our game be perceived by a woman?
  • Would our game pass the Bechdel test?

Not all games have to feature women, in the same way that not all films or TV shows have to feature men. In some cases featuring a single gender is appropriate to the story. But asking simple questions like those above would be a start towards setting the balance straight. We need more women in games because at the moment, half of our society gets short shrift in one of our biggest entertainment mediums.

Remember Me was rejected by publishers for featuring a female protagonist.
Remember Me was rejected by publishers for featuring a female protagonist.


  1. “Such commenters are overwhelmingly male, are more than likely to prefer playing male avatars to female avatars, and are more than happy to be served up with idealised visions of highly sexualised women.” Here, here.

    I’m glad to see that people are bringing attention (appropriately shelved out without hype) to this issue. I’ve been playing games since I was a wee lass and loved even Tomb Raider, however; that said, as the series of course progressed, it became even more clear to a growing young lady that only boobs and a bum matter when playing a female character (that is not to say I did not enjoy the Tomb Raider series for most of its entirety, especially the re-boot).

    I agree with your standards above, that it is important to ask these questions in certain games. It will always depend upon the story. We need more women part of the game development process, as well.

    Do I care if once in a while people indulge in fantasies of making big boobs on characters? No, for the most part I can laugh at that in WOW, Baldur’s Gate, Dragon’s Age, etc (it’s actually rather entertaining sometimes the ridiculousness of proportions and armor). But when it becomes a constant, an expectation, and a shadowing of the actual personality of that female character and her potential in the game (or lack thereof), then yes I will have a problem. So woe to the brainless antics at Ubisoft that think a female character “takes more work”. Perhaps they need to learn to be better at coding, eh? :p

    Well written article and much appreciated! Peace.

    1. Thanks for the comment, glad you liked the article! As you say, getting more women into game development would be the best way to solve this – currently only about 11% of developers are women. A woeful statistic, especially when you consider that now around 48% of gamers are women: http://www.theesa.com/facts/pdfs/ESA_EF_2014.pdf

    2. “Such commenters are overwhelmingly male, are more than likely to prefer playing male avatars to female avatars, and are more than happy to be served up with idealised visions of highly sexualised women.” Here, here.

      This is so true – nearly every male gamer I have met prefers playing as a man if given the choice, and a lot of them who then choose female avatars give them unrealistic proportions for a start. I don’t normally have a problem with this but I’m finding that women in the games I’m playing now are getting very shallow and are showing little character development or are formed from stereotypes (eye candy, damsel in distress etc.). Okay, this kind of works sometimes and is okay (I don’t think we would find it all that realistic if Princess Peach actually started standing up for herself).

      But at the same time I think this has a lot to do with the opinions of male gamers in general – personally I have been taunted for being a woman who enjoys playing a range of video games and often reviews and reflects on them in my spare time. The number of times I’ve met men who have verbally abused me (both on and offline) for this is astonishing and makes me unsurprised that there are so few positive representations of women in video games in general.

      As both you and Laryter say, getting more women involved in development would really help this situation. Great post!!

      1. I’m really sad to hear you’ve been taunted for being a woman who plays games – when I hear stories like this, it shocks me even more that some people claim that sexism isn’t a problem in the gaming industry (and among gamers). I hope that Ubisoft gaffe will raise a bit more awareness about this problem and hopefully lead to a change in attitudes. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I certainly hope that the idea of quotas doesn’t gain ground, as that would indeed not solve anything.

    This, like most issues, is cultural in nature and should be attacked through cultural means: through incentives of “I want to” as opposed to “I have to”.

    Nintendo Wii dared to attack the cultural stiffness against gaming and against the casual gamer, and lo and behold: they expanded the video gaming market by leaps and bounds by reaching audiences that the industry thought were irrelevant to the gaming market (casual gaming and party gaming).

    Based on that example, there’s definitely a financial incentive to try and expand the current female minority to the point that it matches the current male player base for size. The makers who pull off such a feat would not only expand the market, they’d probably have an almost exclusive degree of loyalty for the first few years of this new brand.

    Good luck convincing some executive of this though. I have no facts to back up this claim, but I believe that the corporate side of video gaming has more to do with the persisting sexism in Video Gaming than the developer side.

    1. Judging by the story about Remember Me, I think you’re right about a lot of this sexism coming down from the corporate level, although it wouldn’t hurt to encourage more women to become developers too. And seeing as the percentage of female gamers is growing all of the time, the game industry would be foolish to remain fixed in its ways.

  3. Hey Lewis, thanks heaps for writing!

    I figure it’s not just women getting short shrift here, because as men we are missing out on the full complement of humanity.

    I reckon your first two questions are especially pertinent: simply asking What gender, and why? It’s that sort of line of questioning which has taken speculative fiction writing (for example) into really sophisticated and stimulating territory (I’m thinking of feminist SF) — in fact, it has helped move “sci-fi” beyond the sort of adolescence you’ve identified in the world of gaming.

    Incidentally, there’s an excellent gaming analogy used in an article about privilege which I often share: Straight White Male: the lowest difficulty setting there is.

    1. Good points! And thanks for sharing that great article – that’s an excellent way of getting the idea across.

  4. I was VERY disappointed when not one, but BOTH new AC games looked to feature male characters. I didn’t know until reading this article that they can’t be bothered to incorporate custom made female characters. Sadly, it is the norm that needs to be changed. Half the human population is female, after all, and from the looks of it about half of gamers are now female too!

    1. Yep, it’s sad that some of the attitudes in the gaming industry are way behind, especially as more women are playing games than ever before. It’s a real shame that Ubisoft seem to have forgotten to include female assassins, particularly as they’ve included them several times before – a step backwards if you ask me.

  5. What a great read!
    I’m glad you brought up the point about games writers “fanning the flames,” they do tend to go a little overboard at times with their perception of defending social injustice.

    I would like to point out that i was thinking a lot about women in video games in regards to Nintendo’s offerings this E3. Splatoon’s avatars are all girls and I’m almost willing to put money down on the new hero in Zelda being female as well. I think after the success of New Leaf, they look to be more willing to be more inclusive of both genders.

  6. I think the main problem I have is that most of the time there’s no reason why a character couldn’t be female. Most of the time a character’s gender is only superficially acknowledged (like through a tacked-on romance or juvenile sexual content). And I think devs miss out on making powerful games because they can’t think outside their gender. Imagine The Last of Us with a grieving mother protecting Ellie.

    Didn’t Deep Down get into similar trouble for having 12 main characters & none of them female? If you’re going to go through the trouble of making multiple unique characters why not make a few female? It smacks of lack of forethought rather than blatant sexism.

    1. I agree – it seems a lot of the time that the idea of putting females characters in a game doesn’t even come up, even when you have the choice of multiple characters. It smacks of laziness!

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