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.