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Friday, June 13, 2014

Let's talk about Assassin's Creed: Unity and the boy's club

Opinion by Matt S.

It wouldn't be an E3 without controversy. This year that controversy is a statement that an Ubisoft spokesman made to the effect of "there are no playable female assassins in Assassin's Creed: Unity's multiplayer component because animating women is too much work."

I actually wasn't going to weigh into this discussion. Other journalists had already done a fine job in explaining how ridiculous it is that a company that has set around 1000 people to work on a game and built an entire open world city lacks the resources to develop one single playable female character. I'm also not going to bother pointing out that the previous Assassin's Creed game actually had a playable female assassin - Aveline - despite being a game staring a male dude. Sure Aveline was DLC, but there I was in that game, playing it as both a man and a woman. And then later as a black man as well, incidentally. So no, the idea that Ubisoft could not have added a female assassin into Unity because of resourcing reasons is utterly untrue.

What I am going to point out, however, is my anger at reading the comments section of when it reported on the controversy. This is an industry publication and the majority of comments come from individuals that work in the games industry. They, by virtue of being professionals working in the games industry, represent the industry. Many of these individuals, judging from their profile pictures, are Caucasian men. Many of them, judging from their profiles, are in decision-making positions.

Let's have a look at some of these comments from these industry professionals, shall we?

"We're also primarily creators of games and entertainment, and as such I think that if something has to be sacrificed to get the game out the door, there are far more important things you don't want to cut. Gameplay, bug fixing, environments, music, voice acting (if you have it), balance, story, graphics, etc, and most importantly, whether it's fun or not."

Ahhhhh, the good old "games are totally works of art right up until the point it becomes inconvenient and then we need to remind ourselves that games are brainless entertainment" argument. I would bet my house that if a film critic turns around and argues that games are not art this game developer would in turn argue that the film critic is wrong. You don't get to play both sides of the table. Gender representation is an important discussion that we have in the arts world, and so, if you can accept that games are art, then you can accept that the lack of female characters in the industry is worth discussing.

"And the work is even more astronomical if there is a narrative involved. Unless you want a chik walking, talking and acting like a dude and being blamed for being sexist anyway, cause your chicks, behave like dudes I cant see how people think this can be done without it costing much more or being extra work."

Ayup. Calling women "chicks" shows that you've got a great grasp of the issues and concerns that more progressive people have with gender representation in games development. (That was sarcasm, just note.)

"I see posters proudly declare that they turn their nose up at a game if they can't select/ build a character that looks just like them. I find this very disconcerting: Are gamers really that unwilling to empathize with a character and a story simply because they aren't the same gender/ race/ age as the protagonist?"

"Psychologists might label this as Empathy Deficit Disorder (EDD) and reflective of a type of narcissism. When you suffer from it, you're unable to step outside yourself and tune in to what other people experience, especially those who feel, think and believe differently from yourself. Is this what's going on here? Is this more prevalent among gamers?"

This might just be my 'favourite' comment of all - attempting to use armchair psychology to argue that women (and anyone that might want to play a female character in a game) has to shut up and enjoy playing with male characters, or they've got psychological problems.

This comment is especially amusing is that this comment came from a Nintendo of America employee, and we all know how progressive Nintendo's culture is when it comes to sensitive social issues.

"This is not a news article. This is a sensational piece more suited to the daily mail than an industry news Web site. The 4th article in 2 days on the same topic. Inviting the same comments and discussion as the other 3. Driving controversy and thus traffic."

Another classic attempt to shut down conversation: "I'm not interested in this topic and so clearly you're clickbaiting."

"Here we go again. The "righteous crowd" found another subject to complain about after the Far Cry 4 thing stopped being interesting."

And another classic: "if you're upset by a social issue then you're "righteous" and therefore you should be ignored."

"All this commotion surrounding Assasins Creed unity yet people stay mum, about Tomb Raider, Bayonetta, Mirrors Edge, Splatoon, Valient Hearts, Ori and The Blind Forest... I was happy to see Palutena included in the smash bros. roster. Also for hyrule warriors Nintendo had a large focus on Midna, Zelda and Impa

"It just seems that no matter what is done some people are just not satisfied..."

Indeed it is very difficult to understand why women (or people that might want to play female characters in games) might be disappointed by the representation of their gender in a game. After all, who cares that 95 per cent of AAA games exclusively feature Caucasian male lead characters, and so 95 per cent of the game industry's money goes into Caucasian male lead characters? There are some indie games that have female characters, and there's Tomb Raider! And a WHOLE CHARACTER IN A FIGHTING GAME.

The kind of responses above are typically what you'd expect to find on a consumer website like IGN or Gamespot where the editors show precious little concern for moderating discussion and weeding out the toxic elements of the community. But this is a trade publication, and the people that are commenting are industry professionals, formally representing the companies that they work for. I'll say it again: These people are the representatives of the industry, and therefore representative of the attitudes and culture of the industry.

There's plenty more that are sadly plaguing that comment thread. There are other people in the comments thread arguing the opposite case, of course, and some of those people are even men. It's good to see that in the games industry there are at least some people that argue for it to take a formal place with the other forms of art out there and have games behave as the important part of modern culture that they are. But the point here is this - we have an industry where gender representation is an issue. No other entertainment industry is so disproportionately dominated by straight white male roles as the games industry, and every time someone dares point this out, they're subjected to an increasingly aggressive boy's club leaping to the defense of discrimination.

And yes, discrimination is what this is. Regardless of the defence, to argue that that there is any legitimate reason that one of the most expensive games of the year can't include a female avatar is to argue for active discrimination of women roles in games. It's not acceptable, and the fact that the industry itself is perpetuating this nonsense is damning proof that the industry has a lot of growing up to do before it deserves to be taken seriously as an artistic outlet.

As a final aside - were Assassin's Creed: Unity not a textbook example of how major studios approach female roles, no one would care that there isn't a female assassin this time around. It's the fact that 95 per cent of the big budget games refuse to acknowledge that women exist that's the problem. Furthermore, if Ubisoft had have come out and said straight up "this doesn't match our vision for the game," then I would be arguing the other side of the debate - that, yes, a developer does have a right to execute on its artistic vision (though people do then have a right to criticise that vision). But when you then come out with a weak and factually inaccurate reason for why you're discriminating against women, then you deserve all the criticism that you get.

- Matt S.
Find me on Twitter: @digitallydownld
Let's talk about Assassin's Creed: Unity and the boy's club
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