I play video games, I don't develop them. But thanks to Ubisoft and the ongoing Assassin's Creed: Unity controversy, I learned something about the process of developing playable video game characters last week. Wait, I take that back I didn't exactly learn something new, as much as I had one of my long-held suspicions finally confirmed.
Alex Amancio, the creative director for Assassin's Creed: Unity, confirmed my suspicions of male game designers when he announced that playable female characters were originally planned for Assassin's Creed: Unity, but were never developed due to "the reality of production and the fact that adding one would mean; "double the animations double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets. A statement that can be summarized thusly; male was our default and female was a frilly option less important to us than designing the most realistic looking powdered wigs ever. If you ask me, this perspective isn't just an Assassin's Creed: Unity problem, it's a video game industry problem.
I think this quote by Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander pretty much sums up Amancio's point of view;
"they must presume that they're going to have to animate all these flowing dresses and flowing hair and jiggling breasts and things like that [It's] really interesting insight into how technical folks in the game industry view women's bodies. (via NPR)
You don't need to have game design experience to gather that far too many designers see male as the default from which to begin. I'm not referring to the technical aspects of character animation either. I wonder, is animating a playable character like making a car, as Alexander implies? Do designers start with a base model (male) and add expensive luxury options (flowing dresses, flowing hair and jiggling breasts) from there? I'd love to hear from some game designers on that one
Even if that is the case, the specifics of male vs. female character creation don't matter if you only want to tell stories from one limited perspective. How many annual releases use the same cookie cutter male protagonist? I can't say for sure, but you know it's a lot when someone can write an article listing all the upcoming games with playable female characters. The mere existence of such a list indicates a problem (on a positive note, the size of the list tells us things are finally headed in the right direction). I hesitate to guess how short the list would be if added race and ethnicity to the mix. Aisha Tyler, my favorite gamer/actress/talk show host sums things up pretty good;
"This is a group [the white-guy-loner-nerdy stereotype] who has been excluded and now they're turning and they are excluding, and the irony and the hypocrisy of that is extraordinary no one let you into [their] club and now you have one and you don't want to let anyone else in (via NPR)
Television is obsessed with telling stories of straight-white-male anti-heroes and so too are video games. Which is a shame because video games are able to explore stories and characters that don't and/or can't exist in the real world. Why are we constantly being limited to one perspective when there are so many potential untapped opportunities then? That's a rhetorical question of course we all know why.
Let's get back to Assassin's Creed: Unity for a second. The developer's explanation for why players can only be a male (after early reports hinted at other possibilities mind you) is problematic on many levels. To begin with, Ubisoft went through the trouble of creating a fictional male character when a quick Google search would have revealed a real female assassin from the French Revolution who could have served as inspiration. Even if Ubisoft didn't want to go that route because, say, they needed a fictional character to fit into the overall story of the game series (I'm throwing them a bone here), Amancio's argument makes even less sense when discussing the multiplayer portion of the game.
Get this; in multiplayer, which allows up to four players to team up together, each player will be playing as the main character. Huh? According to Ubisoft, players will see themselves as the main protagonist, but to other players they will look like someone else. What? Why not just allow players to customize their character's look, including race and gender from the beginning? It all comes back to the same problem; developers who view straight-white-male as the inoffensive default they assume all people will be comfortable with.
It’s also a shame that Ubisoft is treating one of its most prominent titles this way. We're talking about a series that kicked off with Altaïr Ibn-La’Ahad, a Syrian with a Christian mother and a Muslim father as its first playable character and followed up with playable leads like; Ratonhnhake:ton (aka Connor) a half Native American assassin, the French-African female assassin Aveline de Grandpré, and the Trinidadian former slave turned pirate/assassin Adéwalé (but alas, a roster of diverse characters doesn’t guarantee stupid comments and questionable design choices won’t be repeatedly made).
The Assassin's Creed series disappoints as often as it gives hope, so you'd think the sting would decrease when the series decides (yet again) that playable female characters are expendable but it doesn't. Ubisoft's choice is even more hurtful when held up against Nintendo's recent announcements of multiple titles in which female characters, who were often little more than damsels in distress in the past, have become bad-ass playable characters on par with their male counterparts. I don't know if it's too late for Ubisoft to course correct and add a playable female character, or maybe some female led DLC (downloadable content) later on. But until they do, I'm joining Brianna Wu in her #NoWomenNoAC boycott and I urge other gamers to join us.
Please understand that this isn't a push for all games to include playable female characters, or characters of all ethnicities, genders, abilities, etc.. There's nothing inherently wrong with a game having a straight-white-male as its only playable character, it's just that, when the overwhelming majority of games provide only this option it's a problem. Because almost 50% of gamers are women, when a major title like Assassin's Creed skips the women, people are always going to wonder why. It's one thing to pull a GTA V (another major release with no playable female characters) and justify their absence with a statement like; "the concept of being masculine was key to the story. At least then you can critically examine the developer's choice and the messages being sent about masculinity. But when a designer chooses to leave out women or other groups of people simply because it's too much work, then I guarantee it'll be too much work for me to buy the damn game.