Assassin’s Creed Unity: Women and Diversity in Gaming

I am attempting to create more informal posts to combat my perfectionism and especially get all the writing I do in comment threads out and more accessible. The conversation is edited substantially, with emphasis and hyperlinks added.

Max Scoville heads up the video game site Destructoid’s YouTube channel now, after his departure from Rev3Games. He posted the following video about how there is a notable female character in Assassin’s Creed Unity. This is especially relevant given the snafu Ubisoft got into when they explained why there weren’t playable women in the co-op multiplayer mode. Max sums it up in the video, but I couldn’t help but get the vibe that he was dismissing the issue completely, rather than acknowledging the importance of the complaint in the grander scheme of the industry.

So I Left a Comment

Max replied:

I think Ubisoft’s rep said something incredibly stupid, and the situation was handled poorly, but I also think the internet blew it out of proportion. It’s good that we’re having these discussions, it just sucks that it frequently escalates into a full scale Mexican soap opera-grade shitshow. It’s the torches-and-pitchforks reaction that causes so many people to go the contrarian route just because they’re sick of hearing it.

What irked me is that everyone was so quick to go for the throat, when the most recent retail release in the the Assassin’s Creed series (AC3: Liberation HD) had a female protagonist (a black one, at that.) That doesn’t excuse it, but having a shitstorm erupt from a single quote trivializes the issue of gender representation in games overall. The industry needs to step up its game, in terms of equality, but the online gaming community could do to calm the fuck down and grow the fuck up.

To me this felt like a bit more of the same. Not quite taking sides, but pointing to some existing need for equality.

I don’t think the issue was as small as to warrant calling it being blown out of proportion. Obviously it was a single incident to start, but the conversation grew to be about more than just the lack of inclusion in ACU. People expanded the conversation as was warranted to tally up the sex ratios of characters shown at the press conferences and noticed the massively white male bias in presenters, as well, for example.

Obviously those observations don’t capture the totality of the issue of representation in our favorite medium. There are many more factors worth considering. But this all says something very concerning about the current state of the industry in comparison to its much more diverse player base.

I could go on about the explanations for this disparity stemming from a wider view of gamer culture and the environment and challenges it creates. But suffice it to say that it’s not exactly fair to keep the focus on a co-op skin/model when it legitimately represents much more.

I’m not going to deny that people shout louder than they need to online, especially in the gaming community. But it seems like a waste of time to fixate on the dull noise when there was a lot of great criticism and ideas put forward at the time. And it’s ongoing.

Then Smexi Jebus replied:

… yes, there’s a fine line between wanting equality and forcing artists to compromise their works.  There’s a difference between crusading for ‘justice’ and just being an entitled nuisance.  Hounding every hard-working developer to have more females (or transgendered) or more racially diverse characters in all of their games isn’t going to solve anything.  It’s just going to lead to token characters, put in only to quell the complaining.

Please show me one instance where a developer was FORCED to change what they were working on because of social justice activism or feminism. When did a feminist barge into an office and grab someone’s pen and draw boobs on an NPC?

Never.

For all his talk about finding differences in language, he sure didn’t apply it to his own paragraphs and thoughts. NO ONE is “forcing” developers to change. They are voicing their objections to the way games are currently made and making it clear that if change does not happen, they will no longer be customers.

That sounds a lot like when gamers ask for new features or sequels or DLC or certain character interactions. That sounds a lot like asking for a balance tweak or more levels. One can complain about the noisier element of any activism or loud mass of people, but that’s not useful or helpful.

Game developers and publishers then MAKE A CHOICE about whether they give a shit about the calls for action or objection. If they find the requests for more playable women or people of color important enough, they will prioritize and oblige. If not, well, they remain exclusive to a wide array of potential customers.

Also, the requests aren’t “going to solve anything”?!

People were asking for gay romance options in Mass Effect for years, and for emphasis on the female Shepard. And what happened. Lesbian relationships between humans happened in 2, gay relationship in 3. They were meaningful, adult connections between people of the same sex.

People asked for more attention to femshep, and they got it with a “canon” femshep. BioWare even deviated from the original blonde to favor a redhead. These are significant choices.

He has no basis for saying that the changes will be shallow. Feminists aren’t just asking for gender swaps, though that can suffice in certain situations. They’re asking for ground-up quality characters, as you mention. Complaints like this were immediately about a playable co-op character, yes, but ultimately it’s about the prioritization of women in Assassin’s Creed, which means future games.

One of the big reasons there aren’t as many female characters as males isn’t so much the demographic (although, obviously, that’s still quite a large factor) but that far more males are the ones creating said games than females.  It might be a hard truth to accept, but it’s still a truth; if you want to see more females in games, make more games with females in them.  Telling someone else to create what /you/ want is, or rather, yelling at and complaining to someone else to create what you want is not only childish, but the best way to not get it.   If someone wants to tell a story about a white male, who are any of us to lash out at them?  When it comes down to it, if there’s a story you want to see told, tell it.  Those who want to see more females in games should make games with females in them.

Feminists are QUITE FAMILIAR with the lack of women in the video game industry. It’s a MAJOR cause of this issue. But you have the problem backwards.

There should be little reason why women are so sparsely represented in the games industry. Not unless sexism in added into the equation. (And by sexism, just to be clear, I’m talking about the inequalities big and small that comprise our culture in society. Not just direct misogyny.)

Math and science skills are socially de-emphasized in educating girls, for example. This is a serious factor in their later involvement in those fields, which of course programming and design fall into. The culture of online play discourages female gamers, which I would think would be obvious, but apparently not. I find reading about women’s experiences online reveals a lot about the problems in our community and the discouragement we’re giving to anyone but white straight males.

So instead of saying, “Hey women, step it up!” We should be asking how to make the community more inviting and accepting of different kinds of people. There is so much more story to tell than what the white male protagonist can readily provide.

I don’t think that the comparison you’ve drawn between tweaks/features/levels/etc. and diversity is a fair one.  When people ask for and suggest (these are key words, once again) tweaks and features and the like, it’s with a clear idea of how it would better the game.  When people ask for diversity in general, it’s not with a clear idea of bettering the game, but simply to have more diversity.  No one knows if adding a girl would make a sequel better because no one knows what kind of girl would be added.  If she would be a complete character with depth, if she would even fit within the narrative.  Adding diversity isn’t a clear addition or change, not like a tweak or a feature, it’s much more complex and must be treated as such.

What the fuck is he talking about.

Read ANYTHING from feminist gamers about the MEANING of diversifying roles in games. Different types of people create different stories and games. It matters that Papo & Yo takes place in Brazil. It matters that Gone Home has a story about lesbians. It matters that Beyond: Two Souls starred Jodie.

Yes, on the most basic level, a universe where not everyone is white is also needed. And that’s not pointless, either. It represents a developer where everyone is considered and where all non-white people didn’t somehow die out before the sci-fi utopia. It matters, when you’re not the default white straight male, that you see people like yourself represented in a game, that you aren’t having to force yourself into a character or world that doesn’t fit you as well as it could.

With regards to the online community, I do agree that women can experience a hard time.  However, I feel that everyone, regardless of gender, can, and most likely have at some point or another, experienced a hard time.  Women are sometimes treated differently, but not always in a negative way.  For every story of negativity for being a women, there’s another of unwarranted preferential treatment for being a women.

This was one of a few bald-faced assertions with not a scant bit of justification. My response was the same that goes for just about anyone making the types of arguments in this entire thread.

I challenged him to listen to many, many, many more women’s experiences in their lives and online and come back to tell me if he still believes half of the stuff he’s said. It is the height of arrogance to assert some of the things he did in this reply. On a deeper level, it’s also incredibly convenient to be able to dismiss so much self-reflection and analysis by assuming that prejudice and benevolent sexism all “balances out”.

His last reply included this:

I have frequented many of the ‘horror stories’.  They’re not all that horrible.  A small few genuinely are, but it’s much more the exception than the rule, contrary to what you’d like to claim.  I’m sure you’ve gone through them all, but it gives you a skewed perception.  Like someone watching the news and thinking that there’s only murder and rape and natural disasters outside when, actually, the vast majority of events and encounters are positive and jovial.

I wasn’t asking him to read horror stories. I was asking him to look and listen honestly to women who tell tales of everyday sexism. To believe them like one would anyone recounting a story. I asked him to extend sympathy beyond himself instead of arrogantly asserting yet again that a situation wasn’t “that bad”. Neither he nor I are the judge. We do not have or completely understand their experience.

In the end, the entire thing came to a bumbling halt with jabs like this:

You lost all respect when you resorted to throwing out insults instead of rebuttals.  I can see why you still identify as a feminist; you’ll fit right in with them and the social justice warriors and professional victims.

…And that’s what I get for engaging in comment threads.

[There’s a lot more in this conversation I cut out because it was repetitive or too much of a tangent. I’ll see going forward if this is a productive type of post and how best to format it.]

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