The Mommie Gamer is a weekly column covering the topics that affect all mothers who game. In this I intend to look at both the dark and light sides of gaming not only from a parent's perspective, but also from a woman's.
We live in a gaming-saturated world. Where just a few years ago gamers were considered pariahs, now game franchises are routinely being turned into comics, television shows, and even films. The world has started to take the gaming industry seriously, as can be evidenced by how huge game conventions like E3 and Gamescom have become. Yes we are a new medium, but we are one that is striving to be taken seriously. So why then are we still so far behind the curve when it comes to representing both genders in the characters we play?
A month ago, Ubisoft came under fire for releasing their latest installment of the Assassin's Creed franchise without including a female playable character. Today they revealed Elise, a character central to Assassin’s Creed Unity’s story," to quote the announcement. Does this character address the issues that the gaming community brought up? Was the community right in judging Unity so harshly? Let's take a closer look at Unity, Elise, and what this all means.
First things first, let's back up and look at the gaming community's reaction to the Assassin's Creed Unity reveal at E3 2014. On June 9th, 2014, Ubisoft held their E3 Press Conference. During that they showed this trailer:
The company had been teasing a new Assassin's Creed game for some time, and the world was very excited to see what AC would do with the French Revolution. This trailer seems to have it all: Seemless transitions between exterior and interior spaces, gorgeously real vistas of my favorite city in the world, multiplayer combat in single player campaign. Your friends can pick up a controller and help you fight your battles. This is a logical and intelligent step from Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood, and everyone is excited to see it coming in Unity.
But as that last shot pans back, and you see the four figures standing shoulder to shoulder on the rooftops, one thing should stand out to you. These are all men. At no point in this game can you play a female character. The gaming community, particular other gaming developers, were not happy. This could have been a small issue, had Ubisoft handled the response correctly. When asked about the lack of representation for both genders in Unity, Ubisoft's response was this:
We recognize the valid concern around diversity in video game narrative. Assassin's Creed is developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs and we hope this attention to diversity is reflected in the settings of our games and our characters.
Assassin's Creed Unity is focused on the story of the lead character, Arno. Whether playing by yourself or with the co-op Shared Experiences, you the gamer will always be playing as Arno, complete with his broad range of gear and skill sets that will make you feel unique.
With regard to diversity in our playable Assassins, we've featured Aveline, Connor, Adewale and Altair in Assassin's Creed games and we continue to look at showcasing diverse characters. We look forward to introducing you to some of the strong female characters in Assassin's Creed Unity.
You see what they did there? Sidestep the issue completely. Since they had diverse playable characters before, Ubisoft doesn't feel like they need to be inclusive in this game. Okay. So again, if they had left it at that, then it wouldn't have been so bad. But the gaming community wanted more explanation from Ubisoft. Why can't we play a female assassin? There are four figures on the rooftop, remember. Why can't one of them be a woman?
Gaming journalists started asking questions. Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio sat down and spoke with Polygon, and in a dangerous moment of transparency said that they had considered female characters in co-op, but had abandoned them because of the additional workload they required. "'It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets,' Amancio said. 'Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work.'"
The gaming industry exploded. Amancio's misstep here was to off-handedly suggest that adding female characters to co-op wasn't worth the trouble, and he was called on his flippant dismissal of 46% of the gaming population. Some developers pointed out that Amancio's time estimate was way off, and that it would only take one or two day's work to replace animations for one of the co-op characters with a female. More than the misinformation about work load, Ubisoft's response to this issue has been consistently dismissive. Yes, it is work to create unique characters, but shouldn't those characters be representative of the players who are playing the game?
So we have a company that claims to respect diversity patently refusing to put in the extra effort required to make at least one of the customizable characters a woman. In more than one place I saw Ubisoft point to their other stable of franchises, pointing to female characters in Child of Light and Beyond Good and Evil as examples where they had got it right as if to say "Hey, look over here! Don't pay attention to Unity's lack of diversity. Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain!" It was all one big mess.
That brings us back to Ubisoft's announcement of Elise, one of the central characters to Unity. Let's watch the trailer together shall we?
We meet Elise as she's being saved from the gallows by Arno, so not that great a start for a "strong female character." Damseling is all too often the only way women are used in games, and it makes her less of a character and more of a prop. So yes, Ubisoft has a female character, but her introduction does nothing to assuage my feelings that they are giving this woman any agency in her own situation. Much better than just having a man swoop in from the rooftops, Elise could have waited until he fought his way through the crowd and then when he thought he was about to be defeated, she could have stepped in and saved him from a blow -- thus showing us all that she was capable enough to handle the situation all along.
At least we have some positives in her character design:
No skimpy outfit for Elise. She looks like she is all business, and although the buttons on her coat don't make much sense, at least she's protected -- and covered -- by her clothing. This is an appropriate adventurer's costume, and this gives me hope that even though she may be damseled in the beginning of the game, Elise will be a useful and equal companion to Arno throughout the game.
Ultimately though, Ubisoft missread their target demo there. With so many women playing games, there was a real opportunity to make a statement -- and it would only have taken a little better management of resources. While Ubisoft dropped the ball here, I think the gaming industry is getting more sensistive to the idea of inclusion, and I hope to see more women as strong leads -- playable next time -- in the games I play.
What do you think? Does the inclusion of Elise into the essential NPC roster lighten the load on Ubisoft's shoulders here? I'd also like to hear your thoughts on this new column. This is probably stronger than I wanted to start straight out of the gate on a new project, but the subject matter landed in my lap. Look for another Mommie Gamer piece next week.