Ubisoft Montreal’s James Therein’s recent statement about the lack of playable female assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity e.g. got me fired up about the lack of equality in video games and questioning why this was the case. Having read cassieandara’s blog post about feminism and make-up, and Micakela’s blog post about feminism and domesticity/baking, I became all the more curious about how creative industries are handling the issue of equality. Furthermore, how are consumers reinforcing or rejecting traditional understandings of equality and empowerment?
From looking at some of the online literature that discusses equality in the context of creative industries, it seems that this quote from Leigh Alexander’s article on how female characters are written in video games sums up the general problem that is inherently inhibiting progress:
“Media, especially geek media, still too often only understands women in terms of their relationship to men.”
Women can be written the exact same way as men, as strong, unyielding, confident protagonists with complex back stories. We can look at well known protagonists such as Lara Croft (an ass-kicking British archeologist who is the protagonist in the Tomb Raider video game series) and Alice (a lethal knife-wielding version of fairytale Alice in American McGee’s Alice) for examples of how women are depicted in video games… but it is only when you actually look at their back stories that you realise the stark contrast there is between female and male protagonists in games. In both these examples, and many others where females are part of the main set of playable characters (Infamous: First Light, Fatal Frame (Project Zero), BioShock Infinite, The Last of Us), female characters have back stories filled with psychological trauma and abuse which is frequently associated with their experience of men, often being shown receiving psychological counselling or recovering from torture/damage/abuse. They must always be vulnerable or broken in some way, to be seen as strong when the story moves along, rather than starting whole like most male characters, and consumers rarely blink an eye at this inconsistency.
Why does it have to be this way? Games can challenge men and women (video game consumers) to think in terms of equality rather than patriarchy, by offering either gender to play and by providing the exact same back story no matter the choice, but with the same set of prerequisite skill sets which don’t change based on gender. This could easily be the case in Assassin’s Creed; after all, as Alex Amancio, director of AC5 has stated, they’ve created a female lead before. It could even be possible in games such as Watch Dogs and Battlefield, where you should be able to change genders, and the back story wouldn’t have to change one bit.
There’s definitely a certain amount of change happening throughout various creative industries towards equality (not the superiority of females) and creative production. The 2014 film Edge of Tomorrow starring Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt depicts an equal partnership between two protagonists. Both characters’ back stories are relatively equally developed, experience extensive action and are given many chances to show their ‘hero qualities’. Cruise’s character is even shown as vulnerable and superficial, traits usually associated with women. Disappointingly, Blunt’s character just had to have a mysterious dead lover to explain why she was so strong-willed, determined and distant, and it is beyond me why Hiroshi Sakurazaka, the author of the book All You Need Is Kill, which was adapted for the screenplay of the film, couldn’t have written a female lead instead of a male lead (as is almost always the way in sci-fi or fantasy novels).
It seems that the games industry (and other creative industries as well) are just being lazy. Assassin’s Creed developers have cited certain historical periods being ‘male dominated’ as being a reason why they shouldn’t depict a female protagonist, which is lazy, because most of history has been full of patriarchy and the AC series has always been based on an improbable and fictional premise anyway. In an interview with Polygon’s Tracey Lien, Megan Farokhmanesh suggests that Ubisoft’s reason is just an excuse, and that a failure to include more women as leads in video games is an industry-wide epidemic that started during the early beginnings of video games production, where boys were depicted as the main demographic for games instead of both genders for a completely bewildering and unexplained reason.
So what if it takes effort to challenge a stereotype and so what if video games don’t necessarily have to have lots of female leads. So what if 55% of gamers are men… this still leaves almost 50% of gamers as being women, so an argument that developers are designing for the people who play their games just falls completely on its face. Equality still has a long way to go, and it’s got to start somewhere.