Wednesday, June 11, 2014


Occasionally, I like to talk about things that affect me as a gamer. Notice the words I used there.

There's been quite a bit of noise today about some press from Ubisoft concerning the lack of a female protagonist in the upcoming Assassins Creed: Unity title. There also appears to be some disquiet over Lara Croft's treatment in the upcoming 'Birth of a Tomb Raider' game that sees her being treated for PTSD in the game's trailer. I got rather cross at the former this morning, but it is probably the latter that bothers me more. Using trauma as a plot device is nothing new, but there seems to be some objection towards this being an iconic woman in therapy. Seeing how the process was used in the Trailer made me more unhappy than the lack of a woman in Unity, if I'm honest. As a writer, these are subjects I am exploring myself, and have been for some years. Watching how other people use them as tools to sell games is, therefore, very interesting indeed.

Sometimes it can also be pretty uncomfortable.

From where I stand, I'd like to make an educated guess as to why we got four male assassins in Unity. Because it was the most cost-effective option when they rebooted the engine as they have and completely redesigned the game. One set of animations repeated four times costs only one set of animations, you just change the external skins. That's a MASSIVE saving in time and effort. Doesn't take a genius to understand this, especially when they're working on the timescales they obviously are for 'new' titles. The more endemic problem with the industry is that no-one considered a female option when they started again from scratch. I suspect, if Ubisoft are smart, that's going to change with the next title. For now, that's how it is. The biggest mistake of all however was how the person who was interviewed about this reacted to the question, and that he was allowed to talk to the Press at all.

You should ask Chris Metzen how that works.

The Tomb Raider thing's a wee bit trickier, because if this reboot is taking Ms Croft on a journey on which this therapy is only a part, then that's fine. If this 'moment' becomes the defining pivot of her career I would sincerely hope it gets more than a passing mention, because that's just sloppy narrative. Significant moments are all well and good, whoever they happen to. The key is then how the character is affected by the consequences. In the end, as is the case with so many other parts of storytelling, it comes down to choices. There are two questions to be asked, and it's pretty much been that way since people started making things other people could interact with:

1. Does your narrative framework support choice?
2. If it does, how much choice is acceptable?

I've been playing games since the 1970's. Choice is what matters more than anything else. Ask Pitfall Harry

It is 1982. I am sixteen, and I've only just grasped that the sex education classes I've taken part in actually relate to my own body. I play the game above and, for the first time, I find myself asking a question that has come back to be repeated I don't know how many times: why am I playing a man? Yes, it is simply a collection of pixels with a hat. I am doing this purely for entertainment, but at the back of my mind I grasp the intractable truth that this is because a man made the game. Over time I learnt another lesson: it doesn't matter about what other people do with labels, it is only your outlook that should matter. How you position yourself and how you react to the World isn't dictated by everyone else, it is entirely up to you. That is your freedom as a human being. or at least, that is the theory.

Then I find myself this week, on the back of all this, wondering why the piece of fiction I'm about to finish has me writing as a man.

I produced the novel for NaNoWriMo a couple of years ago and have finally bought it to completion. In it, my protagonist is a guy, who I realise has actually become quite autobiographical for my own life. I could have written him as a woman, but that would have detracted from my subject matter, which is how we treat certain types of people as objects to be scrutinised and dissected. Women, mostly: objects of desire and attraction. Like the women I see in games I never play, the titles I avoid because if tits and arse is all you're doing this for, we have nothing we could enjoy to begin with. When I'm dealing with these kinds of questions therefore and I see stories like these, I know there is a part of me that wants to do the feminist rant 'thing'but that's not actually the issue, because there are systematic failings that go far beyond that. More women need to be in the Industry to change things, there should be less acceptance that people are happy with things as they are... but that means nothing if the people actually making the games don't think it matters. If it entertains them, what's the problem?

The most basic problem is that women make men act funny, and vice versa. That's what we really need to deal with, and that's not happened since we came out of the caves.

Live by your slogans dammit.

I watched the Unity video on how they have updated all their engine software and gameplay, and noted with satisfaction the two female devs in the team. Then I stopped and wondered what their positions would be on this argument, and whether they thought it was their job to change or it was up to the guys. There's a very good chance all these people making the game never actually thought about the female assassin thing, you know, because they were too busy just doing their job and what they were told. That's what happens in business, you make what you're directed to. So do I stick the blame at senior level? Do I chastise the people working on the thing for not making a fuss? Should I even be blaming anyone for this shitty state of affairs that's been going on since Harry was the default? Then I look at myself, writing as a man, and I realise that in the end, sometimes what matters most of all is just telling the story. Harry gets gems, you win. These four guys beat up people in Paris and co-op play wins. My character finally find peace with his demons and is happy. That's the word that should matter more than feminist rants and privileged white males and doing what's right.

Being happy is the biggest issue here, because for those who feel women NEED better representation, the only way they'll get what they want is if the whole system changes.

Then we go back to the questions about choice, and decide just what is acceptable to the people who make the games profitable, and guess what? We're back to the argument we had with Mr Pardo. He's still happy, I'm betting. The only way the Ubisoft people change is when the people they answer to aren't happy and demand it. Noises in the Press won't do that, but falling stock might. How much choice is acceptable when your budget and production times are all that matters? How happy are you when the profits are the driving force behind whether you keep your job? All of these are difficult questions to answer. Using them as excuses to not make a female protagonist are therefore, in this context, perfectly acceptable.

Just remember that some people judge success on a different set of criteria.

Token Warcraft screenie. The 1% often swings it.

I want to play as a woman, but I'm really good at pretending to be a man after all these years. Maybe it should bother me more sometimes, like it did this morning. Except this morning's events mean I'm here, writing this and telling other people how I understand change needs to happen, but it's not just a case of offering more realistic women in games to change the outlook of players. What about violence in Far Cry 4? What about hypersexualisation of both genders in gaming culture? The press and us as players need to stop simply attacking people and should think first how we prevent these issues from reoccurring, again and again, by considering HOW WE DEAL WITH EACH OTHER AS PEOPLE. If you want to blame someone for all of this, be ready to put yourself in the firing line too.

Choice comes from being given the option. Sometimes, as players, that's something we're not prepared to accept: it's either our way or no way. With this kind of attitude, nothing ever changes.


Astalnar said...

Lara Croft's trailer gave me the impression that all the adventuring is going on only inside her head. While interesting, definitely wrong approach to the established character like Lara. On the other hand, I wish they went with it, on the remake of Devil May Cry...
Another thing is the stereotypical solving of problems. Men go drink alcohol (Max Payne), women go to therapy (Lara). Men are impulsive, women are reasonable, etc..

As for the Ubisoft, as someone who truly knows what lazy means inside and out, it saddens me greatly that making a female face texture is too much resources. They could do just that and be done with it. It is not perfect solution, but it certainly is a cheapest one that at the same time shuts most of the critics. They have to make thousand of faces in any case, paste one of those faces on one of the assassins and you are done with it.

PlaidElf said...

Interesting thoughts. Another interesting one is that I had watched that Unity trailer yesterday and not been bothered by or even actually noticed there were no women heroes. I guess I am so used to it it doesn't even draw my notice a lot of the time any more. I play guys almost exclusively now, despite being female. There have honestly been games I've launched without even looking at the character options for female at all. Maybe because so often when I do actually look it's after I've looked at the male options and I'm just disappointed.
With Blizzard and a lot of games it'll never be the small number of women that bothers me. I rarely remember to count them. What bothers me is how they are treated when they're there. If the reason that I finally notice and remember to count the women is because of how poorly they're portrayed in their clothing and in the way they're written... that to me is the real problem.

dobablo said...

I get the impression that the Ubisoft guy giving the interview knew exactly what he was saying when he gave his explanation and half-hearted defence. They built a game with model one, have it a little test and were about to start work on model 2 when the money people said "No time, release schedule to keep" and this his way of defending his probably disappointed programmers and shifting blame to the decision makers.

TheGrumpyElf said...

That was a very interesting post about the topic of women in gaming. As I am not a woman I love to see and hear how some gamers I respect that are female feel about it. Even if I try I can never fully understand the way you feel because I never had the same experiences.

However your posts on the topic always seem to touch a base with me more so than others I read on it, probably because it seems we are of similar age, have similar gaming likes and gaming experiences.

The pitfall picture reminded me how much I LOVED that game and then you mentioned it was the first time you questioned "why am I playing a man" it it got me thinking about it from my perspective.

I am only speaking for myself here and do not pretend to be speaking for any other male gamer but I never once asked myself that question. Sure, I am a man so playing a man is no big deal, but I wonder if that is just the way we are "trained" to think or if the sex of the pixels we are playing matter less to a male gamer (at least this one) because we have never felt under represented in games and as such never even think about it.

Perhaps that would make for a deep post from me some day, but I will leave the deep stuff to you because you are so much better with it. I'll just enjoy the trip down memory lane with pitfall, but thinking for the first time ever, why there were no female options for the female players.

Sometimes for change to happen all it needs is for a few good people to ask the right questions. Keep up with the topic and keep asking those questions and we might see change some day.

Great post.