One of the big kerfluffles at E3 2014 came with the announcement of Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity game. The Assassin’s Creed series has thus far come in a variety of packages (all of which feature the same basic core concept of weird soul-based-time-travel) and time periods, including the Crusades, Revolutionary War Colonial America, the Antebellum American South, and Pirates. Technically, the protagonist (the time-traveler in a hoodie) has been the same, although the player generally spends most of the time playing as a different historical personage. These people have been Arabic, European, Native American, and African American (and female!).
So when Ubisoft comes out with Unity, which features four-player multiplayer and “character customization,” this news seems exciting. The game has a tradition of diversity in its main characters, and offers new perspectives on traditional stories.
Unfortunately, it never occurred to the developers (or maybe it did, and the suggestion was shot down) that in a game with four-player coop, the players might want to play as more than the same white guy… Sure, he can wear different pants, but it still the same guy.
At any rate, at an E3 that was dominated by games featuring straight white males (with a few very noteworthy exceptions, including Rise of the Tomb Raider and Dragon Age: Inquisition from the major houses), this was an enormous disappointment to fans and critics who have spent the better part of the last two years vocally campaigning for greater diversity (gender, ethnic, and sexual) in games.
When confronted about this seeming oversight, creative director Alex Amancio told Polygon that he “ran into ‘the reality of production’”:
“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 reaction to the idea that it’s simply “too hard” to include female characters has been met with widespread scorn, both by critics and other members of the industry. While it is, yes, more work to include a female character option, the excuse that something is “hard” or “more work” is not an adequate reason, at least not anymore. (Kotaku’s follow-up with an official statement from Ubisoft.)
In short, feelings have been hurt, many people offended, and Ubisoft is scrambling to cover its previously-PC butt. And the misogyny trolls have come clambering in masses out of the proverbial woodwork.
So when Penny Arcade (of dickwolves infamy) decided to respond, I’m sure many feminists are understandably uncertain of what tenor that response is meant to take.
Here, Gabe and Tycho have – for the unfamiliar – been transformed from their usual white-male-nerd selves into white-women-nerds (I’m not negatively commenting on the lack of ethnic transformation, just being specific). In the strip, they discuss the weird and largely irrelevant obsession that many presenters at E3 seemed to have with Ps – screen resolution and framerate, neither of which are at all relevant to most aspects of gameplay.
The strip says absolutely nothing about the gender swap. It just does it. And then the strip after just goes back to the usual male versions with no further comment.
Here’s what I hope it means. I hope it means that they’re commenting on Amancio’s remark that it’s “too hard” to make women (and yes, I’m fully aware that drawing a character as female is a completely different ballpark and even sport than a full game reanimation and voiceover). I hope it’s a reflection on the ridiculousness of the claim that players don’t want the option of gender when many major titles now do this automatically, at least for multiplayer modes, if not for both multiplayer and campaign (Call of Duty, Saint’s Row, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, Fable, Gears of War, Skyrim, Diablo, any MMORPG in existence…). Certainly, there are games who choose a specific protagonist and predetermine that character’s gender (Tomb Raider, Metal Gear, GTA, and the campaigns for CoD and Gears, among many others). I’m not taking issue with those games – only with those who advertise customization and then complain when players want to customize gender.
I hope it means that PA’s creators, who don’t have the most sterling reputation when it comes to gender equality and tolerance, have learned from their encounter with the dickwolves and that they’re trying to undo some of the damage they’ve done by saying, “Yes, we agree that it shouldn’t change the purpose or major content of a game to allow for the option of swapping gender.”
I’m not saying that reanimating and recording an entire game to allow for both genders of protagonist (or any other difference in body type) isn’t work. It is work. The point is that it’s work that is important to do and is worth the time and effort that it takes. It’s important that people understand that it’s worth doing, not simply to appease the political radicals (i.e. feminists), but because it makes the game more mature, culturally speaking, when the game makes a point of including customization as a part of its mechanics.
But it is also important for there to be more games that feature women and minorities (or have them as options) simply because the world is not comprised of 95% straight white men. That isn’t to say that there aren’t valid arguments for having a straight white male protagonist, but that argument shouldn’t be “because it’s the default.” It should be with a purpose. Gabe and Tycho in PA are white men because their creators and alter-egos are white men – and that’s okay. But it would also be okay if they were women, and I hope that’s the point PA is trying to make.
We’ve entered an age in videogaming when there should no longer be an assumed default to straight white male-dom. We should now be in a place where gender, race, and sexuality are choices, and political ones, and that while any choice is OKAY TO MAKE, that choice – even to make a protagonist a straight white male – needs to be a deliberate one, made for social, cultural, and political reasons.