A piece today at Polygon, entitled “What if ‘he’ and ‘she’ were interchangeable in a game’s story?” seems on the surface to be asking a legitimate question about the role of gender in videogaming. However, given the piece’s brevity and failure to understand the argument with which it opens, it ends up serving more as an open door for the kind of trollish commentary that we’ve all come to expect from any attempt to rationally discuss gender in gaming.
It opens with a reference to the recent kerfluffle about Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed: Unity‘s lack of female assassins in the cooperative portion of the game. It concludes by suggesting that providing a gender-neutral option functionally deflates the game’s narrative, since “an interactive story has to be written with unique relationships between characters of various genders,” at least according to Sande Chen.
The comment section – read at your own peril – is a morass of people putting forth BioWare games as examples where this gender-neutrality works effectively, people howling about how “Tomb Raider wouldn’t work if it had a man!,” angry debates between people who believe that men and women are inherently biologically disposed to certain behaviors and those who believe biology is indeterminate, and people desperately attempting to suggest a middle ground in which we ought to just make games more diverse only to be yelled at by people crying out for “pirate diversity.” (I’m not going to address the “biological differences” bullshit in this post.)
First of all, to suggest that the problem Ubisoft brought to light is that “feminists” want all protagonist characters to be gender-neutral is silly. No one ever said that. The problem with Unity is that in a multiplayer cooperative situation gender was not one of the customizable options, when the developer went on proudly about how the character could be customized in just about any way and is shown in a whole variety of outfits. No one said that the central protagonist in a single-player narrative had to be gender-customizable.
Similarly, when people complained about GTAV, the complaint was not that all three playable protagonists were not customizable – it was that all three of them were male and that women were otherwise horribly represented in the game and the series as a whole.
Put plainly, the outcry is not that every protagonist should be gender-customizable. The outcry is that when plot and narrative do not matter and a character is otherwise completely customizable, gender should be included on that list. Even Call of Duty allows players to choose gender (as of Ghosts). Other games that do this in multiplayer: Gears of War, Mass Effect 3, Left 4 Dead, Borderlands, Dead Island, Monaco. Many of these have blank slate characters. Others have given characters personalities and traits. All of them have a choice in gender for multiplayer.
Yes, there are games that do have a gender-neutral protagonist – Mass Effect, Dragon Age, Fable, Skyrim – and most of them do it well, or at least well enough. But there are also games where the identity of the protagonist in terms of race and gender are important – Tomb Raider, Assassin’s Creed (all the single-player campaigns), Red Dead Redemption. There are others where gender and race seem less relevant, but still have a set player-character, like Dishonored orDead Space, who does default to white male-ness, and I can see an argument being made that the “default” could be mixed up in these cases, but really I don’t care that Corvo and Isaac happen to be white men. It would be nice to have some variety, but I’m not offended by their existence.
I am offended when a new game comes out in 2014 that offers a customizable multiplayer experience in which character identity is irrelevant (because otherwise they wouldn’t all be the exact same thing, either) and gender and race are eliminated from the slate of choices. Because that’s just a sign of laziness and lack of consideration, a statement that women and racial minorities aren’t important enough to make it worth their time and effort. Sure, Ubisoft and the Assassin’s Creed series has a great track record, but that makes it more disappointing, not less.
So, Polygon, if you’re going to represent an argument for greater diversity and gender equality, at least do us the dignity of getting that argument straight. We’re not asking for all the things to be gender-customizable. We aren’t trying to “change” stories or bleed the significance from game narratives to make room for a “shell” of a player-character. We are asking that when a game is about multiplayer and customization, that the game actually be customizable, both in terms of the color of the character’s pants and what happens to be underneath them.