Over the past weekend, I have been attached to my computer, Google Chrome glued to Kotaku. I have spent a ridiculous amount of time on here (despite the fact that I should know better) arguing with vaguely anonymous commenters, trying to explain why Ubisoft's attitude towards excluding females is problematic — something, that for whatever reason, most people can't seem to understand.
That right there should explain why this really is an issue.
I'm not a "social justice warrior", I don't consider myself a radical anything. What I am, however, is someone with common sense and the ability to empathize. When these articles first started popping up on the site, I honestly (and maybe naively) expected most people to be understanding and rally behind the cause of wanting better representation in video games. After all, I sort of like to think that the video game industry is one of the more progressive entertainment industries out there. But I could not have been more wrong.
The responses I found made my skin crawl. This is the group of people I'm associated with? No wonder we were outcasts for such a long time. The comment sections of these posts prove exactly why the Assassin's Creed/Far Cry 4 debacle is important. It illustrates that we are going nowhere as gamers.
What's The Real Problem?
By now, so many of Kotaku's readers have missed the point of the whole controversy. If they came late to the party, I almost can't blame them after having to dig through the muck and carnage left in the wake. But by and large, most people seem to think the issue here is that Far Cry 4 and Assassin's Creed: Unity don't have playable female leads. That's only a very simplified way to look at the problem.
It's not so much that these games lack female stars. After all, these titles are the work of the developers behind them, and it's fine that they have a vision they want to bring to life. It's the fact that both of these games very nearly could have had playable women, but they were cut to "save time." When you thoughtfully cut an entire sex/race/ethnicity/etc. out of anything, you are making a statement whether you intended to or not. And that statement is, "We don't recognize our female fans and we don't want to include them in this experience we've built."
Ubisoft and its employees also botched handling this possibly unintentional misogyny by dishing out a bunch of cookie-cutter responses, hoping that our ignorance about the gaming industry would work in their favor. Instead of just being up front and saying something along the lines of, "We had a specific vision for this game and we are sorry if some people feel excluded. Going forward, we will take that into consideration.", we got: "You don't understand, women are too hard to animate." — despite decades of female characters saying otherwise (including within Ubisoft's own Assassin's Creed franchise).
Now honestly, we could argue all day about whether or not it is more work to add in a playable woman (though with 10 studios behind AC5 and extensive work put into to provide realistic tree-climbing, that seems like a cop-out answer). Frankly, I'm done with that argument because I very well could be wrong. The point is we don't know. A possible small minority of us might work in the industry, but I doubt anyone works on the scale of Unity or Far Cry 4. So we, as the average commenter, don't know. I'll just leave you with what competent industry insiders have said about the matter.
Context is Everything
One of the biggest complaints I see in the comments looks a little something like this:
Shut the fridge! Kotaku is a gaming site?! And this is an issue about women in... video games?! Well if I can't go to a website about video games to find out about current issues in the gaming industry, I don't know what I can do anymore.
Let me repeat myself: Context. Is. Everything. If this were a huge, aggregated news site, then maybe that argument would hold a little more water. But only a little. Just because there are bigger issues going on does not make this a non-issue. By that logic, nothing matters because there are children being raped, murdered, and stolen off to fight in religious wars. So the next time an elderly relative passes away, I want you to show up to their funeral and shout, "Are you fucking kidding me?!?! Do you know how many people die prematurely from cancer?!" during the eulogy and see how well that goes over.
And beyond that, it does matter. Nothing could matter more. Not calling out this kind of bullshit only further facilitates it and makes it okay. Change starts at the bottom. Where else are we supposed to go to fight this fight? This a battle that needs to be held at the lowest level, because if we never voice our outrage, how are companies like Ubisoft going to know that they're doing anything wrong?
Reverse Sexism Doesn't Exist in This Context
If a guy doesn't like Metroid, he can go play Halo. If he doesn't like Tomb Raider, then he can find solstice as Nathan in Uncharted. Male gamers always have options. If a girl doesn't like Call of Duty, what does she play? What about Dishonored? God of War? Metal Gear? Bioshock? What game is similar to Gears of War and has a woman as the star and not a supporting character? And furthermore, what games can girls play that star females that aren't just manifestations of male fantasies?
Yeah, girls have their Metroid and their Tomb Raider, and what woman doesn't love acting out their scantily-clad, beach volleyball dreams in Dead or Alive: Extreme Beach Volleyball? But even so, these female leads are still problematic. Samus spends 90% of her time in an ambiguous power suit, and the other 10%, she's still over-sexualized. And you'd be lying to yourself if you couldn't admit that Lara Croft — up until the last game — was a box-y interpretation of a male fantasy, only furthered by sex-symbol Angelina Jolie's portrayal of her on the big screen. Strong female characters, yes, but still ones designed with men in mind. We are only just beginning to make progress with women like Lightning (Final Fantasy XIII) and Jodie (Beyond: Two Souls).
And you know why no man complained? Because those games still appealed to men.
So Why Does It All Matter?
I'll start with an abridged version of this top comment, posted by user Rumina, on Patricia's article The Games At E3 2014 Sure Had A Lot Of Dudes (Like Always):
There's not going to be a large breadth of female characters any time soon.
Is this part of some larger bigoted agenda that female characters shouldn't have a place there? No. I'm going to with not. ...
Development teams are nearly entirely composed of males. Not because it's a boys club or girls aren't allowed. Because there simply isn't a huge pool of female programmers, modelers, and asset designers. There simply isn't many women in the field anywhere.
But this isn't because they're out there but can't get hired. Microsoft, EA, Ubisoft, etc. don't go from campus to campus trying to keep women from pursuing a field in computers. The fact is, the number of women interested in computer programming and actual game design is quite small. ... Are they [males] to blame for the lack of women there along side them? ... An industry built on the backs of your stereotypical 80's/90's nerdy techy loser, which was not even REMOTELY comprised of women. Now these losers are millionaire lead designers or programmers.
When you write a story what kind of character do you often write about? 9 times out of 10 it'll probably be something relatively close to your ethnic background and of the same sex regardless of who you are. That's what happens here, or at least has for a very long time.
...I often don't even buy games that feature some buzz-cut beefy white dude on the cover now... But the fact is, that's what sells, because the market is largely made of boys and for boys. ...
If you want real change here writing snappy articles and shitting all over Ubisoft is NOT the way to go about it. ... If you want change write articles about why women should pursue a field in computer programming or graphics design. Why they should learn c++ or the inner-workings of Unreal Editor or Unity.
Stop trying to smack learned adults across the face to get them to change for doing what they grew into their field doing. ... Instead, get female gamers interested in making games. ...If you want real change here then plant the seeds for it instead of standing at the base of the tree screaming at the top.
Rumina's comment, and many others like it, is not only wrong, it's misleading. Women want to work in the industry, but it's difficult for them to get into it because it is a boys club. Couple that with the fact that females in the industry are paid, on average, $10,000 less than their male co-workers, and female programmers are facing as much adversity trying to break into video games almost as much as they are trying to succeed in any other profession.
More importantly, however, Rumina's comment commits a far worse offense: it victim-blames. "Real change", as they put it, doesn't start with educating women on game development. That's victim blaming. "Oh, you're upset that you're not better represented in video games? Well it's YOUR fault for not making the games in the first place!" That kind of thinking only defends misogyny. It reaffirms and makes okay the exclusionary actions practiced in the industry for so long. That is saying it's the female gamers fault in something they have incredibly minimal control over. If you think I'm lying about these attitudes, check out the link directly above, or check out the comment sections on any recent post about the controversy. See first hand how welcoming most gamers are to women, or even the notion of women.
No, real change does not start with females getting jobs in the industry. Real change starts with making women feel wanted, and that starts, at the lowest possible level, with playing games. A girl should be able to load the newest Assassin's Creed co-op and feel like she's immersed in the French Revolution, rather than just playing out some generic white male's story. Isn't that what games are all about anyway? Immersion? And yes, in a perfect world, male and female gamers would be able to sympathize and identify with characters of both sexes. But the reality is, that's not how it is for everyone. So, if you want more women in the gaming industry, that happens when you stop excluding them and get them interested in playing the games. Otherwise all you're saying is, "This isn't the place for you."
So why does this all matter? Because it's comments like Rumina's, the ones above, and the many, many disturbing bouts of sexism in the comment threads on these articles that illustrate exactly why we need to be having this argument so furiously. It's painfully obvious that most gamers can't empathize with anyone outside of themselves. We seem to lack the ability to create a safe and welcoming environment for females in this medium and industry.
Developers, gamers, and fans need to get the with times: girls game. They are a bigger force in the industry now than they've ever been, and they're only on the rise. The stubborn refusal to make them feel included is the exact reason why we're having this discussion. It's only been a few days, and it's a discussion I'm already sick of having.
PorkSoda is also know as ArcadeHero, and runs his own gaming blog at www.thearcadehero.com. Any thoughtful comments or criticisms are welcomed!