Video game developer Ubisoft incited controversy this week after it decided not to add a female character to its new game Assassin’s Creed Unity, claiming it would create “double the work.” But that decision seems to be counterintuitive: Ubisoft’s competitors are already making changes to account for women, who make up half of the gaming community.
The company debuted the game at the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) gaming conference in Los Angeles earlier this week. The four-player game lets each user customize the main character Arno Dorian’s look to make it easier to distinguish multiple players playing at once. Ubisoft planned to include a female assassin as a counterpart to Arno, but game developers nixed it because adding a female lead to the mix was too laborious.
“A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes…It would have doubled the work on those things,” Ubisoft’s technical director James Therien explained in an interview with VideoGamer. “And I mean it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decision…It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality of game development.”
Therien maintained the decision wasn’t “a question of philosophy or choice,” and that despite the company’s extensive resources, it simply couldn’t be done. “Yes, we have tons of resources,” he said, “but we’re putting them into this game, and we have huge teams, nine studios working on this game and we need all of these people to make what we are doing here.”
The company hinted at last year’s E3 that a future female lead in Assassin’s Creed could be on the horizon. After all, Ubisoft already has a female character in an Assassin’s Creed spin-off game called Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation. But there were similar problems before that game was released in 2012. The company’s creative director Alex Hutchinson complained about including a female protagonist, saying it would have been a “pain.”
The latest move could potentially isolate a huge chunk of the gaming community. About one in two gamers, 48 percent, are women, according to a recent industry demographics report from the Entertainment Software Association, which represents game development companies including Ubisoft. Women also buy video games just as often as men, making up 50 percent of sales, ESA found.
While stereotypes of the teenage boy obsessed with video games persist, adult women are more than twice as likely to be gamers: Women over age 18 make up 36 percent of the gaming community, compared to 17 percent of boys under 18. The number of older women gamers over 50 also increased 32 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the report, which looked at over 2,000 households.
Indeed, the gaming community has responded swiftly, warning the of the company’s decision to forgo the female assassin just perpetuates the industry’s ongoing sexism problem. Gamers started a Change.org petition with about 5,000 signatures calling for more diverse protagonists in Assassin’s Creed Unity. Jonathan Cooper, a former Assassin’s Creed designer, shot down Ubisoft’s claim that female characters would be more labor-intensive, saying it would only take a couple of extra days to complete.
The gaming industry, much like the tech industry as a whole, has struggled with gender inclusion. The field is heavily male-dominated, with many female game developers being “driven out” of the industry due to harassment or brogrammer culture. That trend manifests in the game products themselves; female game characters are scarce. Even when they are put in lead roles, they’re often overly sexualized with disproportionate body dimensions or subject to domestic violence or sexual assault.
Beyond diversity, digital images play a crucial role in people’s self-image and self-esteem. Diversity in video game avatars, whether it’s including more women, LGBT or people of color, is more than about characters in a game. Digital representations help shape how people view their role in society as a whole.