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This Week in Video Game Criticism: Ubisoft's women problem
This Week in Video Game Criticism: Ubisoft's women problem
June 17, 2014 | By Lindsey Joyce

June 17, 2014 | By Lindsey Joyce
More: Console/PC, Social/Online, Design, Business/Marketing

This week, our partnership with game criticism site Critical Distance brings us picks from Lindsey Joyce on topics ranging from the representation of women in Assassin's Creed and Tomb Raider to feeling imposter syndrome through play.

You Can't Get Away with Ignoring Half Your Audience Anymore

In case you somehow missed it, this past week hosted the annual E3 (Electronic Entertainment Expo) trade fair.

One of the biggest media storms of the expo, however, began when Ubisoft Creative Director Alex Amanico said in an interview with Polygon that the addition of playable female characters in Assassins Creed: Unity had proved too costly to include. Promptly and deservedly, the internet called BS on Amanico. For instance:

Sara Clemens argues that Ubisoft had the opportunity to reach a compromise that would appease both pro-women gamers and "he-man-woman-hating types," but ultimately failed to do so because women continue to be seen by industry higher-ups as superfluous and unimportant add-ons.

In a parody of what it must be like to sit in on Ubisoft’s pre-production creative meetings, Brenna Hillier concludes that, from Ubisoft's perspective, "all players play as the same character" is seemingly less ridiculous "than the concept of women existing and having a nice time blowing shit up."

Fed up with such false logic and poor excuses, Rhea Monique looks backs on a time in the not-so-distant past (the late 1990s and early 2000s) when the inclusion of women was more status quo.

Elsewhere, Daniel Golding reflects on the historical irony that while the most famous assassin from the French Revolution, Charlotte Corday, was a woman, Ubisoft elected not to include a playable female character in their assassin game set during the French Revolution.

Without any muss or fuss about the matter, Sande Chen gives us the cold hard truth:

Ultimately, the decision to include female playable characters really boils down to whether or not a video game company makes it a priority.

Offering a glimmer of hope, however, Elisa Melendez recounts her day at E3 spent entirely playing women characters.

Finally, if the above isn't enough, Go Make Me a Sandwich has curated a list of articles on the issue as well.

But Remember, There's More to Representation than Making Women Playable

This week, prompted by the trailer for the new Tomb Raider game in which Lara Croft undergoes a therapy session, Leigh Alexander notes the double standard in games whereby:

When you want to make a woman into a hero, you hurt her first. When you want to make a man into a hero, you hurt... also a woman first.

While Alexander is careful not to dismiss the importance of examining mental health or trauma in games or the importance of allowing female playable characters to show their emotional depth by being more than "strong," she laments that games are "still largely populated by men who feel unsure about how to write and build nuanced women." On the other hand, Rhea Monique, argues that we should embrace, rather than bristle at Croft's weakness because she takes the player along with her, through every part of her journey, including her pain and her healing.

Not So Fast, E3, We Aren't Finished With You Yet

Zack Kotzer reminds us that "Blockbuster Video Games Still Suck at Handling Racism" as well.

Alternatively, rather than calling out games for what they lack, Martin calls out the journalists who are too busy rolling their eyes at the AAA industry to provide equal coverage to independent titles and exposition spaces such as indiE3.

In a similar move, Nick Hanford at Higher Level Gamer cautions game consumers and those practicing game criticism to be wary of the rhetoric we use and reuse, especially the rhetoric perpetuated by marketers and PR gurus.

Developer vs. Player

Moving away from E3 specific coverage, this week also brings us several pieces that investigate the differences in perspective between developer and player and what happens when we interrogate issues across those spaces.

In "Walkthrough Vs. Speedrun," Nathan examines the differences and similarities between a developer's slow and cautious walkthrough of a game that intentionally avoid glitches against a speedrunner's exploitation of glitches to promote speed. He concludes that while neither is the "common player," both have intimate knowledge of the game's systems.

Elsewhere, Zach Alexander compares Flappy Bird and Threes and the opportunities their developers were provided to talk about their games and how those games were received and critiqued by players. Alexander argues that perspective is paramount in how we talk about and villainize game clones, and states:

The label of "clone" is subject to things other than passionless examinations of precise details. It is influenced by the surrounding culture. The next time we are tempted to call a game a clone, we should think long and hard about what we’re targeting and why.

Examining the issue that the majority of programming languages have English origins, Robert Yang considers how non-English developers must sometimes prioritize, as the Noserudake2 developer did, to connect with English-speaking audiences over polishing the look and feel of the game itself.

Code Breaking

While elsewhere people are concerned with how to make future games better, Darby McDevitt stresses the importance of preserving the technological present and past, as our obsession with technological advance makes all digital media subject to increasing temporality and code rot.

In a great long-form read, Christian Donlan looks at the intersection between coding and code cracking by telling the story of Elonka Dunin and her attempts to crack Kryptos.

In yet another take on the issues of code, Dr. Paul Ralph provides a new way to code our language and theory about games in order to: game designers and academics speak a common language, to legitimize the study of game design among other social sciences and to educate the next generation of game designers.

Building Better Worlds

Bill Coberly worries that Dragon Age: Inquisition will fix all the wrong problems by conflating Dragon Age 2's liberal reuse of environments (bad) with its deliberate choice to reduce the game's scope (good).

Alternately, Peter Christiansen takes a look at how Crusader Kings expanded its scope to include theories of social construction of technology.

Looking through the lenses of experience and nostalgia, Eric Swain examines why, upon return to Myst, the world seems so much smaller than it did 20 years ago.

Speaking of nostalgia, by playing Bioshock Infinite in the "1999" difficulty mode, Steven Margolin realizes that perhaps Irrational Games is nostalgically holding onto what is now an outdated game design -- as if it really were still 1999.


Jed Pressgrove's argument in "Actual Marxism: Labor and Marx in Actual Sunlight" contains spoilers for Actual Sunlight, and so I will simply state that events in the game can be understood as "not necessarily intended" if understood from a Marxist perspective.

Beyond Easy Grouping

No less worthy of your attention despite my inability to group them nicely are the following:

Jesper Juul, ludologist extraordinaire, investigates impostor syndrome in games and how when our subjective expectations for a game are not met, we are more incentivized to seek flaws in the game itself.

Despite being "complete hogwash" historically, Robert Rath explains why the myth of Nazi advanced science continues to be perpetuated in popular media.

While E3 was full of advertisements and trailers showing us the violence we could experience in-game, VGJUNK takes a look back at game advertisements from the 16 and 32 bit era to find that, back then, advertisements focused on the violence games would enact on the player.

In "Reaction to a Woman's Friend Request in an FPS Game" a group of scholars conduct a field experiment in which:

We found support for the hypothesis that, in general, women would gain more compliance with friend requests than men. We also found support for the hypothesis that women making positive utterances would gain more compliance with friend requests than women making negative utterances, whereas men making negative utterances would gain more compliance with friend requests than men making positive utterances.

Cha Holland takes us on a pensive and critical journey through what may or may nor be genital anatomy in Luxuria Superbia.

Before You Go

We’d like to take the time, as always, to thank you for joining us and for submitting the pieces of writing you’d like to see featured here via twitter submission or email submission.

Finally, we'd like to thank those who support Critical Distance, which is entirely funded by its readership. If you aren’t a patron and would like to become one, we'd be so happy to have you.

See you next week!

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Robert Carter
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You know, the idea that if a women character isnt playable in a given game means that women arent represented is absurd. Every character is an individual, and saying they represent an entire spectrum of people based only on the curvyness of the model and pitch of the voice actor is dumb. You know which video game character I identify with the most? Samas Aran. How is it possible I identify with a female character the most? I dont subscribe to collectivism and identify with characters based on their morals, actions, and personality traits.

Tell me, if you played through assassins creed and at the very end the character unmasks, revealing themselves to be the opposite gender you thought they were, would you suddenly identify LESS with them? Because that happened to me in elementary school with my favorite character and it didnt mean squat to me. If they unmasked themselves as a girl, would you suddenly be able to relate to their actions throughout the game? This makes no sense to me whatsoever.

No one is asking about the story, the characters, the morals, the goals. Just the friggin gender like it matters in the game. Dont get me wrong, being able to chose your character would be better. But trying to make a controversy out of this, I dont get.

If someone could explain another side to me, and its more than 'Women cant identify with any character not their gender' (Which I dont buy), I would appreciate it. I get that some or even most might rather play as a character with their traits, but most games have women characters playable, some have only women playable, its not as if women-as-characters are outright ignored. If one game or another decides, for good reasons or dumb reasons, not to include a playable female character, why go crazy? Dont buy this game, go buy a gamecube and Metroid Prime. Better game anyway.

I dont plan on getting this game because I think the Assassins creed games have a stale story going nowhere, with okay gameplay. Id love a discussion on making the game better that actually involved making the gameplay and story, and, you know, things that ACTUALLY matter objectively (Which might include the second topic in this article, the generic hero building staple-stories. Good games dont often use cliches). Gender/Race of the character couldnt matter less to me. That said, I vote the next Assassins Creed game you play as a velociraptor. It can be a female one if y'all like :)

George Menhal III
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There are strong, positive examples of women in gaming, you just have to look for them. #1 on my list is Samus Aran. I am actually a big detractor of the zero suit, as I felt it sexualized her character in a way that was utterly unnecessary. Jill Valentine is another example of a strong female playable character that breaks the damsel in distress stereotype.

The real problem here is that the Assassin's Creed series is shoveled out the door to turn annual profits, and Ubisoft didn't have a legitimate excuse as to why a female assassin could not have been featured in their game. But, really, who cares? AC is about as generic and static as Madden at this point, and most serious gamers with a maturity level above 13 know this and openly admit it. They do interesting things in the series regarding playable sections of world history, but the series by and large is played out trash and I think it's time we all move on from it and demand more creative ideas from one of gaming's most predominant third-party publishers.

See, this is why I bought Child of Light and Rayman Legends instead. I'm not forking over $60 every year for trite mediocrity. Whatever reason gamers need to just stop supporting the product mill with their dollars, I support. So, yeah, SHAME ON YOU, Ubisoft! NO FEMALE CHARACTERS! Whatever...

More like, why didn't you make a good game, Ubisoft?

Robert Carter
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I agree with most of your post! But not the Zero Suit. Shes had it (or at least variations on it) since the original, and its not pointless. Under heavy armor or a space suit you would want a layer of clothing. The armor is tightly formed around her, so the clothing should be tight to avoid getting caught in the joints, plus form fitting is comfortable for exercise and extreme movements (think gym/yoga clothes). And of course, tight form fitting clothes on an athlete will look sexy because it shows the shape of their body. Solid Snake is pretty much in a Zero Suit too, for his missions.

The high heels on the new SSB is a different story, but I dont think it was for sex appeal. I dont think the high heels make her look sexier, but maybe thats just me. Honestly, I thought they looked out of place for a battle, make no sense inside the suit, and were a horrible design choice by the artist/designer.

Abby Friesen
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I feel you're missing the point, Robert. No one's arguing about how reasonable her clothing is, or how she's a woman with a woman's body. It's about both the intent and response in showcasing her body in that way.

The intent was to titillate male viewers and use her sexiness to help sell the game and the character. That is all. It's a very blatant example of "sex sells", and the presentation is designed to arouse. It's not like this is a secret, women's bodies are used to attract male audiences and sell products all the time. Even strong, liked characters can be used by companies in sexist ways to build an audience.

I think you already knew all that though. Go ahead and love the character, but also recognize that Samus's presentation has absolutely been manipulated to provide eye candy to a certain demographic.

George Menhal III
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Thank you for perfectly articulating what I was suggesting in my original comment, Abby.

Dane MacMahon
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I also think it's about over-saturation. There's nothing wrong with a titillating sexy character sometimes, of either gender. The problem is when the vast majority of female characters in the medium are used that way, rather than seeing a healthy balance.

Very few men complain about romance novel covers or the rare commercial that zooms in on a guys abs because all of that is balanced by a ton of male characters that aren't used that way.

Robert Carter
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"The intent was to titillate male viewers and use her sexiness to help sell the game and the character."

I disagree. Again, the Zero Suit existed, as a two piece sports bra + underwear no less, in the first Metroid. It appeared ONLY as a special screen after you beat the game with certain conditions, and surprised most players. It was not done for marketing purposes whatsoever. Over time it became a full body suit in an age where bikinis that cover about as much as a thong are perfectly acceptable as walking around clothes on the California coast where I live. If Nintendo was going to say "Screw it" and market her as straight up sex appeal, they would. But they arent that kind of company.

Should she get a full gown and bonnet from the victorian era and cover those ankles so as not to be indecent? Or should she dress the way she pleases and screw what others think of that? I dont get why people think she would be insecure to show herself the Zero Suit. She wouldnt care and her mind wouldnt even go there.

Also, has ANYONE ever played a metroid game because 'shes a girl with a body suit which you get a screen cap of after you beat the game' even after this became an established fact? I dont see it working as a selling point. I really dont.

Paula Wright
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"Sex sells"

That's because we are a sexually reproducing species. Sex is at the centre of everything - our species survival, it's diversity (in the recombination of cells, otherwise we'd all be female clones). There is nothing wrong with using sex to sell anything. Women buy fashion mags because sex sells, men buy lads mags for the same reason - just from a different perspective.

The market will call out games for neglecting an audience. Innovators will produce new nuanced stories playing on both and archetypal and stereotypical sex roles, as people do in life.