A still from the new game Assassin's Creed: Unity, part of a series which has sold over 73 million copies.
Assassin’s Creed is an extremely popular video game—but it doesn’t let users play as a female character. Originally, development company Ubisoft planned to include a female playable character in the new version of the game, Assasin’s Creed Unity. But when the new game’s big launch came last week at E3, fans were disappointed to find that the new version still includes no female players.
Despite having 10 studios of video game developers working on its projects, Ubisoft said that adding a female player would have been too difficult to create.
“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. And I means it’s something the team really wanted, but we had to make a decisions,” Ubisoft technical director James Therien explained to VideoGamer.com. “It’s unfortunate, but it’s a reality of game development.”
Ubisoft has since issued a statement saying that while their newest Assassin’s Creed game does not include female assassins, it will feature “strong female characters.” The characters, still uncertain, may only have the purpose of aiding the male playable character.
According to industry numbers, over 40 percent of gamers are women, contrary to the stereotype of the teenage boy gamer. Instead of having a similar ratio of female to male playable characters, only 15 percent of characters are female. When female characters are featured they are usually hyper-sexualized and diminished to tropes, as Anita Sarkeesian explains in her Feminist Frequency video series.
The latest installment of the Tropes vs. Women in Video Games series, which went live today, Sarkeesian explores how female characters serve as background decoration in video games. She focuses on the “decorative virtual sex class,” as well as the violence these non-playable characters can receive. The female bodies objectified in these games lack personality and identity and “almost never get to be set dressing or props in someone else’s narrative,” as Sarkeesian says. “They don’t have their own stories, players are never supposed to identify with them or care about them, outside of what they can offer either sexually or materially.”
In her new video, Sarkeesian pulls clips from over 30 video games, including gameplay from Assassin’s Creed IV and Far Cry 3, another Ubisoft title, to identify five fundamental aspects of objectification in popular modern games: instrumentality, commodification, interchangeability, viability, and disposability. The clips feature mainstream gaming’s inclusion of prostitution and “women reduced to a base sexual function.”
The lack of playable female characters in Assassin’s Creed would be less galling if Ubisoft hadn’t sidelined women in their other games. But it seems like developers find it easier to produce hyper-sexualized female non-playable characters than playable assassins. As Sarkeesian points out, previous Ubisoft titles include the “exotification of impoverished women of color,” such as in Far Cry III and renting women for distraction during gameplay in Assassin’s Creed IV.
Ubisoft technical director Therien isn’t the only video games developer to provide economic justification for the industry's lack of female protagonists. Chris Perna, art director of Epic Games, said in 2013 that including a female hero in Gears of War would hurt the game’s sales potential. "If you look at what sells, it's tough to justify something like that,” he told OXM.
Adding a female character to a game is no small task. When creating a new female playable character, game developers would have to consider character size, interactions with other characters, and movement through environments. Transferring animations isn’t enough. Creating first person characters takes time, teams of developers, and thousands of animations. But while adding additional animations is extra work, inclusion is worth it. BioWare’s Mass Effect has received praise for creating swappable male and female playable characters, which uses similar skeletal structure for different genders and races. BioWare even includes a reversible cover for Mass Effect 3 featuring a female main character.
If Ubisoft can create animations of objectified women in brothels, sexual exchanges on islands, and dialogue between these tropes and the playable male character, they should have the ability and resources to create a playable female character. Observing female characters reduced to simple sexual and subservient beings in video games so frequently normalizes that image women in video games. Why should a male playable character be considered the standard in video game creation? Video games are created to escape a universe and defy ideas of reality.
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Lucy Vernasco is the new media intern at Bitch and an expert on her favorite Nancy Drew computer games.