Digital Diversity – More Female Protagonists Please

A new monthly column examining diversity in video games.

Digital Diversity

Women Play Games

At last month’s E3, Ubisoft discussed their new game, Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. During the event, they patted themselves tremendously on the back for creating a game where, for the first time, you can play as both a female and male hero. For many reasons, this announcement annoyed several people.

The most obvious reason for this annoyance is the fact this feature was already a part of previous Assassin’s Creed games. Back in 2015, a whole three games earlier, Assassin’s Creed Syndicate gave you the option of choosing your gender after Ubisoft faced criticism for their previous lack of representation, describing adding women as an additional feature they didn’t have time to develop.

Another reason to be annoyed about this announcement is that, well, it’s 2018. It’s ridiculous for Ubisoft to expect fireworks for acknowledging for the first time (or the second time) that women play video games. Get this, Ubisoft: women play video games. According to the Entertainment Software Association, around 36% of gamers are adult women. Women have always played video games. Women like playing video games. If you market more to women you might just sell more video games. As ridiculous as it is to expect applause for something you’ve already done, we’ve gotten to a point now where making female playable characters should be the norm. Sadly, this isn’t always the case.

When to be Inclusive

Digital Diversity

There are perhaps two solid reasons for not allowing players to choose the gender of their character at the beginning of the game. The first one being that the player character’s gender is relevant to the storyline, to the degree where things would literally not make sense if the gender were to be changed. There aren’t many examples of this, but perhaps one would be in Game Grumps’ Dream Daddy. Here you have to play as a dad, otherwise, the joke doesn’t really work.

The second is when the protagonist is a set and scripted character – as in, is not meant to be influenced by who the player is, such as with the Assassin’s Creed series. Designing a game with a set protagonist in place, rather than a player insert, does save game studios time and, therefore, money. But the result of this is that many game creators seem to only ever make these characters male.

“It was on our feature list until not too long ago, but it’s a question of focus and production,” said Technical director James Therien in an interview with VideoGamer. “So we wanted to make sure we had the best experience for the character. 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 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.”

While it is true that creating two different protagonists takes time and money, this does raise the question: why can’t the one protagonist be a female one?

Only around 5% of video games’ protagonists are female, even after taking into account that around 40% of titles have genderless protagonists. Dontnod Entertainment, creators of Life is Strange, have claimed to have had issues pitching their games with female protagonists to publishers. Most publishers they pitched Life is Strange to wanted to change the protagonist to a male character in order to give it a better chance at market. Given the enormous success of Life is Strange, Dontnot sure showed them…

If we got to a point where female protagonists and, hopefully, someday, non-binary characters were featured as protagonists on a regular basis, companies wouldn’t have to put in the extra work to make both a male and female character. Since women are often expected to play games as a male character, can’t men occasionally make do with playing as a female character? If the success of Life is Strange is something to go by, I’d say they probably can. So the lack of representation could be an irrational fear from publishers, rather than the gaming community.

The Indie Alternative

Long Story

Perhaps the most frustrating part about triple-A companies not making games with female protagonists is the progress indie games are making alongside them.

While Ubisoft expects a round of applause for adding gender options, indie games have been quietly doing it for a long time with games such as the RPG Pyre and dating-sim LongStory allowing players to identify as non-binary and use them/they pronouns. I’ll forever stand by my claim that adding them/they pronouns to a game is no more difficult or expensive than adding she/her pronouns. Therefore, creators don’t have many excuses for not implementing it. And if an indie game can do it, there is no reason why triple-A games can’t – having the time and resources most indie studios would kill for.

Other indie games such as Night in the Woods, Undertale, and Fran Bow managed to create non-player influenced female protagonists that relate to players regardless of gender. These three games, in particular, have been praised for their original writing and interesting characters.

There’s plenty of work to be done, then – but the it’s good to see some progress has been made – particularly in the indie scene, which is leading the way for diversity in the industry.