Gender issues aren’t uncommon in the video game industry, as is evident by the abundance of topics covered on our podcast. Ubisoft bore the most recent brunt of the criticism with the claim that including female characters into its upcoming title Assassin’s Creed: Unity would be too difficult and costly. This claim exposes an issue with the nature of the games industry, whether we want to admit it or not. When it comes to designing multiplayer characters, men serve as the default option. Now, developers are free to create whatever character their want for their titles. Artistic freedom dictates, at least in mind, that an artist shouldn’t be pressured into changing his or her art in order to comply with societal pressures. Society has the option of simply ignoring the art. However, this changes somewhat when an artist becomes a business, as money is involved and the opinions of customers impacts the ability for an artist to create more art.
In Ubisoft’s case, presenting a one-sided view of gender gives the appearance of apathy towards a portion of the their customer base. From a strictly business side of things, this might not be as damning if that portion isn’t large enough to warrant the extra resources consumed in accommodating them. However, this assumes that only that portion of their consumers cares, and then if they care enough to avoid the product. From a moral point of view, this issue comes out as a glaring light on a large issue.
Society can’t, or shouldn’t, force a content creator into altering a piece of art in order to accommodate others. A notable exception to this, one that many modern societies agree on, is censorship in order to protect the development or well-being of individuals. The most apparent use of this is in the way that certain regulatory bodies rate pieces of work based on who can and cannot acquire them. Video games have the ESRB, for example, which labels games on an E to AO rating scale. The ESRB, by virtue of being this regulatory body, thus determines who can purchase games in addition to influencing the perception of titles by parents and guardians. The difference between a T and an M can very well determine whether or not a parent will get their child the game in question. Adults Only is the death knell for any title unfortunate to garner the rating, since the stigma on such a rating is enough that no retailer would dare to stock it.
Ratings like these exist to prevent harmful material from entering the possession of those who are unable to grasp them. We have thus established that censorship of harmful ideas is acceptable. The next task is to determine what exactly is harmful. Current guidelines put vices behind these lines–alcohol, smoking, miscellaneous drug use, sexual content–as well as violence and swearing. These qualifiers serve a distinct purpose, since each one encourages harmful behavior. Such a connection is quite clear. Alcohol glorification encourages excessive drinking. Smoking encourages excessive nicotine intake. Violence encourages, well, violence. All of these complicate both personal and social situations.
How does this apply to sexism? While I wouldn’t push for “sexism” as a qualifier under the ESRB, I don think it’s pretty clear that sexism is harmful to society. When a portion of the populace is routinely treated differently than the other half, then something is wrong. To this end, we can assume that games with apparent sexist tones are inherently harmful, and while the effect might not be as blatant, it is as impactful. In Ubisoft’s case, this became evident when they claimed they would need extra funds to create a playable female protagonist. By citing the need for extra funds, Ubisoft sets female protagonists as the afterthought, something to do after the bulk of the work is finished. While this hasn’t been a problem in their past entries. it is a problem now due to the fact that the campaign is so heavily focused on its co-op nature.
Sexism isn’t strictly a female-only issue, either, and allowing it continue means that harmful stereotypes continue to exist. In perpetuating the notion that men are the primary force when it comes to powerful roles, the assumption that men must be tough in order to remain valid “as a man” remains. While many revel in that role, it’s ultimately harmful in how it constricts individuality. We’re seeing a shift now where this is becoming less of an issue, but issues remain. This is where the video game industry comes in. Developers have a chance to change the nature of empowerment identity. We can stray away from the status quo of musclebound men and branch out into more inclusive protagonists. We can encourage everybody to participate, instead of holding to outdated gender roles that have no functional purpose in gaming.