Siobhan Keogh is the NZ Herald's gaming blogger.

Siobhan Keogh: Women should be a feature, not a bug

Girls play games too - so why aren't there more playable female characters? Siobhan Keogh investigates.
Assassin's Creed creative director, Alex Amancio, says creating a playable female would be too much extra work.
Assassin's Creed creative director, Alex Amancio, says creating a playable female would be too much extra work.

It would be nice if we could just get through one year of E3 without someone stumbling over their words as they try to fumble a response to a question about the representation of women in games.

Unfortunately, 2014 was not that year.

For approximately the millionth time, when a journalist asked why there were no women in a game, a developer said that it was too much work despite the fact that the game has a massive budget and there are nine studios - nine - working on it.

Alex Amancio, creative director of Assassin's Creed United. Photo / AFP

"It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets," the creative director for Assassin's Creed Unity, Alex Amancio, told gaming website Polygon.

"Especially because we have customisable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."

Polygon asked the question in relation to the co-op mode in Assassin's Creed Unity, wherein you'll appear to yourself as the game's main character. On other people's screens, however, you'll appear as a different male assassin - no girls allowed.

Unfortunately for Ubisoft, former Ubisoft animator Jonathan Cooper disagreed about the level of complexity required to add a female option to the co-op mode. Cooper said on Twitter that creating a female avatar would've been an extra couple of days' work - certainly not a replacement of 8,000 animations as Amancio claimed.

Cooper now works for Naughty Dog, the creators of Uncharted and The Last of Us, but had previously worked on the Assassin's Creed series. He knows what he's talking about.

The Last of Us.

But even if Cooper is wrong - even if creating an extra female avatar really is a lot of extra work - that doesn't make the exclusion of women excusable. In the Assassin's Creed universe, female assassins are canon. Not only that, but the most famous assassin of the French revolution, in which Unity is based, was a woman called Charlotte Corday.

And playable women should not be a "nice to have" feature. It's not okay anymore.

'Charlotte Corday' by Paul Jacques Aimé Baudry, posthumous (1860). Photo / Creative Commons

I know that developers and publishers still believe - wrongfully - that straight, white men and boys with raging hormones are their primary audience, but the statistics just don't back it up anymore.

In a Digital Australia and New Zealand report, released on 2012, Bond University in Australia researched the gender divide (or lack thereof) in video games. The university found that not only are female gamers almost as commonplace as male gamers, at 47 percent female versus 53 percent male, but women were, by and large, playing the same genres that men were. Contrary to popular belief, women play RPGs, first-person shooters, adventure games, sports games and strategy games just like men do - and some of those genres were actually more popular amongst women than men.

Janina Gavankar plays 'Far Cry 4' at the Ubisoft booth at E3. Photo / Invision for Ubisoft

In other words, if you're one of those people who argues that women only play The Sims and Angry Birds, you're wrong - and you've been wrong for at least a couple of years now. (The elitism around which genres and devices make a "true gamer" is silly, anyway, but that's a blog for another day.)

But here's the thing: to enjoy video games as a woman means ignoring a lot of pretty heinous stuff. In so many games you, playing as a man, are able or even encouraged to do horrendous things to sexualised women. And sexuality is always explored from the male perspective in an incredibly shallow and boring way, which gets pretty old.

I'm not arguing that there should be more women in games than men, but developers and publishers really are ignoring a large chunk of their audience by treating women as nice to have rather than compulsory. If there's only one playable character in the whole game, then okay, sure. But would proper representation of women, representation that doesn't feature weird camera angles that focus straight on women's butts or breasts, really be so hard?

The creators of Assassin's Creed - a series that prides itself on its diversity - argue that it is. I wish they'd just tell the truth and admit that they don't value women enough to bother.

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Siobhan Keogh is the NZ Herald's gaming blogger.

Siobhan Keogh has been playing video games for almost as long as she's been able to read. Her passion for games started with Sonic the Hedgehog and Alex Kidd in Miracle World, grew when she discovered the Final Fantasy series as a teenager, and became near-obsessive when she worked as games editor for PC World magazine. She'll play almost every kind of game there is, from shooters to strategies to adventure games to Peggle, on any platform she can get her hands on. Her love of games isn't limited to the screen - she also plays both board and card games on the tabletop. When she's not gaming, she's tweeting lame jokes about games on Twitter. Occasionally she takes a breather from that and talks about running and fitness instead. Siobhan works as community manager for New Zealand's largest locally-owned technology company, but her views on gaming are her own.

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