Leaving Out the Ladies: Why Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed Decision Matters

Guest author Amanda Cote joins us from the UM Communication Studies department, and is a student working on her Ph.D. in the area of games studies. Feel free to leave comments for her here on the blog.

Leaving Out the Ladies: Why Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed Decision Matters


During this year’s Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), popular game company Ubisoft announced that the newest release in their Assassin’s Creed series would not have a female option to use in multiplayer mode. Although many games lack playable female characters, this decision has frustrated gamers, as it seems to be step backwards both for Ubisoft and for gaming in general. Removing women from a series that has been diverse in the past contributes to a long-standing gender-based divide in gaming that has serious cultural implications.
The Assassin’s Creed Issue
Assassin’s Creed has included many strong women. In the very first game, secondary character Lucy Stillman saves Desmond Miles from being killed, while his ancestor Altair both fights and falls in love with Maria, a member of the Knights Templar. Assassin’s Creed II sees Lucy saving Desmond again. It also introduces tech genius Rebecca Crane, who created the Animus 2.0 that drives the main storyline. This trend of female assistance continues throughout the series, even drawing on real historical figures.  For instance, real-life pirate Anne Bonny mentors Edward, the main character in Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag. These characters are not controlled by the player, but they are all essential parts of the storyline and game development. 
Because so many of these characters cannot be played, it may not seem like Ubisoft’s Unity decision is a step back.  However, the series has always made clear that gender and race do not matter to the Assassin Order.  In every game where the player can recruit assistants, both male and female options are available.  Furthermore, every multiplayer version of the game, starting with Assassin’s Creed II: Brotherhood in 2010, has provided a female avatar. One installment of the series, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, even featured a black female assassin as the main character. Although it is not the most successful game in the series, Liberation sold well enough as an exclusive PS Vita release for Ubisoft to re-release it on PC, Xbox Live and PlayStation Network as a downloadable game.
Removing playable female characters from Unity has angered fans who have come to rely on Ubisoft for its diversity. But the decision also speaks to a problem games have been facing since the mid-2000s, when the Nintendo Wii and casual games started to reshape the market. The gaming industry now recognizes that diverse groups of people play games; unfortunately, they’re not sure how to deal with these changes, and have defaulted in many cases to marketing different types of games according to gender.
Core vs. Casual
Assassin’s Creed falls into the arena of “hardcore” games, or PC and console games that are time- and skill-intensive. Traditionally, these have been a male space-- created for and marketed toward men. Companies that want to attract women to core games have to fight to do so. Developer Naughty Dog, for example, struggled to get The Last of Us play-testedwith women, as they were not expected to enjoy the survival horror genre. Naughty Dog also faced strong industry pressure to remove their female character, Ellie, from the game’s cover, due to concerns that gamers would avoid a game that appeared to have a female lead.
A lot of factors contribute to the continued marketing of core games to men, such as tradition, the fear of driving away a key market, and the high proportion of industry members who are male. On top of that, the existence of casual games, played on mobile devices or easy-to-use Nintendo systems, provides a convenient area that can be assigned to women. Because more women play casual games than core games, this seems like it makes sense. Gender-based advertising is an easy way to determine a market that likely has similar interests. However, deciding that one form of gaming (core) is “male” and another form (casual) is “female” has real consequences. The largest of these is the tendency, when making such a divide, to then consider one side more important than the other. Second, marketing based on gender indicates to the many women who do play core games (about 40% of players) that they are anomalies; core gaming is not meant for them even if they enjoy it.
The Impact of Gendering Media
As media scholar John Vanderhoef points out in his work on the association of casual games and women, “There has been a long history of linking mainstream or popular culture with the feminine for the purpose of denigrating both.”[i] This history spans many media forms. For instance, daytime television was created specifically for female viewers, but is generally considered less substantial, artistic and meaningful than more “masculine” shows airing at other times. Therefore, shows are often defined as high-quality specifically when they avoid feminine characteristics. To provide one example, this is why X-Files creator Chris Carter specifically tried to avoid having a romantic relationship between his characters Mulder and Scully for that reason; he and fans who declared themselves “NoRomos” wanted to avoid the feminized world of romance narratives in order to remain a more culturally legitimate series.
Following the strong rise in casual gaming, the video game industry has faced a similar struggle regarding legitimacy. Because of the ease of playing casual games and their widespread popularity, players can dismiss them as non-serious; in comparison, core games are then marked as more significant. However, the fact that casual games are marketed towards women means that dismissing them also dismisses the importance of women in gaming more generally. In fact, it can lead to an active avoidance of anything remotely feminine, in order to ensure that one’s game or gaming habits cannot be critiqued for “casualness.” Core gaming is reaffirming itself as a male pursuit.
This may not seem like a big problem, but it does allow gaming culture to cultivate sexist behaviors and treat these as acceptable.  For instance, multiplayer gaming is dominated by trash-talking, particularly if the game pits players against each other (although trash talking can also appear in cooperative teams, especially if a member is seen as not holding up their end). This trash talk is seen as a fun but ignorable aspect of competition; players are expected to respond in kind, and those who seem to be reacting poorly to trash talk are considered to be taking it too seriously. However, trash talk often takes on particular forms or themes, tending towards racism, sexism and homophobia[ii].
The forms of harassment directed at women differ from those targeted to other groups, often being more personal, virulent, and physically threatening due to the prominence of rape or assault-based threats[iii]. These threats are casually stated, such as the use of “you just got raped!” to stand in for “your character was just killed.” Even casually used, however, comments about rape can be upsetting, especially to people who have dealt with sexual assault in the real world or those who find physical assault to be a more prominent threat in their daily lives.
Furthermore, some evidence suggests that many people who go into broader technological fields, such as computer programming, are motivated to do so because of video games[iv]. A fun medium like a video game can help children become familiar with technology from an early age. This is particularly true of core games, which tend to require more specialized technology than their casual counterparts. Individuals who are familiar with technology and see it as a tool, rather than a challenge, are more likely to pursue tech-heavy careers.
A gender gap in gaming can affect future career opportunities for those who lack access to or interest in games at an early age. Specifically, telling female audiences that games are not for them is one way of removing interest in technology. This is especially true because children learn gender roles very early in life; some research shows that girls are already falling behind boys in technology, math and science as early as kindergarten. While some manage to overcome the barriers they face, removing those barriers will help many more girls and women enter technical careers.
Ubisoft’s decision to remove female characters may seem like a small set-back, justified by time concerns and their focus on presenting a detailed main character. However, it is just one of the many forces helping to mark core gaming as not-for-women. And in doing so, it indicates that technology more generally is a space for men. This worsens gender gaps that already exist in STEM fields and allows these areas to remain cultivators for sexism. Even if it is accidental, the cultural implications of dismissing female gamers are serious.
Game designers need to recognize that being inclusive will involve many changes, in marketing, characters and even storylines. But there is cause for hope; many women are already involved in core gaming despite the barriers they face. Furthermore, games such as The Last of Us, which have deliberately aimed for diversity, have been phenomenally successful. Gaming can be for everyone in all its facets, not just in the casual arena. Developers just need to recognize the impact of small decisions and stand their ground on choices that go against traditional industry logic. In doing so, they are likely to achieve both financial success and beneficial cultural change.
[i]Vanderhoef 2014
[ii]Nakamura 2012, Salter and Blodgett 2012
[iii] Nardi 2010, Salter and Blodgett 2012
[iv]Cassell and Jenkins 1998, Beavis and Charles 2007, Stabiner 2003, Williams et al. 2009, Johnson 2011