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Assassin’s Creed Unity Lacks Representation, Excuses

Representation in gaming matters. This is a fact that a large part of the community has trouble with. They ask, “Why does every game have to have some sort of diversity? Isn’t that creative censorship?” or “Does this really matter?” It seems to a large part of the gaming community, representation is something that’s far from the first thing on their minds. However, as Ubisoft’s recent gaff with Assassin’s Creed: Unity at E3 has demonstrated, especially from the backlash that their justification for not including a female assassin has generated, there is an equally large portion of the community to whom representation definitely matters, and it’s not an issue that’s going to go away if the majority ignores it.

Gaming’s Problem with Representation

Representation, as I am using it, means the representation of underrepresented people in media. The fact is, in most forms of media, white men are the burgeoning majority of those represented. In fact, as far back as 2009, it was discovered that in video games alone, women are a mere 10% of characters. The same study found that Hispanic people were merely 3% of game characters, and all were background characters. 5 years hence, at this year’s E3, it seems as though most game companies are still dedicated to the over-representation of white men.

On the first day of the show, there we several major reveals, nearly all with white, male headliners. Battlefield: Hardline’s 90 second trailer does not feature any noticeable character other than white men, Uncharted 4, Sony’s big, conference ending reveal, stars a white man named Nathan Drake, and Dead Island 2’s trailer bordered on the offensive with its cavalier objectification, and subsequent murder, of a woman in a pink bikini. However, one of the greatest offenses was not committed at the show, but after it, when Ubisoft discussed their aforementioned decision to cut a female playable character from the 4 assassin roster of Assassin’s Creed: Unity, the latest entry in the series slated for release on Playstation 4, Xbox One, and PC.

Paper-Thin Justifications

Ubisoft’s justification for the disinclusion of a playable female assassin centers around the claim that it would have “doubled the work” on both animations and costumes. Specifically, speaking to correspondent Steven Burns, technical director at Ubisoft James Therien said, “A female character means that you have to redo a lot of animation, a lot of costumes [inaudible]. It would have doubled the work on those things.” Ubisoft, by admission, has 9 studios working on Assassin’s Creed Unity, and “tonnes of resources” that are going into producing the game, so the question remains: where are the women?

The myth of a game designer’s work “doubling” to accommodate a female protagonist, or even simply a female playable character, is couched in the idea that these characters are somehow fundamentally different from a male protagonist or male character. Therien’s assertion that a female character would “double the work” of animators and costume designers is soundly refuted by Jonathan Cooper, a former Assassin’s Creed developer. Cooper tweeted that, “In my educated opinion, I would estimate [including a female playable character] to be a day or two’s work. Not a replacement of 8,000 animations,” and followed with mentioned that the female main character of Assassin’s Creed 3: Liberation, “shares more of Connor Kenway’s animations than Edward Kenway does.” Ubisoft also seems to have its history muddled, as the most famous assassin of the French Revolution, where Assassin’s Creed: Unity is set to take place, was Charlotte Corday, a woman. Ubisoft’s justification, thus, not only does not hold water, but is also historically inaccurate. If, in designing a female character, that character often shares many of the same animations that the male characters do, how is it possible, especially with 9 AAA studios working on the game, that including a female option in the game’s co-operative mode would “double the work”?

Why It Matters

Yet, there are still people in the gaming community who are asking “Why does any of this matter? Why is it important that we represent people? Isn’t that creatively limiting?” Representation matters because it shows that the people who we control, the characters who are our heroes and our villains, the characters we spend hours searching for treasure with and going on adventures with, can and should be the kind of people doing those things. It shows that it’s just as normal for a black, French woman to run around assassinating people and adventuring that it is for a white man (especially ironic considering Aveline de Grandpre is a part of another Assassin’s Creed game). However, since, in the gaming industry, we are inundated with project after project, game after game headlined by white men, it has become unusual to see anyone else in that position. White men having adventures, stealing, finding treasure, and blasting aliens is seen as the status quo, as something you default to, and far too often this not only leaves all other underrepresented people out in the rain, it also fosters exactly what people worry about: creative limitation.

There is no objective rule that says that video games must have a white, male protagonist, and yet we still see, overwhelmingly, white men headlining video games. This is not only because it is deemed “easier”, but also because there are damaging, self-fulfilling ideas about how games sell that perpetuate under-representation. The Mary Sue’s Becky Chambers mentions that, “The AAA studios have found their formula for creating mountains of cash, and like everyone else in the history of corporate entertainment, they see no reason to deviate from it.” Game companies risk a lot when they create games, especially financially, but at the same time they are creating an environment in which games with female leads are marketed 40% less than games with male leads. They are, in an attempt to protect the bottom line, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of under-representation in the gaming industry, an industry whose icons include Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft, Metroid’s Samus Aran, and Portal’s Chell and GLaDOS, all games which have gone on to become both critical and financial successes. 

“Bravely” Default

Representation matters. It matters especially to the more than 45% of the gaming community who are female, who are black, or Hispanic, or Asian, or any under-represented person in media. It matters because people want to see themselves in the characters they play, and want to be able to say that these characters are normal. It matters because developers are still making excuses to disinclude under-represented peoples not only out of laziness, but also because of a dedication to the bottom line that creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of poor representation. It matters because diversity should be the default, it shouldn’t be “double work” or “the reality of the games industry”, and it definitely shouldn’t be abnormal.