Women are hard to animate, but they’re still a nice gift!

You’ve no doubt seen plenty of social media commentary on Ubisoft’s decision to drop the playable female character from the new Assassin’s Creed title, saying that keeping such a character would involve “double the animations, double the voices, double the visual assets… really a lot of extra production work”.

As is often the case, the blogosphere and Twitter could be accused of not allowing for the possibility that there’s any reasonable justification for Ubisoft’s decision, judging from the temper of the posts and tweets I’ve seen, few of which express any sympathy for the company (leaving aside the obviously sexist comments from people saying that “women can’t be assassins” and the like).

95KMeFYJ_400x400I don’t know the franchise, except for the very first title, which only allowed for a male character. From what I’ve read of the current debacle, that has remained true for versions since then – so on the surface, it would seem that while Ubisoft would still be open to the general charges of sexism that the gaming industry seems to attract, there’s nothing to distinguish this particular title from any other game that only allows playable male characters. They all elide women, and women gamers, in the same way, so it seems odd that Ubisoft are attracting such flack in this particular instance.

Someone will no doubt correct me if there’s more to it (i.e. sexism regarding this game and studio, rather sexism in the industry), but one reason why they might nevertheless be attracting disproportionate criticism is thanks to how they have framed the issue, notably with the comments quoted above on how women are basically more “labour intensive” to animate. The comments frame women as an afterthought, and it’s easy to see how that would be offensive.

But what if it’s true? If it were true that this title attracted more male gamers, and that male gamers wanted to play male characters, surely we can’t demand that a private company go to extra expense to satisfy a secondary market? We can note that we’d prefer that they did (and I’m not saying that the Twitter etc. criticism is out of order – that’s a legitimate way of indicating your disapproval), and not buy their products if they don’t – but in economic terms, their decision might be entirely rational.

If Ubisoft set out with the intention of including custom female characters, then realised it would take more work than they had resources for, changing their minds about that brings us back to the status quo, though – it doesn’t seem to be an instance of some new kind of sexism in the gaming industry.

Sure, the Ubisoft people could probably have found a better way to say it, but however they said it, the message is that women, and female characters, are a secondary market to them. That sucks, but it might nevertheless be reality, and it also might be entirely typical of the industry – making the current criticisms regarding this title and studio arguably disproportionate to their crimes.

Having said that, some also say that Ubisoft’s claim is nonsense, and that it would have taken another day or two to add a female character. But in the same story, you’ll read other studios repeating the same claim, including Disney, who surely know a thing or two about animating. And of course it would be true that animating any other sex from the default would take extra work – for the sake of argument, adding a male playable character to Tomb Raider would also involve lots of work. The issue, again, is regarding what the norm is, whether that norm is appropriate, and whether it’s possible to be more inclusive at minimal expense.

My summary take is that Ubisoft were not fully committed to including a female character, and underestimated the blowback that would result when they decided to change course. Their general lack of commitment to this is arguably further evidenced by the fact that they could find time to develop 6 special editions of the game, yet not a female character.

Nevertheless, this seems to be another instance of the usual thing, rather than a new thing – which shouldn’t be read as any endorsement of sexism being taken for granted, but rather as an observation on how this particular case might be being blown out of proportion in service of the fight against that sexism.

In what seems a rather complicated instance of sexism, here in South Africa, I notice that the acting chief operations office of our national broadcaster (the SABC) has recently been given a few gifts. Namely, a cow, a calf – and a wife. Yes indeed, 10 girls “paraded for him to choose. He chose the one he liked“.

His reason for choosing the one he liked, a 23 year-old human resources management student? Well, because he was “committed to his job and understands the strategic objectives of the SABC”. Obviously.