By Kim Gittleson, BBC reporter, New York. 13 June 2014
That might sound like a rhetorical question, but it was actually one of the main topics of discussion at this year’s E3 conference – the video game industry’s biggest event, which ended on Thursday.
The issue arose after James Therien, technical director at European gamemaker Ubisoft, told trade publication VideoGamer that the latest instalment of Ubisoft hit Assassin’s Creed would not feature any playable female characters because it would have “doubled the work”.
The reaction was swift – and negative – especially when a former Ubisoft developer questioned how much work would be involved.
“The message from the industry is that men come first,” says Jayd Ait-Kaci, a gamer from Canada who started the hashtag #womenaretoohardtoanimate, which was picked up widely.
“#womenaretoohardtoanimate when you throw all your efforts into putting them in situations where their clothes are strategically ripped off” wrote @emilyrwanner.
But what left many scratching their heads was that Ubisoft had already included female assassins in earlier instalments, and that the firm has emphasised diversity, tapping actress and gamer Aisha Tyler as its host at E3. (…)
While there have been exceptions – Lara Croft, in Tomb Raider, or 14-year-old Ellie in The Last of Us – the most recent data found that only 4% of the main characters in the top 25 selling videogames of 2013 were female.
And even when female characters do exist, their representation is generally skewed.
“The research is pretty consistent that there are two types of female characters: the ‘damsel in distress’ or the ‘ultimate warrior’,” says Edward Downs, a professor of communications at the University of Minnesota, who notes that most “ultimate warrior” characters are depicted as hyper-sexualised. (…)
Of course, there are caveats.
While the percentage of female gamers has increased, that has been primarily due to the rise of mobile games, which often do not have characters. For instance, 60% of popular smartphone game Temple Run’s players are female (although that game does allow one to play as a female character).
The gender ratio of players of so-called hardcore games, like first-person shooter games such as Halo, is generally disproportionately men, says Prof Williams, who also runs a game analytics firm, NinjaMetrics
It is those games – FPSs, in industry speak – that many observers see the industry regressing, not progressing. (…)
Two steps forward
This brings the industry to a bit of a chicken or egg problem, at least when it comes to the hardcore games on consoles.
“Are women not playing hardcore games because they don’t like them? Or because they feel alienated?” summarises Prof Williams.
Ubisoft says it is committed to diversity, and in a statement to the BBC did not comment on whether or not the decision to exclude female assassins was an economic choice or one based on user statistics.