Ubisoft’s Gender Problem

ACClaudiaI have a lot of time for Ubisoft, and I think their E3 presentation this year had by far the most stuff I’m interested in. I also like that they hire an actual media professional who can go on stage without seeming like a quivering PR robot to host their conference. That said presenter is Aisha Tyler, a woman of colour in a sea of white male techs and execs, makes the fact that the couple of niggles emerging relate to the presentation of women in their games all the more galling. But I think this is a case where success has led to the emergence of unexpected problems.

Reading a recent Edge article on Ubi’s editorial team, the squad of advisers who share best practise and approve or reject projects in the sprawling company and its sub-studios, it’s hard not to admire the administrative machinery they’ve put in place to ensure these massive AAA titles are laser targetted at what Ubisoft’s audience want to play. There’s a growing awareness, especially amongst critics, that this is blurring a lot of the company’s games into one Uber-ubi-game, with tropes like Parkour and side missions and taking control of certain locations to open up the map spreading from game to game.

Of course, the reason these open world game play elements are so pervasive is that they work, that they appeal to a broad audience and provide an addictive framework of progression and exploration with lots to do. Some critics may have been disappointed in Watch_Dogs (I haven’t played it yet) for its recycling of bits of Assassin’s Creed etc but it sold shitloads. Maybe not everyone who bought the game was pleased to have the chance to play Chess in the park or engage in optional car racing but the presence of those ticks on the packaging certainly didn’t put them off.

These things appeal to me. They appeal to a lot of people. If there’s a generic gamer brain, a point where the various circles in the big Venn diagram of genres and gameplay options available to Triple A developers overlap the most, Ubisoft are great at marking it out and occupying that territory with populist action potboilers.

And Ubisoft’s E3 presentation was full of that stuff, from Far Cry 4 to Les Assassins Miserables (apologies to whoever on Twitter’s joke that was) to the Division. Even outside that big blurry open world action space each project was the most amped up version of that experience you can imagine – Just Dance was relentlessly poppy and bouncy, the fitness game was the gamiest fitness game ever seen, Rainbox Six Siege finessed that squad shooter thing to it’s most intense and streamlined incarnation.

See marketing target, focus on marketing target, launch mini nuke at marketing target. Boom.

The problem with hitting the tastes of the generic gamer, of the person you get when you smudge all your audience research together and create an archetype of who you’re making games for, is that you end up excluding diversity. You know that X percentage of gamers are white men so that’s who your protagonists are, maybe throwing in black NPC character or secondary playable character because you don’t want to ignore those gamers altogether. And as for women… well, they become what women get stuck with being in a lot of action fiction in films or books or TV, inert sources of motivation for the player.

In aiming for the widest audience, in targeting the universal lizard brain part of the largest spread of gamers, you end up creating regressive nonsense. You have a Rainbow Six demo where two teams of men fight over a frightened woman, guiding or dragging her from room to room as the men shoot each other. You dabble in having female assassins in Assassin’s Creed Unity, then drop it because it requires more mo-cap or different takes of the dialogue for different pronouns and it’s not a budgetary priority because you’re aiming at the  generic tastes of uberubigamer so you think it doesn’t matter beyond a scattering of negative headlines.

But it does matter, not just because such a mindset is regressive and exclusionary and blinkered but because variation and diversity is required to keep things interesting. That’s the danger of the editorial mandate, the focus on what already works – there’s no preparation for when the current tricks wear thin. It’s no use building all these detailed cities and jungle  covered islands to explore if we’re doing it with the same old characters with the same old motivations about dead or kidnapped girlfriends and daughters. Diversity of characters as well as diversity of scenery, please.

Also, I still want to play an Assassin’s Creed game as Clauda Auditore. Get on that.

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June 11, 2014. Tags: , , , . Uncategorized.

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