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Dishonored 2 has the choice to play as a female lead | Courtesy of Bethesda
Dishonored 2 has the choice to play as a female lead | Courtesy of Bethesda
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Why the Choice to Play as a Woman in Video Games Is Holding the Industry Back

Picture of Emma Welsh
Updated: 17 May 2017
Having the choice to play as a woman in a video game appears, on first reflection, to be a mark of progress. However, when you look more closely, some of the old inner biases of the video game industry come to light.

Take the game Dishonored 2, which was released last fall as a follow-up to the highly successful first offering, Dishonored. In the first title, players experience the game through Corvo, an assassin framed for the murder of the Empress. The sequel lets gamers play as Corvo again, or to play as his daughter, Emily Kaldwin, the new Empress of the city.

Though the character of Emily is one of the industry’s better efforts at representing females in gaming—giving her all the skills any male counterpart would have—it was still only an option to play as her instead of a condition to experiencing the sequel—a cop out many gaming companies are opting for.

In the video gaming world, especially in role-playing games, saving the world as a woman has always been possible, but it’s always a choice and never a defined character like it is for men in games like The Witcher or Bioshock Infinite. Though Arkane Studios’ decision to introduce a woman at all was a mark of progress, providing the choice to play as Emily denies men the familiarity of experiencing a story designed with a female protagonist in mind, simply because they can so easily opt out of it.

Brianna Wu is a game developer who is now running for Congress to further change in the industry. “Features that get developed are the features the team cares about, the features that the team advocates for,” she explains. “We have an industry that is choking in toxic masculinity.”

Brianna Wu and Giant Spacekat co-founder Amanda Warner
Brianna Wu and Giant Spacekat co-founder Amanda Warner | Courtesy of Shannon Grant

As a result, these female characters that are tacked on as an option and not as a pre-defined, fleshed out character perpetuate that ideology in the industry. It becomes a choice to empathize, not a requirement of the story.

“Generally speaking, men do not mind playing as women characters,” Wu says in rebuttal to the attitude she claims Develop magazine helped spread in the nineties. She also points out that studies have shown that men who play games as women are more empathetic towards women and display less toxic behavior.

Because video games cost so much to make, most game developers don’t see the risk of making the lead character female as one worth taking—even if half of the community is made up of women. “I think that our industry is increasingly risk-averse,” Wu admits. “We are a pattern-based industry and it causes us to look backwards instead of forwards.”

“They don’t value the experience of women players,” she adds. “If it was important enough it would make it into the game.”

She brings up Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, what she calls a prime example of companies putting efforts into what they care about.

“The game came out with a dynamic algorithm for horse pooping as you’re riding around,” she says. “That took an animator being assigned to that. This is an industry where we can solve any problem we wish. The truth is, it just doesn’t happen because it’s just not important to the people that work here.”

But Wu isn’t without hope. Her solution? Hire more women. “The companies I know that don’t hire women invariably are the ones with the most sexist products coming out,” she explains, adding that, by contrast, those that are more inclusive tend to “get it right”.

That’s why she’s running for Congress, hoping to make changes in the industry that require more women in the hiring process and as a result, more games with a pre-set female lead for men to empathize with. As she says, “You can’t make a game that’s inclusive if you don’t include a lot of different kinds of people in the development team.”