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Is it really sexist if a video game does not feature playable female characters?

Illustration of Ezio Auditore drawn by Will Murai for the Assassin's Creed 2 artbook.
Illustration of Ezio Auditore drawn by Will Murai for the Assassin's Creed 2 artbook.Will Murai

In the month of June, E3 brought us many exciting game announcements, including a new entry in the Assassin's Creed series. Gamers concerned with social justice were quick to notice that the trailer for Assassin's Creed: Unity did not feature any playable female characters. When Ubisoft confirmed that gamers would not be able to play as a female assassin in the upcoming game, they were met with accusations of sexism and misogyny.

Every Assassin's Creed game since 2010 has featured female assassins in multiplayer mode, and Assassin's Creed III: Liberation starred a female protagonist, so the decision to not include female assassins in the next-gen Assassin's Creed appeared to be a step backwards to many gamers.

The creative director of Ubisoft, Alex Amancio, stated in an interview with Polygon magazine that Ubisoft was unable to include female characters because of production costs, claiming that including female characters would require "double" the amount of voices, animations, and visual assets. A popular quote from this interview is that "8,000 extra animations" would have been required to add the female characters to the game.

These statements were met with skepticism, as many gamers and members of the game industry suspected that Ubisoft was grossly exaggerating about how much extra work it takes to include a female character into a game. Ubisoft responded by providing further explanation for why they chose not to include female avatars in the game:

"The common denominator was Arno. It’s not like we could cut our main character, so the only logical option, the only option we had, was to cut the female avatar."

Regardless of whether or not Ubisoft was exaggerating about how many extra animations they would need to include female characters, it is understandable that they have designed the experience to revolve around a specific character with a specific identity, and that allowing the player to change that character's gender would dilute the narrative they are trying to deliver.

Ubisoft's previous track record should be enough to dispel any notion that they have sexist game design philosophies; many Assassin's Creed games have featured multiple empowered female characters. "Sexism" and "misogyny" are serious accusations that should be reserved for truly distasteful games, not a series such as Assassin's Creed.

Some games, such as the Sims, Dragon Age, Mass Effect, and Skyrim, are about the player crafting their own character and telling their own story. In these games, it is reasonable for developers to allow for diverse avatar creation, or a wide breadth of playable characters. However, other video games are about a specific narrative revolving around one character that the developer has created. Developers should not feel the need to go down a checklist and make sure they have included absolutely every gender, race, and sexual orientation in their games; developers should always have compete intellectual control over their characters and narratives, and shouldn't feel obligated to appease absolutely every demographic in existence.