Lots of rumours flying around this week pointing to Activision ordering development companies to change the gender of their protagonists because of skewed focus group data. The words 'can' and 'worms' spring to mind. As part of an in-depth look into the situation, Gamasutra's Leigh Alexander reported that a 2007 Treyarch title entitled Black Lotus, with a central character largely based on Lucy Liu, was systematically scuppered from within because execs had a problem with the central character being a woman.
"Black Lotus was a great project internally," says one of the unnamed sources who supplied this information. "We were all very proud of what we were trying to make and the team was excited. We made great progress. [...]We were all on board, and then Activision killed it, said they don't do female characters because they don't sell."
Remember 2007? The year that Halo 3 and Assassin's Creed and Modern Warfare stormed the charts. A year when it seemed that male power fantasies where at an all time high and testosterone-fuelled gaming was the order of the day.
Another of the sources put it much more succinctly: "Activision gave us specific direction to lose the chick."
The report goes on to suggest that, although most games publishers utilise market research and focus testing to uncover trends, Activision pushes this to the extreme "making the pioneering of new ideas difficult -- and, some believe, at the expense of not only innovation, but overall quality, as developers get instructions to re-work projects mid-stream to keep pace with checklists of gameplay trends, even against the better judgment of the design teams", as Alexander, paraphrasing her sources, puts it.
"Activision has no room for 'we are making an open-world game with a Hong Kong action movie feel with a female lead,' because that game doesn't exist right now," says one source. "What they do have room for is, 'we are making an open-world game with a gangster main character who can steal cars and shoot people, but it will be in Hong Kong instead of Liberty City.' And then they go, 'Hey, GTA IV sold 10 million copies, so that's what we expect from you.''"
And so, it would seem, Black Lotus became True Crime: Hong Kong, a move Alexander reports was 'pushed' onto the team for trending reasons much like the protagonist of True Crime: NY allegedly suddenly turned African-American halfway through development after GTA: San Andreas covered itself in glory.
The woes for the big publisher continue to suggest that the focus data such decisions rest on are warped in the first place, spun for the execs and fat cats at the top to promote female leads in a negative light even if, as the sources suggest, they tested positively.
"If someone from publishing has a point to prove or can't get an idea in the game, the focus test questions are skewed, and the Activision feedback is skewed in their favour," the sources continue. "I have sat in a focus test that in the team's opinion went exceptionally well, but the feedback sent to the higher-ups from someone on the publishing side were skewed to be the exact opposite. [...] If Activision does not see a female lead in the top five games that year, they will not have a female lead [...]And the people that don't want a female lead will look at games like Wet and Bayonetta and use them as 'statistics' to 'prove' that female leads don't move mass units."
There are a whole bunch of things to pick apart from this: Is focus testing actually useful? How can we expect to grow culturally if stifled by men in suits whose primary consideration is cash? But I want to look primarily at the nature of diversity in terms of gaming protagonists. Do we need more women in gaming? If Activision's practices are true, are they necessarily wrong, seeking after all, to hit the target demographic and boost sales? Is it an issue or is it just an example of the gaming industry working in trying times to do the best it can in a free market economy.
First of all, let's just lay it out on the table right now. Of course gaming has a diversity issue when it comes to central protagonists who have a tendency, as Chad Concelmo pointed out in an article on Destructoid midway through last month, to be brown-haired white men in their mid-thirties with chiselled jaws and a voice that, more often than not, sounds suspiciously like Nolan North.
This is Chad's list of current-gen games off the top of his head who's hero fits that description:
We could probably add Half-Life's Gordon Freeman, although he at least lacks 20-20 vision, and Mario to these proceedings but the above list will do fine. Before you get all fussy, yes I do realise that Mass Effect will let you choose and create your own character but, pedantry aside, whose face is it on the box?
Concelmo's point is that the creative decisions undertaken by the team responsible for these games are hampered thanks to the idea that by and large these characters are relatively interchangeable. Although praising Rockstar for creating a male lead who fits this mould yet bucks the trend by being, older, battle-scarred and a thoroughly engrossing backstory, and the end of the day John Marston is still a white cowboy, with the author wishing that perhaps Rockstar could have been a little braver and told the story of "a black soldier fighting for his family while struggling with the racism and violence of that time period (imagine what could have been done with the “Fame meter” in that case). The game could have starred a woman -- wouldn’t it have been interesting to tell the game’s story from John’s wife’s perspective? The game could have starred a Native American (my vote for what would have been the coolest). Why must Native Americans in games almost always be relegated to stereotypical supporting roles?"
In terms of women, saying that women can't sell games is frankly beyond idiocy. One of my favourite games of all time, recently re-released on XBLA has a strong female protagonist who kicks bottom: Joanna Dark. In fact there have a been some excellent first person shooters with women cast into the main role. What about Emma Peel wannabe Cate Archer in No One Lives Forever: smart, sassy and with a sense of humour, she is the reason that the game succeeds beyond being a simple Bond clone. The game started out as appearing to just be riffing on the success of such 1960s era spy adventures, something Craig Hubbard and his team circumvented by changing the gender of the central character. It worked too, the game winning several GOTY awards. I'm not suggesting that every protagonist should have their balls cut off, but that female perspective can provide something different from the sea of homogeneous action heroes.
Pointing to sales of Wet and Bayonetta to vindicate gender-based choices when it comes to sales development is also a flawed practice. Sure, there'll be those who get off on Team Ninja's boob physics, people who still cry and wank over pictures of Lara Croft, but they're a minority. Look at Lara now and you'll see, as Alexander points out in her article, that the sex appeal is secondary to the steely resilience of the character now. Frankly, I think that's always been the case. Tomb Raider was a good game that broke boundaries by making its central character a bankable star. A lot of that probably came from teenage male downstairs confusion, but Lara has endured not because of her rounder assets, but because her games were good.
Whilst this can apply to Wet, which was pretty damn poor whichever way you look at it and had the worst name imaginable, Bayonetta's fault was that it was a game you'd struggle to explain to your girlfriend or mother without coming across as a pervert. Bayonetta wasn't cool, she was highly disturbing, even if her arsenal of moves offered up some of the finest combat to ever grace a console it was undone my S&M stylings and a tendency to pose naked as her hair transformed into angel-crunching beasts.
It could be argued that Bayonetta's in-your-face femininity, the constant reminder that she was a woman, was what was offputting but I don't see it like that. Reading the game from that perspective makes it seem even more desperate which is a real shame. It could have succeeded in putting forth a strong, female hero without having to resort to oversexualised positioning.
What this all boils down to as far as I can see, is that gamers don't actually give a flying f**k about the gender of the protagonist concerned. Look at Portal, do we care about Chell or GLaDOS being female (of sorts in the case of the latter) characters? No, we don't. As long as it fits, as long as it doesn't feel shoehorned in and as long as the game's good, you could make a protagonist absolutely anyone you want and we'd lap it up.
Forcing diversity in terms of gaming development is not an option, quotas are counter-productive I feel. But, from Alexander's sources, we can infer that the problem lies not with the developers, many of whom would love to see this change, but in the hands of corporate conservatives. It's important to note that Activision refuted claims that they issue gender-specific instructions:
"The company does not have a policy of telling its studios what game content they can develop, nor has the company told any of its studios that they cannot develop games with female lead characters. With respect to True Crime: Hong Kong, Activision did not mandate the gender of the lead character," it says. "Like all other game and media companies, Activision uses market research in order to better understand [what] gamers are looking for."
Like asking a race river to step aside in Formula One, coded orders are nearly always the order of the day and this statement has so many holes in it that it resembles Swiss cheese. True or not, it represents a worrying avalanche of bad press that's been coming Activision's way since Modern Warfare 2 came out and, worse still, indicates a supreme narrow-mindedness at the top of the food chain that's all too believable by far...
...particularly in the wake of Kotick's sex scandal.