Friday, August 15, 2014

Because women are too hard to animate...

There continues to be a shortage of triple-A video game titles made with playable female protagonists and strong female characters despite women making up 45% of the $21 billion gaming market. And while you might think there would be some considerable embarrassment in the industry regarding the gender inequality in video game protagonists, sadly, that seems not to be the case.

Denial runs rampant. Just this past Junes, at the E3 conference, Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancia recently explained why their flagship title, Assassin's Creed Unity, would not have playable female assassins:

"It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets, "Amancia explained. "Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."

Needless to say, many gamers were unimpressed by this "women are too hard to animate" explanation, and several indie developers decided to take matters into their own hands. Maja Celine Maher of +Noor Studios organized the "Women Are Too Hard To Animate" Game Jam as a response (#wathtajam for short), and developers responded by uploading 27 games featuring female protagonists.

The games spawned by the jam were a delightful mix in both character and gameplay genre, ranging from point-and-click space westerns, to medieval-themed feminist marches, to my personal favorite, the unsettling retro-style Ray Bradbury tribute, The World the Children Made. The level of polish varies considerably between each submission, but each game's unique take on the theme is definitely worth checking out.

Although I wasn't able to work on a game in time for the official jam deadline, I was nevertheless inspired to make my own contribution to the cause. As I was thinking about how I might craft a character that wasn't simply female, but whose female-ness was somehow essential to the gameplay, I started thinking about the typical actions players perform in many of today's major video game titles--things like conquering, killing, and adventuring, and I considered how traditionally male-centric these activities all are.

Of course, I readily admit that I often enjoy games with male-centric action just as much as any of my guy friends, but it started to bother me that there seems to be a rather insidious assumption in most video game making: that unpleasant male activities like killing and torture can easily be mobilized into a "fun" game, but more historically female-centric activities like managing a household or raising children, are somehow impossible to morph into the driving force behind an interesting and entertaining game. Being the contrarian that I am, I definitely wanted to challenge that assumption!

So my attempt to make a #wathtajam game was motivated by a less of an interest on who the main character of my game would be and more on what a female protagonist might traditionally be expected to do. I quickly settled on the idea of making childrearing the focus of my game, and a little while later, The Baby was born.

The Baby is a simple resource management game that I like to think of it as a kind of female-gendered analog to that video game (and TI-82) classic, Drug Wars. On the surface, the task seems simple: keep your baby alive and happy for 3 months. But given the number of activities you need to balance to make that happen, and given how inscrutable a baby's needs can be, it quickly becomes difficult to achieve this simple task. Of course, it's nowhere near as difficult as raising a child in real life, (after all, it's just a game!) but it does challenge conventional wisdom of what can and cannot be enjoyably gamified.

So if you're feeling bored this weekend, why don't you try playing The Baby? And keep track of the ongoing "Woman Are Too Hard to Animate" debate by following the #womenaretoohardtoanimate hashtag on twitter.

Did you enjoy playing the The Baby or any of the other #wathtajam games? Leave your comments below!


  1. My baby lived for FOUR WHOLE DAYS! My cat should be thankful she lives.

    1. Oh dear! I think it may be safe to assume that the learning curve in my game is slightly more unforgiving than with a real life baby. Thanks for trying it out :-)