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As game players diversify, developers start to rethink the stars of their games

As video games continue to become a massive, mainstream form of entertainment, the sorts of people playing games continue to diversify.

Increasingly those players who aren't white and male — the stereotypical view of who plays video games — are asking why they don't have the ability to play the games they love as characters that they can more easily identify with.

Why isn't there more diversity in the fictional worlds of video games, where players can be anything that game-makers imagine?

The topic, specifically the lack of realistic female protagonists in blockbuster games, became a major talking point at this year's E3 after the people behind the next installment of massive hit series Assassin's Creed said they abandoned women assassins in the cooperative mode of their game because adding them would have required too much work.

"It's double the animations, it's double the voices, all that stuff and double the visual assets," Ubisoft creative director Alex Amancio told Polygon earlier this month. "Especially because we have customizable assassins. It was really a lot of extra production work."

The comment spurred hot debate online among game players and game makers, and the topic was given further fuel when the makers of another Ubisoft hit, the latest Far Cry, said essentially the same thing.

I asked Ubisoft president Yves Guillemot about the issue and how seriously they take the diversification of their characters.

"We recognize the valid concern around diversity in video game narratives," a Ubisoft representative replied. "Ubisoft's games are developed by a multicultural team of various faiths and beliefs and we hope this attention to diversity is reflected in the settings of our games and our characters. With regard to diversity in our playable characters, we've featured Aveline, Aurora, Jade, Connor, Adewale and Altair and we will continue to showcase diverse characters in our upcoming titles."

With a gathering of the biggest game developers in the world at hand, we set out to get their take on the inclusion of women in games as playable characters, something a statistical look at the games of E3 doesn't necessarily completely capture.

While Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare doesn't star a woman, it does include the option to play as women in the multiplayer aspects of the game, the developers said. That ability was first introduced in last year's Call of Duty: Ghosts.

"We will have a robust offering of female hero options for multiplayer," said Michael Condrey, chief operating and development officer at Sledgehammer Games.

And while players won't take control of a woman as they play through the campaign, that doesn't mean there aren't female leads in the title, said Glen Schofield, chief creative officer and co-founder of Sledgehammer Games.

"We have a very strong character, a female in the single-player campaign, and she's part of the tier-one force," he said. "She plays a very big role in the campaign. We did discuss a lot of things: female villains, female leads, but as the story came out we have a very, very strong character, one of your group, who is a woman. There's the four of you and she's one of your tier-one group. I don't think there is a woman in (the real-world) tier-one yet, but everyone is seeing that going that way.

Condrey agreed with what Ubisoft's developers said, to some extent. It is hard work to add playable women to the game.

"Developing assets to have women in games is another layer of effort," he said. "We feel like it is the right layer of effort. It is what is happening in the world today. We know that tier-one soldiers of the future will be based off of whoever is the strongest and smartest and train for that. It all comes back to us being based and rooted in research. The role of women in politics, the role of women in military, the role of strong figures throughout organizations, this is what we have here. For us it is trying to represent where the (real-world) military, where tier-one is going."

Even developers that didn't hang their game's fiction off of the realities of today's demographics understood the need for allowing gamers creative freedom in who and how they play.

"We're going to have females, and males, and we're going to have different races," said Adam Clegg, game designer for Sony Online Entertainment's zombie survival game, H1Z1. "At SOE we actually have males and females in PlanetSide 2, we had that at launch, and the females in PlanetSide 2 look like soldiers; they're wearing armor. We're sensitive to that; we understand that people want to play as males and females of different races, and we give them that."

Destiny, the next big game from the creators of the Halo franchise, will also have a choice of genders.

"It's a big investment, but from the beginning we knew we were going to have male and female characters," said Eric Osborne, the head of community for Destiny and a writer at Bungie. "It made sense to invest in that. We're talking about a world where we want people to be who they want to be, we want them to take on an archetype and a persona, so it's really important that we support a whole host of options, and of course male and female are one of those."

Crystal Dynamics, creators of Tomb Raider and Lara Croft, one of the first games to star a powerful, though initially over-sexualized, woman, said they love seeing strong female characters in games.

"Certainly for us, the diversity of both the player types and just the industry itself is one of those things that we love seeing shift," said executive producer Scot Amos. "Rhianna Pratchett's a writer, even having a strong female writer who knows how to write for strong female character, that stuff is just absolutely pertinent and powerful for us to be able to get the right messaging out there.

"There are tons of women gamers."

Amos said the community of people playing games continues to diversify in part because of the abundance and popularity of casual games like Angry Birds, which act as a sort of "gateway drug" and lead players into deeper, more complex gaming experiences.

"We want the broadest community we can possibly get," he said. "Every one of them play games, something like this that's a co-op game, look at the three of us sitting here on the couch. We can easily see my wife joining us, she and I play co-op games all together, so I think that's the kind of stuff we want if we want the community."

Alien: Isolation, a taut horror game that has players trying to survive in an infested space ship as the daughter of Ellen Ripley, was a perfect fit for a female lead because that idea is a big part of the fiction's universe, said Alistair Hope, creative lead on the game.

"It just seemed the perfect thing to be doing," Hope said. "Amanda, I think, is her own character; she's not just a clone of Ellen Ripley. She has a slightly different perspective on the world, but she shares many traits with her mother — being able to focus under pressure, striving to survive."

Even Nintendo's game makers understand the growing importance of empowering women in games. Zelda, while a helpful character in the eponymous franchise, gets a chance to show off her own powers in direct combat in the upcoming Hyrule Warriors.

"So Link was, being a Zelda game, you have to have Link as a playable character," said development producer Yosuke Hayashi. "He was obviously the main playable character, but one of the core features of this game is having a lot of playable characters, and so you start to think, who else would fans want to play as, and of course Princess Zelda is right there. So you have to have her playable, and as you're playing, she has a Triforce, she has legendary weapons, these are powerful things and she seems like a powerful character.

"For us, seeing her take shape like that and seeing her develop in that way, it didn't feel strange, it felt really natural ... of course she can fight like that. Of course she can do those things. So, we feel like maybe she always had that power, and now, with Hyrule Warriors, we're giving her the chance to show off the power that she always had. So, I personally like strong, fighting women, and we're happy to say there will be other characters like that, other strong female characters in the game."

Woman make up nearly half of all game players, according to a recent study by the Entertainment Software Association. E3 had hundreds of games on display; of the 125 or so that Polygon was able to analyze, 62 percent featured some way for a person to play as a woman in the game. Often, though, that way was in the multiplayer, not as the star of the game.

But that does seem to be changing, or at least it seems to becoming more of a discussion point among game makers. Jack Tretton, the former president of Sony Computer Entertainment and someone who has attended E3 since its start, said that shift has everything to do with video games being part of a "growth industry."

"It starts with a segment and then it expands from there and it ultimately reaches out to grab everybody," he told Polygon. "And I noticed it even at this E3. You have a lot more women on stage, a lot more women involved in development, a lot more female gamers, a lot more female correspondents. It really is mainstream entertainment now and women are half of the population. I think there is a lot more content for them.

"It used to be back in the day the most sexist thing you'd say is that a game is designed for women. Well, what does that mean? You try to create a great game and if you create a great game it is going to attract a very large audience. It's going to attract young and old. It's going to attract male and female. I think this has really expanded in terms of the technology and the graphic content; you're going to attract a wider swath of people. And you know, I think women enjoy playing games as much as guys do, they're just looking for content that appeals to them."

Polygon staff helped with the reporting in this story.

Good Game is an internationally syndicated weekly news and opinion column about the big stories of the week in the gaming industry and its bigger impact on things to come. Brian Crecente is a founding News Editor of Polygon.