In last week’s blog and newsletter, Caitlin and I celebrated the release of Assassin’s Creed Unity, highlighting how AC and Time Traveler Tours & Tales both To Turn History On. Taking the slogan “history is our playground” as their starting point, Assassin’s Creed developers combine historical research, high art graphics, and state-of-the-industry gaming technology to put users into history. Literally. It’s really quite cool.

But while wandering their magical tours through time – from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance, the American and French Revolutions – I found myself wondering,

Did history not include women?

AC's cast of playable protagonists (the one through which users experience the storyworld) are fictional. On their quests, they meet such fascinating historical figures as Richard the Lionheart, Leonardo da Vinci and Niccolò Machiavelli, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Benedict Arnold, Napoleon Bonaparte, Maximilien Robespierre, and the Marquis de Sade.

There is only one woman character in Assassin’s Creed Unity: Elise de la Serre. She, too, is fictional, the childhood friend and sometime love interest of the main, and only playable character, Arno Victor Dorian. Now we’ll admit she is no shrinking violet. She brandishes a weapon along with Arno, being on a revenge quest of her own. And while she cuts a very sexy figure, she does appear on screen fully clothed.

But to be a non-playable character means that Elise cannot act upon the storyworld. She's merely window dressing, part of the background story, scripted and fed to us whenever we, as Arno, wander down the appropriate rabbit hole that, like Dumbledore’s pensieve, triggers the memory that Arno, and we, need to collect the clues and knowledge necessary to complete his mission.

Click image to view Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency.

Click image to view Anita Sarkeesian's Feminist Frequency.

As it turns out, compared to most female video games characters Elise has it pretty good. Indeed, thanks to the swift education provided yours truly by the #gamergate loudmouths and such whip-smart objects of their scorn as Anita Sarkeesian, I have recently learned that in video game culture female characters are more often objects of male desire. "Damsels in distress in very little dress," as I have dubbed them, they exist in their storyworlds as possessions withheld from their playable male sidekicks or victims to be saved from the evil villain. More often than not, they endure serious misogynist abuse waiting for their hero-princes to level up and free them. Sometimes, many times, their only escape is death, usually execution style.

Those of you familiar with the story of Beware Madame la Guillotine will, I hope, agree that one very cool factual female assassin from Revolutionary France fame, Charlotte Corday, would have made an excellent member of the Unity cast.

Just for fun, I did a quick Google search to see if I could turn up any discussion as to why she didn’t make the cut. Here’s what I found on GameSkinny:

Earlier this year, Ubisoft’s creative director Alex Amanico told Polygon that playable female assassins were cut from Assassin’s Creed Unity due to “the reality of production”...

I’m sorry, but what does that even mean? That it takes a different technology to make a female character run at stealth speed than a male one? I doubt it.

And when asked Ubisoft’s in-house historian, Maxime Durand, if the AC series is “somewhat limited in creating female protagonists by the fact that much of human history hasn't been great for women?” he responded,

You're right -- it was difficult to be a woman and the presence of women was much more restricted than it is now.

This explains why women characters were overlooked in AC how, exactly? Isn’t the question just offering both company and historian a free pass?

So while we applaud the Assassin’s Creed franchise for their accurate and amazing visual representations of past places, and while we appreciate that, at the very least, their female characters aren’t objectified tropes of victimized female characters, we take AC to task for not advancing the misrepresentation of women in video games, and the under representation of women in history.

Interactive media have the potential to be brilliant educational tools. As we wrote here, AC is an exciting “way into” history, especially for those young people who find history “boring,” that can then be supplemented with more factual materials such as Beware Madame la Guillotine.

But when interactive media merely perpetuate antiquated social biases, it can take humanity back in time (in more ways than one) rather than advance it.

The average gamer in the US is male, aged 30. Present gamer culture appears to be an un-moderated boys club as revealed by the recent #gamergate debate. Fifty years after the feminist revolution, there’s really no reason why game developers can't evolve gender representations and make women heroic too.

If you agree that female characters, like Charlotte,
deserve to be protagonists of their own games,
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Coming up next: In the interest of first-hand research
Caitlin introduces Sarah to Assassin's Creed gameplay
while Tock the dog expresses her opinions on tropes vs. women in video games!