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Genders, Plural, Are Important for Game Development, Hashtag

Posted on Friday, April 4 @ 16:00:00 PST by

In a feature titled "Are Japanese women the future of its gaming?", GamesIndustry compares two very different games and determines a winner based on the development team's gender composition (and sales figures).

Animal Crossing: New Leaf and The Last of Us released right around the same time in June of 2013. I reviewed both titles for GameRevolution and found each stunning, engaging, and wholly consuming for very different reasons. Each received a 5/5. Click here for our Animal Crossing: New Leaf review and click here for our review of The Last of Us.

I loved Animal Crossing's daring approach to an established brand, reneging on neanderthal mechanics that prevented you from getting your sh** done around town. Further, the title allowed you to become the mayor for the first time and determine how and where your town would expand.

Entertaining features like the police station or fixtures like bridges and benches became earned goods, not pre-determined and immovable rocks. The Last of Us, however, was a very different beast.

Its narrative and composition screamed tension, drama, and relief. The action was more engaging than any of Naughty Dog's previous efforts because the gameplay was deeper and more grounded in reality. Fortunately for gamers, both development teams prominently featured women, though males led development of The Last of Us and a woman led a largely gender-neutral team on Animal Crossing: New Leaf.

GamesIndustry wrote in their article that "The latest installment in Nintendo's series of irrepressibly cute and tough to define titles has sold almost 7.4 million copies worldwide; The Last of Us has done 6 million."

Author Rob Fahey continues to write that Animal Crossing: New Leaf is remarkable because it was "directed by a woman, and because almost half of the development team were women."

It's a shame that that fact alone makes the game's development process unique and it's an even bigger shame that Japanese companies don't allow for further gender-equality in business, especially as Animal Crossing: New Leaf and Nintendo 3DS have kept Nintendo afloat amid rough Wii U sales.

While Naughty Dog has given gamers powerful experiences, it's also not afraid of letting women take the helm as evident by Uncharted 2's Amy Hennig, now at Visceral for EA's Star Wars game.

The two development teams are not case studies, but they are stories about how learning and collaborating with the opposite gender can bring about huge returns and recognition in the industry. Still, I wonder how can the trend be driven further?

Obviously, I can one-man hype-machine all the games developed by women, but it's much more powerful when they create compelling experiences that defy gender altogether. It's not that gender and sexuality don't play into what we like or don't like, it's that moving between the two in your entertainment can open up totally new pathways in your brain.

For example, spoilers for The Last of Us follow:

You play most of the game as Joel, the male protagonist tasked with protecting Ellie, the potential key to saving humanity amid a fungi-fied zombie apocalypse. In the end, Ellie makes the sacrifice to stay with you because it's clear that Joel needs her, but there's also a significant part of the game where you play as Ellie.

Now, in that case, perhaps playing as Ellie is powerful because it shows you she can take care of herself, but it's also possible that playing as Ellie is impactful because it shows just how much she cares about Joel, despite his attempts to pawn her off at a junction just prior to his injury.

Animal Crossing: New Leaf lacks this ability to twist and turn a narrative because your town is your town and it doesn't have to have a narrative at all if you don't want it to. If all you care about is building up your own house, you can do that and let the rest of the town grow weeds in squander.

If you would rather play the animal's champion and furnish your town with all kinds of goodies as your house sits small and unimposing, that's OK too. You might even have better interactions with your neighbors as you fulfill their requests for a new bridge or a fountain. Your money will go towards those fixtures as opposed to your own bank account or your closet, but most of the crap you can buy in Animal Crossing is selective and based on style anyway.

In the end, New Leaf expanded the sense of ownership you have over your save file by telling you your jurisdiction doesn't end when you walk out your virtual front door.

In discussing gender roles in game development, it's important to remember that one is not necessarily more important than the other. Rob's article, while totally on point and very intelligent misses the opportunity to say that both men and women are important to gaming's development as a medium.

Hell, you could accuse me of the same thing. Two weeks ago, I wrote an impassioned argument to ban booth babes from E3. I was such a capital D Douchebag that I even included a Twitter hashtag. Many of you disagreed in the comments. Some of you wrote blogs in response, noting that I seemingly attempted to become the story, as opposed to covering it, or that booth babes are totally fine and part of male sexuality in an industry dominated by men.

In being so feverishly eager to state my case, I forgot to impart a sense of being there, of attending your first E3 and noticing just how awkward and ugly any male-dominated industry would be. So much of the anti-woman sentiment in marketing and producing products for male-dominated demographics are unseen and... well, they make your skin crawl. I don't want to speak to women who are paid to speak with me about a product.

I want to speak with knowledgeable gamers or developers who love the thing they've created and want to talk about their process and objectives, what they want players to feel when they finally take the product home from GameStop or open the Amazon package waiting for them after work. I want interactions at E3 to show all people that gaming isn't just a viable hobby that lacks gender-definition, but one that celebrates diversity and teaches the player something of value.

What if we flipped my own anti-booth babe narrative by looking at it in the light of these two powerhouse products generated by development teams where opposite genders had positive working relationships?

What if Ellie wore a bikini through her adventure with Joel? What if Ellie just clung to Joel and held his arm the whole way like a kitten nestling up against a father bear? That would totally weaken the experience presented in The Last of Us because the slowly unfolding relationship between Joel and Ellie would lose all meaning.

They'd turn into binary reflections of each other and totally lack the necessary rise and fall in relationship. Joel's weakness after an injury would mean nothing because he'd bald-space-marine his way back to full health while firing his newly acquired flame-thrower at horse-riding bandits in pursuit.

What if, and hold fast because this is an equally impossible idea, Animal Crossing: New Leaf didn't task you with running the town, but opening up a shop to compete with Nook and his sons? What if the title refused to let you customize the outdoor space and instead forced you into managing inventory, speaking with customers, and closing up shop according to the internal 3DS clock?

I didn't make it a full year through Animal Crossing: New Leaf, dropping my daily habit last Fall in the deluge of game reviews and next-gen console release static. Still, I wouldn't have made it 300 hours into the game if its premise had been one of monetary competition and not hosting and caring for a group of characters in a town that just happened to need me as I stumbled out of the train station.

While noting Animal Crossing's success and the importance of a woman at the helm of a Japanese-developed game is important, it should be clear that forcing women onto projects just because "hey, this other woman did a great job" will not solve problems in gaming. The same could be said of Naughty Dog's Neil Druckmann and Bruce Straley. If they hadn't proven themselves effective craftsmen, Sony would never have given them the opportunity to release a new IP at the end of a console generation when development costs and marketing budgets were at their peak.

We all agree that games are art. At least, the readers of GameRevolution are intelligent enough to recognize the medium as such. I made the mistake of turning trade-show booth staff into a zero-sum equation (where, ignorantly, my proclaimed solution was only to eliminate them altogether), but I can admit my mistakes and I hope that publishers don't repeat mine with their development teams.

[Photo Credit - Click for another article comparing these two games]

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