Anita Sarkeesian on Assassin’s Creed Syndicate

Anita Sarkeesian has written a “review” of Assassan’s Creed Syndicate. I put the word “review” in quotes because it isn’t really a review; it’s more in line with the commentaries I tend to do of games. That being said, this is exactly the sort of thing that I’ve been calling for Sarkeesian and other people pushing for more inclusive and, perhaps, Social Justice-aware games to do: take games that try to do it well, broadcast that in ways that emphasizes what they do well so as to promote those games that actually try to do that. As such, after first reading it, I so wanted to be mostly positive about it and only highlight one of the big issues for discussion, but after re-reading it I have to be a little more negative. So, first I’ll outline what’s good about it, then point out a couple of nitpicks that unfortunately highlight the inexperience Sarkeesian seems to have with games and the inconsistencies she has between how she looks at games, and then finally raise the big issue for discussion that arises from Sarkeesian’s post and what seems to be her overall mindset.

First, the positive. Sarkeesian highlights what she likes about the game and its inclusiveness relatively clearly. She also doesn’t fall into the trap of praising it for its inclusiveness only to undercut that by spending much more time highlighting the negatives, or taking a game that tries to be inclusive and nitpicking it to death so that it ends up looking like it’s just as bad as the alternatives. She praises the personality and outfit of the main female protagonist and the inclusion and aggressiveness of female antagonists and opponents, even as she notes that the female protagonist is underused despite being more interesting than her male twin. She praises the inclusion of the trans character even while noting that they could have done something similar with black characters. Overall, she shows how the game gives her a lot of what she wants in a game, which is not only useful for people who think like her to decide that this might be the game for them, but also for others who really do want to see what she wants to see in a game. She could go into things in a bit more depth — which is why I won’t call it a review — but, overall, this is something that we needed to see from her and from others who want to change gaming culture.

Now, onto the nitpicks:

Syndicate is a clear response to gamers’ increased desire for more capable and powerful female options. Promotional materials for the game emphasized Jacob as the primary protagonist, leaving some wondering just how big a role Evie would play.

The problem is that in the “Ms. Male Character” series, the biggest complaint against the Mass Effect series was that the marketing still made it to be about the male Shepard, making the female Shepard seem like an afterthought. This game does that, and as Sarkeesian admits ends up with the male character’s narrative dominating, and yet somehow this can be overlooked. You almost have to ask what Sarkeesian has against Bioware, a gaming company that has been one of the more inclusive gaming companies for quite some time now. The other explanation is that Sarkeesian likes this game, and so is more willing to forgive it its flaws. Either way, this seems puzzling, unless it is accompanied by an overall change in attitude, where she is less harsh to games who make an effort in general. We’ll have to see.

The other nitpick is this:

And like some other Assassin’s Creed games, Syndicate is plagued with plenty of wonkiness. Enemy AI often behaves in erratic ways, NPCs sometimes become unable to fulfill mission-specific functions, and occasionally things just break entirely.

Um, that’s not wonkiness. Those are bugs. Potentially game breaking ones. I assume that by “things just break entirely”, she means that the game crashes … but it speaks to her knowledge of gaming that she wouldn’t know the term “crash”, or expect people reading her to know what that means, and instead would substitute an actually less clear term for it. You certainly can’t call it a “review” if it crashing and potentially forcing you to reload is mentioned only in a small paragraph at the end of the post, and it strikes to her lack of knowledge of gaming in general for her to talk about it the way she does.

But those are relatively minor nitpicks. This last point isn’t necessarily something bad, but is something that raises comment from, I think, both sides of the divide, as Sarkeesian goes on to talk about what the game does well and reveals what she wants games to do:

… Evie and Jacob’s allies also include Henry Green, a British Indian Assassin, and Ned Wynert, a successful thief who just happens to be a trans man and no one in the world thinks anything of it. These characters play supporting or minor roles but their inclusion is notable. While it might seem “unrealistic” to imagine women, people of colour and trans folks who are treated and respected as full human beings in 1868, realism is not really the goal in a game where Assassins and Templars have been waging a centuries’ old war over artifacts created by an ancient civilization, and where you can leap from the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral into a pile of leaves and walk away unharmed. The inclusion of these characters works not because of realism but because of believability and internal consistency. That believability is a result of the developers’ conscious decision to make the presence of these characters normalized and respected by everyone else in the game.

Women may be present as soldiers and leaders throughout the criminal ranks of Syndicate’s London, but the same cannot be said for people of colour. Despite the presence of Henry Green, this is an overwhelmingly white game. It’s a huge missed opportunity for Syndicate, which could have taken the same approach to people of colour that it took to women, making their presence in gangs and throughout the factories and palaces of London just a normalized, internally consistent aspect of the game’s world.

To really put this in context, let’s start by examining the Star Trek: Deep Space 9 episode “Badda Bing Badda Bang”. In this episode, a hidden virus in Vic Fontaine’s holo program activates, putting him at risk. What’s notable about this episode — at least for our purposes here — is that we find out why Sisko won’t go to Vic’s, as Vic’s is based on a 1962 Vegas casino, a time when racism was fairly rampant. Sisko’s significant other, Cassidy Yates, points out that both herself and his son Jake have never experienced racism there, and Sisko replies that that’s rather the point, pointing out, as he says himself, that “That’s the lie!”: Vic’s essentially sanitizes history by creating a world that’s inside the 1962 time frame but sweeps the racial strife of the period under the rug. He even insists that he’s not going to pretend that that was an easy time for black people.

This, then, is an objection to what Sarkeesian likes about Assassin’s Creed Syndicate and wants to see more from a Social Justice perspective: what she wants game designers to do is sanitize history so that she can get her dream game that is entirely inclusive, and where everyone of all races, genders, sexual orientations, etc, etc are treated with the same potential and without distinction based on those categories (which makes one wonder why she doesn’t like more RPGs, but I digress). But the issue is that if in a period piece trans people or women wouldn’t have been treated that way, and the game doesn’t acknowledge that they wouldn’t be treated that way, then the game is essentially ignoring and hiding the struggles that people of that grouping had in history. And the argument that you can use against Sisko — that they’re there for Vic and that ignoring that can have no impact on anything at the societal level — is not one that Sarkeesian can use because she herself is all about talking about how the little choices that are made in games can impact society overall. And her comments about the other things that aren’t quite accurate doesn’t help because there’s not likely to be any meaningful social impact from those inaccuracies, but minimizing the struggles of groups that were discriminated against in the past is not likely to be anywhere near as benign.

From the other side, there is the issue of verisimilitude. If you set a game — or any work, really — in a specific time period, if people know anything about that period any deviations you make from how the period was either have to be explained or things that can be ignored (generally because most people either don’t really know it or that it’s utterly unimportant to the time). So if we know that trans people would not have been treated that well in 1860s London — and given the discussions that they are not treated that well now, most would be aware of that — then for that person to be simply accepted seems odd. Sure, we can build the personalities of the main characters that they simply don’t care — which was almost certainly true even then — but if the entire society is okay with that, then we’re going to wonder why. This, then, would lead to charges of appealing more to Social Justice norms than to a good and accurate representation of the times, and thus preferring to make a statement about equality rather than providing a narrative that makes sense in the time. While Sarkeesian claims that the writing makes the characters “believable”, note that Sarkeesian herself is indeed aware that the trans person is being treated much more equitably than normal, and it’s hard to see how most people wouldn’t notice that as well. So they risk breaking immersion to make a Social Justice point while passing up an opportunity to actually drive home the point by making a sympathetic character whose race or gender or transness does impact them, perhaps through a personal side quest or a side cut scene showing it. Thus, we may not want, at least right now, what Sarkeesian really seems to want in her games.

The obvious way to go is to treat historical settings roughly historically, but ask that fantastical and invented settings be more inclusive unless they are using that lack of inclusiveness to make a point. It has always seemed to me that the big complaint about this has been the worry that game designers would choose the settings in order to avoid being inclusive, which seems to be unwarranted and contradicts the idea that sexism and racism are often subconscious and not conscious. There’s really no other argument that holds water, though, especially given the large number of games that are set in invented settings. In this way, we avoid sanitizing history while at the same time providing games that are inclusive in the way Sarkeesian wants. It seems that everyone wins if this is what we strive for.

At any rate, this is definitely what Sarkeesian and others need to start doing more, and hopefully if they do so we can get into productive discussions of how games can, should, and ought to be.

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