Women have been serving admirably in combat in the US military for about a decade. But they're absent from the ranks of modern video game armies. A game developer offered Kotaku a justification of why we virtually fight as men.
The answer, offered by Gordon Van Dyke, producer of the new Electronic Arts modern warfare game Battlefield: Bad Company 2, has to do with technology. Or, more specifically, it has to do with technology needs trumping any sense of consumer demand for representation of both genders.
Programming women soldiers into a virtual war just might not be worth the costs to the game and the servers that connect the people playing it.
The topic came up last week when I asked Van Dyke if there were women in Bad Company 2. I'd noticed that the games I'd played set in modern or near-future settings were almost always fought by men and men only. "There's no girls in our game," he said.
"It's an interesting thing, though because … It's fun that you bring that up because I can kind of give some insight into development and how games are made. When you actually put in female characters, typically you have to put in an entire new skeleton model and that entire new skeleton model adds an entire new level of animation and an entire new level of rigging. You basically double the amount of data and memory for soldiers that would need to go into your game.
"So it turns into one of those things that's like: How much will putting something like this in give us, whether the rewards of putting something like this in [are worth it] . The reward has to match what you have to give up somewhere else. Our games are pushing the edge of the system they're on at such a high degree that it becomes more of a balancing act for implementing new things - how many vehicles you can have in a game or how many buildings with destruction - because every single one of those things needs to be calculated by the server and transmitted to every single play that's playing the game. Every time you shoot a building or wall, they [need]to see it when it happens or, if you go past that, at a later date, the server needs to remember that data and then transmit it to all those players."
It doesn't require much special programming to change a virtual soldier's skin tone. Heights and weights, though, usually stay fixed. So too, Van Dyke explained, does gender for likely the same reasons - unless gamers would want their virtual female soldiers to run and move like men.
And what of the trade-off? The ability for the walls in a virtual battlefield to break and stay broken may sound trifling to non-gamers. But within the context of games, it is a literal breakthrough. Walls have been immutable in games since the days of Pac-Man, and while games have, from time to time, allowed barriers to be broken, it's still a rare feat.
Imagine the gameplay implications of Pac-Man being able to bash through a wall to escape Inky, Blinky or Clyde. It would certainly have had more profound impact on how Pac-Man played than adding a bow to Pac-Man's "head" and calling him "Ms. Pac-Man", right?
Video games can sometimes be accused of being behind the times in regards to social issues and minority representation. That women can't even fight in 2010 war games such as Bad Company 2 and MAG - even as real women reportedly serve admirably in the real military - would seem to be retrograde, but maybe the tech excuse is a good one.
Do female characters need to be put in virtual combat? Or, more to the point, are they more important than crumbling walls?
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