Last year, when NHL 12 allowed you to create a female hockey player in its superstar-fantasy "Be A Pro" mode, the only real difference was the face on the player in the video game. Underneath a helmet and the hulking pads, moving fast on ice skates, it's hard to instantly tell if someone's a man or a woman. And the player's ratings, most importantly, began at the same starting point as a man and then progressed on merit, regardless of gender.
EA Sports, though it is inviting women who are hockey fans to its product, has also invited a different problem this year by signing up the Canadian women's star Hayley Wickenheiser, and United States national team standout Angela Ruggiero. Both will appear in the "Legends" mode of NHL 13, which is due out Sept. 11 in North America. "Be a Legend" puts an all-time great from a past era on the ice in present time. Ruggiero and Wickenheiser, both gold medalist Olympians, have well earned a roster spot. But these are the first two real-life female athletes to appear in a video game simulation of an all-male professional team sport. And so their inclusion raises the uncomfortable question of how to rate their skill relative to a universe of male performers.
Asked what the numbers are, EA Sports' Canada studio, which makes the game, didn't blink. Wickenheiser is rated 81 overall. Ruggiero is rated 80. "They're good players," Sean Ramjagsingh, the game's producer, told Kotaku. "Hayley is rated 81; she can compete with men. That's on par with the average third-liner in the NHL."
Even if they will captain teams of all-time greats in NHL 13, the message is pretty clear -- they wouldn't otherwise start on any of the league's teams, at least in this video game. Not unless you begin a career with either Ruggiero or Wickenheiser and develop them into an NHL all-time great yourself.
Though women's hockey is gaining in popularity and relevance, particularly thanks to strong national teams in the home of the sport, and the capital of the world's media, it still is a sport markedly different from the men's professional version. Some women have cracked men's rosters -- Wickenheiser herself is the first woman to be credited with a point in a European professional league. So there is a basis for female professionals in the world's top leagues.
Still, EA Sports' reach here, as admirable as it is for its inclusiveness, is prematurely defiant of the label's "It's in the game" guarantee. No woman has yet appeared in any regular season game on an NHL club. Obivously, marketing the game to hockey fans, female as well as male, presents a comprehensible business benefit. But Ramjagsingh thinks it's a boundary worth pushing on its creative merits, too.
"It's really about creating an experience for all hockey fans out there, and there are a lot of women who are hockey fans out there," Ramjagsingh said. "It's about giving them an experience they want, and giving them the same benefit of participation in a video game that male fans have. And it's about different ways of reaching all fans of a sport and this video game."
I asked if EA Sports pursued the means of bringing the full Canadian and US women's national teams -- the gold and silver medalists in the 2010 Winter Games, respectively -- into the game. Ramjagsingh said there was a discussion and an inquiry into doing so, but it fell apart because of issues of licensing all of the individual players and their team symbols. Wickenheiser and Ruggiero were still recognisable and willing to participate.
Other than the facial modelling, Wickenheiser and Ruggiero's virtual versions will skate on the same terms as the men, with the same motion-capture animations, same gear (a clear plastic faceshield, not the wire cage facemask), same checking (it's banned in women's leagues) and same means to fight another player, male or female.
"They can deliver a hit," Ramjagsingh said, "but no, they aren't the greatest checkers out there compared to the size and strength of some of the other men."
As for fighting, which NHL simulates, remarkably, under a league licence, yes, if it comes time to drop the gloves, Wickenheiser and Ruggiero's virtual counterparts will.
"They're playing on the NHL ice," Ramjagsingh said. "We did talk about this. But it's still an NHL product, and if you have them in the NHL, they should be playing by all the same rules as all of the other players in the league."