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Call of Duty: Ghosts and Genders. Who Cares?

Call of Duty: Ghosts will let players shoot like a girl if they want to. And here's why that matters.

By Cassandra Khaw. Published 8 months ago

The Call of Duty franchise is one mired in no small amount of controversy. Many have berated the series for its 'sameness', for the endless parade of near-identical scenarios dressed in progressively better graphics. Others have expounded on the toxicity of its online multiplayer community (which, frighteningly enough, seems even unfriendlier than the acid blood bath that Dota 2 sometimes is). Like the interactive dioramas of war it creates time and time again, the Call of Duty series is a male fantasy come to life.

It's partially why people are a-buzz about the next iteration. At the multiplayer Call of Duty: Ghosts event that was held earlier this week, Activision and Infinity Ward dropped a bombshell: you'll be able to play as a woman soon. An actual woman, it looks like. Not a wasp-waisted Jessica Rabbit in camouflage hotpants and Dominatrix boots (though with 20, 000 customization options purportedly available to players, this description may be subject to change). More excitingly, perhaps, is the fact that gender is going to be entirely cosmetic in Ghosts. According to Jeremy Parish's interview with Activision's senior producer Yale Miller , there won't be any handicaps, no diversion of hitbox sizes, nothing that will make playing a woman any different from pulling headshots as a man. You won't be punished or praised for choosing either gender.

Which, to quote Jeremy, is rad.

I'm not even going to pretend for a moment that I buy into the developers' claim that the only reason they've taken so long to do something like this is because their engine couldn't handle it nor am I naive enough to declare this a massive step forward in the industry. Problems aren't going to get solved simply by the inclusion of the female anatomy. Hell, if history is inductive of things, mammary glands tend to complicate situations very quickly. Nonetheless, this concession from Activision and Infinity Ward is important and, quite possibly, not for the reasons that most people would initially surmise.

For me, it's been mostly two things, one of which has a more cynical bent than the other. Inclusiveness tends to be a one-sided conversation spoken largely in a hush. Pundits and marginalized demographics wail and gnash their teeth while the cogs of the big-budget machines grind on, utterly unaware of the ire they're incurring. To see such monolithic corporations pause, take stock of the public's indignation ("Dogs before a playable female character? Really? Really?!" The Internet screamed.) and then actually do something about it is amazing. Again, I have my doubts about the motivations behind this gesture. A belated demonstration of equality it probably is not. What I do think is happening here, however, is an acknowledgment that there are enough paying customers out there who care about such matters that ignoring the issue can be a terrible business decision.

Admitedly, it's hard not to fall in love with those big, brown eyes...

While the idea that economical concerns might be pivotal here disconcerts me greatly, it's still something. It's still a David hacking away at a Goliath's kneecap. Whatever folk who are not straight, white and male (and those who are but have found reason to campaign for those who are not) have been screaming into the abyss is trickling ever-so-slowly into the ears of the turgid behemoth. And that's empowering to know. There's enough of us, all these recent events say. There's enough to warrant caring.

The other reason as to why this matters to me is because, god, it's always nice to have the option to play as a girl. Just to be clear, I'd probably be the first to write up an angry letter if someone told me that Tidehunter is going get long, billowing fins and a florid pink default skin. (Actually, I'd probably be picketing in front of Valve's office but that's neither here or now). Gender is and should be secondary to a good story. Some are conveyed better with a male protagonist, others with a woman-in-charge. Sure, we could use a few more leading ladies - Polygon has said everything I could think about saying on the matter - but that's not the point I'm trying to make here. What I'm talking about has nothing to do with what you identify as and everything to do with choice.

Choice matters. Let's take a conversation I had last night as an example. A friend tells me she tends to play characters that range the full spectrum, anything from old men to svelte princesses. It's a decision process that many of us can empathize with. When we play a video game, we want something that is concurrent with our desires. We want to be a hulking space marine, a girl exploring an abandoned house, the President of the World. No matter how you look at it, the sub-text is the same. Being able to play what you want whenever you want is something we all, uh, want.

Now, picture never being able to play anything but a human-sized blob of reddish-brown ear wax. Ever.

You can still do the same things. You can still run, jump, shoot and interact with quest givers. There is no mechanical difference. It's just that now you have globular appendages rather than pectorals, tufts of dirt sticking out of a joint rather than arms or legs. Though it's considerably more appealing to be able to play as a futuristic soldier, the parallel still stands. Male players already have the luxury of playing as something designed to be more identifiable than that; it's not too much to ask developers to give the other half of the population the same opportunity. And, besides, there's also the simple question of, 'Why the hell not?' Not too long ago, the Pentagon opened up a myriad of front-line jobs that have been previously off-limits to the female population - a belated move, perhaps, if you take into account the fact that many countries already allow women to risk life and limb for their homeland. Given the fact that such elements do exist in the real world, why shouldn't I be able to play as a woman in Ghosts? It's practically un-Constitutional.

Books, movies, radio dramas and many of the other forms of entertainment predating video games have done an exemplary job at being rather inclusive in comparison. One of my favorite cartoon characters of all time is Garrett Miller from the Extreme Ghostbusters, a wheelchair-bound adrenaline junkie who was physically fitter than anyone else in the cast. Disabled character that people can empathize with and rejoice in? It's totally been done before, bro and we can totally do it again. Female models in Call of Duty: Ghosts might not be a big thing but it's a good thing. Having a large fraction of the world's population recognized in some capacity is never bad.

To put it another way, the one common denominator that we all share is a lifespan measured in decades. Unless you luck out, chances are that when you're old and decrepit, you're going to find yourself shelved in favor of the younger generation's interests, forgotten in the wake of the wider demographic. When that time comes, the importance of requited attention will probably hit home.

Who cares if you can play a girl in Call of Duty: Ghosts?

You should, honestly.

The best community comments so far 10 comments

  • QuiteHeavy 8 months ago

    As a white dude, I 100% absolutely do not identify with my player character in Call of Duty. I do not identify with an expendable, soulless murderer no matter what its gender, its skin color, or what it does in its free time. Same goes for less expendable characters. I have nothing in common with Mario, Link, Peach or Zelda. I don't want to either - they're cartoon characters. My enjoyment of a game, of a movie, of a book, has nothing to do with the protagonist's gender, and I can't for the life of me figure out why it seems to be the hot button issue for game critics.

    I prefer Perfect Dark to GoldenEye for a lot of reasons. One of those reasons is that there's an alien named Elvis, which is the best thing ever. Another is that Skedar is a super weird word to say out loud. But one of the main reasons I prefer Perfect Dark is because Joanna Dark is a great character. Maybe not by today's standards, but she was frickin' cool when I was thirteen years old. And I don't think I ever once thought about her gender. It never mattered to me. She was just a badass, and the game she starred in was really, really fun.

    In a game like Diablo 2, character classes have very limited customization options. I went with the Amazon, because she suited my play style. I didn't hesitate before accepting my fate because of the character's gender - I wanted to throw a javelin at a demon.

    Is there a gender equality issue in the gaming world? Maybe, but if so, it's that not enough women are making games. The industry is dominated by men, and I sure as hell don't want those men to try to tell a story from a woman's perspective if they don't feel comfortable doing so. It just continues this cycle of women AND men feeling as though the scales are tipped too far in one direction. (See: Dragon's Crown controversy (a game which I legitimately believe no one will remember by the end of the year)) I want games made by women. Until then, I'm going to keep playing games as whatever gender the developer has included, because, for me, this has nothing to do with why I do or don't play games. I am not these characters and I don't want to be these characters. I want to play these characters.

    Anyway, dug the article Cassandra! Been wanting to comment on this issue for weeks now. Interested to dig a little deeper to understand why identifying with a dude OR a lady who steals cars or eats mushrooms or hits people with a giant dildo is such a pressing issue. That may have sounded sarcastic, but I'm totally serious.

  • Spazgadget 8 months ago

    @QuiteHeavy, you made some really interesting points (as did you, Cassandra)...

    To QuiteHeavy's point, part of the joy of video gaming is the ability to inhabit avatars that experience things far beyond anything we experience in day-to-day reality. In that way, I don't necessarily need or even want my video game protagonists to "represent" me. I'm a 45 year old man who's been gaming for decades, kind of handsome, kind of nerdy, who is also gay. I don't know how interesting a game would be featuring a protagonist that was very "me", and I don't necessarily want to have myself fully "represented" when I play a game. Sometimes I am a tough dude in games. Sometimes I make myself silly. Sometimes I make myself someone completely different to myself. This sort of unmooring of our real selves from our video game protagonists is part of the fantasy, and indeed the fun, of playing video games.

    Where I think Cassandra makes an excellent point is the very overdue need of the industry to simply recognize and acknowledge that not everyone who is interested in and who plays video games is a white frat boy (full disclosure: I was actually a white frat boy in college) and that the fantasy characters we might want to inhabit are a lot more varied than they have previously offered.

    That said, there are some characters that are so fantastical that I don't need them to be "representational". Yoshi is a green dinosaur. I don't need there to be a girl one, a gay one, a Latina one, or a physically challenged one. I don't need Yoshi to be anything resembling my cultural identity and background. But in the 21st century, when a large proportion of games feature customizable, humanoid characters, with whom we are ostensibly supposed to be able to mold into our own form, the option to be something more like... oneself is certainly a boon. The fact that female players heretofore had no option to be female in Call of Duty sort of flabbergasts me, honestly, and I wholeheartedly agree with Cassandra that it's about damn time.

    Keep up the good work, USGamer!

  • pjedavison 8 months ago

    Some fabulous comments here, guys -- this is why we love the USgamer community. Here's my take.

    I look for different things from different games. There's a certain joy in being able to create a custom character and either be able to personally identify with it (because you've made it look like you) or use it to live out fantasies (because you're able to make it look like something that isn't you). I actually find myself going for the latter a lot more these days -- at least in story-based games in which you have control over the narrative progression/direction, or those centering around social interaction -- because I've found myself enjoying inhabiting someone else's skin more than projecting "myself" into the world. In many cases, given the option, I'll play a female character by choice -- I feel my experience with Dragon Age Origins was considerably enhanced by playing as a woman, for example, and we all know the Internet's feelings on FemShep. (As an aside, the otherwise-bumpy Dragon Age II is worth playing just for LadyHawke, who is fantastic.)

    At the other end of the spectrum, I enjoy a well-crafted, non-customizable character who is the clear vision of the person who wrote their script. I don't mind not being able to create my own character in, say, visual novels or JRPGs because in most cases, those characters are already well-defined, and I respect the artists' visions too much to want to trample all over that by, I don't know, sticking a giant mustache on them. (Saints Row is a strange exception to this, in that The Boss is a well-written character that you can customize the appearance of -- but even then I find it very difficult to "disrespect" the writers' vision by making a ridiculous-looking avatar.)

    In something like Call of Duty, though, there's absolutely no reason not to have the widest possible array of customization options available. Your avatar is just that -- an "avatar" rather than a "character" -- and as such you should be able to project yourself into the game world however you please. A significant number of women play Call of Duty, and there's really not a convincing reason why they shouldn't be able to choose an avatar they feel better represents them.

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