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.
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.