A couple years ago, a reader sent me a picture of his young daughter playing FIFA along with the heartbreaking question, "Why aren't there any girls in FIFA? Don't girls play soccer too?"
She was discovering what is a fact of life for many female fans — women continue to be second-class citizens in sports. It's a reality that impacts every level of the pastime, from the way women are often treated as second-tier athletes, to the NFL's problem with domestic abuse. Moreso even than gaming, sports continue to be seen as a masculine pursuit where the presence of women is at best tolerated. One only has to see all the wonderful comments that have followed EA's announcement that women's teams will be included in FIFA 16 to see how female athletes are often viewed.
That dichotomy has long been especially apparent in sports sims, which sit at the nexus of two male-dominated pursuits. There have been efforts here and there to be more inclusive to women — NHL's female player models come to mind (though the announcers still refer to them with male prounouns, d'oh) — but otherwise women's hockey, basketball, and soccer have been roundly ignored. The development teams, stuck on a tight development cycle and aware that their audience is majority male, simply haven't wanted to invest the resources.
But over the past year or so, the drumbeat for female inclusion in sports sims has gotten steadily louder. When FIFA 15 was in development, there was much speculation about whether EA would acknowledge the Women's World Cup and include the US Women's National Team. When those hopes went unfulfilled, fans were disappointed, and the series received more backlash than I've seen in years.
FIFA has long been something of a test case for female inclusion in sports sims. In the U.S. in particular, women's soccer has long been viewed as being on equal footing with the men's team, with the two being clearly delineated as the USMNT and the USWNT. My first memory of watching professional soccer was in 1999, when the USWNT won the World Cup and took the country by storm, producing one of the iconic photographs in U.S. sports history. And, of course, millions of girls around the U.S. play youth soccer, including my sister at one time.
That FIFA declined to acknowledge the 2015 Women's World Cup was viewed as a slap in the face for fans of the sports, not the least because the current iteration of the USWNT is one of the best in the world. If FIFA wasn't going to acknowledge women in a World Cup year, then when was it going to happen?
In that sense, it's a relief that EA has finally seemed to get the message about including women in FIFA, introducing 12 international teams to the fold. The Guardian has some illuminating quotes from series general manager David Rutter, who says that the wait has been due in part to technical limitations.
"It's been in the pipeline for a few years, and really it was just a case of making sure that the game was in a good enough state for it the work properly," said Rutter. "We needed to have tools and technology in place that could differentiate between men and women. Plus, we had to factor in the time and effort required for travelling around the world to scan faces and heads, record motion capture, etc. It’s been on the to-do list for a while."
Still, while it's a great first step, there's plenty more to be done.
My own reason for wanting to see women's teams included in FIFA and elsewhere is a selfish one — I've always wanted to be able to create a female character when playing a sports sim.
While it's been sort of possible in NHL for a couple years now (see above), I've mostly had to settle for representing as a male character I've dubbed Catfish. It's been a decent solution, but it's also had the effect of creating a certain remove for me. Rather than pretending that I'm a pro athlete, I'm living vicariously through someone who happens to share my last name.
I suppose there's an argument to be made that it's not 'sim' to be able to roll a female character for a men's league, but my counterpoint is that it's a video game, which makes it the definition of wish fulfillment. Why shouldn't I be able to pretend that I'm the first woman to break into the English Premier League? And anyway, haven't you seen this commercial? The first female player in the majors is apparently just around the corner.
It's one way in which games have the power to set the conversation and lead in a positive way rather than a negative one. It says to people like the reader's young daughter that female athletes do have a place at the table.
Unfortunately, my hopes in that regard have been dashed. EA has confirmed to me that it will not be possible to create a female player in career mode... at least for this year. Now that women's teams have finally been fully implemented in FIFA, more additions are presumably due down the road. At least, I hope so.
Right now, my biggest fear for this venture is that the women's teams won't see enough use, prompting EA Canada to decide that they've done enough and put their resources elsewhere.
The thing is, if women's teams aren't used, it'll be because of their integration more than anything. As currently configured, they'll only be available for use in Kick-Off, Offline Tournaments, and Online Friendlies, meaning you can't manage them in, say, career mode. What's more, it won't be possible to play against the men's teams, which removes the excitement of pitting, say, the USMNT against the USWNT.
EA's argument is that they are trying to be as "sim" as possible, but I mentioned earlier, I'd like for EA to back away a bit from the constraints of being "sim" and let the male and female teams play against one another, which will have the corresponding effect of upping their usage. I'd also like for them to introduce female players to Ultimate Team; since, as I said, it's a videogame, and the argument that it's not "sim" to have male players and female players together doesn't hold water. If I can have Otto Graham, who is dead, quarterback my team in Madden Ultimate Team, then I should be able to pair Abby Wambach with Clint Dempsey and unleash hell.
In a way, it hurts to write this, because I really am thrilled to see teams like the USWNT finally make their way into FIFA 16. But with such limited integration, it feels a little like this addition is being setup to fail in some ways. Hopefully EA Canada will follow up in the coming years and continue to integrate women more fully into the game. With luck, positive announcements like these will be just the beginning.