P13 – Margaret Steenbakker

Margaret Steenbakker (1992) has a Bachelor’s and Master’s degree in Culture Studies. She is currently finishing her second Master’s degree, in Dutch literature and culture, while also preparing her PhD research, which will focus on gender and heteronormativity in the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise. She has a special research interest in gender representation, posture analysis, and (digital) narratives.

Playing gender or being played by gender? The representation of maleness and femaleness in Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation

In this conference paper, I will look at the video game Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (2014), and more specifically, at the construction of maleness and femaleness within this video game[1]. Despite the Assassin’s Creed video game franchise’s popularity and long existence by now (since 2007), only three games in the main franchise have been released so far that have a female playable character. These games are: Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate (2015), Assassin’s Creed: Origins (2017) and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey (2018). In 2014, a game with a female protagonist, Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation, was already released for the PS Vita, bringing the total count of games with female playable characters within the franchise to four. Assassin’s Creed III: Liberation (2014) has since been re-released as an HD game for PC, PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.

This shift in attention, from only creating only games with male playable characters to creating games with female ones as well, can be seen as part of a more general trend within the gaming industry for gender equality. Games such as the recent reboot of Tomb Raider (2013), and its sequels Rise of the Tomb Raider (2015) and The Shadow of the Tomb Raider (2018), for instance feature a Lara Croft who is no longer interesting simply because of her heavily sexualized looks, but rather because of her skills in combat. Other examples of this trend are Child of Light (2014), in which you play with Aurora, a female character who becomes a messiah-like figure, and Horizon: Zero Dawn (2017), in which you play as a female character named Aloy, who tries to discover more about her past in a world overrun by machines.

This obviously means that the game offers countless opportunities for various types of battle, showing that playing with a female character can be fun for more reasons than just the heavily sexualized ones. This makes the shift in the Assassin’s Creed games to include female playable characters all the more interesting, as this is clearly part of an ongoing trend within the broader field of games. Moreover, the choices the game makers have made regarding playability, missions and clothing for instance, betray what Bogost (2008) calls their procedural rhetoric. Games are not neutral sites without meaning. Instead, they are home to rhetorical strategies from the hand of their makers.  In this case this refers to their stance on what is feminine and what is masculine and thus whether they see male and female characters as being equal or not.

In order to arrive at my conclusions, I have made use of a theoretical and methodological framework incorporating theories on gender, heteronormativity and intersectionality, and a specific methodology analyzing games as ‘playable texts’, developed by Bosman (2016a: 33), and Bogost’s (2008) notion of procedural rhetoric to aid me in my analysis.

Assassin’s Creed III: Liberations allows you to play with a female Assassin, called Aveline de Grandpré. She is of mixed heritage and according to her backstory, she is raised by a wealthy white merchant, in the New Orleans of 18th century America.

When looking at the game’s depiction of femininity through Aveline’s outward appearance, the game makers have introduced an interesting mechanic that highlights the issues women would face due to the garments they had to wear during this historical period. Aveline is able to change outfits and has access to a lady’s outfit, consisting of a luxurious full-length dress, as well as a slave outfit and an assassin’s outfit. Each outfit comes with a set of options regarding what weapons – if any – she can use and whether she can run and climb for instance.

Aceline's assassin outfit.

Aveline’s assassin outfit, as seen in figure 1, gives her the most options. Wearing this outfit, you can do anything, climb onto anything, free run across rooftops and use all types of weapons. However, the outfit also gives Aveline a guaranteed amount of notoriety, meaning that guards will notice and come after her more quickly than when she’s wearing other outfits. This then, can be seen as a clear downside of the outfit and can explain why sometimes other outfits are to be preferred over this one.

Aveline's lady outfit.

When Aveline dresses as a lady, as can be seen in figure 2, she is restricted in what she can physically do. This makes perfect sense, as the women’s fashions of the time were indeed very unpractical in terms of what kind of physical movement they allowed for. She can’t free run in this outfit, nor can she climb onto things. Aveline also isn’t able to use any weapons when wearing this outfit, although she can use her fists to defend herself. Wearing this outfit enables Aveline to use bribery and charm to achieve her goals, which can be useful during missions in which a sub-goal is not being discovered by the enemy for instance.

Aveline's slave outfit.

Lastly, Aveline’s slave outfit, shown in figure 3, allows her free movement, which means that she can climb onto everything and run freely as well. However, she doesn’t have access to her full arsenal of weaponry. Moreover, should Aveline commit an illegal act while wearing this outfit, she will gain notoriety very quickly. This outfit allows Aveline to blend in with groups of people, meaning guards won’t notice her, or by carrying out menial tasks, such as carrying a crate, so as to look like a slave working for her master.

This variety of outfits highlights the possibilities and impossibilities women had to face during this particular historical period. This becomes especially clear in the differences between the assassin outfit and the lady outfit. The slave outfit is, in this respect, a bit of a strange element in the mix, because in terms of what you can and cannot do it is in between the assassin outfit and the lady outfit. This then, would suggest that slaves had more options as to how they could move around and carry themselves. This, of course, isn’t a historically accurate depiction of the period at all and again points at the idea that the developers may have glossed over the historical truth of what slavery really was like, in favor of creating a game that is appealing and ‘fun’ to play.

The difference between the options the assassin outfit and the lady outfit allow for retrospectively then highlights a stark contrast between what the norms regarding femininity were during the time – and, one might argue, are to a certain extent today as well – versus the choices Aveline makes as an Assassin. When wearing the lady outfit, Aveline has the ability to charm and bribe people, in order to achieve her goals. She uses her looks to get what she wants as she has no way of achieving her goals by force when wearing the restrictive type of garment that was customary during the period. There is a stark difference, then, between using charm and using force to achieve a certain goal. Using charm is associated with the lady outfit and as such is placed in a normative position as being more ‘ladylike’, whereas using force is strongly connected to the assassin outfit and does not have the same connotation within the game.

As such, the game doesn’t challenge existing gender norms, even though it features a female Assassin. Rather, it makes sure that Aveline uses different registers, so as to include existing gender norms in the game. If, for instance, Aveline only had her assassin outfit at her disposal in the game, this would mean a bigger challenge to gender norms of the time than the current configuration allowed for, as women were expected to wear movement-restricting dresses, for instance, and Aveline could then be seen to actively deviate from the norm by wearing something akin of a pant suit, which allows her to move around more freely. Including the different outfits then, has ensured that Aveline has – in a sense – several personas, which ensure that it seems as though she is no different from any other woman in the game’s virtual world. This duality, between the hidden Assassin identity and the outward ladylike identity – or slave identity when this was more convenient in the game – conveys a message of women’s bodies having to be policed for public appearances’ sake, while only being able to have more freedom in secret. The question then should be whether this freedom, for women to dress as they please, to behave as they truly want to and to have any profession they desire, shouldn’t have been put more boldly on the agenda within the game, rather than this being portrayed as something that can only be acquired in utmost secrecy and performed only in the shadows and hidden nooks and crannies in everyday life. The message this conveys is one of a severe policing of women indeed and is indicative of the tension that is present within the game with regards to what is and isn’t considered feminine.

[1] Due to considerations about length, I’ve decided to highlight only one part of my research in this conference paper, namely the aesthetic aspects of the video game at hand. However, in my research, I have also looked at ludolocigal (gameplay) elements, intersectionality and historical accuracy, gender stereotypes and feminism and heteronormativity.

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