FIFA's Struggle to Include Women Reveals a Lot About Gaming's Problems with Diversity

By Kotaku on at

by Nathan Ditum

I recently played FIFA 16, which for the first time in the series’ twenty-two year history features women players. This inclusion is long overdue, although actually playing as a team of women footballers feels less revolutionary than the fact of their inclusion - no doubt this is partly because they are still playing football, and it turns out that women tend not to do this very differently from men. But it’s also because often, when we play games, we have no sense of the work that’s gone into making many of the particular and unremarkable pieces of them function as they should.

This became apparent when I spoke to FIFA’s producer Nick Channon, who explained that the studio had wanted to include women for a number of years, but had kept on running into problems - problems like the game’s body scaling system. This system had always been linear - “pretty rudimentary, to be honest” - meaning that bigger players were simply enlarged versions of smaller players, with no capacity to reflect variations in limb, torso or head size. For the women’s game, though, Channon and the team “felt we had to create a body type that was authentic to women players.”

In fact there were lots of things that needed to be fixed or finessed in order to introduce women to FIFA. Ponytails and braids were another. “There aren’t many players in the men’s game with longer hair, so we didn’t feel the need to animate it,” Channon says. “It would be a hit on framerate, and hitting 60 frames per second is crucial for us.” Other things that were addressed include small differences in cadence as players walk, jog and run (“We mo-capped a female player”), dozens of lines of male-specific commentary (“He shoots!”), and a ratings system which exists in isolated parallel to the men’s game.

And so the mystery of how it’s taken so long for women to arrive in FIFA is explained. All this work had to be integrated into an existing annual production schedule, and EA has clearly taken pains not just to include women’s football, but to do it well. There is a sense both in Channon’s fraught rhetoric (“If we don’t get it right...”) and in the predictable hostility triggered by the announcement trailer itself that extra scrutiny will be applied to the women’s game in FIFA 16. It can’t just be there, it has to be beyond obvious reproach. The standard, in other words, is higher for women than for men - men belong in this world, and women are new, optional arrivals (and clearly regarded as intruders by many commenters and players).

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What my talk with Channon also reveals is that the effort to bring women to FIFA is a textbook illustration of structural sexism: that is to say, of how a system made for men (literally and completely in this case, a definable universe of code built for the express purpose of having virtual men play football inside it) struggles to accommodate women even when it makes efforts to. This is the hard yet elusive end of sexism that many of us struggle to grasp when presented with examples that seem like one-offs and singular unfortunates. “Not all men” is the kneejerk righteousness we’ve all felt when our half of the population is apparently blamed en masse for a specific sexist crime - and what FIFA’s struggle with inclusion can help us understand, as trite as it sounds, is how all men really do benefit from the conventions, laws and cultural biases of the real world, because here they are, reinforced and paralleled by the ingrained code and tech of FIFA.

To be clear, I think EA is doing a good job here, and I particularly like Channon’s line on the subject, which even after that hostile reception is implacable: “We want to be the most authentic football game in the world, and if we want to be that then women need to be part of our game.” But the details are still telling: the features that make women possible in this virtual world of football were “not a priority” for years because “there were other things to be done.” It’s both completely understandable - why spend money on features you don’t need? - and an indictment of the fact they were never needed (women’s football being, at the last count, more than 22 years old).

The image Channon left me with is a striking one - of the first prototype of women players his team put together a few years ago. The prototype was built from a woman’s head simply transplanted onto a man’s body. “It looked… wrong,” he says, though I say that it’s a perfect, macabre symbol of the attempt to force women into a world not built for them.

And of course we’re talking about worlds rather than a world here, as this problem exists across games. FIFA’s body horror snapshot reminds me of a similar clash of gendered logic in GTA V, in which it’s possible to create a female custom character for online play, pick up a prostitute and have her suck your invisible non-cock in the front seat of your car. This represents a clumsy rejection of the female experience, which is forced like a toddler’s toy into a mismatched, pre-existing mould. “Have them fuck like men anyway!” At least FIFA left its monsters at the prototyping stage.

FIFA’s process with women players is also reminiscent of the fuss at last year’s E3 over Assassin’s Creed Unity’s male-only four-player co-op, criticism of which led the game’s technical director James Therien to score an unintentional bullseye with the explanation that women were “on our feature list until not too long ago” until (as with FIFA) other elements of production took priority. It’s down to chance - the random nature of the internet call-out machine - that Unity and not FIFA, or any number of other games which skew cockwards because male is a video game default, ended up generating headlines last year.  Our industry is one in which it’s possible to conceive of women being something that might appear on a checklist of stuff we’d ideally like to include. Women, an optional extra dropped from this particular reality due to a lack of resources.

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It’s tough to draw conclusions around an issue like this - and the whole point of a structural analysis is to identify just how embedded and invisible a lot of the processes involved are. But this year’s E3 was at least a different story to last. Assassin’s Creed Syndicate features playable hero twins - and boy and a girl - while Mirror’s Edge Catalyst and Rise Of The Tomb Raider brought back old female heroes, and Guerrilla’s Horizon Zero Dawn and Dishonored 2 brought us new ones. This was a better E3 for many reasons, and representation was an out-in-the-open talking point.

But this is what EA’s years-long effort to bring some balance to its game should tell us: it’s more complicated than that. These problems are deep. These problems are structural. At Bethesda’s conference at this year’s E3 Todd Howard, the director of Fallout 4, revelled in audience applause when he revealed the game’s smooth new customisation system - in real-time, in a steamy bathroom mirror - and how easy it was to switch from a male to a female playable character. But then, as the applause rippled and built up for the next reveal, he switched right back again for the duration of the on-stage demonstration. It was a move that said this is still a man’s world, really - that women are still an item on the feature list, only this time, they happened to make the final game. It was a move that reminded us that things are changing - that there has been real progress - but that change will be slow, and hard.