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How The Division Gets Women Right (and a Few Ways It Doesn’t)

In Tom Clancy’s The Division, women are–get ready for this–people!

They aren’t overly sexualized, they aren’t primarily damsels in distress. They’re soldiers and doctors, mothers and daughters, friends and family. They’re victims of the disease that’s swept the city, and they’re leaders in the fight to take the city back.

(The other thing they’re not? Enemies. At least not very often. But this is part of a larger problem with The Division’s AI that I’ll get to in a moment.)

In short, women in The Division are portrayed pretty much like everyone else–which is a refreshing change, especially in such a high-profile action game.

Equal from the start

In Ubisoft Massive’s new third-person shooter MMORPG, you play as an elite soldier who is tasked with helping to retake Manhattan after it’s overrun by a plague. The game has been in the works for several years, and when it was finally released last week it quickly began breaking records, selling more copies in 24 hours than any other Ubisoft game, and becoming the fastest-selling game in company history, and the fastest-selling game of 2016. It’s one of the top four most successful new game brand launches in the history of the industry, along with Ubisoft’s Watch Dogs and Assassin’s Creed, and Bungie’s Destiny.

Ubisoft’s unusually equal treatment of women is apparent from the opening cinematics, which includes a scene of a father rocking a crying baby while the mother is activated as an agent (go to 1:42 in the clip below)–a domestic scene that is almost always shown with the genders reversed–while male and female voice-overs alternate in setting the scene.

You soon enter the character creator to customize your agent. As disappointing as The Division’s character creation system is overall–and it’s definitely in need of serious expansion–the female characters look like soldiers, not women on their way to a night club. The customization options are extremely limited, but you can at least choose your race and browse a few different faces.

Many players have complained about the lack of hairstyles–especially long hair–to choose from when customizing your agent. While the complaints are accurate, the game’s lack of good hair options stems from an industry-wide problem developers have with animating long hair (it requires a huge amount of resources to do properly, and still often still doesn’t look quite right or creates clipping problems). This is not unique to The Division, and also not something Ubisoft was likely to solve for this game when no one else has been able to previously.

**warning: minor story spoilers**

The first person you meet when you step off the helicopter is Agent Faye Lau, who briefs you on your mission and gives you orders throughout the game. She is brave, competent, and self-sacrificing, but she’s also passionate and emotional. And she’s Asian-American, with very short hair–an almost unheard-of combination for a prominent character in an American video game.

Soon after that you’re introduced to Dr. Jessica Kandel, a virologist working to find a cure to a strain of the virus, who casually reveals in conversation that she has an ex-wife. Dr. Kandel is smart, kind, clearly committed to her work–and just happens to be gay.

Faye Lau and Jessica Kandel in The Division

There are other LGBT characters peppered through the game in small ways. One of the recordings you pick up when wandering the streets of Manhattan is an adult daughter coming out to her mother on voicemail; later, you find a recording of her mother’s (reassuring) response.

Other recordings you come across include one of a woman confronting a stalker, and another that features an ominous-sounding exchange between two men that turns out to be about one of the guys fixing his sister’s toilet.

In other words, it isn’t just the cityscape that’s realistic in The Division–the people are, too.

The clothing you wear in the game is also appropriate for the tough, badass soldier you are, with a focus on function not fashion.

Bad guys and bitches

Women are completely absent, however, among the enemies, at least in non-story missions. Except for a few female snipers and a couple female bosses, there are no women among the waves and waves of bad guys you encounter in the majority of the game (since let’s face it, most of your time in the game is spent on non-story missions).

But that’s another problem that isn’t really about gender–you pretty much just fight the same six guys over and over again, period.

The Division

For most of the game, the enemies you encounter look exactly the same: the guy in the red hoodie with the bat or ax; the Cleaner with the flamethrower; the leader who’s always named Alex (seriously, every leader has the same name!) etc. Massive clearly put a lot of time, attention and detail into crafting the city, but when it comes to the AI, it looks like they just made a million copies of six models. Repeatedly killing the same enemies breaks the immersion somewhat, and I’m guessing they have this on their list to fix down the road because it’s one of the game’s few areas of real weakness.

Another small but not insignificant problem in the game is these same six enemies repeatedly calling you a “bitch” if you play as a female character (as in, “get that bitch!”), just like they do in Fallout 4. Is it realistic? Sure. But do female players want to hear that hurled at them for hours in their leisure time? No. It’s a gendered slur that’s demeaning and immersion-breaking in a different way–because it reminds us of the real threats we face in real life on an ongoing basis. I hope Ubisoft patches that out soon.

It pays to be inclusive

These critiques aside, The Division overall has done a terrific job of including women in the game and integrating them in a natural, realistic way, and this has made for a mostly positive reception by female gamers. The comments in this thread in the /GirlGamers subreddit range from “Dr. Kendall is just a regular female character who happens to be gay, and that’s amazing!” to “I like how all the clothes styles are gender neutral and professional” to “Love playing my female char as a normal part of this world.”

There are lots of positive tweets from female gamers, too (admidst the ones complaining about the character creation limitations).

While the majority of The Division’s players are clearly male, the game’s equal treatment of women–along with the mostly positive reviews of its gameplay, of course–has contributed to positive word-of-mouth among female gamers, which has undoubtedly contributed to its record-breaking success.

The future of action games

Most MMORPGs like The Elder Scrolls Online, EverQuest, Rift and World of Warcraft offer plenty of prominent female characters, but not POC and LGBT people because they’re set in a fantasy world where race, gender and sexual orientation don’t exist in the same way. Single-player RPG games often include women, but they’re frequently over-sexualized or stereotyped–although some RPG series have recently made an effort to curb this.

Bungie’s popular MMORPG third-person shooter Destiny is the game that’s the most similar to The Division, and it’s also very inclusive of women and POC. (It doesn’t feature any LGBT characters, but you know virtually nothing about the personal lives of any of the game’s characters.)

Aside from Destiny, The Division is arguably most similar to first-person and third-person shooters–at least in the type of player it’s likely to attract–and that’s where The Division’s casual inclusion of prominent and realistic women really stands out.  Popular FPS franchises like Call of Duty, Halo, and Battlefield have recently begun offering better female characters and more racial diversity in their games, but they still have a ways to go. The most popular third-person action/shooter franchises like Far Cry, Uncharted, Red Dead, Hitman and Just Cause only ever include women in supporting (and often over-sexualized or stereotyped) roles.

Women–especially women of color and lesbian/bi women–have historically been absent from prominent roles in other types of action games, too, or limited to only one or two prominent characters or nameless NPCs. They’re rarely the hero, unless it’s a create-your-own hero game like Fallout and Mass Effect. This is beginning to change with the success of games like Tomb Raider, Mirror’s Edge, and Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, but it’s slow-going.

Perhaps the enormous success of The Division, and the positive reception by players to the game’s diversity and inclusion efforts, will help speed this up a little. In the meantime, we’ll just continue to bask in the luxury of The Division’s normal depictions of women while we save New York from Alex.

Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.
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Sarah Warn is the Editor-in-Chief of remeshed.com and an avid player of console and PC games of all kinds. She was previously the founder and EIC of AfterEllen.com, and online editorial director for MTV Networks. Follow Sarah on Twitter.

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