BETC Paris’ creative directors Arnaud Assouline and Benjamin Le-Breton on the billions of female gamers who aren’t represented accurately on screen, writes LBB’s Nisna Mahtani
Once seen as a largely male pastime, the gaming industry now houses one and a half billion female gamers who proudly make up a large chunk of the industry. While these women make themselves known on Discord, Twitch and YouTube, their representation within games largely falls into the hands of the 78% strong male workforce in gaming studios - which makes gaming rife with hyper-sexualisation and inaccurate representation.
In a bid to combat this narrative, advertising agency BETC Paris and NGO Women in Games collaborated to create something totally unique - male video game characters moving, acting and speaking like their female counterparts. As a result, we saw Batman and Geralt of Rivea like you’ve never seen them before - and likely never want to see again. #GenderSwap went live on Twitch on February 15, in collaboration with several female gamers streaming the mod, to start a conversation to create meaningful change.
BETC Paris’ creative directors Arnaud Assouline and Benjamin Le-Breton speak to LBB's Nisna Mahtani about the process of creating the Gender Swap campaign, modding video game files and the incredible reactions to the campaign.
LBB> What was the ideation process of this campaign and can you tell us about some of the research behind it?
Arnaud & Benjamin> The starting point was a clear analysis of the representation of women in video games. Female characters are too often caricatural and hyper-sexualised in video games. We can count on one hand the exceptions these last years. What's even more problematic is that we realised that representation was a longstanding issue and that gamers had even stopped paying attention to it.
When sharing our own gaming experience among the team, we quickly discovered that this analysis was verified in a majority of games, whatever type of game or platform that you were playing.
We then had to find an idea that could show how obvious this analysis was to the larger population. The opportunities offered through the community of modders that take pleasure in going through the system files of video games to modify them and alter them actually inspired us. What if we could, by modifying some files, move male video games characters the same way that their female counterparts to raise awareness of the widespread issue?
LBB> How involved were Women in Games and what did they want to achieve through this campaign?
Arnaud & Benjamin> Women In Games fight tirelessly all year long to help advance the representation of women in video games and inside studios. Many members of the organisation work in the gaming industry and were prompt to help us and guide us in our project. Their know-how was invaluable for the technical part of the project, as well as their contacts that got us the involvement of streamers that partnered with us and played the modded games on their Twitch channel and helped bring it to a wider audience.
The objective of the project for the organisation was double: first, to get more visibility, so that gamers, and especially female gamers, know that they exist and join them, and also to help promote all the different actions that they run to help increase the number of women within the industry. That's why each livestream during the operation invited the viewers to discover the organisation and their actions: useful advice, charters created for gaming studios, job boards for women that want to enter the industry, and direct contacts, through their Discord server.
LBB> Talk us through the characteristics of female video game characters. How do they move? What is their crafting process like?
Arnaud & Benjamin> You just have to watch the video of the operation to understand the issue. How female characters are overly sexualised through their physique (figure, costumes) but also through their attitudes (dirty looks, suggestive poses). These kinds of absurd gendered representations would be immediately shocking in any other industries, such as film or advertising, but they are so widespread in video games that we don't even notice them. One of the possible explanations lies in the fact that women are under-represented within gaming studios - around 22% only - which could explain the art direction that is created mostly by men for men; even though numbers say that one out of two gamers is a woman.
LBB> When you changed the mannerisms of characters, what were you most keen to showcase and how did you achieve this?
Arnaud & Benjamin> What we wanted to achieve was to show how female characters were stereotyped and how widespread it was. And when you invert the roles by applying the same treatment to male characters that we all know about, the result is immediate and it goes to show how caricatural the current situation is. Needless to say that when Batman or Geralt of Rivia sends you a message while rolling his hips, it is suddenly way more impactful!
LBB> Did you face any challenges during the creation of these modded characters?
Arnaud & Benjamin> Some games were easier to mod than others, as there were already some guidelines to follow to modify the files and swap the skins to change the appearances. We used them to find the best examples of characters, women and men, from which to swap animations. In other instances, we had to research, explore files, and try and try again to find out how to modify the games. It was a longer and more difficult process in the end, but so much more satisfying when we got to the result that we were hoping for.
LBB> Part of the narrative of this piece exists through the text we see on screen. How did you go about creating the copy and what was the process like?
Arnaud & Benjamin> All things considered, the text was quite easy to write. It was almost word for word the journey that we took to get to the idea. Women In Games immediately appreciated our proposition, which clearly explained what we were trying to achieve, how and why. Let's also add that most of the explanation lies in the images. You understand immediately when you see the end result.
LBB> How long did it take to create this ad, from start to finish?
Arnaud & Benjamin> From the brief to the campaign release, we spent around three months on all different steps of the project. From researching the best examples within major video games franchises to actually developing the technical part of our modifications to be able to play with the modded games and create a visual impact.
LBB> What do you think the future holds for video game characters? What will they look/behave like?
Arnaud & Benjamin> Some studios are starting to change things. The recent launch of Horizon Forbidden West helped show the incredible treatment offered to its main female character, which was universally praised by media and players.
We are not here to tell game developers how the characters of their games should be presented in the future. We simply hope that we can raise awareness from players and game makers alike on these issues to limit, even just a little, the overly sexist representations in the future.
LBB> What was the response to the modified characters? Did you see any /funny/interesting reactions?
Arnaud & Benjamin> Reactions were incredible. The number of views and level of engagement skyrocketed since the launch of the campaign with mostly positive feedback on the project. A number of personalities from the gaming world shared our work, as well as traditional media outlets and mainstream ones, which show how important gaming has become in culture in 2022.
We were psyched to see a lot of positive interactions from people working in the industry, whether they were men or women. Finally, the Women In Games organisation got to multiply its audience and the number of visits on their website increased, as well as on their Discord server. By all measures, the campaign exceeded all our expectations in the way that it was covered and how it managed to create a relationship with young women looking to enter the gaming industry!