The "Call of Duty" franchise has had players (as soldiers) do battle underwater, shoot in outer space, wear jet packs and even attack zombies.
But for all the series' fantasy warfare over the past dozen or so years, the game never imagined women as equal players on the battlefield. "Call of Duty," instead, has long been considered a game for dudes who love their digital guns.
But that may be changing.
The release this week of "Call of Duty: Black Ops 3" marks a gender milestone for the
Abby Brammell, the actress whose voice and likeness is used for the starring female role, recalls the day the game's developers told her she was making "Call of Duty" history. "I was shocked," she says.
She had to take a moment, she adds, "thinking of all the women who have ever sat down to play this game and ... had to play as a man."
What took so long?
Treyarch developers don't speculate on the gender split of their games, but "Call of Duty" can be forgiven for following the guidelines of the real-life U.S. military, where the subject of women on the frontlines remains a national debate. Only recently, however, have mainstream video game publishers begun to diversify their characters.
"We probably used to have, on hardcore games, an audience maybe 20 years ago that was 5% women. It's probably 25% now," says Michael Pachter, an analyst at investment firm Wedbush Securities. "I think Activision is smart to try and appeal to that."
What's more, recent figures on the industry at large estimate that about 44% of game players are women, and developers, even those who have made games long drenched in machismo, are taking notice.
"It is absolutely a myth that this is a game for boys," says Dan Bunting, a developer with Treyarch, the Activision studio that developed "Black Ops 3."
In addition to "Black Ops 3," several big-budget games this holiday season have given women prominent roles, including "Assassin's Creed: Syndicate," "Halo 5: Guardians," "Fallout 4," "Star Wars: Battlefront" and, of course, "Rise of the Tomb Raider." While the video game industry is not yet close to reaching gender parity, there is now a visible effort to shed the image of games as a boy's club.
"It's really exciting to see more and more female characters put out there as not the prize at the end of the game but as the participant," says Rachel Kimsey, who voices one of the nonplayable female characters in "Blacks Ops 3."
"I think a lot of people in the game creation side are really excited about opening up the world to female players and female gamers," she adds. "I don't think it's going to take too much longer for that to be even more widely accepted."
For "Black Ops 3," a game set in a future in which human soldiers are augmented with cyborg-like technology, developers say they didn't want to be on the wrong side of history. Set in 2065, the game takes place in a universe in which a large air-defense system, designed to nullify drone attacks, has placed a newfound importance on foot soldiers.
"Our military advisors were saying, 'Listen, the role of women in the future, especially in the battlefield, is going to be more prevalent than ever,' " says Jason Blundell, a director on the game.
"That was a progressive step that we're seeing in our militaries, and when we start looking ahead to 2065, which is when our story takes place, it almost seemed like it would be ignoring the pointers that we were following in all other aspects to not include women," he adds.
In recent years, "Call of Duty" games have shifted their focus away from the real wars of the past to imaginary ones of the future. They still mix arcade-like action with the topical. "Black Ops 3," for instance, begins with some harrowing scenes of torture and talk of terrorist organizations. Yet there are also vicious robots, and when our hero — a nameless protagonist who is meant to stand in for the player — loses his or her limbs, squeamish viewers will want to look away from the screen.
While players can choose to play as a male or female (the male character is voiced by Ben Browder), Blundell says there was only one script.
"We wrote a gender-neutral script. In other words, you basically write a single role and don't think about whether the character is male or female. If you think about the character being male or female, you pander to the sexes," he says. "You want to be masculine for the male, or more caring and more feminine for the female. By writing it gender neutral and letting each actor perform the role, they brought their gender's properties to the piece."
Brammell says she auditioned for "a really strong feminine character" and was told on the first day of work of the importance of her role.
"The responsibility was to women," she says, "to portray the power and the strength and the intelligence and the sensitivity that a feminine soldier has. Clearly they've been under-represented, right? I was so honored that I was the chosen one to carry this portrayal forward and to expand the culture's idea of what it means to be a soldier in battle. It is not tied to the masculine, the man."
"Black Ops 3," says Pachter, is estimated to sell between 18 million and 20 million copies before the end of the year. Last year's "Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare," also released in November, was 2014's top-selling video game, according to the trade group Electronic Software Assn. On Friday, Activision Blizzard announced the creation of its own movie and television studio in an effort to bring "Call of Duty," as well as other properties, to screens big and small.
With that size of an audience, Kimsey says "Call of Duty's" newfound gender diversity cannot be underestimated.
"I think it's going to assimilate really quickly," she says. "People are going to get used to seeing a woman running around and doing the job and getting it done and advancing through the game. That alone will start to change the perception of female players in this world."
'Call of Duty: Black Ops 3'