My running hypothesis to the question posed by the headline is “no”. Not, at least, in today’s political climate. Although this topic has been one which I have frequently mulled over and the article subject for today had already been decided in advance, a recent article by Brianna Wu and Ellen McGrody has suddenly made it topical.
These difficulties, of course, are compounded when a minority has only very recently become part of the mainstream gender dialogue. This is not a criticism of anyone; it is just the reality of the situation. As a gay man, I don’t think I would have been able to demand accurate depictions of homosexual relationships back in the 1980’s. I was born at the end of 89, but from what I’ve gathered from literature, VHS-quality YouTube videos and older academic works is that straight people didn’t have the image of gay men wanting the same sort of relationships that they had. There was always a very sexual connotation to male-on-male encounters that lacked a romantic angle in the media (for those older than I, feel free to chime in; wasn’t a gender studies or human sexuality major).
Likewise, the movement for acceptance by those who don’t identify with their sex as assigned at birth is at its infancy. It is no longer relegated to discussions solely within the LGBT community. Trans individuals are now appearing more frequently in Western media and bringing with them their identity into public consciousness.
So how does this relate to video games? I didn’t hear you ask, but perhaps you’re wondering if you’ve read this far. As linked above, trans issues have also popped up in gaming now. I’m particularly interested in this topic because it differs from other minorities in its difficulty of being presented in video games. Books and movies are primarily narrative-driven, but games don’t have to be. There is no great epic behind pong. There are two paddles and a ball that travels back and forth (although I’m sure Camille Paglia would have something clever to say about the phallic nature of the paddles).
Conversely, depicting a transgender character presents a challenge. In such a visual medium gender identity cannot be explained so easily. In fact, just as in real life, you may not know someone identifies as a gender that differs from their biological or birth sex. Such details require a lot of exposition, especially to an audience who can’t be assumed knowledgeable about the topic. Can you really just have a character mention, in passing, “By the way, I wasn’t born a man (or woman)”. Such a statement demands backstory, because suddenly that character has something extremely unique about them that raises questions. What if Harry Potter had been attending a normal English boarding school and suddenly mentions that he has magical powers, but never mentions it save for one paragraph?
I was impressed about the inclusion of a trans NPC in one of my favorite MMORPGs, Guild Wars 2. The developer ArenaNet destroyed the world’s biggest city-hub in their year long series of story-driven content updates and subsequently rebuilt it, with the inclusion of a character who will let you know that if they look familiar it was because they were previously seen as a man. I loved this little bit of flavor in the world, making it seem more vibrant and alive. It did, however, make me wish that there was more to the story than just the short dialogue she offered.
Progressive video game outlets want more trans representation in video games. I, even as a “cis” white male, want more trans representations in video games. So how come I think the former is shooting the effort in the foot? Simply put, they’re too goddamned demanding. Polish developers create a game that’s too white? Criticized. Men playing as women in a game? Criticized. Showing how horrific slave ships were? Criticized. And on that last one, if I had seen that game as a kid it probably would have made a lasting impact. I still remember many of the misfortunes that could befall you while playing the Oregon Trail; seeing bodies contorted into TETRIS shapes certainly makes you deeply uncomfortable knowing that these are people on whose backs your country was built upon.
This harsh feedback doesn’t create an atmosphere that rewards experimentation with minority representation. Some of the more aggressive-progressive sites might call you out on the lack of it (re: Witcher 3), but that doesn’t stop a game from breaking records. Such nuanced issues are riddled with pitfalls for those hoping to tackle them correctly. Depict something in just the wrong way and the press might just get their next “problematic” portrayal in the video game industry to parade around as proof that white male developers will never think be able to understand anything beyond their skin color and penis.
I wish that the point of my article was to give some fix-all solution, but this is just one of those issues that is just hard to tackle. It’s worth talking about though and it’s worth giving leeway to both those who are looking to be better represented in games and also to those looking to represent others in their games. Very interested on others’ thoughts and eager to see the industry take up the challenge.