Is there a way to bring trans characters into gaming without offending anyone?

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.

Gender, ethnicity and sexuality present new problems, because it is objectively hard to view the world as something you’re not.

Diversity is rarely a bad thing in any medium and games are no different. Often people want to be immersed when they step into a world of fiction and realities filled with people who have the same ideals, appearance or beliefs rarely draw in a discerning mind. There are varying difficulties, however, in creating characters who differ from oneself and the depiction, if it correlates to a real world population, will then by judged by the consumer in its accuracy. Women have disagreed about their portrayal by men; men have complained about their depiction by women. The same can be said about liberals and conservatives, ethnic groups or religions. Religious and political beliefs are perhaps the easiest, because they are learned philosophies. Gender, ethnicity and sexuality present new problems, because it is objectively hard to view the world as something you’re not.

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).

Story is a motivator in some games, but generally it is the mechanics that make it fun and engaging to play.

Story is a motivator in some games, but generally it is the mechanics that make it fun and engaging to play. Characters are easily represented on-screen as white, black, green, blue or whatever other color the designer so chooses. Gender has historically been similarly easy to include visually. As storytelling within the medium has progressed, so too its ability to give characters beliefs, opinions and romantic interests. Even gay and lesbian relationships can be very visual if included; a character doesn’t need to verbally say what gender they’re interested in, they can just casually be seen holding hands or kissing someone. It doesn’t have to be explained or central to that character’s identity.

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?

gw045I 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.

  • King of Zeroes

    Consider NIER. Kaine is a transgender character. I’ve never heard any complaints about it. But that’s basically the only one.

    Vivian and Birdo, hilariously Nintendo characters, aren’t all that obviously transgender. At least not in english translations.

    And Poison, sadly, was never trans at all. Final Fight devs just recently squashed that fanon.

    But going back to Kaine, Kaine’s gender was never forced down your throat. Kaine was a character, not a political message. Consider that Gen Zed garbage. If you make it a minute or two into the nauseating animation, you get treated to the most hamfisted line I’ve ever heard. “Wow, you’re trans? That shows great strength of mind.”

    Whyyyyyyy. Why would you do this? Do you go up to a guy and say “wow, you’re a guy? That’s so brave.” No. No you don’t. You don’t compliment people on being a gender. Everybody is a gender. This is the default state of existence for human beings. This is just printing your politics on a baseball bat and assaulting somebody with it.

    Transgender characters can exist. But if they’re shitty characters, then it doesn’t matter what their gender is. You’re going to get reamed over them. If you’re only including transgender characters to send a message, people are going to notice, and they’re going to realize that what you’ve created isn’t a character, it’s a billboard.

    The problem isn’t the trans characters, but the talentless hacks who tend to make them.

  • mbits

    Yes. Write your own interesting and original characters rather than appropriating another creator’s existing characters for your own agenda.

    It’s the same reason there was so much bullshit about Thor being female. It’s not because people are against cool female characters… they’re against taking one character and making it another character just for fucking tokenism.

    It’s dishonest to try and appropriate an existing character and then when people complain that you’re doing that to say “transphobe/homophobe/sexist/racist/xenophobe/whatever!”

    Look at the Mad Max game. Original the character had a bland american voice instead of australian. everyone lost their shit BECAUSE MAD MAX IS AUSTRALIAN.

    Stop being lazy and make your own damned characters that you’re so desperate for. Especially since you just want to trap people into attempting to create your desired character so you can call them homophobic and sexist for *trying* to make what you were asking for and *getting it wrong*.

  • Boku

    I find all too often people focus too much on the “how” and not enough on the “why”.

    I’m not saying its necessarily bad to have a mixed bag of characters across all ethnicities, orientations or whatever, but once you drop in a character with a unique trait like that it instantly becomes a Chekovs gun. And at that point its become a defining characteristic of that character. What benefit has that brought us? At best you can make a punchline out of it (to which you offend for being tasteless) and at worst its just pointless exposé (to which you “offend” for failing to build on).

    The only reason I ever hear to do such things is “representation” which is simply a non sequitur. Can a trans individual only look to trans characters for inspiration or as a role model? I mean, there are certain elements of life that only they will be able to communicate to each other, no doubt, but anyone can relate to overcoming hardship. Anyone can relate to discrimination in some form. People relate to feelings and experiences, not just to other people.

    I can relate to Abe on his quest to rescue his race from slavery. Not because I have three fingers (I dont). Not because I feel as though I am enslaved (Im not). Not because I identify as a mudoken (but maybe I should). Not because I have blue/green skin, my mouth sewn shut and flatulence (no, no and sometimes). But because I can relate to his emotions.

    I think its rather condescending to make trans characters just so you can point them out to trans individuals and say “oh look this one like you too — RELAAATE”.

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