I Put A Trans Character In A Game And Gamers Went Insane
Several recent controversies have taught us that the public has a great deal of trouble remaining calm the moment anyone utters the word "transgender." A certain percentage of you involuntarily tensed up the moment you saw what this article was about -- you could sense a fight coming. Combine that controversial subject with the video gaming community, which has a tendency to, well, get worked up about things, and it's easy to guess what happens whenever a trans character shows up in a game.
Recently, a game called Baldur's Gate: Siege Of Dragonspear included a blink-and-you'll-miss-them character who makes reference to being transgender. The response?
We talked to Amber Scott, the writer of Dragonspear, and Sheva Gunnery, who recently conducted a large survey of transgender gamers, to try to understand this. They said ...
Games Aren't Exactly Chock-Full Of Trans Characters
To be fair to the gaming industry, its portrayal of transgender characters hasn't been any worse than Hollywood's, in which trans people have historically been either punchlines (Ace Ventura) or murderous monsters (Silence Of The Lambs). If you want an unintentionally sad snapshot of the situation, look at Out's "7 Trans-Friendly Video Game Characters." Their list includes Birdo, a dinosaur creature tennis enthusiast who started off as "a boy who thinks he's a girl" in 1988 and was almost immediately changed to just a girl ...
You also have Guilty Gear's Bridget, a tween who produces a suggested Google search of "Trap," along with a lot of jokes about how gross he is ...
... and whatever the fuck Final Fantasy IX's Quina is.
"I self-identify as a turnip."
So it's not a terribly inspirational landscape if you're trans and looking for a character you can relate to. That's too bad, because that's part of what makes gaming so appealing -- you can control someone who's like you, but more interesting, because they're a professional demon killer and you had to spend half of last weekend doing paperwork at the DMV.
With that in mind, Amber's motivations for including a trans character, Mizhena, in her game seem uncontroversial. "I think everyone deserves to play a game that represents them in a fun fantasy setting. That's how imagination and wonder develops." There's also the issue of variety in an industry that has largely defaulted to "strapping white dude" or "voluptuous babe" for its protagonists. "Creating a wide range of characters also makes settings more complex and believable. There's a certain amount of willful blindness you have to have to believe in a video game world where the entire population is made up of one or two character models in one of five outfits. The more diverse a game world can be, the more like real people the characters become."
So Mizhena wasn't an elaborate ploy by Big Social Justice -- just one writer trying to flesh out the world she was building with a couple of quick, completely optional lines of dialogue. And yet ...
There Was A Ridiculous And Terrible Overreaction
So here's a typical reaction to Dragonspear:
"Blatantly scream personal information at the player"? Shit, what did Mizhena do, not let you continue until you built a float for the first mandatory Baldur's Gate pride parade? She was a minor character, you had to ask her about her name before her being trans even came up, and then you got back to business. She has four short sentences about being trans, which most players probably miss because they want to hurry up and get back to the magical combat ...
... And now here are some players reacting to that brief conversation as if the game required them to pledge allegiance to ISIS before proceeding. You can play a fun minigame right here. We call it "count the hand-wringing hyperbole"!
Any attempts to "protect video games" might be a bit undercut by 74 percent of readers considering "Hurr durr!" valid critique.
Did you guess that Amber was personally targeted too? If so, give yourself a depressing pat on the back.
Oh, and someone rushed out to make a mod solely to remove that one conversation, so they could enjoy the game without "propaganda." It's called Siege Of Dragonspear: Corrections, because apparently there was a competition to make the Skyrim horse vagina mod look classy.
"Suck on it, world-building."
The flood of anger focused almost entirely on this one brief and easy-to- miss conversation, to the point where people with real criticism had to preface their reviews with "Sure, transgender character, whatever. Can you fix these bugs, please?"
Despite all that, Amber has remained upbeat about the whole thing. "I have [been harassed], but I prefer not to dwell on the vile stuff. I've gotten as much thanks and support as I have abuse, and that's what I try to focus on. One message from a person saying, 'I saw myself in the game, and I want to thank you' means more than a hundred messages calling me unprintable names."
Remember: As infuriating as those comments are, they represent a tiny group who appears to have an actual, physical addiction to outrage. The majority of gamers they claim to represent are too busy having fun playing games to care. But it's still worrying, because ...
Enraged Overreactions Are Becoming The Norm
Don't let us pretend that these self-appointed culture warriors are exclusive to gaming. In fact, all of this should sound very familiar if you remember the 1990s -- it's the exact tone critics took when gay characters started to appear in pop culture as anything other than wacky caricatures. When Ellen DeGeneres came out in 1997 and simultaneously declared that the character she played in her sitcom was gay, Wendys, Chrysler, and JCPenney all pulled their advertising from her show. The mere inclusion of gay characters caused pundits everywhere to screech that homosexuality was being shoved in their faces ... as if acknowledging that a group exists counts as aggressive propaganda.
"Couldn't you go back to nonstop, unmissable allusions?"
So here we are again -- Dragonspear's entire "political" message consists of a single person in that fictional universe saying they were raised male but identify as female, before immediately changing the subject. The reaction reveals a striking persecution complex. The slightest nibble of progress from the other "side" is met with a nuclear response. And not only on this issue, either.
Before the release of Overwatch, a fan gently suggested that one of the character's poses was needlessly sexual (and out of character). The developers agreed and changed it, since that's what you do during a beta. So here's the before picture of a cute, young, latex-clad woman showing off her ass ...
... And here's the corrected version, in which a cute, young, latex-clad woman shows off slightly less of her ass.
Though her willingness to enter a gunfight in yoga pants somehow remains unchanged.
It's a tiny change -- still flirtatious, but now having her make more playful eye contact with the viewer rather than merely presenting her ass -- but it was treated like the greatest act of censorship since the Library of Alexandria was sacked.
Pictured: people who clearly don't get "offended by the most minor things".
Another "scandal" involved Nintendo removing a risque minigame and some sexual dialogue from Fire Emblem: Fates, a game about making anime armies fight, when it was translated for the West. An angry mob decided that one minor employee was responsible for their inability to caress underage cartoon girls (seriously, it was a face-touching minigame), so they harassed her by calling her things like "feminazi" and digging every piece of dirt they could from her social media accounts. Eventually, Nintendo heroically decided she wasn't worth the PR problem and fired her. Note that it's still a game in which you can marry your adopted siblings, one of whom goes to war dressed like this:
Who needs depth perception in combat, anyway?
Finally, a game called Pillars Of Eternity included a quick little transphobic limerick. It was later removed, which prompted the mob to protest about, uh, game developers changing their games to appease small but vocal interest groups.
You wouldn't think someone named "Firedorn Ligthbringer" would have those kinds of confidence issues.
Are you starting to get the idea? Their goal is to be outraged, no matter what. If the situation doesn't justify it, they'll twist it until it does. When sexy anime girls and transphobic jokes get cut, they cry censorship -- developers must be free to express themselves by sharing cartoon boobs with the world. But if those same developers refuse to cut trans characters from their games, then they're forcing a political agenda.
For these gamers, it's only censorship if they liked what got removed. It's only free expression if they agree with it. Game developers are either pandering or refusing to listen -- there's always a victim angle ready. We would say they've turned outrage itself into a game, but for some, the results are very real ...
Trans Gamers Get Treated Like Shit
The results of Sheva's survey of trans gamers were not pretty. 71 percent of respondents felt unsafe in gaming spaces like conventions and forums, and 86 percent have dealt with some form of harassment -- jokes, slurs, threats, etc. And all in multiplayer games, where players normally only threaten to pretend kill each other. There's the standard accusations of lying ("Guys hearing my voice sounding a bit feminine and then feeling 'betrayed' because I 'lied' and said I was male.") and then you have the old "girls can't be gamers" stereotype that gets very convoluted when you're dealing with a trans man ("I've been told that, since I'm born a female, I should not 'pretend' to be a 'boy' to pass as a gamer.")
If you're the type to assume they're making this up for sympathy (a common accusation), let's take the case of indie developer Brianna Wu, who has been a vocal critic of sexism in gaming. In retaliation, conservative website Breitbart tried to discredit her by "outing" her as trans.
When someone sneeringly refers to using a "polite courtesy," they're intentionally doing the opposite.
Their argument is that if Wu is transgender, she can't speak for women because she isn't really one. And because she also hasn't been "honest" about it, that makes her a liar -- as opposed to making her, say, someone who doesn't want to discuss their irrelevant personal life with hateful strangers. This is always the catch-22 for trans people. If you're open about it, you're an attention whore shoving it down people's throats. If you keep it quiet, you're deceitful. Either way, they're going to portray you as a monster. Here's how they depict Wu:
Sailor Moon might not be the best figure to use to accuse someone of being a fictitious woman.
Think that's an isolated incident? Well, here are some choice comments about one woman who talks about games on Twitter. Not a major industry player, not an outspoken critic, just some random woman who talks about games:
Okay, but that's from 8chan, the internet equivalent of an abandoned gas station now used to sell heroin. No one takes them seriously, right? It's like letting a child's insults get to you. Okay, well, what about this fun little indie game called Kill The Faggot?
The perfect game for people to shockingly declare "Hilarious!" without realizing they're the punchline.
It's a shooting gallery where you get points for killing gay people, even more points for killing trans people, and lose points if you kill straight people (don't worry, you can tell them apart by their clothes). It was pitched as a way for people who "hate gays" to "unleash your frustration on the 'LGBT' community." Eh, they're probably only trying to be shocking, right? It's not like they really get murderous toward transgender people. Well, here's someone encouraging 23-year-old game developer Rachel Bryk to commit suicide ...
... and here's the reaction after she did:
That's the atmosphere trans gamers exist in. But the brief inclusion of a minor trans character in a game is seen as an unforgivable act of hyper-aggression in the other direction. Sure.
With The Rage Comes Progress
The most ridiculous part of all this is that, in terms of what they want the games to offer, trans people are asking for virtually nothing here. This isn't some demand for wholesale, multi-million-dollar changes in how the industry does business. In the survey, there was a general consensus that, in games like Fallout 4 where you can customize your character, some slight tweaks would do the trick. Modern character creators are extremely robust, so if developers can let you make everyone from Bob Ross to an 1800s strongman who fought Freddy Kruger ...
"Now lets paint the happy little super mutant with a nice even coating of hot lead."
... it shouldn't be that hard to throw in a few more options and pronouns. As one respondent pointed out, "Personally I would get the most enjoyment out of a game that made the trans experience a casual thing. Being able to make a dude without an Adam's apple or a lady with broad shoulders and square jaw is good enough for me." It won't fix gamers' attitudes toward trans people, but it would inch them ever so closer to having to acknowledge that trans people are a thing, both in the game world and the real one.
The good news is we probably wouldn't have had this discussion a few years ago. Not because transphobia wasn't an issue, but because not enough people cared. The fact that we rattled off dozens of examples of hate is, weirdly, an improvement from when it would have gone unnoticed by everyone except the targets. Transphobia used to be the default, not something worth taking note of and calling out. It's also a good sign that Amber was able to write Mizhena into that game without any issues on the developers' end. "The process was smooth internally. No one raised concerns over her backstory. The potential for internet storms certainly adds some tension to those decisions, but Beamdog's always been about great stories. That's not going to change."
This is what progress looks like. Advancement is met with walls of fiery hate hiding behind a thin veneer of "tradition" or not wanting to get "political" ...
... as if demanding depictions of trans people be prohibited isn't itself a political stance. Every civil rights movement in history has been met with this exact response ("An interracial couple on a sitcom? Why do you have to interrupt my entertainment to shove politics down my throat!?"). In virtually every case, a decade later, those same people will claim they were on board all along. 15 years after boycotting her show, JCPenney hired Ellen DeGeneres as their spokesperson.
In every case, what the enraged protesters can't seem to grasp is that for audience members who are a part of the marginalized group, their exclusion is what breaks the fantasy -- what's supposed to be fun escapism becomes a reminder that the real world is trying its best to render them powerless and invisible. Every gamer wants to slay monsters, to be that cooler version of themselves. And as one trans gamer told us, that's what the best games do. They let anyone, regardless of how reality treats them, feel awesome. "My first forays into presenting as a gender other than the one I was assigned at birth were in games. I remember Professor Birch of Pokemon Sapphire fondly for being the first person to ask me 'Are you a boy or a girl?' and then accepting my answer without objections."
"Hey, you're alright for a member of the massive child-exploiting energy cartel."
All they need from the rest of the gaming community is for them to do nothing at all -- to simply not fly into a rage at the mere mention of their existence. Is that too much to ask?
Seriously, is it?
Zoroastrianism used to be one of the biggest religions in the world, but their idea of heaven had a slight twist on it: To get there you'd have to cross a bridge, sometimes rickety, sometimes wide and sturdy. If you fell off, you'd go to the House of Lies for eternity. Fun! Not terrifying at all! This month, Jack, Dan, and Michael, along with comedians Casey Jane Ellison and Ramin Nazer discuss their favorite afterlife scenarios from movies, sci-fi, and lesser-known religions. Get your tickets here, and we'll see you on the other side of the bridge!
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Ways The Gaming Industry Is Way More Sexist Than You Think and 5 Things I Learned Making The Biggest Flop In Game History.
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