Transgender Visibility Within The Games Industry
We all remember the times where the focus of most AAA game studios seemed to be to fulfil the fantasies of cis men. Slowly companies started to realise they were ignoring a huge potential audience. And that audience began realising that they deserve that representation.
Today, games are still not as diverse as they should be in the modern world. Most of industry knows this and are ready to change.
This change has been a long, and frankly quite slow, process. Particularly when it comes to the transgender community, we see a lot of push back. Some cis men continue to struggle to let go of the idea that certain games are for them, and studios find themselves caught in controversy where there should be none. Studios can find themselves haphazardly throwing in shallow stereotypes to tick a box and can misstep and handle the presence of transgender characters in video games particularly poorly. Over the years we’ve seen cross-dressing and trans characters reduced to a punchline, teaching cis individuals its ok to laugh and be cruel. The games industry can do better than this.
According to a 2021 IGDA study, 8% of the games industry is composed of non-binary, transgender or genderqueer individuals.
The worldwide average percentage of trans and non-binary identifying individuals is 2%
In Nielsens 2020 Games 360 survey, 10% of gamers were found to identify as transgender or non-binary.
Transgender people play games and transgender people work in the games industry. You can deduct from these statistics that transgender people are quite likely to enjoy games.
Gaming is often used as a form of stress relief, through escapism, socialising, or blowing off steam. The transgender community is statistically more likely to suffer from stress through anxiety or depression. This is largely thought to be due to the increased likeliness of social rejection, harassment and bullying. So why not make games that affirm their existence? This is where video games could change lives.
People want to be seen and accepted as they are and the way to do it is to make sure that they are represented in all different forms of media and entertainment – including games.
How Can Developers Embrace the Trans Gaming Community?
Let’s look at who is making those steps in the right direction and what they’re doing right.
People often like to make characters that they feel reflect them. There is a misconception that a trans man or women might only want to play as a cis character that reflects the gender they have transitioned (or are transitioning) into. But we are living in an ever evolving, more accepting world. While there are plenty of complex and difficult emotions at play, thankfully many members of the trans community do love and accept themselves wherever they are in their transition and want to see this reflected in their games. For those who are struggling with the different stages of their journey, seeing people that do look like them as options to play as a hero in a video game can be very validating.
“People who play games want to see characters that look like them, sound like them, are shaped like them and dress like them.” – Meta Director, Claire Weston
Maxis: The Sims 4
A free update this January introduced some much-appreciated inclusivity options to create-a-sim including surgery scars, binders and shapewear. Even before this update the Sims 4 has included plenty of detail in exactly how you want sims to identify, between being able to select pronouns, voices, masculine or feminine body types, walk styles, clothing preferences – even whether sims can get pregnant or not can all be selected individually, allowing for extensive gender customisation.
CD Projekt RED: Cyberpunk 2077
Commended on release for its extensive character creation that includes being able to mix and match sexual organs (or a lack of) and chests. The game has however received some criticism for the odd choice to have pronouns and voices locked together and whether the nature of trans inclusion (including models and posters throughout the world) is exploitive and hypersexualised.
In an interview for Polygon, Cyber Punk 2077 concept artist Kasia Redesiuk explains that she included this exploitative imagery into the world to highlight the corruption of the games corporations. This was intended to mirror the way that real life companies use hyper-sexualised marketing tactics to sell products and is not meant to be seen as a good thing.
“The world of Cyberpunk 2077 includes many people who are gender-nonconforming, some of whom enjoy showing off their bodies in public. They are a demographic group with significant purchasing power, and so, mega-corporations use their likenesses to sell soft drinks.”
While this hyper-sexualisation is not ideal, the idea seems to be that gender is entirely fluid and accepted in this world, with citizens able to modify themselves easily, and separately that the world is also highly exploitative as part of the narrative.
Deep Silver Volition: Saints Row
Saint Row 2 is a 2008 game that allowed players to choose any clothing and hair, regardless of gender and most notably it has a slider tool to choose body type. One side of the slider was a masculine body, and you could slide it over into a feminine body – or anything in-between. This was, though possibly unintentionally, a visualisation of gender on a spectrum through use of a slider.
This was notably not present in the next instalments but with the 2022 reboot of Saints Row, Volition really stepped up with their inclusive character creation. With a character creation that isn’t gender locked and the return of body sliders but with more control as you are able to modify specific parts of the body, it’s great seeing these features return.
In researching these topics and games, I came across this enlightening article, written by a trans woman about her experience playing video games- particularly Saints Row’s character creation: https://www.fanbyte.com/games/features/saints-row-helped-me-realize-im-trans/
Playing as impactful transgender characters
DONTNOD: Tell Me Why
Tell Me Why is the first AAA game to feature a transgender character as a main playable character. Compared to the popular Life is Strange series in gameplay and tone, the game follows identical twins, Alyson (a cis woman) and Tyler (a trans man).
Tylers experience as a transgender man is an important part of the narrative. DONTNOD and Microsoft received consultation from GLAAD’s Director of Transgender Representation throughout the games creation to create an authentic, layered character.
“Tyler is a fully-realised, endearing character, whose story is not reduced to simplistic trans tropes. Creating a playable lead trans character – and taking such care to get it right – raises the bar for future LGBTQ inclusion in gaming.” – GLAAD director Nick Adams.
Maddy Makes Games: Celeste
The story behind Celeste has been dubbed an allegory of the trans experience. Developer Maddy Thorson wrote main character Madeleine based on her own perspective dealing with her mental health. Interestingly, at the time of making Celeste Maddy did not yet know that herself nor Madeleine were trans.
The game follows Madeleine as she climbs Mount Celeste whilst working through anxiety and depression. She starts out fighting a shadow-version of herself but later manages the climb with the dark version of herself, learning to accept herself and move forward. Working through her own anxiety and depression mirrored in the game, Maddy Thorson came to the realisation that she is a transwoman. As a representation of her, so is Madeleine.
Celeste hit a cord with many people struggling with mental illnesses but is also acclaimed for representing the struggle of accepting oneself as a transgender individual.
You can read more about Maddy Thorsons story in relation to Celeste on her personal website: https://maddymakesgames.com/articles/is_maddy_trans/index.html
Strong narrative for transgender characters
Naughty Dog: Last of us part 2, Lev
As you might expect from the heavy narrative of The Last of Us II, Lev is a character that has gone through significant trauma. Being raised, and later cast out, by a faction of religious radicals he is subject to brutal attacks, deadnaming and more. Interestingly Lev maintains his faith during all of this. He comes to the conclusion that the church leaders had twisted the teachings of their prophet, who spoke of love and forgiveness.
The rejection from the church for any member of the transgender community with faith is a difficult thing to overcome, to see Lev go through this and reaffirm his faith in this way highlights him as one of the more hopeful characters of the series.
Ubisoft: Far Cry 6, Paolo de la Vega
Amongst the chaos of Far Cry 6, Paolo’s side missions reveal his backstory living in a hostile environment as a transgender man facing rejection from his parents and peers. At one point another character claims Paolo went through surgeries without anaesthesia, highlighting a lack of safe and accessible medical care for many transgender individuals around the world.
The inclusion of trans characters doesn’t even have to be chained to such a heavy narrative. Simply being represented in a way that isn’t a punchline is enough to make a difference. This kind of stereotype-free representation is incredibly important in creating a welcoming environment where transgender people can exist without scrutiny.
Ubisoft: Assassins Creed Syndicate, Ned Wynert
Ned Wynert is a criminal and thief operating in London and ally to playable characters Evie and Jacob. Although part of the main story, Ned was also meant to have his own set of side missions. This was scrapped during development, a shame given the positive reception of him as the first transgender character of the series. There seemed to be some initial confusion about whether Ned was indeed trans, or simply a woman disguised as man in order to do business in a sexist society. This is something that potentially could’ve been better presented in those scrapped missions.
BioWare: Dragon Age Inquisition, Krem
Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi is a minor character in the Dragon Age series, created due to requests from fans. Fans of the series wanted to see a respectful representation of a transgender character. The writers listened and they delivered.
“Talking over drinks at the bar later, we hit two major challenges. First, any conversation about the subject had to come up naturally in-game. A minor character like a shopkeeper would have no reason to explain that she is trans, so either the conversation would never come up or it would come up because her voice was clearly masculine, at which point it would look like a joke to most players, no matter how we tried to write it. Second, the character had to serve a purpose beyond “being there to be a genderqueer person.” Every character in our game serves a purpose—reinforcing the theme of a plot, character, or area—and we do not have the budget for someone who is just there to tick off a box.” – Lead Writer, Patrick Weekes
The writing team took extra care to properly depict the character. This meant seeking and taking feedback on board by members of the community. The character has received a considerably positive reception.
Respawn Entertainment: Apex Legends, Catalyst
Apex Legends is known for doing a good job with representation. Season 15 introduced Catalyst as the games first transgender woman playable character and the second genderqueer character alongside the non-binary Bloodhound. The team working on Catalysts design and story worked with other Respawn employees who had been through similar experience to ensure a respectful and effective representation. Respawn Entertainment also utilised GLAAD, the world’s largest LGBTQ media advocacy organisation, and had its own Associate Director of Gaming on board to collaborate.
“We were very aligned from the very beginning that we wanted her trans identity to be super impactful to her character” – GLAAD Associate Director, Blaire Durkee
LEVEL UP YOUR REPRESENTATION
It is the responsibility of influential companies within the Games Industry to make inclusive decisions that have a larger impact on society. It’s amazing to see so many companies have already taken this on board in a respectful way.
This teaches cis individuals to accept the trans community. For those struggling with their gender identity, seeing trans characters in games can be all the affirmation they need to keep going.