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January 14
2014

Queer Mechanic #4: Transition

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Queer Mechanic is a regular feature here on GayGamer – each month, we’ll be presenting a new game mechanic that could be used in games that include or focus on queer identity or culture. Queer Mechanic is a thought experiment, to see both what we could add to games, and to recognise what’s been missing from them; it’s a challenge, both to readers, to come up with novel, interesting and effective ways to use them, and to developers, to include them in games; and it’s a discussion for a more inclusive, more varied, and more innovative future for the games industry.

Trans people are rarely represented in games, and when they are, the representation is rarely very positive; given that the vast majority of games fall over this first set of hurdles, it can be hard to imagine what games with trans-ness represented and catered towards would look like.

If I could bet on someone being able to imagine these games, though, it would be Eilidh, Emily Crosbie, and Moose Hale, three trans gamers who took part in this interview to share their understanding with game developers, players, and writers looking to address the massive imbalance against trans people, issues, characters and representation in general throughout the medium of videogames.

While reading, it’s important to note that transitioning is not the be-all, end-all of trans experience, as Laverne Cox recently attested to in an interview (alongside Carmen Carrera) with Katie Couric; it’s one facet of a massive, nuanced set of topics which overlaps with queer-interest games-based discussion, and (hopefully!) one of many more to come.

Enough from me, though: let’s have Eilidh, Emily and Moose take us through Queer Mechanic #4, discussing transition and representation of trans people in videogames!

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Mitch: Are you aware of any prominent/popular games that represent transitioning well, or which allow you to roleplay a character undergoing transition?

Eilidh: Barring one flash game, I believe it was called something like Dys4ia, I have never seen a game so much as mention the process of transitioning. Like a lot of media, trans people are just there, all done except for the one final procedure: the idea of spending years transitioning never comes up.

Emily: Whilst I can’t think of any prominent games that include a transition as some subplot. However, in Saints Row 2 it is possible to mock up a Transition. As the game allows you to edit your character by visiting the surgeons that litter the city, you can change your character from masculine to feminine. Interestingly, this doesn’t need to involve changing your character’s sex, as the “Body Shape” slider is masculine at one end, and feminine at the other, regardless of your characters sex. Couple this with pretty much any option is available regardless of your sex or body shape, guys can wear lipstick and girls can grow beards, you can really create a lot of variation outside standard gender norms. If you went every couple of missions and nudged it one way or the other, you could see your character changing over the course of the story. I think that makes Saints Row 2 the only game to allow you to create a Transgender character, as its sequels require a different sex for breasts or balls.

Moose: You know, the only one I can think of off the top of my head that’s gained any recognition at all is Dys4ia, a short but very well-executed flash game about the experiences of a trans woman. It’s really difficult to find good transition narratives in games, especially in AAA/bigger indie games. Normally we’re joke background characters, if we’re there at all.

I’ve not played it (waiting for that ol’ Steam sale) but apparently Saint’s Row IV has character customisaion options which allow you to sort of approximate something other than a cis character, though I’m pretty sure that wasn’t the intent of the developers beyond maybe “muscley girls are funny HAHA”.

A couple of other games have trans characters as NPCs, notably Catherine, but not many, and they’re generally presented in a very regressive way (I’m thinking especially of Dangan Ronpa in this regard, and I’m very nervous indeed as to how the official English translation deals with it.)

Mitch: There are a number of games that heavily focus on transitioning and/or life as a trans person, but virtually no games include transitioning or playing as a transgender character as a personal-quest storyline or character customisation option. Why do you think this is?

Eilidh: Because as I said in my last answer, the very idea of transitioning being a long and slow process never crosses anyone’s mind. Watch most fictional shows about a character getting a “sex change”. The process apparently takes an afternoon, and I’m willing to believe some people believe that’s all it takes.

There’s also the whole “Eww, that’s gross” aspect of it.

Emily: If you look at my last answer you’ll see that actually creating a Trans* character is possible in Saints Row 2. Personally I think companies avoid it being obvious as people are very rigid in their ideals. If you had a game with a Transsexual that you guided through Transition, even as a side quest, people may avoid the game or call for a boycott. It is sad but true, look at the parlarva of Bioshock Infinite’s forced Baptism, which had many calling for a refund, and some calling for a boycott. Until people learn to be more accepting, such ideas are sadly likely to be explored in Indie games like Dys4ia and Mainichi.

Moose: I think we’re still not past the phase in popular culture where the only interesting thing for the mass audience about trans people is the fact of our being trans. It’s a pretty standard narrative for oppressed groups, in a lot of ways; a group isn’t represented at all, then they’re only jokes, then they’re represented but their only representation is as an Issue Group, and finally we approach something like actual healthy representation, although basically no oppressed group has actually reached the point of healthy representation yet.

Part of it, I suspect, is that developers fear the reaction that Bioware got when they made all the romanceable characters in Dragon Age II bisexual: a lot of bro gamers yelling “THIS MAKES ME UNCOMFORTABLE” because heaven forfend a man shows the slightest romantic interest in them. I’m very glad that David Gaider and the other Dragon Age writers put their foot down and refused to change that, and I really hope that we’ll see similar standing-of-ground from other developers in the future.

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Mitch: A lot of people – in particular, gamers and developers – can be ambivalent, apathetic, or openly hostile to discussing gender variance & gaming, as we’ve recently seen happen around GTA V’s portrayal of trans woman sex workers, or Mike Krahulik’s transphobic comments. What would you say to these people, to stress the importance of discussing & representing trans people and gender variance in games (and discussions about games)?

Eilidh: GTAV I think perfectly encapsulates what I find wrong with the video game industry in regards to trans people. Here we have a game that got perfect praise across the board, with everyone calling it a masterpiece and the like, and yet it has the most disgusting portrayal of trans women I’ve seen in some time. This is a game that everyone will play, so everyone will see this. People will say that the GTA series makes fun of everyone, but the difference is, most of the other stereotypes the game uses, people know are ridiculous and extreme, but I have on several occasions seen people treat trans women, including myself, as nothing but sexual objects, so I know people won’t see this as a cartoonish stereotype, but rather as a matter of fact.

So what the game industry is saying is that you can make fun of minorities all you like and get away with it, because your game is fun.

What would I say to them? “Everyone can see what you’re doing, and like it or not, you have to set a good example. The industry has a deep problem in regards to gender, and by making these sorts of remarks and statements you are just confirming the bigotry of those in the industry and those that follow it: that it’s ok to keep making fun of these small groups of people, because they don’t matter, only you matter.”

Emily: Unfortunately it is very difficult. Attempts to outline the horrible nature of Transphobia and its effects fall on deaf ears. Also, as gaming is still a very male centric hobby, attempts to convey emotional distress exclusion causes is ignored as “over sensitivity.” I think we must be firm, without being forceful, show it for what it is, a new avenue to explore interesting stories beyond “shoot the baddy terrorists.” You want a war game with some essence? Why not the story of a Trans* soldier who struggles with her friends calling her Lizzy while her dog tags still say “John.” Now there is a COD game I may enjoy.

Moose: I’d say that if we want games to be accepted as a legitimate art form – and that seems to be the aim of a pretty sizeable chunk of the gamming community at the moment, such as it is – then they have to be held to the standards of other art forms and actually represent something about the world they inhabit. Being a part of popular culture beings with it a social responsibility, and part of that responsibility is to show the actual diversity of the world, and of your own audience.

There are so many stories that can be told about trans people – in fact, the stories that are told about cis people can be told about us too! We hold jobs and have families and exist in the world, whether that’s gritty 20XX Manhattan or high fantasy Albion. Why would you deliberately impoverish your writing by excluding a whole segment of the world and their experience? (Wait, no, I know the answer, it’s bigotry.)

To put it in grossly capitalistic terms: trans people are gamers. Of course we are! We make up about as much of the gaming market as we make up of the general population, which means that we’re the people who play games, buy games, recommend games to our friends, become gaming journalists and game devs ourselves. We’re not going to buy products that demonise us – I know multiple trans people, including myself, who decided not to buy GTA V because of its appalling treatment of trans women – and we’re not going to give money to the people who create those games. As trans people become more accepted by society – it’s appallingly slow, but it’s happening – the acceptable standard for our treatment in media is going to change, and if game developers find themselves behind the curve in that regard they’re going to suffer for it. Gaming doesn’t need any more bad press than it already has.

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Mitch: What kind of things would you like to see in games, when it comes to game mechanics that represent transitioning and life as a transgender person? For example, would it be beneficial for a game to show a character’s physical attributes or emotions/behaviours change as they go through transition?

Eilidh: Frankly, I’d rather the media as a whole not touch transgender issues for the immediate future. The amount of things that get it right is heavily outnumbered by the number of things that get it wrong.
But to answer you question, trying to implement such mechanics could be a complete minefield. Should a trans woman character get +1 to their strength compared to a cisgender woman? That has unfortunate implications.

And each transition is different, so trying to implement mechanics based on that would be really tricky, and would also send out the message that transitioning is the same for everyone. Personally speaking, I have no real intention to have bottom surgery (the cute way to refer to gender reassignment surgery, the one everyone thinks of when they hear “sex change”), but if there was a game that offered +2 to agility to my trans woman character for having bottom surgery, of course I’d take it. It wouldn’t be reflecting my own experiences though, and how realistic would it be implement? Would my character have to sit out the next 6 months of the game as she recovers (you had GRS, skip your next 6 turns)?

Sorry if you didn’t want things explained in RPG terms, it was just the easiest way to get my point across.

Emily: An interesting question, and as I am studying games design one I have thought about. I had come up with a whole Transition mechanic concept. You could choose what the character wears, how they present themselves with makeup, haircuts and the like, get them to train their voice if their MtF and so forth. Each of these things would give you either male or female gender points, which show how the rest of society see’s you. If you didn’t pass, as not every does or even wants to, you would need to be confident to stop those who would question you. Confidence could be gained for doing things the character liked, and spent defending against these attacks. Over the course of the game as you passed through stages of the Transition you would become more confident and so passing may not be as big a thing. Also you would change physically, so you need less gender points to pass anyway, as you looked more like your true gender. That was the lengthy game I had in my mind, sorry if it’s a bit complicated.

Moose: I want to see two things. I want to see narratives about transition, of course – I want to see RPGs in which a character discovers their strength as a warrior or a mage at the same time as they discover their gender identity – but I also want to see just a general inclusion in games. I want there to be trans characters who aren’t a big deal! I want us to be background characters (who aren’t jokes) and party members and player characters without there to be a need to focus on transition as the primary narrative. I want a possible player background to be “has transitioned”. I want to be playing a game and come across a character who knew my character before they transitioned and for that to be the only time it’s particularly relevant.

If I could play a game in which my character transitioned over the course of the story? Hell yeah, I’d buy the hell out of it. I’d buy copies for my friends. There’s no reason not to include that as part of a well-written character development narrative. But I’d also play the hell out of a game where I could have trans party members who transitioned twenty years ago, or only just work out their gender identity during the game, or any other number of different things. I just want us to be there, and visible, and not a grotesque charicature.

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Mitch: Are there any potential problems or pitfalls you think developers are likely to fall into when it comes to representing transitioning, or being transgender, in game mechanics? I’m thinking things like restricting clothing to one gender, or accidentally having a “male, female, or trans” gender option, both of which would do far more harm than good.

Eilidh: See above.

Emily: As you have stated, restricted clothing is a common pitfall that many games do any way. Bethesda games annoy me with their “all gender clothes” that magically turn from a pair of trousers to a skirt or dress if a female character picks them up. I think perhaps the worst may come from conversation mechanics. If your character is Trans, there should not be an option to declare it to every character you meet. Similarly, if you meet a Trans character and are not one, if there is an anti-Trans option it should be clearly show as bad, horrible and disgusting, not cast aside like other bad options in conversations in games. It should have dire ramifications for the player, such as a quest failure, lost companions or even negative reactions from others.

Moose: Oh, there’s so many. Soooo many. Restricting clothing to one gender is definitely a big thing; it was one of my big bugbears with Pokémon X/Y and one of the things I loved about Animal Crossing: New Leaf. Binary gender choices at all, frankly, are a nightmare for a lot of gamers. There’s no reason not to have at the very least an “other” box on forms or an open pronoun choice. These aren’t difficult things to code.

There’s a whole bunch of tropes to do with trans people in media that are really dreadful and crop up way too often. Trans people – especially trans women – presented as a “trap”; the “creepy transvestite” villain (e.g. Alfred Ashford from Resident Evil, Thomas MacLaine from Deadly Premonition); trans teenagers “just going through a phase”; trans women as murder and sexual assault victims…it’s a long list and a grim one.

I also don’t want to see stat changes that come with transition. That buys into very unpleasant and untrue gendered ideas of physical and mental capacity which are the last things we want to represent if we’re trying to be more progressive.

Mitch: What games do you think would benefit from including character transition as a character option?

Eilidh: Honestly? None really. Putting transitioning in for the sake of just having it would not sit well with me. I want to have a grand adventure, and believe me, transitioning gets in the way of that. For example, at 1pm every day I have to have my lunch so I can take my hormone tablets. What kind of game would benefit from that? And as I said, it’s very personal. There are trans women who take their tablets with their breakfast, others with their dinner. Some don’t even take tablets, but rather use a patch which they wear all day.

The game itself would have to be built around transitioning, and I sadly don’t think such a game would do well with a general audience.

At the end of the day, I guess my main point is that transitioning is so wildly different, not just between trans men and trans women, but between two trans people of similar creed, that to represent it in games would just be really difficult, and require A LOT of research and interviews and so on. And even then, you’d miss out on a lot.

It’s a wildly different beast from sexuality, and I don’t think a lot of people understand that.

Emily: Isn’t weird how Mass Effect has an all-female race, interstellar travel, misunderstood robot rebellion, sentient bugs and skyscraper sized terminators, yet no Transgender characters? It is the future, and race and gender seem to be a non-issue for humanity, with all creeds happy together and woman frontline soldiers or high ranking officers (I think Shepard’s mum is an admiral) so where are the Trans people? Sure we may be 1 in 5000, but you included LGB, yet again the T is left behind. Whilst the series is finished, I would rejoice at a return, especially if I could be Trans. It is noted in some of the cannon that humans are somewhat frowned upon for medically used genetic manipulation (medi-gel is some weird, gloopy genetically created agent), so why not use that as an interesting story for a human character. Perhaps other races dislike it because they don’t understand but humanity accepts it. Now I am jut rambling so onto the next question.

Moose: Specifically transition as part of the story? RPGs, of course, because you don’t get that kind of character focus anywhere else, but I feel like anything with a strong character-based narrative would suit it really well.

Trans people in general? Every game. Every single game. Because we belong and exist in every situation and every genre. I want to see minimalist puzzlers, RPGs, RTS, even online FPS insult-a-thons. Of course there are different ways to represent transition in different genres, as there are for any kind of character history or development, but there’s no reason to say that some games get trans people and some don’t.

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Mitch: If you could give developers some advice about how to go about making their games more inclusive of, and representative of trans people, what would that advice be?

Eilidh: “Talk to us”.

Emily: Simply don’t forget we exist, we may not be many, but you should always look out for others. Try and include us in game development, I’m not saying hire tons of Trans people, but you would be surprised how many of us are gamers. I now I was when I set out to develop a Trans game for my Honours. Most of all, be respectful. Too often are Trans people added for comedy, or we are poorly represented. Sure there can be some brilliant Trans themed comedy or dramas, but only when we aren’t dehumanised or ridiculed for being who we are.

Moose: Include non-binary gender options (Fallen London has a particularly entertaining one). Don’t treat us like jokes. Don’t rely on stale, inaccurate, and offensive tropes. Remember that we exist as people outside of the fact of our transition: we eat, we sleep, we kill monsters (sometimes). Don’t react with horror when we say “I read this character as trans.”

More than anything, talk to trans people. Actually talk to us. Don’t talk to Jerry from the office whose ex’s sister’s friend is transitioning, actively solicit our input. We know our own narratives, we know what we face and who we are. A lot of us really, really want better representation in media, and we’re willing to help the people who can get it there.

You can find Eilidh’s tumblr at HeyItsAyls, Moose’s tumblr at CardboardMoose, and Emily’s game project “Finding Me” over at WordPress! Also a massive thanks to Moose for correcting the wording of one of the questions – you’re a star!

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About Mitch Alexander

(Writer) Mitch Alexander is a Game Design graduate, designer and critic from Glasgow, Scotland. who usually talks about things you get into deep discussions about at 3am, like Silent Hill, Eternal Darkness: Sanity's Requiem, The Mothman Prophecies, The Invisibles, or how creepy monkeys are. They're so, so creepy.

3 Responses

  1. avatar Dandelion says:

    Emily, I would love to play your game about transitioning! I think there are a lot of people out there who, like me, just don’t know enough about the T in GLBT. Granted, like you mentioned, everyone experiences it differently… However, if I could learn more about transitioning while also obsessively leveling my character (and maybe doing a little dress-up), WELL! That would be just dandy.

    What a great series this is, keep up the good work :D

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