Why Transpeople in Gaming Matter


For a medium that’s supposed to be light-hearted and fun, it feels generally unwelcoming to trans gamers who want to see themselves represented in a positive light.

So last week I wrote on my experiences as a transwoman gaming, and I promised that I’d give a more general analysis this week. Which is to say one that reflects the treatment of other transpeople who aren’t similarly privileged as I am being white, typically abled, and so forth. If I come off as harsh and condemning, well, gaming has earned its licks.

Let’s start by pointing out that gaming has routinely done transpeople a disservice in their portrayals. I mean, let’s face it, when we’re not being maligned, mocked, stereotyped, or killed in any media, where are we, really? Things have improved somewhat, though, but still I’m reminded that some big blockbuster games have been really gross. Looking at you, Dragon Age. And while not blockbuster, Catherine’s treatment of Erica was really crappy and totally uncool.

Leo, introduced in Tekken 6, falls somewhere outside of the gender binary.

Leo is also probably the most badass character in a Tekken game.

Transmen have representation fairly okay if we’re playing the numbers game. I can think of two transmen in gaming off the top of my head. Flea, a boss from Chrono Trigger and Leo from Tekken 6, and they are both portrayed fairly well and are decent people from what I’ve gathered. So two for two is good, I guess? I mean, besides the fact that two characters serving as representation for transmen is woefully inadequate.

Like I mentioned last week, there are some positive transwomen in gaming like Vivian from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door, though you’d have to play the Japanese version to see for yourself. Apparently transpeople are too Rated M For Mature for Americans.

Unfortunately, like other media, she’s a drop in the bucket of awful characterizations. Fortunately, mainstream media seems to be moving forward so maybe games will, too. And if Laverne Cox ends up voicing a character in a video game, then I’d be super-extremely-ultra happy about that.

In Pokémon X and Y, there is a transwoman in the Battle Mansion you can fight who admits she was previously a guy and praises modern medicine. I’m kind of torn on her because it’s a really nasty stereotype that we’re very “in your face” with our identities (and don’t get me started on the “used to be a dude”), but given Pokémon’s room for solitary sound-bites from characters, it’s hard to say how else they could slip it in past the censors.

Likewise, Poison from Final Fight is an interesting case. The developers wanted to include female characters but at the time Nintendo America refused to allow for a game to have male characters fighting female characters, so it was decreed that Poison was actually a guy or formerly a guy. Which, honestly, is a really screwed up and hurtful message. “It’s okay to hit her, she’s not a real woman.”

However, Poison now is a transwoman who just goes around kicking major butt. Ignoring her awful origin history (and some of the characterization she’s had in some games), she’s not a bad character. I mean, insofar as fighting game characters have character and all. And we have to exclude her extremely sexualized fighting moves, given that transwomen are considered inherently sexual.

It is not a positive sign that we have to do complex mathematics trying to decide if a character is a positive representation because we have so few to choose from that we feel the need to gloss over potentially awful treatment.

When dealing with intersecting identities, video games haven’t done a great job portraying the vastness of who identifies as trans. On the one hand, most trans characters are made in Japan and as such are either Japanese or [Generic Fantasy Citizen]ese, and on the other, the Western developers pretty much leave out trans characters in general. Just in general we need better racial and ethnic portrayals of transpeople, and more of all transpeople. Not just more white transpeople, like how other portrayals of LGBT people tend to go.

I’m not necessarily asking for a game that offers full representation to transpeople from all walks of life but rather that we have better representation across the board, such that we aren’t expected to put all our hopes in one character or one game. And while, yes, I hope to design a successful game where the entirety of the cast is trans, that is not the only thing we should be told to do.

“DESIGN YOUR OWN!!!” is the mantra of those who enjoy the status quo and know that they’re not actually providing meaningful criticism. I say, when we have transpeople in every major release in some significant role and there is meaningful diversity amongst the characters (transpeople of colour, differently-abled transpeople, transpeople of all sizes, and so forth), then I’ll consider gaming a changed animal.

Serendipity, from Dragon Age 2, was portrayed as bubbly and cheerful and the game made sure to give her a male voice so that the player could know "what she really was."

Pro-tip, BioWare: Making a transwoman a prostitute is bad. Giving her a male voice so that the player is made aware she’s trans is bad, too. And defending it because “she’s not really trans” is the utmost of sliminess.

And does the animal need changing? Absolutely. I’m going to say this in probably every article I write but representation is important. Transpeople see themselves in the media typically only on the news or crime procedurals and what tends to happen to us in real life happens to us on the crime procedurals. The only other venue really is comedies or anywhere for comedic effect. We’re punchlines for cisgender audiences.

We have high rates of homelessness, poverty, suicide, assault, and murder. These things aren’t coincidental and media that actively stymies popular perceptions that we’re devious trickster predators would serve to undermine the status quo where we suffer greatly the prejudices and fears of ignorant people.

Better representation isn’t just good for us in the sense of how we’re treated but also for young transpeople looking for people like themselves in their media. Finding a character who validates how you feel is amazing and something many gamers take for granted. We don’t, and it’s why we jump on any near positive portrayal we get.

At the end of the day, we’re not going to stop being trans and we’re going to need good escapist media for the near future because society seems to be moving slowly, albeit still moving. Gaming is supposedly a culture of underdogs having fun despite hostility from the mainstream. Supposedly. Why can’t it be that for us?

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About Savannah Winter

White, bisexual transwoman with a passion for commentary, critique, and action on all forms of consumer media, but especially film and video games. I've been gaming extensively for about 13 years and am more than willing to make people uncomfortable by reading them the uncomfortable truths about the things they enjoy. Accountability matters. Identifying problematic tropes and decrying them matters. I want gaming to be an experience myself and others can enjoy without having to brace for inevitable aggression and micro aggression after another.

There is one comment

  1. Nick Verboon

    Good post. A couple things worth discussing. As a non-transgender individual I found Erica’s portrayal in Catherine very interesting. She was arguably more charming and attractive than the other female characters and although the reveal at the end was used partially for comedic effect, it also functioned as something to make the player think more than any other game I’ve played. After knowing this individual the whole game and thinking how cute and cool she is (arguably more so than either of the female leads), and seeing a straight man hook up with her without even knowing the difference, does the fact that she was born different really matter? Plus, every single other character in the game accepted her as she is and when the kid found out he had bedded a transwoman, it wasn’t her that was the butt of the joke. Everyone treated it as HIS problem. Not hers. If that’s not positive representation, I can’t imagine what the hell is.

    Speaking of never being happy with other people’s portrayals of people like yourself, the notion of designing your own is more of a matter of artistic necessity and individual creative freedom than a support of the status quo. Sitting behind DaVinci while he paints shouting “make the Mona Lisa a man! I want it to be a man!” wouldn’t be considered appropriate. Art is the domain of the artist (and maybe their corporate sponsors, ugh) and they should be allowed to make what they want to make, for better or for worse. The good news about that is anybody can art, so that means potential room for new blood to fill in those gaps in the future. Show them how it’s done since it’s obvious they don’t know how. The biggest problem in this case is corporate ownership stimying creativity in favor of making more money by excluding smaller portions of the population. No solution that I see there aside from burning the system to the ground. I’ll bring the gasoline.

    I hope BioWare does better for you in the future, at least. They’re trying, but I feel like they may be held up as a cautionary tale for other devs to stay out of the LGBT business. If we’re listening to message board posters, straight male strongholds bitch about all the”SJW shit” (?) in BioWare’s games and the other side complains that they do a crap job. Be assured that other companies have been watching and aren’t likely to want to alienate both sides the way BioWare has.

    Like

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