Trans Representation in Gaming

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Trans Representation in Gaming

This week is Transgender Awareness Week, and as a trans writer, I figured this is as good an opportunity as any to take a look at transgender representation in gaming throughout history. In this article, I'll be talking about how trans people were portrayed in earlier generations, how representation has progressed over the years and why it’s so important to people like me.

Over the years, as society has become more open and accepting towards trans people, more forms of media have been making efforts to tell trans stories and promote positive representation. However, transgender people are under-represented in gaming. This shouldn’t be a controversial statement – it’s been the norm for as long as video games have existed. Even when trans characters were added to a game in previous generations, more often than not they were stereotypes or derogatory jokes like the sex workers in games like GTA. Some were much more respectful, but their identity is deliberately ambiguous, leaving players wondering if they’re even trans or gender non-conforming at all. Thankfully, in 2020 more and more games are starting to introduce genuine, respectfully-portrayed trans characters, but it has taken a long time for developers to reach the point where these characters can be more than a quirky joke or some kind of “other”.

If we were to take a look at the history of trans characters in video games, we’d probably have to start with Birdo – the quirky, egg-spitting dinosaur from the Super Mario series. This was one of the first examples of a character who could be perceived as transgender. However, Birdo's identity still hasn’t been explicitly confirmed after all this time. This is a pretty consistent trend when it comes to trans representation – characters who seem like they’re probably trans, but haven’t actually been confirmed to be so. Other examples include Vivian from Paper Mario: TTYD or Poison from Street Fighter, who may or may not be trans depending on which localisation of the games you end up playing. The reluctance to have these characters be fully confirmed as trans is somewhat disappointing but not entirely surprising. Given the amount of hate and backlash anything transgender-related gets in the gaming community, I reckon these developers were probably “playing it safe” by not confirming either way.

Poison from the Street Fighter series.

Ambiguity is a lot less prone to outrage than having something explicitly stated. The typical online outrage whenever anything LGBT+ shows up is tiring, childish and holds the entire community back from being a welcoming, inclusive place for marginalised groups and people. Many accuse game developers of pushing an agenda down their throats, as if anything they don’t like is some kind of personal punishment for them. It’s an awful attitude to have, and it discourages many people from wanting to be a part of the wider gaming community because it’s infuriating to deal with people who don’t care about others and only want games that pander to them. Simply put, it’s toxic.

However, as time went on more games started to introduce positive, open-minded trans representation. Games like Dragon Age: Inquisition, Catherine and Watch Dogs introduced believable, interesting trans characters who were more than the stereotypes of past generations. We have non-binary characters like the robotic FL4K from Borderlands 3. Aside from a few lines throughout the game, there’s really not much to suggest FL4K is any different from a typical robot, but the inclusion of a non-binary character helps people feel like their identity is valid, and that’s a powerful thing for a game to be able to do. Celeste, an indie platforming game, was later revealed to have a trans protagonist after speculation from fans. And this year Tell Me Why became the first major studio game to feature a trans protagonist, which is a huge milestone for the industry. I believe this has opened the door for more games to be ambitious with their trans characters, and not just settle for ambiguity or even comic relief.

But why is this important? Trans people are just one group, and we certainly don’t need trans characters in every game under the sun, right? Well, yes, shoehorning trans people into games without thinking isn’t going to accomplish much more than reinforce stereotypes if they’re not written well, and I’m certainly not suggesting every single game needs trans representation in some form. What matters is that trans people have characters that they can relate to, that feel like a part of the game’s world just as much as any other character. People often play games to live out a fantasy – the one-man-army shooting his way through hordes of bad guys, the hero who saves the world, and so on. They offer us escapism, but they also offer us stories. Stories about things we all experience one way or another – love, loss, hardships.

Tyler's portrayal in Tell Me Why was brilliantly executed.

For trans people, our stories aren’t really being told. Acceptance of trans people still isn’t where it needs to be, and that goes for the entire world, not just the gaming community. Sure, the odd minor trans character here and there helps, but it’s easy to feel like we’re not being seen or not taken seriously. With more positive trans representation in media, this is starting to change. All forms of media, from games to film and TV, are incredibly influential when it comes to the perception of certain groups or individuals. Gone are the days of trans characters being used as a punchline in sitcoms. Now, we have meaningful stories being told, stories that can help people find comfort in themselves or gain a better understanding of complex issues.

Tell Me Why told a beautiful and emotional story about family and how to deal with loss and trauma. It tackled issues the average person would never even think about, and it gives you a glimpse into what life can be like for trans people – the positives, the negatives, and everything in between. Stories like these push boundaries and open minds.

As time goes on, I hope we see more stories like these, more characters that different people can relate to, and more creativity in how these characters are developed. The world can be a challenging place for trans people, and games can be a place where people who’re struggling can find solace, comfort and enjoyment. Trans representation may not be entirely where it needs to be, but serious progress is being made and I have high hopes that the world of gaming can be a more open and inclusive place for everyone in the years to come.

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