Okay everyone, I’ll try and keep this brief with links to further reading and my email address (Laurak@IndieHaven.com) here for those looking for more in depth information. Let’s talk about Trans representation in Video Games.
Firstly, here’s a link to a Dev Blog I wrote explaining why the protagonist of my own game is going to be canonically a Trans Woman. It will hopefully explain a use case of where making the character Trans adds important context to their actions and sets up part of who they are and why they are acting the way they are in the world. http://indiehaven.com/dev-blog-why-you-are-the-reason-has-a-transgender-protagonist/
I also in the past wrote an article about Trans Representation in Video Games that focuses on a wide array of topics. Bear in mind my opinion of some aspects of this article, particularly in regard to the character Erica who I will discuss later, has changed over time. I still feel this is a valuable resource, but I will include below clarification on any points I made in the article and no longer fully stand by. http://www.theaveragegamer.com/2013/04/07/we-need-to-talk-about-birdo/
Next in my reading materials list is an article on Pheonix Wright: Dual Destinies. What this game does interestingly, though not without flaws, is put a Cisgender character into the shoes of a Transgender one. It does some very interesting things with the position of privilege it tells it’s story from and there are a lot of things that can be learnt from how it handles the topic, both god and bad. https://laurakbuzz.wordpress.com/2013/11/07/why-i-think-dual-destinies-is-incredibly-gender-progressive/
Next up, a look at the Video Games Redshirt and Saints Row IV. Redshirt does some really good stuff that I think could be improved upon and carried forward for future character creators. In Redshirt, gender is based on a slider. This slider allows non binary individuals to present themselves in a character creator whicxh is a rare thing. The only recommendation I would make to said slider is that it uses two gendered binary models at the 50% gender mark. Inputting an ambiguously gendered third character model in the middle or following the lead of Saints Row IV and allowing either gender to present using traits from either gender would certainly help in this regard.
Where this comes into play for Trans representation is that one of the species in Redshirt is described as being an all female species, but you’re not prevented from sticking their slider to male and having a character who is physically female but identifies as male. I can’t think of many other character creators that do that. There are however some negatives with Saints Row IV and its open creation system. It allows male and female characters both to access any and all customisation options and change their presentation at any time without being judged in game, but the ability to change gender with a matter of moments and a handful of cash leaves a lot to be desired with representation of the struggles of transition. It’s not simple, quick, flawless or cheap, don’t make it seem that way.
Right, I’ve stalled long enough, let’s talk about Erica in Catherine. Here’s what I wrote about her last year.
A fantastic example of a well-developed transgender character, one who passes so well I never picked up on their trans status originally, is Erica, the waitress in Catherine. Throughout the bulk of the game you would never know she had been born Eric, but once this has been revealed in one of the game’s endings, other pieces of the puzzle start to fall into place and parts of the game’s narrative now make sense. From explaining why she faced the same nightmares as the men to helping to explain some of the conversations people had with her through the story, the fact that the main cast knew her pre-transition makes several things clear.
From being told she wouldn’t be able to enter a women’s wrestling team, to having her opinion of how it feels to be a woman disregarded, the cast more than once imply that she’s not really a woman in their eyes and her angry and upset reactions to this do a fantastic job of showing both how upsetting these things can be for someone transitioning, but also how the transitioning person often has to maintain a happy face in spite of comments being made. It sucks having to remain professional in a workplace where you’re being called male pronouns when you’re female.
While I stand by the bulk of this, there is an important clarification I failed to properly explain at the time. It’s problematic that Erica in Catherine is only Trans so they can can highlight the fact she also had the same dreams as the men in the story did. Her purpose isn’t to highlight all the things I took away as positives, she’s there for the plot to show that Trans Women are all actually Men. The way the story is presented doesn’t imply it’s effecting people with certain chromosomes, it’s presenting the fact that this woman is actually a man. Had they taken some cues from how Y, The Last Man handles gender and Trans issues this could have easily been fixed.
In the comic Y, The Last Man all the people and animals with a Y chromosome die at once. This is initially framed as all men dying, but we later get to see that Trans Men in the world still exist. They are very clear to explain in the comic that it’s not a plague on men, but on the Y chromosome. That alone changes a lot of the representation framing as it suggests that you can be a man without a Y chromosome or a woman with one. Had Catherine had a narrative reason to support it being Y chromosome rather than men being effected that could easily have changed Catherine’s representation.
With all those specific detailed examples of games handling issues out of the way I’m going to try and come up with a good bullet pointed style list of advice on what are good and bad ideas, hopefully some guidelines to follow.
Don’t throw in a Trans character just to be diverse, because they will almost certainly not do a good job if that’s their whole purpose.
If you’re not Transgender, seek significant advice from a Transgender person while writing the character. That’s pretty much a good rule of thumb for any minority group struggling with bad representation, just ask for help and get advice before you do something bad. Don’t design them without Trans input if you want them to be good.
Being Transgender is a part of a persons life and may impact on how they live and act, but it in itself is not a character trait. Don’t design a Trans character, design a character whose actions believably suggest they were born Trans and that their character traits were merely effected by the ways the world or they themselves treated them for being Trans.
Don’t use the characters birth and preferred physical gender difference as a shocking plot twist.
Don’t make a villain a Trans Woman just so that it’s okay for a male hero to beat up a female avatar. There are better ways to achieve gender parity in violence than resorting to “It’s okay to punch her, she was a guy”
Don’t forget Trans Men, they exist too and are all too often forgotten in terms of representation. My best guess, Trans Women are an easier target of ridicule, hence why we see them poorly represented rather than Trans Men who slip under the radar and are less often explored.
Don’t reveal your characters “True Gender” as a way to force them toward a gender specific mechanic like a heterosexual only dating mechanic (see Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4 and Naoto Shirogane).
Do not linger on the Trans persons birth genitalia. If you have a Trans character in your game then explore that through the impact that being Trans, living a life of misgendering, keeping things hidden from the world or not feeling accepted might have on a person and their character traits. Those are how you subtly have a good Trans character, not by continually reminding people “this man once had a vagina, isn’t that weird?”
I’m going to take this piece of advice from an article that went up earlier today on this very topic
I don’t introduce myself as a person who was once a boy. I was never a boy, I just appeared to be one. I introduce myself as a woman and I’m met with different reactions, many negative and hurtful, but on a personal level I view myself 100% as a woman, because I am one. In the end, that’s all you need to remember when writing a Trans* character. They know what they are, they’re the same as everyone else. It’s other people who think they’re different. Don’t be one of those people.
The tropes that writers fall into when creating a character that is or was suggested to be transgender tend to be these:
Ambiguity to avoid taking a stance
Character was just pretending for some reason, often forced
Trans-status used as a formula for comedy
Trans-status reveal used as a plot-twist
Villain, often an effeminate Trans woman because “lady-like men are scary”
This list is far from exhaustive. If you have any suggestions of things I should add to this list or any questions you want to ask, feel free to email Laurak@IndieHaven.com. I will continue to update this article over time, but this should serve as a good set of basic rules and advice for depictions of Trans characters in video games. It should at the very least give you some examples of what to aspire to and what to try and avoid.
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