Representation in video games is incredibly important for the world we live in today. Seeing oneself - whether it be through race, religion, sexual orientation - is the way we feel a sense of community and support, both in the real world and in the virtual one. This is why representation in video games is just as important as it is in your real-world community, workplace, government and more.
When it comes to transgender representation in video games, this is much more complex. How does one represent the trans community today in video games? While trans character representation in games itself is lacking, where we do find some representation, it’s typically split between two options: pick a gender/skin and hidden narrative.
Here we explore the state of trans representation in gaming today, and where we as an industry can potentially lean in more:
Why Simply Picking a Gender isn’t Representation
Though few and far between, trans characters have appeared in video games since the late 1980s - mainly as a specific character or ‘skin’ that the player could select. One of the first and most well-known trans characters in video games is Street Fighter's Poison character, whose persona is based in violence, and is largely positioned as a “man in a dress.” In fact, developers made Poison trans so that players “weren’t actually” committing violence against a woman.
We see several examples of how trans characters are treated as lesser than their cis character counterparts, subject to explicit violence, or fetishized, such as with Claire Russell in Cyberpunk, Yasmin in Circuit's Edge, Angof of RuneScape, and more.
So, what about removing gender entirely from character creation? In some games, like Saints Row, you can choose to be a non-binary player character. For instance, in last year's release of RPG Pumpkin Days, the player character creator has no gender selection nor any gender-locked clothes. The official website says that "specifying a gender does not play a role in Pumpkin Days. Simply use our body sliders in character customization to add feminine and/or as masculine features as you want. Any clothes you buy will fit the body you choose." Some games are getting more and more inclusive to the LGBTQIA+ community by adding non-binary pronouns during character creation as well.
Narrative-Driven Trans Representation in Gaming Today
While gender is one, albeit complicated way, to represent the trans community in games, there are non-gender-based ways to represent trans issues and journeys, and we see this through allegory.
Celeste is a 2018 platform game that follows a young woman named Madeline who attempts to climb the mountain and must face her inner demons in her quest to reach the summit. The ending cutscene features various items in Madeline's bedroom, such as pride and transgender flags, that led to speculation that Madeline was a trans woman. The developer confirmed that Madeline was transgender in November 2020, stating that they never formally announced this before as they were figuring out their own gender identity at the time, and because the team did not want to make a spectacle of the reveal.
Tell Me Why is an episodic narrative adventure game that follows Tyler and Alyson Ronan, a pair of telepathic twins who navigate personal trauma. In 2019, Tell Me Why was revealed as the first AAA video game to feature a transgender character as one of its main characters. The team consulted relevant experts such as the non-profit organization GLAAD to ensure that its portrayal of LGBT characters would be regarded as authentic and respectful. The developers also enlisted a trans man as the voice actor for Tyler Ronan, who had transitioned during his time away from his sister.
Potentially, one of the widest reaching stories that speaks to the personal trans journey of the creators is in the film, The Matrix. Years after the film was released, director Lilly Wachowski revealed how the movie was an allegory for transgender identity.
Where Trans Issues Appear in Tangential Areas of the Gaming Industry
Trans issues are becoming more prominent in other areas of the games industry, such as among streamers on Twitch and YouTube. Last May, Twitch added over 350 new tags related to gender, sexual orientation, race, nationality, ability, mental health, and more that streamers can use. Twitch commented, “We’d like to thank our trans community for originally requesting the “transgender” tag, and for their passion and persistence in pursuit of that request. This has been one of the most popular requests we’ve heard, and the simple truth is that we should have done this sooner.” With the proliferation of trans streamers, and empowering them on Twitch with tagging, people can have a public voice, develop a following, find a community and further help normalize the trans community in gaming and beyond.
There is now a growing LGBTQ+ community of streamers on Twitch, including Nikatine, Annie, Sammymjay, and mikecheb. Notable streamer "F1NN5TER," an English gaming YouTuber, is primarily known for dressing as his feminine persona “Rose.” He is confident in his he/him pronouns, which often sparks heated discussion and speculation in public forums. The exploration of and discussion surrounding Rose has led to an increased interest F1NN5TER’s channel which now boasts over 525,000 subscribers.
Where do we go from here?
As more platforms and gamemakers recognize and want to address the need to provide representation for the trans community, it begs the questions: How? What’s the right way? While I don’t believe there is a perfect solution and we’re all learning together, that’s the place to start. International diversity and inclusion training to build awareness and allyship is impactful. Ultimately this should lead to more diversity in hiring, whether it’s full-time or consultants, to come in and be a part of creating more inclusive games and communities - and move a step further in achieving more representation in the video game industry.