A few weeks ago, a transphobic slur by Metroid developer Hirofumi Matsuoka was confused for Word of God evidence that Samus Aran was canonically trans. The slur horrified me, but what stuck with me was the reaction to the idea that an incredibly visible, well-known character—arguably one of the most recognizable heroines in video games—was trans. The celebration was raucous; the joy was palpable. And a few days later it was over, replaced by the deadened “we should have known better” malaise of a community that’s been done wrong too many times to count.
See, trans gamers don’t get much. I don’t mean in the intellectual sense, I mean in the pop-culture-representation-slash-real-world-visualization-and-support-slash-basic-human-rights sense. This is a general problem for trans people on the whole. Things are slowly beginning to change; in May, Laverne Cox was on the cover of Time. Siri has been programmed to correct any user who misgenders Caitlyn Jenner. Recently, the world began to take notice of Angel Haze, an immensely talented agender rapper. As the rights of and difficulties faced by trans people are promoted by music and television, many people take heart in finding communities full of people like them, who can support them and help them endure the immense hardships trans people face in Western society.
In many ways, video games trail behind music and television in terms of trans representation and intra-community protection. Many gamers completely lost their gumballs—in a bad way—when they learned the cast of Dragon Age: Inquisition would include a trans man. (His name is Krem, in case you were wondering, and Shel Shepard wrote a fantastic article about him that you should read.) Krem represented one of the first notable trans characters to deviate from the queer-coded villains that represent the vast majority of video games’ trans character roster. And while his inclusion in Inquisition was moderately progressive, there were still legitimate issues with it, and with the fact that even in a game where a heroic trans man existed, the player themselves could not play as a trans Inquisitor without using their imagination. This is a common caveat of trans inclusion in video games; if trans characters are included at all, they’re usually villains, and you can almost guarantee they’re not playable.
But hey, full disclosure: I’m cis. My opinion on this topic is vastly less important than that of actual trans people. That’s why I asked trans gamers their opinion—I sent out a survey titled, “Gendering Your Avatar: How to Make Video Games More Trans-Friendly,” and thousands of you got back to me. This is what you said.
First things first, let’s dispel some myths: there are many trans gamers out there. While there is an absolute dearth of statistics available on the topic, the survey I sent out saw upwards of 3,600 responses in just five days. That number represents a mere fraction of the full number of trans gamers out there. What’s more, trans gamers play the same variety of video games as their cis counterparts; most who responded to the survey play between three and 10 hours per week, and have been gaming for well over a decade. Trans folks aren’t new to the gaming community, and their numbers aren’t inconsequential.
But despite being a much larger group than some people assume, trans gamers face a disproportionate and truly horrifying amount of hostility within the community. When asked if they feel comfortable in gaming spaces like conventions, game stores, forums, or online message boards, 71% of trans gamers reported feeling moderately or very unsafe. Less than 2% reported feeling that others always respect their gender identity, and about 86% reported that they have had to deal with transphobia and transphobic microaggressions from other gamers.
Harassment ranges from cissexism and transphobic slurs, to purposeful misgendering, to death and rape threats. For out trans gamers, this abuse can be constant, traumatic, and sometimes fatal. Several trans gamers and developers have been bullied to the point of suicide, something that is directly symptomatic of an online community that can be outright violent towards trans people.
The threat of harassment and disrespect often makes trans gamers feel unsafe disclosing their gender identity to others. Many report being unwilling or unable to participate in online games and community events, or exist in communal spaces for fear of being misgendered and abused.
“It’s completely unsafe to mention even offhandedly that you are transgender in any forums or chats I know of,” wrote one user in response to the survey. “At best someone is going to say something rude and inappropriate out of ignorance, which you’ll be scorned for correcting. At worst, people will hound you with jeers and mocking questions or even start trying to track down your personal information. Twitch chats are also frequently caustic environments. In-game, the same rules apply, particularly in competitive action games. If you’re on voice chat, you’re either ridiculed and humiliated for not sounding feminine enough, or ridiculed and humiliated simply for being a woman.”
Many trans gamers say they avoid voice and video chats for fear of failing to “pass” as a cis person of their gender. For all you non-binary folks (people who identify as agender, gender-fluid, bigender, trigender, etc.) this is especially difficult, since you constantly come up against ignorance and aggressive dismissal of your very existence. Several survey respondents say they’re afraid to even correct people who misgender them. One survey taker wrote:
“I am afraid of confronting or correcting [anyone] who calls me a girl or uses she/her pronouns because of the backlash and harassment I may face.”
Even prominent trans members of the community can be treated with flagrant disrespect. Although it’s slowly improving—see: this article about “foreign hope” Sasha “Scarlett” Hostyn, and the wide acceptance of and respect towards trans women like Ricki Ortiz in the fighting game community—publications and websites can be inconsistent about their trans-friendliness. See (if you can stand it): these two articles, both published by Kotaku, which use extremely transphobic and cissexist language to describe trans woman gamer Kayo Satoh (aka Kayo Police).
Trans people aren’t the only ones who get attacked in the community—transness in general gets attacked by the community, including trans characters in games, and trans headcanons about characters in games. “There is a tendency to minimize and even dismiss queer struggles and the importance of representation,” wrote another user. “Of course, anyone queer—especially anyone trans, I feel—suffers from erasure in the community. Our number is deemed unimportant; it has been said that there [aren’t] enough of us that warrant games ‘catering’ to us. Each time we do get a bit of representation, or try to make our own by creating artworks that reimagine a character as trans, people get upset.”
And the thing is, trans gamers know all this. For all of you reading, I’m preaching to the thoroughly disillusioned choir. But cis gamers have a lot to learn about it. Among our 95 cis survey takers, a solid 72% agreed that the community was moderately to very unsafe for trans gamers—aligning with what trans gamers said themselves—but when asked about what steps they take to make the space safer or more comfortable for trans folks, they fell distressingly short. Only 52% said they regularly ask other gamers their pronouns, rather than making assumptions. Only 50% said they regularly ask trans gamers how they can best support them. While 60% claimed to speak out against transphobic slurs in the community, only 37% said they try to shield trans gamers from transphobia in the community and from transphobic in-game content.
Oh, and transphobic in-game content? That’s a thing. That’s a big thing. Transphobic hostility doesn’t simply exist in the gaming community; it’s also abundant in games themselves.
When I started out writing this article, transphobic in-game content and a lack of adequate or appropriate trans representation in games was going to be my focus. And as my survey takers could attest, there’s plenty to talk about. When asked if they’ve ever encountered transphobic language or content in a game, a whopping 60% of trans gamers answered yes. The titles that they listed were too numerous to count, but they included everything from big AAA titles like Dragon Age and Grand Theft Auto V, to Japanese titles like Danganronpa and Ace Attorney, to indie titles and children’s games. One survey taker wrote:
“LEGO: Lord of the Rings (surprisingly) features a transphobic sidequest about getting an ‘oh-so-feminine’ hat for a woman with lots of stubble and a deep voice who keeps getting mistaken for a man.”
Transphobic content is frequently disguised as “humor” or “satire,” like that described in LEGO: Lord of the Rings. In these “jokes,” transness becomes the punchline; the incredibly transmisogynistic ‘guy-in-the-dress’ joke is a good example, and frighteningly common. It hinges on an outrageous public belief that binary trans people are pretending to be a gender they are not; that trans women are, in fact, men pretending to be women, and vice versa.
There is a running theme in video games of exposing trans characters as fakers. In Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies, a truly skin-crawling segment has the player publicly out a male witness as trans, after which the character “adopts a cartoonishly feminine demeanor, swooning and sashaying.” In Persona 4, Naoto is outed in a confrontation with his own Shadow, after which the game itself refers to him using she/her pronouns in spite of his preference. Jillian wrote an amazing article on Sera’s ugly, cissexist insults in Inquisition, which can’t be countered by the player, and which are never addressed by other NPCs.
Perhaps most insidiously, some games have the gall to disguise transphobia as player choice. Persona and Inquisition both feature this: in Inquisition, players are invited to ask Krem callous, invasive questions about his gender identity to satisfy their curiosity; in Persona, players who romance Naoto have the option to completely invalidate his gender identity, and force him to use she/her pronouns and more feminine styles of dress without any negative repercussions.
For nonbinary gamers, the transphobic hostility often starts at the door. When a character creation screen asks their gender and only provides them a choice between “man” or “woman,” nonbinary players are abruptly faced with a complete and total erasure of their identity. Over a third of trans people surveyed report that they can never play as a character of their own gender—it’s safe to say that this is true for a majority of nonbinary players.
All this is a manifestation of a baseless assumption that video game audiences aren’t trans, don’t object to the mistreatment of trans characters, and don’t have a desire to play as trans characters. Even in games that allow for avatar customization, 81% of gamers—both trans and cis—report that they do not have the ability to choose to play a trans character. But (perhaps unsurprisingly), gender is much more important to trans gamers, who are also more likely to customize their avatars to look and act like themselves. In comparison to 53% of cis gamers, 74% percent of trans gamers say that it is very important to them to be able to customize their avatar in a game, including their gender.
Furthermore, 73% of you say you actively seek out trans-inclusive games, but that there aren’t many of them. Eighty percent of you say that there are not nearly enough trans characters in video games, and those that exist are not represented kindly or respectfully. Only 17% of you could name a game where a playable character was trans, and of the games listed, almost all of the playable trans characters listed were side characters, villains, or both. Perhaps most importantly, though a third of you try to ignore the lack of adequate trans representation and not let it get to you, the other two-thirds of you say it has negatively affected how you interact with other gamers and how much you love games.
Trans gamers deserve so much better than this. You deserve to see yourself in games. You deserve to feel safe in the gaming community, and to be able to rely upon games as an escape from the immensely oppressive world you live in. So how do we fix all this? These problems aren’t insignificant; they’ve taken almost 2,000 words to articulate in any kind of clarity. And, if history is any indicator, the solution won’t come from cis folks. It may be facilitated and supported by cis allies, but trans people will be the ones to articulate what they need.
When asked how they felt developers could increase trans visibility and representation in games, trans gamers’ responses were incredibly modest.
“Actually create trans characters that aren’t jokes or fetishes.”
“Leave cissexist and transphobic slurs out of games.”
“Have community rules against trans discrimination.”
It’s a testament to how incredibly bad the situation is when the things trans gamers are asking for sound like the bare minimum.
One request from survey takers was for there to be more trans characters in games, and for those characters to be written by trans writers. There’s a desire to see more trans representation not just in games, but also in the industry. According to a report last year by the International Game Developers Association, trans and agender people make up at least 2% of game devs. In response to the survey, one of those devs weighed in: “As a trans game developer myself, I’m already working on two titles that feature trans and non-binary playable characters/options,” they wrote. “Most developers are either not aware of issues of representation, don’t care, or don’t understand these conflicts well enough to feel comfortable illustrating themselves. On one hand, that’s sort of a tragedy since there are SO MANY interesting stories this creates that just has barely been touched at all. This is almost a good thing because it allows people who have experienced these things, like myself, to come in and tell the story in a correct, and impactful way. Of course, the drawbacks outweigh that small positive by a long shot. Other developers need to get educated, and get over it.”
By and away, the most popular request was for the ability to make customizable player characters trans. This request was multifaceted: from an appeal for divergence from gender-locked body sliders which make avatar bodies stereotypically masculine (with a broad chest and shoulders, and slim hips), and stereotypically feminine (with a slim waist, wide hips, and an accentuated hourglass shape); to an appeal for a dissolution of gender-locked hair and clothing; to an appeal for a character’s gender identity and pronouns to be removed from their appearance and presentation.
These appeals might give some developers pause; from a purely technical standpoint, how, they might ask, could a character’s appearance be divorced from their gender identity? Gender sliders like those in Demon’s Souls and Saints Row are a possibility, and 67% of trans gamers say they would use a slider feature if they were provided with one. “I love the idea if a slider for gender,” one survey taker wrote, “because that itself isn’t making gender a big deal, opening up the game to ridicule. It’s just another slider in character creation, and it could be normalized!”
But, as many nonbinary gamers pointed out, sliders can be problematic, as they place gender on a false binary continuum. One survey taker personally wrote me to say as much: “A gender slider would not, to me, be a positive form of nonbinary representation. I’m not somehow ‘between’ being a man and being a woman—some people feel that way, I’m sure, but not me.”
And so, developers may ask, what recourse could they possibly have? Well, the answer is simple, and community-approved: give players the option to choose their pronouns separate from their appearance. This is a fantastically simple solution, and as a developer myself, I’m a little shocked that it isn’t already in use. In a world where players can regularly fine-tune and customize everything from their eyebrow color to the shape of their jaw, it is absurd that we cannot also customize and choose the pronouns for our player character separate from their physical appearance, and that an avatar’s physical appearance is still fully dictated by sex.
Choosing pronouns either via drop-down menu or via player input allows for a much wider spectrum of trans identities to exist in games, and it would be unbelievably easy to implement. A whopping 83% percent of trans gamers surveyed said they would use this feature, and guess what? Fifty-seven percent of cis gamers said they would, too. “I would REALLY love the idea of choosing a characters pronouns separate from their appearance,” wrote a trans respondent. “I didn’t know how to put it into words before, but that is exactly what I’ve always wanted.”
But what about games with voiced protagonists? A choice between several voices in character customization isn’t undoable—it’s a baked-in part of the process already, albeit in many cases it’s an automatic one. But is it possible—or even feasible—to expect video games to record for the possibility of any number of player pronouns? A few days ago, I might not have had an answer for you. But now I can say: well … Fallout 4’s doing it, in a sense.
Fallout 4 will not—to my knowledge—have the ability to select your gender from a pull-down menu. What they will have, in case you didn’t know, is a voiced protagonist for the first time in Fallout history. This choice comes complete with an exhaustive list of pre-recorded names for their protagonist, something that players originally feared would limit the possibility of player expressionism. How could a pre-constructed roster of names possibly include the range of creativity and crassness Fallout players are so well-known for? The answer is: by having a team of developers who understand what Fallout players want and need in order to enjoy themselves and be fully immersed in the game. And that is exactly what would be needed to begin including multiple pronoun options in voiced games; teams of developers who truly understand the necessity, and who are motivated to represent and support trans gamers.
On the community side, transphobic slurs must be removed from our community lexicon. Far too many trans gamers report regularly being assaulted with such transphobic terms as “t****y” or “h*-s**”. Community monitors and cis allies need to put a stop to this behavior immediately, both by banning community members who use this sort of language, and by adding these terms to the list of those verboten. Trans gamers need to be able to feel safe in our community—on voice chat, on camera, and in disclosing their gender identity to other gamers—and cis allies need to do everything we can to facilitate that. Part of that starts with listening to trans gamers and independently educating yourselves. Part of that starts with supporting, promoting, and uplifting trans voices in the community. Part of that starts with understanding and prioritizing the needs of trans gamers, and showing them the respect they deserve. Cissexism and transphobia is allowed to exist in gaming and gaming spaces because we allow it and perpetuate it. That has to end right now.
Video games have an opportunity, as a medium, to begin to take the lead on this. In a demonstration of considerable understanding, one survey taker wrote: “Games in general should better reflect the complexities of our social reality without constantly ignoring those people that diverge from the dominant white, cisgender, heterosexual narrative for the sake of appeasing a very vocal and crude minority of gamers.” And they’re absolutely right. Games should reflect the lives of trans people not just to score “diversity points” (a term that describes a system that I do not believe truly exists), but because trans people exist in the world, they play games, and are deserving of seeing themselves represented in the things they love.
Trans gamers: in spite of the incredible hostility you face from both gamers and games themselves, you’re here; you’ve been here. You’re an incredibly valuable, enduring part of the gaming community. It is long past time we started making you feel welcome, and started making sure you get the seat at the table that you so rightfully deserve.
Note: I’d like to personally express my gratitude to each and every one of you who participated in my survey. I was blown away by the size of the response I received, and the insight you so graciously provided me into the struggles you face was simultaneously humbling, and invaluable. I could not have written this article without your contributions. Thank you.