Games are an incredibly important aspect of our societal and cultural practice. They unite play, our imagination, and our curiosity with the prowess and complexity of technological advancement. They bring together the other traditional mediums of art, literature, film, and sound to create something entirely new. Unfortunately, though, games aren’t separate from our culture, and thus have been influenced by the values and ideologies that form the structure of our society.
Welcome to the “The End of Normal,” a series of writings that will explore the construction, consumption, and representation of non-normative gender identities within games, the surrounding culture of gaming, as well as examine the methods that games can use to promote more inclusive, wholesome design.
To start, Poison, first appearing in the side-scrolling beat ‘em up Final Fight, is well-known for her ambiguous and non-normative gender history, which has been under dispute for well over two decades. Capcom originally designed her to be cis, then altered her bio to include an offensive Japanese slag term to suggest she was trans. This decision was made because the developers had concerns over a possible backlash in North America from feminist advocates.
In one swift, misogynistic swoop, the developers not only invalidated trans identities, but also encouraged players to engage in violent behavior towards a trans character. Both very serious issues, neither of which should ever be used as an excuse to validate a design choice.
So, immediately, we are presented with her design being problematic, but it doesn’t stop there. Poison’s visual design is rife with gendered signifiers—specifically, feminized gendered signifiers. These signifiers are visual characteristics that are used to communicate information to the player regarding Poison’s gender. Her visual design consists primarily of a pink palette, a sizable bust and exposed cleavage, a pair of cut-off denim shorts that expose her legs and thighs, make-up, high heels, and long pink hair.
Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with any single aspect of her design, and developers should have the ability to create any character—of any gender—using anything from the list above. The issue is that these signifiers have been consistently used and overused to the point where they are now recognized as a way to mark a character as ‘female.’
Signifiers usually rely on stereotypes, which are a powerful tool that can allow developers to effortlessly convey information to the player and dismiss the need to profile a character. But, as powerful as they are, they can be dangerous. They force us to make snap, rash decisions and are usually found rooted within derogatory ideology, and the use of them in this way can lead to a normalization and the perpetuation of this derogatory ideology.
When a person’s ideals are challenged—when their reality is challenged—they become hostile. When we are consistently told that certain bodies and behaviors are ‘female,’ anything that is seen to deviate from this directly challenges a person’s idea of womanhood. When Poison is revealed as being trans, a person’s reality is challenged. Her femininity is then challenged, and the feminine “illusion” is shattered. To compensate for this, Poison has been hyper-feminized, where her design goes beyond what we recognize as feminine to emphasize and ensure her womanhood.
Poison, with her visual design, is marked as ‘female,’ but there are two aspects of her visual design that could suggest something a little more subversive at play. She is wearing a military-styled hat and has a pair of handcuffs attached to her belt. Is this an indication that she’s an antagonist, or when we couple it with her already sexualized design, is it a way to further fetishize her?
It seems like it could be the latter. After looking at Poison’s concept art and work, Poison is clearly labelled “ニューハーフ,” an offensive Japanese slag term. The previous decision that the developers made may have just been an excuse to cover this original decision.
In the North American release, Capcom actually removed her from the game and replaced her with a man. Though I constantly yearn for queer and trans representation, it is a decision I am glad was made. Regardless of the truth of her identity, the decision given was of poor judgement, to say the least.
Now, moving on to a character whose identity was designed with a very clear goal in mind: Leo Kliesen, who first appeared in Tekken 6, was deliberately designed as agender. Namco Bandai Games explained that, “From the start, the development team wanted to create a character that would be loved by fans regardless of gender, so they made the gender of Leo ambiguous on purpose.”
The fact that Leo was designed without any gender in mind is surely an example of how designers can create an interesting and arguably realistic character. Their visual design wouldn’t have to be made up of signifiers that rely on outdated, gendered stereotypes and wouldn’t be limited to their identity. However, my celebration at having found a character that is agender was short-lived. Katsuhiro Harada, the producer of the Tekken series, revealed that Leo’s full name was Eleonore Kliesen, and that they were, in fact, a woman.
After looking around for some sort of justification as to why Leo’s gender had been changed this way, I came up short. There didn’t seem to be any valid justification as to why this happened other than the developers no longer wanted to face questions relating to their gender (even though agender should have been a perfectly valid response).
Leo represents people—people like me—who would have been so much happier to have a character that finally represented us and acknowledged our identity, rather than pandering to the curiosity of cis fans. When looking at non-normative characters, we don’t have to necessarily stick to human characters. Anthropomorphized characters are still designed by humans, and as such, contain the essence of humanity. They are, unfortunately, still subjected to our social norms, though.
Next there’s Birdo, who first appeared in Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 2, and has seemingly become a staple of the series featured in numerous spin-offs. Her description, though, gives cause for some concern. “He thinks he is a girl” may suggest that she struggles with gender dysphoria. This is a condition that causes someone to experience a range of negative emotions (from mild discomfort to severe distress) about their physical body in regards to their gender identity.
Although I’m aware that it may just have been a poor choice of words on Nintendo’s part, this use of language creates an unfortunate scenario that seems to reduce dysphoria to feelings of mere confusion, and unfortunately, may hold some sway over anyone reading the manual.
Quina Quen, from Squaresoft’s Final Fantasy IX, is a strange, almost alien character who hails from the Qu tribe, native to the marshlands that dot the game world. They are a collective of genderless creatures with child-like sensibilities, a poor grasp of spoken word, and voracious appetites. Upon meeting Quina, the other playable characters are unable to read their gender, and use the pronoun ‘s/he.’ The use of ‘s/he’ is actually rather interesting, and it’s something that only works when written down, as it’s not intended to be pronounced and works due to the lack of voice acting in the game.
Quina’s gender—or lack thereof—seems to be referenced within their theme. It’s a loud, clumsy, and almost obnoxious cacophony of sound, which is intermixed with soprano and tenor vocalists. Although Quina is a better example of non-normative characters, other aspects of their design and characterization could be seen as problematic and poorly representative of other marginalized people.
Tokenism is a widespread form of discrimination within games. It gives the appearance of a diverse and inclusive cast, though it soon becomes apparent that the character’s only identifiable trait is their identity. It is a lazy form of representation, which is more often than not rife with negative stereotypes.
Developers have been aware of this, but awareness doesn’t automatically fix the issue. Instead, it can cause a reverse effect; instead of attempting any representation, it leads to a total exclusion of marginalized identities from games, further alienating non-normative people within the gaming community.
I’ve heard suggestions from other designers who seem to recommend that to be able to diversify your characters, you first need a purpose to do so. Surely this is ridiculous? My gender identity doesn’t exist with a purpose to my being, it just is. It’s part of who I am.
I don’t exist within the context of this world. I am, by definition, non-normative. To suggest that characters should be designed to fit into the game world to serve a purpose is ridiculous. Firstly, developers have the ability to create a character, then they have the ability to change the way the world and lore works within a game. They are not fixed or rigid. Design is fluid process, and can be constantly changed and improved upon.
My suggestion is research. It is the only counter that can be successfully used to combat tokenization. This can be achieved through diversifying development teams, online surveys and research, or through demographic studies. It’s already something that development teams do during pre-production phases, so it seems odd to me that it’d be something that is left out when it comes to designing and creating characters.
An argument I come across a lot is “don’t diversify for the sake of diversifying.” It may not always look like that or use those words, but that’s always the underlying gist of what is being said.
Now, on a surface level, this seems reasonable. A developer should be allowed to have the integrity to produce their own game, including the content they wish to include. But there are two issues that I have with this statement. Firstly, when a game is being produced to reach a huge audience, it has an influence over that audience, which I looked into with Birdo’s dysphoria and Poison’s stereotypical design.
Secondly, if you’re producing a game and releasing it to the world, any developer should be willing and expecting critique. As a designer, critique is something that I have come to crave. It allows you to better yourself, better your work, and to flourish as a designer. Other people have other experiences that you may not have and can provide an insight into how others may receive your creation.
Now that I’ve explored a few examples of non-normative characters and looked at issues with diversifying characters, in the next part of the series, I want to delve a little deeper into the way characters with non-normative identities are constructed, and how the audience perceives these characters.