Gender Inclusiveness: It Costs a Little To Do a Lot
“It’s something you can do in a matter of hours and so many people will be grateful for it.”
Your choice: “She. They. He. Xe. Ze. It. Lemme type it out for you.”
Within the first few moments of GENDERWRECKED, a being inspired by the Creature from the Black Lagoon – except this one has a gaping hole in its chest and is called Phil – demands to know why you’re on their island.
As Phil’s hostility towards you subsides, their own insecurities are quickly revealed as the creature asks you to define your gender with the aforementioned choices. GENDERWRECKED promptly shows its nature; it’s a game about one of the most personal pieces of information anyone can share: their gender, sexuality and how they express it.
The variety of pronoun options Phil offers players at the start of the game is scarce in the majority of video games and, quite frankly, it needn’t be.
“Putting the gender pronoun system into GENDERWRECKED, where you can even type out your own pronouns if you didn’t see yours from this list, took maybe a day’s work, if that,” GENDERWRECKED co-creator Heather Robertson told me.
Robertson thinks that gender-inclusive language in video games is rare because of people not knowing or not wanting to be inclusive.
She said another main barrier is how voice acting is limited in video games.
“The main problem with it though is that if you have voice acting it’s nearly impossible to get every option in there, especially if you’re allowing people to define their own pronouns. You could do some text-to-speech thing but the technology just isn’t really there yet for that.”
The other co-creator of GENDERWRECKED, Ryan Rose Aceae, told me that video games have ‘so much further to go’ with integrating gender-inclusive language and appropriately depicting non-binary characters in video games.
“Even when you have trans characters in games it ends up feeling a bit like tragedy porn,” they said. “They give you this entire, really inappropriate look into who this character is and where they come from.
“You meet a character and they’re like: ‘I’m Samantha but I used to be Samuel.’ Nobody just gives their dead name away to strangers like that.”
They explained that it was all about the context in and outside the game. “If I have a trans developer who’s making a game and they have the character’s dead name in there then I’m more likely to be like okay, they did that for a reason. Or it was really difficult to avoid in the narrative. Whereas, if it’s a cis developer who includes a character’s dead name then I’m going to chalk it up to carelessness.”
However, Robertson said there are a few ways developers can try to be respectful to gender inclusiveness in video games. “There are limitations to voice acting in games, if developers could make a specific set and stick to it like using he, she, they and a couple of others. I feel like that’s a very big step-up from what games try to do in the first place.”
Another option is to be gender vague, which games have tried before but to varying degrees of success.
The final option is to separate the player from the character.
“It’s very clear that the protagonist is a fully functioning character on their own with their own defining gender and personality. Working within that framework allows you to keep things simple while also remaining inclusive.”
Aceae argued, though, that the best thing developers can do is to hire queer and trans people to help ensure the video game is considerately made.
Both Aceae and Robertson agreed that there’re issues on the development side, but a huge problem was the hostile, vocal gaming community. “The gaming community is really toxic,” Aceae said. “I remember when we asked IGN if they wanted to do a little feature on GENDERWRECKED. They replied to us going ‘Yeah, we’d love to. Just be prepared that the comment section on the article is going to be filled with hateful, awful things. Are you okay with that?’.”
Aceae said that they agreed to have their article up because they weren’t ‘going to let some transphobes stop them from getting their game out there’. But Aceae also pointed out that if you look at the comment sections on any articles about queer or transgender video games they’re filled with vitriol and bigotry.
Robertson indicated to the recent Battlefield V trailer and cover featuring a woman, as demonstrating that atmosphere.
“I feel like there’s this inherent contradiction in video game design where we are making a medium who’s most outspoken and rabid fan base is a bunch of proto-fascist nerd boys. There’s that inherent contradiction there that it’s a little bit of a dance with the devil.”
All of these challenges, though, should not be discouraging, but should rather be used as evidence for why it is important that people be fighting for gender-inclusiveness in gaming.
“The basic answer is that gender-inclusive language in video games and just gender inclusiveness in general helps everybody feel like they have a home and a place. I have some non-binary friends who whenever they play a game and they see that ‘they’ can pick they as an option or ‘non-binary gender’ as an option they get really excited about that.”
Be sure to take a look at our previous Pride Month feature celebrating Five Influential LGBT+ Indie Games.