January 23, 2022

Why Do Games Still Struggle With Trans Inclusion?

When it comes to trans and nonbinary representation, the games industry is in a state of flux. Change is happening, especially in the indie scene, but it’s a long process that’s creating a landscape of unpredictability. New releases that have the opportunity to challenge the status quo often fall short, as seen in the initial feedback about Cyberpunk 2077: Fans were divided on whether the inclusion of a trans character outweighed the subtle transphobia at play in the game.

Even other so-called best efforts, like Dragon Age: Inquisition and The Last of Us 2, rely on fetishism and trauma. It becomes a tired tapestry of clichés and misunderstandings, helped along by a lack of LGBTQIA+ conversations. If developers took the time to talk with a diverse mix of LGBTQ+ gamers, they’d better appreciate the nuance needed to create well-rounded queer characters. Instead, trauma mining—specifically trans trauma—is often a point of focus, an issue that could be eradicated if more trans input was brought to the table.

The LGBTQ+ games scene is “deteriorating,” Phoebe Zeitler, a trans gamer, tells WIRED.

Currently, representation is disjointed; for every hit there are several misses, and the hits often come from independent game developers crafting new narratives, not traditionally risk-averse AAA publishers. Gaming has always struggled to properly represent LGBTQ+ characters, with previous generations using trans inclusion as a joke, like in the Grand Theft Auto series. Sadly, that precedent of questionable portrayals has worsened.

Learning From Big-Budget Missteps

One example of where potentially well-meaning inclusivity fell short is 2020’s Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War and its introduction of a third gender option in its character customization tools. When Activision added the nonbinary/trans option to the game, it seemed to be making headway—gamers across the LGBTQ+ spectrum would finally feel properly included.

Unfortunately, what Activision did was introduce a “classified” feature as opposed to a specifically nonbinary/trans one. Despite actively touting the feature as a gender-free alternative, the reality was that Activision avoided fully committing to trans inclusion, instead taking the easy “other” option. It turned a potentially progressive stance into a sour experience.

Having a “classified” option may feel appropriate given the game’s military missions, redacted files, and secretive, stealthy plot. However, as soon as you recognize that the male and female options remain the same, “classified” suddenly takes on a sinister tone. It reinforces, however unintentionally, the idea that nonbinary and transgender characters (and their players) are “others,” somehow outside of the accepted norm.

When Activision announced this option, the news was met with both praise and scorn from fans. Those who supported the decision couldn’t understand the issue, asking why anyone would even take offense at the option. Meanwhile, those against the move fell behind the too-familiar rallying cry of “historical accuracy” as cover for their own homophobia or transphobia.

But Call of Duty is hardly alone. Also notorious is September 2020’s Cyberpunk 2077, a game that promised much, yet all but crashed and burned within weeks of its release. Although bugs cemented its fate, the game attempted to offer some form of trans representation through its character customization. Players could choose typical options like hair, makeup, and gender, but they were also allowed to choose their character’s genitalia regardless of the gender they selected, appropriately separating gender from biological sex.

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