Gaming industry moves to trans inclusivity

Pixel pioneers: Video games have featured a number of trans characters in recent years.

Does gaming need to be more inclusive? A new Harry Potter game will allow players to create trans characters. But some say it is just a small step for an industry that needs radical change.

They regularly take millions of people to fantastical worlds and cinematic scenarios. But, until recently, video games have failed to reflect what, for trans and non-binary people, is an everyday reality: their gender identity.

This is set to change. When players generate their character on Hogwarts Legacy — an upcoming Harry Potter game — they will be able to customise its voice, body type and gender identity.

It is a sign of widening trans inclusivity in the gaming industry. But the reaction has not been universally positive.

Last summer, Harry Potter creator JK Rowling was accused of making comments that demeaned transgender people. Rowling’s connection to Hogwarts Legacy has inspired some gamers to boycott it.

Gaming has a patchy record on trans inclusively. In 2017, acclaimed Canadian developer Bioware apologised after a trans character in Mass Effect Andromeda mentioned her deadname in the second line of her introductory speech.

More recently, trans activists critiqued the sci-fi epic Cyberpunk 2077. The controversial game let players customise their avatars’ bodies. But it tied the pronouns by which that character was addressed to the sound of their voice, implying a connection between gender and physical characteristics.

Videogames have long had problems with representation. Until the 2010s, the archetypical gamer was a lonely young man, and a majority of games were tailored to this perceived audience. The profile of gamers has diversified over time. In 2019, 46% of gamers in the US were female. Yet misogyny remains common in the industry, as dramatically revealed by Gamergate.

The non-profit group Represent Me found that, between 1988 and 2004, fewer than 10 games a year featured a queer character. And when they do appear, finds gaming journalist Sarah Rudolph, they are often “portrayed as disgusting, creepy or threatening”.

These problems are made more acute by gaming’s formative role for many LGBTQ people. “The virtual world is one of the few very places we can safety escape to be ourselves,” says software developer Jessica Janiuk. For those with gender dysphoria, gaming offers an opportunity to interact as characters that represent them.

There are signs that change is afoot. Two titles released last year, If Found… and Tell Me Why, included widely-praised depictions of trans protagonists. Many activists would argue, however, that the gaming industry needs to do more to normalise trans characters.

After all, video games tell stories. All stories are shaped by the societies that tell them. And, in turn, stories shape the world. “Imagination and fiction,” wrote the French philosopher Simone Weil, “make up more than three quarters of our real life.”

There are an estimated 2.7 billion gamers across the world. The gaming industry should use its humongous reach to reflect the diverse realities of its audiences, and to promote positive values like inclusivity.

Others would counter that no such responsibility exists. “A picture,” wrote American painter Robert Henri, “should be the expression of the will of a painter”. Equally, developers have the right to express their own wills in digital form.

Besides, games are a form of escapism. Whether driving a spaceship, getting into sword-fights or attending a school for witchcraft and wizardry, gaming is a distraction from life — and most fun when we lay our real-world problems to one side.

Does gaming need to be more inclusive?

Levelling up

Without a doubt, say some. The video game industry has long been dominated by straight men and has reflected a lot of their prejudices. And recent controversies show that it still fails to represent trans characters properly. As a powerful cultural force with the ability to influence how people think, gaming has a moral responsibility to reflect the full diversity of human experience.

Not quite, say others. Gaming has already made significant accommodation, with trans-focused titles, major trans characters in mainstream games and trans avatar generators. There is only so much that can be done. And anyway, video games are fundamentally unserious. We should enjoy them for what they are, and focus on problems of inclusivity in the real world.

You Decide

  1. Should a group of people be boycotted because of the actions of one of its members?
  2. What is more valuable: a work of art that represents the real world or one that depicts a fictional one?

Activities

  1. Create a video game character based on yourself, then design the front and back cover of a game starring that character.
  2. Research a famous historical boycott and make a presentation about it. Find out who was involved, how long it was and whether it was successful.

Some People Say...

“Life imitates art far more than art imitates Life.”

Oscar Wilde (1855 — 1900), Irish poet, playwright

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that characters in video games are unrepresentative of both their players and wider populations. One 2007 academic survey found that in 49 games there were 282 male and 53 female characters, despite an almost equal gender divide among gamers. LGBTQ characters are even sparser: a 2018 research by the journalist Sam Greer found only 179 queer characters in the history of the commercially released games, of which 83 were playable.
What do we not know?
There remains much debate over how video games influence players’ views and behaviour. Numerous studies have tried to assess whether playing violent video games leads to aggressive activity in real life, with contrary conclusions. Equally, though there is a strong body of evidence suggesting that games improve some aspects of our intelligence, very little has been corroborated on how video games might positively affect behaviour.

Word Watch

Inclusivity
The practice of providing equal opportunities and resources for a marginalised group, such as trans people.
Demeaned
Caused a loss of respect or dignity. It descends from a Latin phrase meaning “to drive away with threats”.
Boycott
To abstain from something in order to undermine it. Named for Charles C Boycott, an English land agent in 19th-Century Ireland.
Deadname
A former name of a transgender or non-binary person, such as that assigned at birth.
Avatars
In gaming and computing, an icon or figure that represents a person. In Hinduism, avatars are human forms of immortal gods.
Pronouns
Words that refer to the people being talked about (I or you) or something that is being talked about (it, that, them). Gender pronouns refer specifically to people. The traditional pair of “he” and “she” has been criticised for only allowing a binary gender identity.
Misogyny
Hatred and prejudice towards women. Later this year, the British government will pass a law declaring misogyny a hate crime.
Gamergate
An online harassment campaign against women in the gaming industry in 2014. It was conducted by anonymous trolls, ostensibly in response to the perceived influence of feminism on video game culture.
Gender dysphoria
A feeling of discomfort or distress in people whose gender identity differs from their sex assigned at birth.
Normalise
To make normal, or standard.
WB Games
Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment is a video game publisher that published Hogwarts legacy.

Subjects

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