It’s commonly thought that the first trans character in a video game was Birdo, a recurring pink dinosaur boss in Super Mario Brothers 2 back in 1989. In the manual for the game, she was described as a ‘male who believes she is female’. Not the most flattering of descriptions. Since then, the number of trans characters in video games has steadily been growing, but does that mean that their portrayals have been getting better to match?
Released in the same year was Final Fight, which was one of the first arcade beat ‘em ups to feature female gang members for the protagonists to knock out. When the game was being ported to the Super Nintendo, a North American game tester complained about the protagonists’ ability to hit women. At the time, this would have been not because of references to abuse, but because of the belief that women are weaker and therefore it would not be a fair fight.
“Poison is hailed as an icon of sorts in terms of representation, but she is not voiced by a trans woman in any of her appearances.”
Such an attitude was also held for other video games, for example Street Fighter 2, in which the only female character, Chun-Li, was almost given a shorter lifebar than the standard size all other characters had on the basis that she was a woman. Thankfully, this idea was scrapped before release. Going back to Final Fight, how did the Japanese developers attempt to fix the issue? They labelled the gang members as trans women in a half-hearted compromise… and were replaced by male gang members for the Super Nintendo port anyway.
Today, Poison, one of said trans women, is hailed as an icon of sorts in terms of representation, being pre-op in the Japanese games she’s been featured in and post-op in the international versions. That said, she is not voiced by a trans woman in any of her appearances, and whether or not she is a girl has continued to be debated among developers who have worked on games she has appeared in.
Additionally, Yoshinori Ono, Street Fighter 4’s producer, initially did not include Poison in Street Fighter 4 on the basis that her region-specific genitals would cause confusion. I highly doubt it would, but that seemed to be their excuse at the time. However, she did eventually make it into Street Fighter X Tekken as a playable character, as well as in a future revision of Street Fighter 4. Not that many people know about the characters’ troubling development history today, and I think it is important that it is highlighted in order to show that even some perceived positive portrayals may not all be that positive.
“Hainly Abrams in Mass Effect Andromeda received a lot of criticism due to her rather bizarre dialogue.”
Now, a more recent example: Hainly Abrams in Mass Effect Andromeda, released in March of this year. She is a trans character who received a lot of criticism from the LGBTQIA+ community due to her rather bizarre dialogue, which was featured in many game news articles at the time. The player can interact with her, and upon being asked by Ryder, the main character, why she is working in the facility she is, she replies, “People knew as me as Stephan, but that was never who I was. ‘Hainly Abrams, Andromeda explorer’. Feels good. Feels right.”
There are so many problems with this. The big one that sticks out like a sore thumb is the fact that she intentionally deadnames herself, despite the fact that she makes it clear she does not like that name. Most trans people would hesitate to deadname themselves, as it is a touchy subject, and it represents a part of them they would prefer to leave in the past and often has bad memories and emotional baggage attached to it. Of course, some may accidentally deadname/pronoun themselves to themselves, (I’ve caught myself doing it at times) but that is only due to the fact that they may have been brought up under a different name and set of pronouns for years prior.
“The fact that this dialogue was considered acceptable in the first place is very problematic.”
Here, Hainly not only deadnames herself, she does so to a complete stranger, and actively announces her transness in the same dialogue. Again, few trans people practically shout ‘I’m trans’ to people they have literally just met in the sort of context provided above. Since there aren’t many trans characters in games, for some players this may be their first or only experience with one, and this would just be providing them with highly inaccurate, offensive information about the trans community. Bioware have since planned to change the dialogue, but for me, the damage has already been done. The fact that this dialogue was considered acceptable in the first place is very problematic.
All in all, how can developers improve their portrayals of trans people in games? The answer is simple. As should apply in all media, get trans people to write and voice trans characters. Include trans options on character creation screens, as seen in the recently released Dream Daddy. This would solve so many of the problems that often plague representations of trans characters in games. Only trans people can truly give an accurate explanation of what it means to be trans, and how to show this through characters in games. The same rule applies to non-binary characters, genderfluid characters… in fact, any characters that represent letters in the LGBTQIA+ acronym.
Positive portrayals and representations are immensely important, as seeing themselves on-screen or in games in such a light would be a breath of fresh air for real-life trans people who are all so used to seeing their existence mocked in films and on TV- and, of course, in real life. Video games are a momentary escape from the real-life world for many who play them, and to allow trans people to be able to see themselves in characters inhabiting worlds where they are not mocked for the way they are would be a wonderful thing.