Games Don’t Understand Gender and Expression

Come on.

Opening a new game with a character creator is like anticipating to be punched in the face, waiting to have to choose between whether I want to either play the entire game as a man or a woman. Never being me, sure it’s fantasy and I’m playing as a lizard with a huge sword. But I truly don’t believe it’s good fantasy if the ideas of the binary exist as they do in the real world. That’s just real life, I want to be seen, I want to feel like I belong. Fantasy and real life.

Being non-binary feels like I’m doomed to see myself only be represented through creatures, ones that do not exist or something as real as a bug. The industry is awful with representation in general, a lot of games can’t even get white cis women right, so expecting something as intricate as the non-binary umbrella to be represented through humans is expecting a lot.

Off the bat, I *despise* seeing myself through mythical creators, like dragons for example. It shows me that non-binary people are some unknown thing that can’t be represented in a human form. When those characters also come from binary people who do not understand non-binary people I can’t help but call it insulting and ultimately, lazy. When the only characters that exist to show me in this space don’t look like me or other non-binary people, it’s hard to feel like I should feel like the creators care about us.

Who I am is something I’ve struggled with a lot, there’s a lot of harmful ideas people have about how non-binary people should behave and present. This comes into the binary and the idea of how men and women should behave, present. A, somehow, common idea I’ve seen sometimes is that non-binary is the third gender, no. It isn’t. As I’ve mentioned already, non-binary is an umbrella term for multiple different things, it is not one stagnant thing. This idea that it isn’t creates the harmful stereotypes and boxes that people like me get put into. A common “idea" is that non-binary people should be androgynous, this is so they do not fall under the binary and be interpreted as a man or a woman. They should have neutral names, for example, Enigma or something similarly different. Whilst I would totally love to be called Enigma and if anyone has got that name, I’m jealous, but also it is not what non-binary people should aim for. Interpreting non-binary as a third gender causes the same mistakes to recur, as those that are prevalent in the already existing binary genders.

Discovering who I am has been messy for this reason. At first when coming out I believed I should start to wear clothing that covered my body, so people couldn’t get an idea of my body shape and, ugh, anatomy. That being AMAB (assigned male at birth) I should grow my hair out, to embrace a more feminine side. It created the issue that I found it difficult to know if I was doing anything for my own self or to be fit others ideas of how being non-binary works. I do like my hair longer and that is something I 100% believe I’ve done for me alone. It keeps my ears warm when it gets colder now, but it is harder to wash. Is a fair trade off nonetheless. I believed that because I was raised to be a man, I should avoid anything that reminds themselves what a man is. The idea that I should present myself as a woman because others will see me as a man if I don’t change anything, I should go on HRT, get voice training. The idea that I should fit into a box created by others, that fundamentally doesn’t exist.

I don’t believe that there *is* a box, as do many others, whether that comes to non-binary people or binary people too. There is nothing that dictates what a man is or what a woman is, it is an outdated idea that we haven’t let go of. Game creators haven’t let go of that idea and it needs to go. Sometimes when I scroll though Twitter, like an idiot, I will see the dreaded “gender chart” I don’t know who created these or why. Probably because they’re stuck thinking this is the way things work.

This is the most recent one I’ve seen as of writing this, but this is usually how they’re constructed. Male in one corner, female the other, and whatever comes to mind after in the other corners. As in this case; Agender, Genderless, Genderqueer and Gendered Non-Binary. The chart clearly has issues, for example the binary idea that male means blue and female pink. The biggest issue is the need to have literal boxes; numbered, lettered. The pit people fall into is that everyone wants more boxes to be more exact, that’s false, no one ever wanted boxes. It is not about having a finite end labelled Z, 594. It is about having an endless field that is not defined by any number, letter, shape. Something in B,2 should not define you as male, same as E,5 should not define you as female. Sorry for saying “female” more than zero (0) times by the way, I promise to not include it here on out.

As I’m sure I’ve gotten across since I have the issue of repeating the same point multiple times: the idea of boxing everything and the binary is old and should be forgotten. Not when it comes to being a man or a woman, people should have that option available to them, always. The idea that there’s a scale that defines how much of a woman or man they are. That is the issue. Now onto how character creators are terrible for this reason.

Character creators are generally old for multiple reasons, some I will not discuss because they are issues that I can’t speak for over others who they affect more. In my experience, a good character creator doesn’t exist, they’re all flawed. For the reasons I’ve discussed beforehand. The best one I can think of at the top of my head is Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it never asks you for your gender and nothing is locked to gender. Almost every other time, when I open the game up I’m given the option to be a man or a woman. Each with their own boring views of gender, it’s exhausting and I don’t know when we’ll get the first proper character creator that is free of these ideas.

Steps have been made in the indie scene for some titles. Monster Prom for example, no character creator exists per se, but you are given the option of multiple monsters with their own predefined models and voices. When choosing you are given the choice of pronouns and none of them are greyed out depending on who you choose. Any pronouns for any character. Yes, the issue that we are depicted through monsters is still there; however, at least it doesn’t tell you these characters anything. It is up to the player to decide for once. As I haven’t talked about yet is the state of pronouns in games and in general. Pronouns, same with almost everything else, does not dictate who someone is. Someone who uses he/him pronouns isn’t always a man, same for someone who uses she/her. Pronouns are fluid and do not have a definite meaning, any one person can use as little or as many as they wish, some instances a person might use none.

This is another issue that is prevalent in games, pronouns are stagnant, they have one meaning. She/her is solely used to refer to women. They/them is never used to refer to someone who is unknown of their own identity, if they fit the boxes of a binary those pronouns will be used immediately no matter what. If you create a character that has a flat chest, they are dictated to use he/him pronouns and to be a man, when that is not how it works. Character creators have to be so much better with how they approach gender, removing the option to be the binary is a good first step, but there has to be more. Pronouns should be mandatory and never be locked to an idea of how something works, the player should be able to choose as many as they want to use and always have the option to change them at any point. One game I’ve seen do this is one that hasn’t released currently and that is Boyfriend Dungeon.

Games should allow the player to change their appearance at any moment, games say they’re continuously evolving but they are evolving in their own space that doesn’t in the real world. Those games should be evolving with the player, if I decide I’m someone else in the future the game should allow me to change myself in it too.

I’ve always believed I should play as women in games since coming out, for the reason I should escape who I was told I was growing up. So my friends never asked questions. I was fed the idea I should never present in a masculine way because if I did I’m not actually non-binary, I’m still a man. That I’m going through a phase, no one would deal with this much pain as a phase. It’s only starting Divinity: Original Sin 2 that I’ve started to play as a what the creators decide is a male character and I’m happy with the choice for once. It’s more of a struggle in my mind than anything I’d consider *real* for myself. I enjoy playing as women in games when I get the chance and when creating them myself, it sometimes allows me to create a character I’d never see come from creators. As long as the developers give me the option too, they’re very restrictive in a lot of aspects, but I can still be happy with what I come out with. Plus, I’ll just make my own head cannons if the game doesn’t let me be creative enough within itself.

lizard

Games have a long way to go in a lot of aspects. Visuals might have evolved, I guess is the word, but they’re still as tone deaf as they ever were. For a medium that wants to be taken serious by its most well known developers they surely detest the form being critiqued. Games teach us that the only way that we can learn to understand each other is through violence, that you must hate to understand. I don’t think the industry will outgrow its obsession with trying to tell stories through violence as much as game directors want to tell you they’ve grown up since they’re last unapologetic murder simulator from 2007. Maybe one day the industry will have leads that are better than a lot of the current ones, but I personally don’t see it happening anytime soon.

Writing words that make me sound smart. I enjoying discussing games and some of the topics that surround them.

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