The 'Shroom:Issue 100/Transgenderism in Video Games
Video games are maturing and growing at a very rapid rate, moving past the days where walking from point A to point B without context was enough to suffice, into a very broad scope of visual design, gameplay concepts, and character exploration. Among the many things video games have improved along their long lifespan are diversity of characters, which absolutely still needs a lot of work, but is improving each year to be so much more inclusive of all types of gamers; people of colour, women, the whole spectrum of sexual orientation, and of course transgendered persons.
Transgenderism is when a person strongly identifies as a different gender from the one they were assigned as at birth, most often (but not always) male-to-female, or female-to-male. It’s important to note that this is very distinct from sexual orientation; a transgendered person can be straight, gay, bi, pan, asexual, it doesn’t really matter, because that typically in no way impacts on which gender they identify as. It is also not the same as crossdressing or transvestism, wherein a person simply enjoys or gets sexual pleasure out of dressing in clothing typically associated with a different gender from their own. I am a transwoman myself, so it excites me to see society, and thusly video games as an extension, become so much more comfortable with exploring issues of gender identity, but it also pains me to see the sheer hatred aimed at us throughout our history, and even to this day.
But instead of simply crying about it, I think it’d be prudent to instead showcase a bit of our lovely game industries history with issues of transgenderism, how they’ve been treated – for better or for worse – and how that treatment has evolved over the decades. Plus, since it's my birthday today, why not talk about a topic so deeply close to my heart? But first, it’s important to note a few important terms that those of us in the trans community use:
Introduced in Nintendo’s Super Mario Bros. 2 released in 1987, Birdo is the first and most, uhh… infamous and arguably well-known transgendered character in the games industry. Birdo (Catherine in Japan) – preferred name Birdette, and thusly what I’ll refer to her as out of principle – is described in the American manual for Super Mario Bros. 2 as “[a boy who] thinks he is a girl,” which is absolutely the last way you ever want to describe a transgendered person ever, since it’s suggesting that the person is deluded and also using male pronouns, which most transwomen dislike being called by. The Japanese site for Mario Kart: Double Dash!! pulls the tiresome bait-and-switch joke so many works of fiction do with her description saying that “[she] appears to be Yoshi’s girlfriend… or does that mean boyfriend!?”, which I always find uncomfortable because it carries this air of “fooled you! They’re actually a MAN!”
As evidenced by last year’s Worst Character results, Birdette is among the most hated characters in the Mario series, although I won’t make presumptions as to why that is. Birdette also appeared in 2008’s Captain Rainbow with a deep, masculine voice, featured in a tasteless mission wherein Birdette is arrested for using female restrooms (to many transfolk, this would sound uncomfortably familiar…) and begs you to find proof that she’s female, in the form of a censored vibrator. I swear this is true. It’s also really not a good treatment of the character or transfolk in general. Birdette, at the very least, gets primarily referred to as female in more recent games, and has a continued presence in spin-off titles, so there’s that. Not the most encouraging example of a trans character in gaming, but can’t ask for too much from a first effort.
Hideo Kojima’s view of transgendered persons in his early days was fairly uninformed, as was the standard for Japanese society at the time. In his game Snatcher (1988), lead character Gillian Seed has the option of attempting to flirt with various women, with his one success swiftly being interrupted by his robotic navigation friend Metal Gear Mk. II scanning her and insisting she isn’t really a woman. Gillian goes on to call her a transvestite before running away from her; as said before, “transvestite” is really not how you want to refer to a transgendered person at all.
Policenauts’ (1994) portrayal is a little more overt, in the form of a strip club which is placed right next to a bistro called “Piemonte Ravioli Co.” that sells virtual reality child porn and the two are considered of comparable ill repute... very classy... The lead character Jonathan Ingram describes the club as “filled with so-called women who’ve undergone complete sex changes,” describing them as “new-halfs,” a transphobic slur in Japan that had come into public usage at the time. He goes on to say that “the city is famous for them, unfortunately. I wouldn’t set foot in here on a normal day, let alone right now,” cementing that the club is viewed in a negative fashion. I do understand, however, that these games are from a different time when awareness of transgenderism was fairly limited, but it’s worth noting.
Poison is a recurring character in the Final Fight and Street Fighter video games, added to the original beat-em-up game in 1989 to contrast with the bigger male enemies in the game. Due to concerns that there would be issues in America with beating up female characters at the time, Capcom proposed instead that Poison was a transwoman… because beating up transwomen is totally more acceptable, isn’t it? It didn’t take, and she was removed from the original localisation, but the interpretation stuck for the fanbase. Poison’s gender identity has been a point of strong debate over the years, with several of Capcom’s staff members wavering back and forth between “she’s trans” and “it’s up to the viewer!”
I’ve struggled to find the source, but the common story is that when Street Fighter IV producer Yoshinori Ono was asked about Poison’s gender, he responded with "Let's set the record straight: In North America, Poison is officially a post-op trans woman. But in Japan, she simply tucks her business away to look female." The implication that a transwoman isn’t a real woman until they’ve had surgery is a problem, but he does use correct pronouns, which is good. In a later interview I have found, he retracted his earlier statement, instead insisting that Poison’s gender identity is to be left open to interpretation, also suggesting he’s aware of the trans community’s desire for more representation and he wants to make sure not to alienate them.
Poison isn’t the best example I can think of, but there’s proper pronoun usage and evidently some degree of acknowledgment and respect for the trans community, so it could be worse. Poison continues to be featured in Street Fighter titles, played unironically as a sex icon, so… there’s that.
Faris Scherwiz and Quina Quen
Faris Scherwiz is a pirate captain in Final Fantasy V (1992), and while she isn’t actually transgendered, per se, her case does somewhat resemble a transmale case and is at the very least a solid representation of a non-gender conforming person. She’s a missing princess who was raised by pirates, but due to concerns over how she may be treated in the typically misogynistic environment of pirating her adoptive parents raised her as a boy instead. She proved to be an exceptional pirate, however, and became the captain of her own ship at the age of 20, embracing her masculine persona and position. After her royal lineage is revealed and she’s coaxed into returning to the throne, she voices visible disgust with being dolled up and treated as a princess, and returns to help the Light Warriors in their quest. Post-game, she drops her right to the throne and dons her old masculine attire and returns to her life as a pirate.
While it’s hard to say if she’s genuinely transmale or not, I don’t think it’s particularly wrong to interpret Faris as such, and while I haven’t played the game personally, to my knowledge the game doesn’t do anything particularly counterproductive concerning her identity.
Final Fantasy IX (2000) introduces playable partner Quina Quen, who is a member of a genderless species called the Qu, who are known for their poor English skills and eternal quest to consume as many new forms of cuisine as possible. Quina is referred to as “he/she” and “him/her”, and very little effort is made to determine if Quina leans one way or the other, as Quina is very childish and simply doesn’t seem to notice the bigger drama of the story’s events. I think that's fine, though; Quina is agender, that's the end all of it.
MicroPose’s game Rex Nebular and the Cosmic Gender Bender (1992) is an intentionally weird as all hell adventure game following titular protagonist Rex Nebular after he’s crash-landed on a planet ruled by women, who use a machine called the Cosmic Gender Bender to change their gender temporarily so they can continue to reproduce. It’s not really transgenderism at all, though; it’s just that weird gender bender gag thing you see in a lot of comedy media.
Flea is a recurring villain in Chrono Trigger (1994) and Chrono Cross (1999), and an interesting straddling between the gender lines. All enemies in both games have gender icons attributed to them, with Flea’s being male, but their appearance is decidedly feminine in both and s/he wears stereotypically feminine clothing. The most interesting insight, however, is when Frog, one of your party members, declares Flea’s appearance false by way of illusion magic, Flea retorts with a very dismissive, cheerful response. Flea isn’t given a tremendous deal of character development overall, but they’re not a horrid display of genderfluidity, and Chrono Trigger rocks so we’ll leave it there.
Everyone is gay for Bridget, as the old meme goes, and thus is the central theme with Bridget. Hailing from Guilty Gear XX (2002), Bridget was born as a twin in a superstitious society that considered twins of the same gender to be bad luck, so his parents raised him as a girl to avoid having to sacrifice him. Despite his name and appearance, Bridget identifies as his assigned gender but seemingly is quite comfortable dressing in effeminate clothing, since he never seems to wear something else. Many characters mistake him for a woman due to this, but he’s often quick to correct them, insisting he’s male. Not much to really object to here, he’s a male crossdresser, and they don’t do anything particularly horrid with the concept.
Vivian from Paper Mario: The Thousand-Year Door (2004) is actually among my favourite Mario characters overall, and probably one of the more sympathetic examples of a transgendered character on this list, even if there’s still a tremendous deal of room for improvement. Every mention of her gender identity was removed from the English version, referencing her as simply female, while the Japanese version displays that pronouns still seemed to be a problem for Nintendo. Her character description says “[she] appears to be a girl but is really a boy,” Goombella’s tattle information for Vivian says “she’s the youngest sister… er, brother,” and several characters throughout the game reinforce male pronouns when describing her.
However, Vivian is depicted sympathetically as a victim of abuse to her wicked sisters, and she ditches them to join Mario as he was the only person whom treated her with respect. While several cases of misgendering occur throughout the game, the final letter Goombella sends to Mario in the epilogue mentions that her sisters have stopped abusing her so much and imply they acknowledge Vivian as a sister, although it’s not made clear. I feel like Vivian’s character arc of slowly becoming accepted among her peers amongst a discriminatory environment is fairly reminiscent of many transfolk’s experiences, but the poor conduct on gendering is still a nuisance, and of course the complete censorship of that aspect of her character in the English version is disgraceful, although it is par the course…
Guillo is a playable party member in Baten Kaitos Origins (2006), created by a male and female mage duo as a hollow puppet to carry on their power, but unlike other puppets Guillo was imbued with the power of both of them together. As such, Guillo speaks with a simultaneous male and female voice, has breasts, and its feet are shaped like high heels, but it’s never referred to in any official material by any gender (instead just as “it”) and, well… it’s a puppet with a human soul. As far as I can tell, Guillo isn’t treated as a joke due to its androgynous appearance, and many fans consider it some form of transgender or genderfluid, but from what information I’ve managed to gather, it’s probably a better example of someone who is intersex or agender. You know, ignoring that it's literally a doll.
Eleonor “Leo” Kliesen is a character in Tekken 6 (2006), added in with the intention of giving people an easy-to-play character whom could be appreciated regardless of gender. While series producer Katsuhiro Harada has since officially labelled Leo as female, when she was initially revealed, her gender was kept a secret, and during the pre-release promotions she was labelled as “female” on the Japanese site, but “male” on the English site. In Tekken 6, no character refers to Leo with any gender pronouns at all, she can wear male and female customisable items yet nothing revealing the torso, and has a few character animations used for other male characters. I think Leo was really good as a character who sort of transcended gender and could be loved regardless, but it’s kind of been mucked up a bit with her gender reveal, but oh well.
Before I get into this one, let me open with Persona 4 is absolutely brilliant and you all should play it as soon as you can. With that out of the way, here we have Naoto Shirogane, a playable character in Persona 4 (2007) whom is a particularly interesting case because her conflict with gender identity is seen very differently with different cultural lenses. Naoto is introduced as a young male detective working with the local police force in order to solve the murder/kidnapping case that frames the whole game. However, she herself gets kidnapped and thrown into the TV World (it makes sense in context), where she and the playable cast face her Shadow self, whom reveals she’s a woman who wishes to be male so she can be taken seriously in the male-dominated police force, her Shadow self even insisting on performing a sex change operation on her.
Much like Faris, Naoto isn’t actually trans, although her character arc nonetheless reads so much like a transmale case especially from a Western viewpoint. Her story is meant to be an observation of sexist gender roles and standards in Japanese society, and how they constrain people who don’t fit within those boundaries. But even after confronting her Shadow self she still displays strong desire to be male, continues to dress and speak in a stereotypically masculine fashion, and shows immense discomfort when people refer to her femininity (which the writers absolutely love flaunting, which I find a bit unsettling). Indeed, during the Social Link segments of the game, you can either respect her identity to make her far more comfortable with you as a friend (her even saying “Why couldn’t I have been born male? It would have been much easier for me…”), or try to force her to be as feminine as possible, much to her discomfort, in order to get into a relationship with her. The game prefers you do the latter since it advances her social link faster, which is really messed up.
But I do really, really like Naoto as a character, even if her unique struggle with gender is sorely mishandled at times, and while not actually a transman, I still think she’s a worthy observation into non-gender conforming persons. Possibly even non-binary, but the game doesn’t go that far into it, so I won’t go there.
Chihiro Fujisaki is one of the 15 students trapped in a game of murder in Danganronpa: Trigger Happy Havoc (2010), someone who should be well known by anyone who was around this site’s forum circa 2012. Chihiro is introduced as a petite, sheepish girl with prodigious programming ability, but this masks a history of bullying against him for being a sickly, delicate boy, leading him to crossdress and take on a feminine identity as a means of covering up his insecurities. He is unreceptive to feminine gifts during the Free Time sections, but highly receptive to masculine gifts, and frequently displays discomfort whenever someone mentions his femininity and meek disposition. At one point he bursts into tears due to fellow student, Mondo Oowada, attempting to defend her from Byakuya Togami and insistence that women are just naturally weaker, which further damages Chihiro’s self-esteem. He then makes a vow to become stronger and eventually reveal himself as male to the rest of the class, which ends up being his downfall in the end as he becomes the victim of the second murder case.
Chihiro isn’t trans, but like Bridget and Naoto, much of his character arc’s themes can be related to transgender issues. Chihiro wishes to be seen as his assigned gender, but fails to live up to the standards of masculinity established by Japanese society, so resorts to taking on the role of a girl instead to avoid bullying and abuse. It’s actually an interesting look into non-gender conforming persons, gender roles in society, and the damages that can be done by abuse, but the overall theme of feeling uncomfortable presenting as a gender you don’t identify as can be associated with by transfolk.
OK so I honestly have no clue what is going on at all in Nier (2010) because it’s a modern Square Enix title and those never have coherent plots, but all that needs to be known in this context is that one of the main characters, Kainé, is intersexed. In the book Grimoire Nier, she is labelled as a “hermaphrodite,” which is really not how you want to describe an intersexed person since that term is exclusively applied to plants and animals. She was orphaned as a child, and bullied for being intersexed, so compensated by dressing in very feminine (often revealing) clothing to try and accentuate her feminine features... which given she’s physically 17 during the events of the game, is a different kettle of fish entirely. Aside from the poor choice of language by the developers, Kainé isn’t a horrible interpretation of an intersexed person who wishes to be seen exclusively as female. But I’m not intersexed, so I can’t claim any authority on that.
Erica Anderson is a recurring character in Catherine (2011), depicted as a sociable, flirty, and attractive waitress at the Sleepy Sheep inn, where several of her gossiping male friends often hang out. Erica herself is a fairly good character, but she’s unfortunately surrounded by generally transphobic characters, particularly main character Vincent who takes any chance he can to make snide remarks about her gender or warn his young friend, Toby, against pursuing his affections for Erica. To be fair, however, Erica doesn’t take Vincent’s remarks very well, and in my experience difficult people like Vincent just never listen to you no matter how many times you protest, so that’s fairly realistic.
However, the game does kind of mess up a bit in a few areas with Erica. A major theme of the game is that unfaithful men begin having nightmares following their affairs, and Erica also begins having these same nightmares, despite the fact they happen exclusively to men. When she finally accepts Toby’s advances and the two have sex, Toby remarks that having sex with her is “weird”, to his friend’s disgust, and after learning that Erica was assigned male at birth under the name ‘Eric’, expresses regret and disgust in the True Lovers ending. She’s also referred to as “Eric (Erica) Anderson” in the game’s credits, which is really unnecessary… I like Erica, but the atmosphere around the character isn’t too friendly at all, which is a shame.
Gwyndolin is an… odd case, given how vague a lot of the Dark Souls (2011) lore tends to be. He’s the lastborn son of Gwyn, Lord of Cinder, but had powers associated with the moon and thus was raised as a girl instead as was their tradition, and likely through his magic takes on traditionally feminine characteristics. I say “he” only because item descriptions refer to him as male, and Gwyndolin doesn’t speak much of himself at all, and the few NPCs that refer to him at all give him reverential titles rather than pronouns. The item description for the Darkmoon Blade Covenant Ring, however, does hint at Gwyndolin finding his body repulsive, which could be a sign of dysphoria. But Gwyndolin is a lot like Bridget, I suppose; not trans, but comfortable in the way he presents, although the long snakes protruding from under his dress does have some rather unfortunate subtext to it…
Papers, Please is a fantastic one-man developed game focussing on the emotional tolls of a border patrol officer in a fictitious communist country called Arstotzka, as he tries to make enough money to support his wife and son while often dealing with very difficult situations that force the player to really think about their actions. To that end are the semi-frequent instances of people whose passports identify them by a gender they don’t physically appear to be, with the harsh Arstotzkan law dictating that you perform a full body scan of them to verify their physical gender, and either denying them access or outright detaining them if their body does not match their passport’s gender.
It’s a messed up situation to be sure, but debatably the only instance on this list where the negative treatment of transfolk in a game is used to enhance the game, highlighting discrimination and encouraging introspection in the player, as Papers, Please often throws complex, difficult situations at you that test your moral compass in various ways. The decision of whether or not to grant asylum to people whom just want to be recognised as their preferred gender, but thusly defying the law that refuses to recognise that gender identity, is definitely an interesting topic to bring up in such a context, where border patrol can often be terrifying for transfolk in unwelcoming countries. It helps that Papers, Please doesn’t treat your actions as right or wrong either which way, and it does reflect the poor treatment of transfolk in Russia even to this day.
I like Papers, Please and I think its portrayal of transfolk, while decidedly somewhat negative, is perfectly acceptable given the context of the game’s ambiguous morality.
Grand Theft Auto V
I don’t really want to give too much attention to this one because Grand Theft Auto thrives on controversy, but it’s worth noting that Grand Theft Auto V (2013) features a fairly tremendous deal of offensive depictions of transwomen. Jumping back on the stereotype of transwomen being predominantly sex workers, GTAV treats them with the kind of finesse you’d expect from the series, depicting them in the stereotypical “man with women’s clothing and make-up” portrayal that you see a lot in reference to us. The game also features lines like “Almost fooled me, bro-she. Almost,” and visible crotch bulges on several of their models, which are not visible on any of the actual male character models. GTAV also features adverts for an in-game postal delivery service that say “Post-Op: No Longer Just Mail,” a rather weak wordplay joke. But... it's Grand Theft Auto, what do you expect?
Bioware are probably the single most LGBT-friendly developers in the triple-A industry at this point, as even though they rarely get a perfect representation of the many different gender and sexuality spectrums, damn it all if they don’t try as they consistently feature LGBT characters in virtually all of their games. In Dragon Age: Inquisition (2014), we’re introduced to a character named Cremisius Aclassi, often going by the name of Krem, who was raised as a girl but always “felt different from the other girls” and often pretended to shave with his father, reflecting early sentiments trans children often have about gender dysphoria. After his family tore apart, Krem joined the Tevinter military presenting as male since women’s roles in the army were heavily restricted, bribing the healer to overlook his assigned gender during physical checks. When found out, however, he is faced with either slavery or death, so runs away and is rescued by the mercenary group Bull Charger’s, and joins them as The Iron Bull’s lieutenant.
BioWare have specifically stated that Krem is a transman, and wanted to write him in such a way that his being transgender was a core element of his character, not just something tacked on awkwardly. While it’s a bit jarring that he’s voiced by a woman (the very talented Jennifer Hale, I might add), I do want to give that a pass since this is a medieval fantasy setting where I imagine hormone therapy isn’t a thing. The Iron Bull also describes Krem with a concept in his culture called “aqun-athlok”, which he describes as “someone born of one gender but living as another,” further insisting that Krem isn’t like a real man, he is a real man. I like Krem, and I would say he’s the best transgender character in video games at this point, and will hopefully serve as a template for future studios to build their transgendered characters in a sympathetic and appropriate fashion.
And that’s the end of that! As you can see, the general attitude towards transgender issues has evolved a tremendous deal since the awkward beginnings in the 1980s. While there is a great deal of work left to be done before we’ve really established transgenderism as an accepted, maturely explored topic, I have hope that it’s slowly getting better and before long, all this “haha it’s really a MAN!” and bigoted language against us will be but a quaint memory of a time when we were far less informed and educated. Thanks so much for reading, and I hope you enjoyed!