Character creation is one of the greatest parts of role-playing games; we get to decide what we look like, our skills, often what we sound like, and—of course—what gender we play as.
And that’s where game studios fall short. Pretty much every single time.
Gender is an intensely personal aspect of our lives but we always leave it up to games to dictate what we can and cannot be. This is a big problem for folks like me that don’t fit into whatever is on offer, be it a matter of language, culture, or appearance.
This isn’t to say that games with set-in-stone characters need to be opened up for full identity expression. Set stories often need set characters that fit in culturally and narratively—for instance, if you’re playing games about cowboys or prohibition-era USA. But what about games based around fantasy, or sci-fi, or even modern day where you get to immerse yourself in your own world? Why are we always stuck with Male/Female and an accompanying appearance sheet?
Who decided that what I am doesn’t get to exist?
There have been a few notable recent examples of when games totally missed the mark. Firstly one of my favourite chill-out games, Stardew Valley. This is a gorgeous, peaceful, time-sink of a game that suffers from being utterly gendered at every stage of interaction.
Every time you meets someone it’s “Hey Farm-girl/Farm-boy”, and you’re stuck with a body type that’s set up for the binary gender. Doesn’t matter if you happen to be a more lightly built man or heavier built woman, you get what’s given to you. Don’t identify as either? Well, too bad.
The only saving grace for Stardew Valley is some amazing people put in the effort to make a genderless mod for the game, stripping out the gendered language and replacing the M/F with body types 1 or 2. Without this mod, I can’t play the game. So, without mod support, my Switch copy remains collecting figurative dust.
A more recent and far more glaring example is FarCry: New Dawn. When I started this game I was presented with “Select a body type”. My heart skipped a beat. Was this a AAA game company that would let me play someone that looked kinda like me without being gendered?
No. It isn’t. You can’t go five minutes without getting “There she is”, “Let me help you, girlie”, or “Little lady” shouted at you. The game is post-apocalyptic. Surely we’ve gotten past gender constructs by now?
What do we have to take away from all this? Simple, if you don’t need to gender something or someone: DON’T.
Non-gendered language is actually easier. The singular gender neutral pronoun—They—exists for a reason. Game companies would save a lot in voice acting if they didn’t have to gender every other line. It’s more inclusive. It allows players to play their character without being constantly being misgendered.
Don’t put appearances behind gender barriers. If someone uses he/him pronouns don’t stick them with only the “male” faces, give them the whole selection to match who they are. Give us pronouns to select from, and refer to them regularly so we feel included—something BattleTech missed the mark on, but points to them for giving us an option at least—and strip out the gender option altogether.
Mostly we need to take away that the world is made of so many wonderfully different kinds of people, it’s often hard to keep track. So instead of trying to be inclusive of some, let’s be inclusive for all.