Is the gaming world becoming more trans-inclusive?

With upcoming release 'Tell Me Why' marking the first video game from a major developer to feature a playable transgender character, it seems the industry is beginning to modernise.

by Jake Hall
30 January 2020, 11:00am

Late last year, DONTNOD Entertainment made headlines with a beautiful, atmospheric trailer for upcoming release Tell Me Why. News outlets described it as the first game from a major developer to ever feature a “playable transgender character”: 21-year-old trans man, Tyler, who lives in Alaska with twin sister Alyson and shares special powers, which they harness to uncover childhood memories.

Early reports promised a complex and nuanced storyline, which veers away from simplistic “trans tropes” and aims to create genuinely interesting representation. To pull this off, developers turned to US NGO GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation) for consultation.

“Games have the ability to put players in the shoes of these characters, providing intimate first-person perspectives into the trans experience,” says Blair Durkee, GLAAD’s Special Gaming Consultant, citing research which found that only 20% of adults in the US actually know a trans person. “This is the power of Tell Me Why: we believe Tyler’s story will deeply resonate with players and foster acceptance in those who may not yet fully understand the trans community.”

In other words, representation is crucial -- but does this landmark indicate that mainstream gaming is genuinely about to become more trans-inclusive?

“DONTNOD is known for their ability to tell emotional stories in tasteful and engaging ways, so I have hope that Tyler will be handled pretty well,” says Twitch streamer and acclaimed author Laura Kate Dale. “As for whether it will have a lasting or positive impact on the industry as a whole, that remains to be seen, and I’ll wait until the game is out to feel too strongly either way.”

Rainbow Arcade, an exhibition shown last year at Berlin’s Schwules Museum, traced a more extensive history of LGBTQ+ representation in gaming. From the brilliantly wacky GayBlade to the straight-up problematic Leisure Suit Larry, the comprehensive exhibition unwittingly proved a key point: independent creators have been making incredible queer content for decades.

This is still the case today, and a handful of trans-led curator groups have cropped up to spotlight the best examples. Gaming platform even has an exemplary list of 'Trans-Tastic Games’, which collates and celebrates trans-inclusive new titles. Its most recent recommendation is Dupli_City, an innovative game filled with trans and non-binary characters who band together to defeat an evil, AI-led corporation.

Another hit with the group is one night, hot springs , a free to play and highly engaging game developed by independent creator npckc. The plot, npckc explains, was based on the true story of an arrest made in a Japanese public bathhouse. “Someone told the staff that this person was dressed in a wig, spoke in a high-pitched voice and said that they were a woman -- that was all the information there was." Frustrated and saddened by the story, the creator decided to “make a story where a trans woman could go to the hot springs in an accepting atmosphere.” Since its release the game has earned a cult following for its adorable graphics and nuanced storyline. “I’ve had a few transphobic comments, but overall the reception has been kind, and I’m grateful for it.”


Representation is one challenge, but what about protecting trans streamers online? 2014’s notorious #GamerGate famously exposed a wave of toxic discrimination within the gaming community, but Laura argues that things have improved since then. “By the time I started doing streams on Twitch with more regularity, there were a bunch of tools in place to help automate some of the process of dealing with harassment,” she explains, citing ‘Auto-mod’ -- which detects and automatically flags key words -- as an example. “It’s pretty easy to guess and predict what terms are going to get thrown your way as a minority on the internet after a while, and it’s easier than ever to manage automatically.”

Despite the occasional “raid” (where someone with anti-trans opinions thinks it’s funny to bring their audience over to make jokes until they tire themselves out), Laura describes her experiences as “pretty lovely -- the people who regularly watch my streams are as sweet as can be.” Now, when harassment does occur, she’s better-equipped to handle it. "I don’t fan the flame or provide the satisfaction of a response."

TransGamerGirl3, who recently began streaming regularly on Mixer, says her experiences have been similarly positive. She says she's managed to avoid transmisogny in the community, while building a supportive group of friends through both streaming and Twitter. "They like my stream posts, reblog and really just make me feel like part of the community," she says. Her aim is to always spread positivity online, so she’s quick to block rude or nasty trolls from chat rooms. Yet her follower count doesn’t always translate into actual viewers -- “I do always find myself wondering if it’s because I’m trans,” she admits.

Stories like these are a good indication that the gaming world in general is becoming less hostile towards trans players, despite the occasional incidence of transphobia. Twitch even became an advocacy hotspot last year, when HBomberGuy gamed through a 57-hour livestream to raise funds for vital UK trans charity Mermaids, which was smeared by transphobes looking to rob organisers of their well-deserved £500,000 National Lottery Grant. Not only did he rack up almost $350,000 in donations, he made a trans ally -- and an incredible meme -- of Donkey Kong, all the while garnering positive press coverage which resulted in Mermaids being awarded the initial funding, too.

As for the issue of representation, it remains to be seen whether Tell Me Why will change anything. As Laura points out, past trans characters have already had their progressive legacies erased; as for talented independent creators, they’re still too often left out of the conversation. Still, TransGamerGirl3 remains hopeful. “It’s like anything trans-related -- it will take time, and it will take people trying to become more understanding and less judgemental," she says. Ultimately, she’s optimistic that stigma around trans characters will be erased to the extent that their inclusion alone isn’t headline-worthy:

“Once people realise we’re normal human beings and not monsters, then the conversation can just go back to video games.”