“...recognition, acceptance, and normalization.”
May 4, 2018 9:09 PM   Subscribe

Select Your Character: Why Games Need More Non-Binary Character Options [The Mary Sue] “Of course, if female protagonists are uncommon, then non-binary protagonists are even rarer. I can create an avatar that looks pretty much like me, but they will always be misgendered in dialog with NPCs and called either “she” or “he.” I get misgendered almost constantly in the real world; I’d love the ability to escape that drudgery in my hobby of choice, and I know that there are plenty of other non-binary gamers who feel the same. Further, the option to play as a non-binary protagonist would open new avenues for male and female gamers too. The stories they could experience would be fresh, new, and interesting, and, hopefully, help them gain a little bit of insight into what it’s like to be outside the gender binary. And having non-binary representation might help people who were like me a few years ago: confused and upset about something in themselves, but unsure how to articulate it.”

• The They/Them Option in 'BattleTech' Is About So Much More Than Choice [Waypoint]
“BattleTech, like a lot of video games, lets you create your own character. In this case, the tiny pilot who resides inside the hulking metal beasts that fling rockets and lasers at one another in pursuit of wealth and power. But quite unlike a lot of games, BattleTech provides players with far more options, especially when it comes to pronouns: he, she, they. A character using a they pronoun doesn’t just have access to every gender portrait, but every character trait, too. All of BattleTech’s beards, hair, scars, makeup—nothing’s gender locked. [...] It speaks volumes about the lack of options available to a regularly ignored group of people that merely announcing non-binary pronoun options for BattleTech managed to provoke any emotion—joy or anger.”
• Why non-binary player-characters are important, and you should support them [PC Authority]
“It’s important to consider why we are asking players to specify the gender of their player-character. And if it’s to determine which pronouns other characters use when referring to the player, why not ask that instead? Games like Pyre offer developers like Prideful Sloth - who made Yonder - an example that they might emulate, and they’ve taken note [see above tweet]. The more games innovate with gender neutral pronoun options and nonbinary player-characters, the more examples there are for future developers to use as inspiration, and the more opportunities there are for nonbinary players to feel represented. We need to include non-binary characters in the game worlds we create, because non-binary people live in the world we share.”
• How Non-Binary Folks Navigate Creating Avatars In Video Games [Into More]
“One of the best parts of starting a new roleplaying game is creating a new character. In fact, my roommate often times just creates a character and doesn’t play the actual game. And what I’ve discovered over my years of gaming is that everyone has a different strategy when they go to create a character. Some people want to make a character that looks badass or interesting, and some people just want to make something that resembles them. However, when you’re not white and you’re not cisgender, this process can become more complicated. All of a sudden these options become a lot more limited. I talked to a couple non-binary gamers about their experiences with character creation. I asked them how they decided which gender to play in a binary game. Darya, an indigenous non-binary gamer, told me that they most often played as female characters because they present more femme than masc. Then Darya pointed out something that I hadn’t thought about. “I feel that several games with alien races and fairly in-depth character creation, like Mass Effect and Star Wars: The Old Republic, missed the opportunity to explore gender in other species,” they told me. “No one escapes the gender binary in games, not even robots.” “It’s maddening.” they continued.”
• The modders making games more gender-diverse [Rock Paper Shotgun]
“Hannah just wanted to be a farmer. Not a male farmer. Not a female farmer. Just a farmer that didn’t have to suffer NPC after NPC lumping them into one gender or the other. Hannah’s hopes rose with the release of Stardew Valley, but after jumping into the farming sim they discovered it offered only male and female gender identities, with he/she pronouns to match. As someone who identifies as non-binary, Hannah couldn’t help but be disappointed. “I’ve almost come to expect little to no representation,” says Hannah. “Being able to play a character that is different from myself is fun and interesting, but playing one true to myself I find is often more fun. It feels more real if you are in the world rather than just an observer playing a person in that world.” Unwilling to sit idly by, Hannah took it upon themselves to broaden Stardew Valley’s gender diversity, modding the game so that NPCs referred to the protagonist with gender-neutral pronouns and replacing the gender symbols in the character creator with ungendered body-type indicators.”
• Microsoft’s diverse new Xbox Live avatars will launch in April [The Verge][YouTube]
“Microsoft is planning to launch its new Xbox Live Avatars next month. The software giant first unveiled the redesigned avatars at E3 last year, and originally planned to provide them to Windows 10 users by the end of 2017. Microsoft missed that target, but sources familiar with the company’s Xbox plans tell The Verge that it will preview the new avatars to Xbox Insiders this month. Microsoft’s Xbox employees already have access to the new avatar system, and the Xbox Alpha group of testers will get access first before they’re broadly available next month. The new avatars will let you fully customize your online character with new body type options, clothing, and props. Microsoft is offering a variety of options that focus on diversity, and the company’s original trailer showed an amputee, playful costumes, wheelchairs, skateboards, and even motorbikes to highlight all of the props and customization that will be available.”
• Transgender and Gender Diverse game developers and their games [Check Point Gaming]
“March 31st was Transgender Day of Visibility, a day to celebrate trans people and their achievements. This important day also gives us an opportunity to shine a spotlight on the amazing work done by the trans community within the gaming industry, an industry that has been historically imperfect when it comes to trans representation and inclusion. We may be a few days late, but that’s certainly no excuse not to highlight and celebrate some awesome games made by some awesome people. With this in mind, I took to Twitter. The outpouring of community support and offers to participate have been incredible! So in a daring feat I’ll be attempting to include everyone who messaged me so as to get their voices out there and gain some visibility.”
posted by Fizz (22 comments total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
This is... relevant to my interests. I'm fairly fluid- so I accept he/she pronouns in RL but online I've always been a stickler for "they" because that's me too- and online I don't have to worry about provoking a confrontation with someone who for whatever reason wont accept "they", as so many people in RL wont- even among the queer community. I suppose I'm lucky in some ways, I'm fluid enough that she/he doesn't trigger my dysphoria (that bad anyways), but I'm one of those queer kids who upon learning "they" was an option was just over the moon. It fits me so well! I really hope by the next round of games I buy (elder scrolls 6 pls! TODD HOWARD DO NOT FAIL ME NOW) They might be a viable, non-modded option.
posted by Homo neanderthalensis at 9:35 PM on May 4, 2018 [1 favorite]

The new generation of Pokémon games don't ask you to pick a gender, but just ask "Which of these pictures looks most like you?" I thought that was a nice touch. I haven't noticed how they deal with pronouns, but it wouldn't surprise me if they always use 'they', since it's rare that a character talks about you to another character instead of addressing you directly anyway.

Plus like, from a writing/scripting standpoint, it's just straight-up easier.
posted by rifflesby at 10:08 PM on May 4, 2018 [3 favorites]

Read Only Memories is a recent (and great!) point & click adventure game that will not only offer lots of pronoun options (including filling in your own), but will even ask about your dietary choices. You can tell the game you're vegan!
posted by Grimp0teuthis at 10:18 PM on May 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Nice post, thank you.

One of the things I've noticed lately is that the trend for fully-voiced and fully-animated player characters who are performed in highly gendered ways really puts me off, and is likely a big reason why I gravitate to isometric RPGs and vehicle-piloting games. I have a subscription that gets me a monthly drop of free games, sometimes of the "dude saves the world" variety, and I struggle to get engaged when that choice is forced. The abstraction provides a nice bit of emotional distance. If I wanted to perform in other people's gendered fantasies, I can just go to work or the mall.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 5:41 AM on May 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

I honestly find it frankly bizarre when people complain that the chargen for characters /allows/ characters with options they don’t want in their character. Like, no one is forcing your own character to be gender neutral! Your game is just the same as if that option did not exist! It’s just letting someone else who isn’t you have a good time!
posted by corb at 5:49 AM on May 5, 2018 [11 favorites]

corb: Because it's not really about the options available for play. It's about the perception of gatekeeping a hobby where white male PC gamers are a minority (white and male) of a minority (American) of a minority (PC and console gamers). The reality that publishers have over $100 billion more reasons to grow their audience in areas that are not oversaturated goes right over their head.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 5:59 AM on May 5, 2018 [9 favorites]

It's because players are not developers, and don't understand how these things work.

In reality, people find it easier to put in time on things they care about, so an NB developer will happily take the lead on a more fluid character creation process. A trans developer will put in overtime to vet all of the pronouns in the dialog. Software is all about reusing code and assets, so time spent on this game will save time on that game, and techniques can be shared even across studios.

All the players see is "they included this feature, but the game is missing THAT feature I wanted," and assume time/effort was misallocated. They think games are somehow built in a factory assembly line, where work-hours are fungible.

I've seen it a ton in the League of Legends community, where one champ has like 12 skins, and another has 2. "Why don't you make a third skin for Yorick? Why does Teemo get a 13th skin?" Because the artists like Teemo, and he's fun to work with, you insufferable idiots.
posted by explosion at 6:26 AM on May 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

My response to people bitching about the enby option in MechWarriors is, dude, now you can name your party after Team DaiGurren and have the proper pronouns for Leeon, how is this anything but wonderful?
posted by egypturnash at 8:32 AM on May 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

IIRC, the Sims now asks if your character can get pregnant or impregnate others and whether it sits or stands to pee.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:51 AM on May 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

Features, optimization, and immersion are smokescreens when a title is brigaded on release day by reviewers who bought the game an immediately asked for a refund.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 8:53 AM on May 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

And the original Sims way back in the day allowed same-sex relationships simply because the programmers didn't think to add any additional code to prevent them.
posted by Jacqueline at 8:55 AM on May 5, 2018 [1 favorite]

Offering pronouns or non-binary customisation seems to be easier if they don't need to depict a 3D, animated human. The trick, from what I understand, is the hips.

From what I understand, the technology used to power animation in games involves tying the outside surface to lines, called 'bones', representing each bit that can move (the torso, forearm, jaw, foot, tail, wings, etc.). These bones are all tied to each other so that if you move, say, a forearm, everything on the other end of the arm moves as you expect. The problem is the animation is dependent on the specific lengths of the bones - and the hip is usually given its own bone.

Usually, developers make two player models, with two different skeletons, so they can guarantee the animations look good on the player model it's designed for. They then allow customisation of anything that's not tied to bone length - so you can change facial appearance and hair style and clothing, and you can also scale everything up evenly, but you can't change the proportions, like leg length, for instance. If they make one player model that players can tweak to have wider hips or longer legs, you have to make sure your animations will look good on every possibility, which means you need an animation generation system. At this point, it's starting to feel like a major expense; indie developers don't have that kind of budget, and AAA developers all have Mass Effect Andromeda's malfunctioning animation generation system and how all those developers got fired in the back of their minds.

Then again, some of this is because there's no best practice yet. Black hair styles used to be pretty dire ten years ago, because the tech used for hair was really only able to handle white person hair, and doing anything about it was put in the too-hard basket until a Kotaku writer brought it up. It's not yet at the point where there's a best practice for black hair, but it's being frequently tackled by both AAAs and indies.
posted by Merus at 9:19 AM on May 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

Yeah, animation rigging is going to be a major expense, and as Mass Effect: Andromeda demonstrated, an area where cutting costs will put you deep into the uncanny valley.

But there's no reason why a game must have 3D rendered cut-scenes. Independent games repeatedly prove that 2D sequential art can be effective for storytelling. And then you have MOBAs where you're picking from a dozen different rigging models anyway. A nonbinary character model or rig doesn't necessarily have to be customizable, just breaking away from the exaggerated caricature of most game design would do the trick.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 10:45 AM on May 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

tech used for hair was really only able to handle white person hair
In what way?
posted by inconstant at 3:23 PM on May 5, 2018

I assure you my pronouns have nothing to do with generalizations about hip ratios.
posted by advicepig at 3:49 PM on May 5, 2018 [7 favorites]

Asking to be called "they" is a lot easier, and more relevant, than changing my hips.

And in the game.
posted by Foosnark at 5:09 PM on May 5, 2018 [6 favorites]

I dismissed out of hand the scenario where you either pick a male human model or a female human model, and then select a pronoun, as not pleasing anyone. If that is genuinely sufficient, then I'm sorry for making assumptions. (I want to emphasise that I'm not making excuses for why games in general don't offer the option; just the technical challenges around this specific case. If you're not making a game with a customisable 3D animated human character, there's no reason not to accomodate non-binary people at this point - it's usually very cheap and makes a portion of your audience very happy.)

In what way?

Hair tech in 3D games has favoured hair styles that are either dense, with defined edges (crew cuts, short and even, ponytails, buns, afros, cornrows, whatever's going on with Cloud Strife's hair) or strands of long, straight hair. The former is a set of triangles like the rest of the model; the latter is made up of transparent surfaces (triangles again) with a hair strand painted on. Loosely packed curly hair isn't either of those, and can't really be represented as a combination of triangles. Here's a game artist for an indie studio talking about how their character's hair and how they're implementing it, with a link to the Kotaku post that brought this deficiency to wider attention.
posted by Merus at 8:00 PM on May 5, 2018 [3 favorites]

The character creators/modifiers in Saint's Row 2/3-and-beyond were kinda like this? You have to pick a "male" or "female" body at the beginning, but you can set up any body with any voice, any hairstyle (including facial hair?), and any walk cycle.

Also you can give them BIG STARING EYES and shrink their irises down which gives them the most excellent crazy-eyes of any video game evar.
posted by GCU Sweet and Full of Grace at 9:20 PM on May 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

On top of the character skeleton and rig (which determine how the character can transform and move), you have multiple layers of gendered design. I didn't get very far into Saints Row, not really my thing. But the gender options to my memory were a male and female skeleton and rig, with options to adjust the body mass, and also the stance which I find important.

I just loaded Dragon Age: Inquisition for the first time in a year, rolled up a female elf, and there's something about the standing, walking, and running animation that strikes me as being weirdly gendered (that's the first video I clicked on, obviously the person doing the playthrough noticed it also). I work with some people who have animation experience so I suspect that someone along the line was told to push the pose and the animation in order to make gender clearly legible. I think the cut scenes were animated differently. Cassandra--who's walking around with this big shield and a ridiculously big sword--has a neutral stance in cut scenes but drops into this weird Agnes de Mille dance walk during gameplay.

I think Cryptic's MMOs also have a "stance" option that determines resting animation, walk, and run cycle. You can pick something with hyper-exaggerated masculinity or femininity, or a more neutral stance. Elite Dangerous has a character creator with surprisingly variable faces on top of standardized male and female bodies. But I don't mind as much since I play solo mode and my virtual body isn't accessible, even to myself in gameplay.

A while ago I came across this piece about queer masculinity in stealth games. I don't really get that and Adam Jensen is about as foreign to me as Geralt.

Currently I think the current practice in character design for both games and animation is to push the gender to a cartoonish extreme so the character is clearly legible as a "man" or "woman." Tracer is probably a good example of how far that's done. I don't think designers need to necessarily design a nonbinary avatar from scratch. In fact, I'm not all that convinced that realistic skeletons and rigs would be clearly dimorphic (except in height) to the untrained eye. Dialing down the exaggeration of weight distribution, animated walks, costuming, and hair might do the trick.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 11:01 PM on May 5, 2018 [5 favorites]

tech used for hair was really only able to handle white person hair

In what way?

Some while back, I posted on the subject of video games and diversity (no one is surprised by this), specifically in relation to blackness. Here is the post. There's some cool articles that get into hair and game design.
posted by Fizz at 4:05 AM on May 6, 2018 [1 favorite]

I guess where I was coming from was games that had zero black hairstyles or literally only a big afro (I even remember an 2D MMO without animated hair where the hairline transition colors were "hardcoded" and showed up as an incongruous pink splotch on dark-skinned characters). I feel like devs didn't even bother exploring different kinds of short or cornrowed hairstyles, let alone the short, plain, conservative hairstyles like the ones mentioned in the second article of Fizz's linked post. It's not as if the straight hairstyles in MMOs are always Pixar levels of animated realism (and I remain, as always, deeply skeptical of the AAA attitude that hyperrealistic graphic detail == artistic value).
I dismissed out of hand the scenario where you either pick a male human model or a female human model
As others have said and which I will say perhaps more plainly, as far as models go, the starting point should be "don't start by segregating according to ciscentric gender exaggerations"; i.e., don't have a male model and a female model. Two models only if you must, reflecting two common basic body structures, but there is no point in gender-locking them. Body shape is not gender. I can guarantee you that the vast majority of nonbinary people are not magical shapeshifters who go around morphing their pelvises into unrecognizable shapes and changing the lengths of their legs on a whim. We are not asking for magical shapeshifter avatars (although those would be cool too). 3D animated games with character customization have zero technological excuse for locking players into the binary.

And plainer still: Body shape is not gender, body shape is not gender, body shape is not gender.
posted by inconstant at 9:02 AM on May 6, 2018 [4 favorites]

Thank you inconstant for that last comment. As much as I wish I could magically shape shift, it’s right on. One thing that makes me super grumpy in Bitmoji is since I picked a body that looks like mine and can have facial hair, I can’t pick the outfits I tend to wear.
posted by advicepig at 3:14 PM on May 6, 2018

« Older That is something very bad that I used to be good...   |   Build me up, tear me down / Like a skyscraper Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments