Guest Column: Visibility is Not Enough

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Two years ago, in Dragon Age: Inquisition, my Inquisitor sat down to have drinks with Iron Bull and his mercenary cohorts. This was the first time I really got to know Cremisius “Krem” Aclassi, Bull’s right hand man. I got to learn about his yearning as he looked up at his father while he shaved, his hate of women’s clothing, and the prejudice he faced back in his homeland of Tevinter. Because Krem is transgender, born into a body that did not fit his gender identity. In hearing about his struggle, I heard a story not unlike my own. It was gobsmacked; AAA games were the last place I expected to hear a trans story. I looked to see who they got to voice this transgender character. It was Jennifer Hale.

For some, this means nothing. It means they got a quality voice actress with a history of expressive performances. For me, this was a problem. Here I was, faced with one of the few trans persons I’d ever encountered in a game and they weren’t even voiced by a transman. In fact, as I looked for more information on Krem’s creation, I came upon a blog post by his writer, Patrick Weekes. Turns out that very little about Krem, in the conceptual and creative phase, is transgender. Weekes is a heterosexual, cisgendered man and while Krem was animated by the highly capable and talented Jon Epler, he is not a transman. To his credit, Weekes sought out two unspecified genderqueer friends in writing Krem but Dragon Age’s first prominent transgender character was created with a minimal amount of input from trans writers, animators, or performers.

Sadly, our industry seems ill equipped to take action to change this status quo. Whenever I go to PAX or other conventions, I make a deliberate point of attending LGBTQ panels. There’s a great sense of solidarity to be found, but I’ve always walked away disappointed. The thing I hear, time and time again, is that it is important to be visibly queer. That being proud of our identity and presenting it openly will embolden our brothers and sisters to join us in solidarity. That being open and visibly gay, trans, gender fluid, or whatever will help change the industry by showing people that it is safe to be queer if you are working in games.

Athena and Janey from Tales from the Borderlands.
Athena and Janey from Tales from the Borderlands.

We are told, time and time again, that visibility will be transformative. But the more I think about it, the clearer it becomes that while visibility may be necessary for change, it is not sufficient. Visibility alone will not bring the change that we want. Visibility is not enough. If it were, Krem would not have been voiced by Jennifer Hale or written by Patrick Weekes.

This is not to suggest that gaming has not become more inclusive. It absolutely has. There are more gay and bisexual characters in games. There are more black protagonists in games. There are more three dimensional and well rounded women characters in games. For all its failings, Inquisition still has Dorian and Iron Bull. Assassin’s Creed still has Aveline and Adéwalé. Uncharted still has Elena and Chloe. These are characters that deal with their sexuality, that are affected by their blackness, and manage their relationship with their femininity while still being complex and compelling.

But when marginalized people are allowed little say in our representation, we continue to be marginalized. Even games that succeed elsewhere fail on other accounts: Uncharted 4 deftly navigates Elena’s character but undercuts itself when the highly capable Nadine Ross is voiced and motion captured by Laura Bailey. The message is that our experiences matter so little outside of token lip service that anyone might take up the torch and create a simulated version of us. A white woman can play a black character, a cisgendered woman can play a trans man.

Nadine Ross from Uncharted 4.
Nadine Ross from Uncharted 4.

Representation is powerful. Having these characters matters. It acknowledges our existence. However, visibility is ultimately of middling worth when marginalized people are not included in the formation of their icons. It allows for the creation of inauthentic characters, the perpetuation of stereotypes, the preservation of insularities, and the continuation of professional and hobbyist cultural failings. Things are left incomplete; works are left imperfect by grand magnitudes. And this imperfection has a cost.

One need only look at recent response to minority characters to understand why I feel this way. When Baldur’s Gate: Siege of Dragonspear released earlier this year, players encountered Mizhena. Mizhena is a cleric who explains that she took her name after she and her family found her birth name did not suit her. She was raised as a boy but took the new name when she realized she was, in fact, a woman. Many players, or at least a loud subset of players, were outraged. Incensed at the idea of a trans character in their game, they downvoted the title on Steam and started a smear campaign against the developer, Beamdog.

It was a repeat of a cycle we saw last year, when critic Tauriq Moosa used The Witcher 3 to explore and examine gaming’s trouble with racial representation. And while I would be remiss to ignore that The Witcher is a proud product of Polish culture, I believe Mr. Moosa’s point was well made. If we cannot find a place for minorities in our fantasies, how will we ever find a place for them in our reality?

Marcus Holloway from Watch Dogs 2
Marcus Holloway from Watch Dogs 2

Thus, we are faced with a two pronged problem: visibility cannot be enough in an industry that does not allow minority voices to participate in the creation and performance of the characters meant to represent them nor can it be enough in a wider games culture that holds a loud and dangerous subset of reactionaries who will not even broach the existence of minority characters in “their” games. How can we even begin to suggest that visibility is enough when the reveal of Watch Dogs 2’s Marcus Holloway has people longing for the days of douchebag Aiden Pearce?

An argument might be made that no level of inclusion in the creative process could properly combat the forces of transmisogyny, racism, or other biases. It is compelling to say that we must settle, if only because these forces can never be destroyed. Yet, by allowing margialized people to participate in the professional processes they’ve been denied access to, I do believe that these forces can be adequately opposed. By providing authentic representatives, crafted by artists with applicable life experience, we can expose players to our struggles. We can put them in our shoes or make them witnesses to our pain. We can ensure that we are not ignored.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Laura Martin's Black Panther.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Laura Martin’s Black Panther.

Other mediums are managing this feat as we speak. When the time came to choose the next writer for the new Black Panther comics series, Marvel didn’t hand it off to an in house writer like Brian Michael Bendis. Instead, they sought out the voice of Ta-Nehisi Coates. The result was one of the best selling comics of the year. And while a films might still cast Eddie Redmayne or Jared Leto to play transwomen, Netflix’s decision to cast Laverne Cox in Orange is the New Black proved to be revelatory, bringing the transgender experience, as presented by a transwoman, into thousands of homes. It is unacceptable that games continue to lag behind. It is, I dare day, downright shameful.

Visibility will never be enough. Visibility, I fear, is easily placated. It demands only that we be seen, if only for a brief second. Forward facing representation demands that we be made equal partners in art. We cannot be adjacent to creation. Our avatars and digital representatives cannot be adjacent to the adventure. From start to finish, conception to play, our voices must not just be heard. They must be actively courted and included. Without these measures, games will tread water on representation and be all the worse for it.


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