It goes without saying that there is yet another ridiculous controversy in gaming, this time involving the release of the latest Baldur’s Gate expansion, Siege of Dragonspear. Sadly it’s not about the fact they’ve actually released an expansion to a game that is, by all accounts, incredibly old by this point in a “Why now?” sense. Unfortunately this controversy revolves around a progressive character they’ve included, a transgender cleric called Mizhena. The particular complaint and why this is a problem? Well, that’s sadly where things get incredibly messy and once again, the inclusion of non-straight cis-gendered characters has been called into question.
Primarily the backlash against Mizhena is guided by the same predictable and too common transphobic sentiments, which lurk beneath the gaming community (and in general). In one particular comment section I was reading while preparing to write this article, someone actually thought a persuasive argument (to a trans person) was to tell them “You don’t know if I could be violent to you if you told me you were trans”. To actually read someone try to imply violence against trans people as a reason for this character being implausible was remarkable. In particular, it’s worth noting that the openness of Mizhena in declaring that she is trans during dialog is the particular point of contention. A large number of the negative reviews focus on this apparent poor writing, citing that trans people in real life don’t admit they are trans openly.
Well when you have people seriously arguing that they might commit violence against a person if they admitted they were trans, it’s pretty easy to see why our real world has that fear. This overwhelming reminder of this fear trans people should have from anyone that’s cis if they admit they are trans to them, is the defining aspect of the poor writing argument. It’s also by far the most ridiculous and offensive assumption, because it’s inherently applying standards of the real world to a fantasy universe. This assumption is not reasonable for a wide variety of reasons, especially considering we are talking about a type of person who does (in fact) exist in reality. Inherently when this is pointed out, there are usually two rejoinders to the argument. Firstly that it’s inherently political and secondly because it’s breaking the games immersion (verisimilitude).
I’m not even going to give an ounce of respect to the first part of the typical response, because declaring the existence of trans people in a game “political” is asinine nonsense. It doesn’t deserve a respectful response and can be dismissed out of hand. What I will instead focus on is the second part, because does Mizhena’s dialog and admission really break the games verisimilitude inherently? Let’s remember that we’re talking about Dungeons and Dragons, a setting where gigantic small car sized spiders with swords for feet, magic that can rend reality and physics defying fire breathing lizards exist. We’re supposed to buy, inherently that trans people are so remarkable that people would react entirely violently to their exposure.
Just stop for a moment before I continue and consider that concept. A trans person is supposed to evoke fear and revulsion to the point of fearing instant attack, in a world where people are used to gigantic spiders, magic and dragons.
Alright if you didn’t immediately dismiss this entire argument about it being immersion breaking out of hand, let’s consider some other aspects. The first is that magic allows people to change their appearance, gender and other characteristics easily. Baldur’s Gate has already explored this in the past as well, as Edwin the mage has an entire side quest involving a girdle of gender bending. In this side quest in Baldur’s Gate 2, Edwin becomes a woman called Edwina after putting on the belt allowing, the mage to avoid a group pursuing them. Initially Edwina is not very impressed with the situation, but over time and further dialog actually starts to enjoy being a woman – at least until the spell is dispelled reverting them back to Edwin.
While the side quest does, IMO have some transphobic elements to it as it’s largely played up for chuckles and laughs (for the player), the characters don’t treat Edwina with any remarkable difference. It’s entirely normal to them that Edwin is now Edwina and they don’t particularly treat them in a hostile manner whatsoever. Edwin, as I mentioned, even begins to like being Edwina and finds the situation not that bad in the end. The point here is that magically changing your gender doesn’t suddenly elucidate this immediate, aggressive, fearful reaction that trans people get from cis-people in real life. I’m not saying that Edwina is open about originally being Edwin, because there is a reason for the character to hide, but to the rest of the party it’s business as normal.
The fact that magic, shapechanging races/creatures and other fantastic things exist, adds a question of how remarkable would someone admitting they’re a different gender to what they are born of would be? To be quite honest, I would say that wouldn’t be overly remarkable at all and it’s probably why the dialog, plus main character, doesn’t feel the need to interrogate them. Of course, in proving the general low level transphobia and disgust towards LGBTQIA people that does exist in the gaming community, someone did go and make a video of them brutally killing Mizhena right after the dialog. This video is neither worth linking or talking about much further, but it demonstrates the disconnect on this issue aptly.
Exploring issues with being trans is actually something I think fantasy and science fiction roleplaying games are set up to do very aptly. It’s actually been quite a struggle for me to consider how to reveal or note a character is trans, without the reveal feeling offensive or unnatural. On thinking about things and many of the arguments made about Mizhena, I’ve somewhat come to realize that I’m bringing in a prejudiced viewpoint that doesn’t have to exist in game. Why would people in a fantasy or science fiction world inherently decide that someone being trans was all that remarkable?
Currently one of my better written trans-characters is Anodyne, who comes from my Shadowrun campaign. Shadowrun felt like a good place to start exploring the writing of transgender characters for a wide variety of reasons. Firstly, it’s a highly advanced setting in both its use of magic and cyberpunk technology, with an array of non-human fantasy races on top of that. Corporations in Shadowrun are capable of growing whole organs, transplanting limbs for artificial ones and repairing even the worst of injuries using powerful magical spells. As a result, someone who wanted to modify their bodies in such a way that they changed from male to female (or vice versa) seemed like something easily explored. When you can change any aspect of yourself you like using money or technology, making a trans character felt appropriate and a way of exploring what it would be like.
This is of course also something that’s easy to do, because the setting and easy availability of biological (or magical) augmentation means it’s not really controversial. Or at least, being trans is not something that a world where people turned into Orks or Trolls suddenly, would react to the same way people today do. It’s a fallacy to try to put the standards of the real world onto a fantasy one, which is why I’ve bought up Shadowrun because unlike Dungeons and Dragons Faerun (where Baldur’s Gate is set) it’s entirely our world other than for magic, dragons (yes Dragons are in Shadowrun too) and advanced cybertechnology. When writing Anodyne my original challenge and thought was about how NPCs or even the players might react to them being trans. Most notably: Why would they think it important?
Anodyne’s main issue with regards to being trans was that it wouldn’t be remarkable or even remotely exceptional. This gave me a big problem, because I thought mentioning it would be simply tokenism or just not really relevant. As a result during that campaign Anodyne never actually mentioned they were trans or had the issue particularly come up – mostly because it never seemed appropriate to mention. On thinking about things and especially in light of this recent controversy, I see how rather silly my line of worry there was. In reality it should probably have been a casual thing, representing how the world in Shadowrun had changed and how commonly accepted bodily augmentation/changes were. In a world where someone has potentially modified themselves to carry internal actual weapons or bombs, is being a different gender than expected going to get a violent reaction?
When I consider things, this is probably the saddest part of this in that trans people exist today and are often invisible to people who know them. This is because unlike in Dungeons and Dragons or Shadowrun, where I feel being trans shouldn’t really be something all that remarkable or even political (if you want to go there) it *is* in real life. In real life, trans people are subjected to abuse, threats and have tremendous prejudice against them. People in the US, in the highest levels of government, are right now trying to restrict transgender peoples rights to access things as simple as the bathroom they want to go to. Suicide rates for those who are transgender are through the roof, being many times higher than other comparable groups and there is a notable lack of support for them.
For those of you confused, that’s what is “political” about being transgender and not if they exist in a video game or not. In real life transgender people do fear violence and threats against them, especially from potential partners and even friends. The fact is, this is why settings where transgender characters are treated so normally – perhaps not like it’s a significant issue – are important. For one thing, representation of minority groups and acknowledging their existence is important to those groups. So calling the inclusion of trans characters (or LGBTQIA characters in general) “pandering” or “political” or any number of other epithets does a major disservice. If you’re making this argument, why do you feel the inclusion of a transgender character takes away from the other characters?
Really in many ways, I don’t understand why we continue to have to have these ridiculous controversies. If someone can accept a fantasy world can have dragons, magic and orcs, yet find it absurd to include LGBTQIA characters, I think they’ve got a major problem. And that problem isn’t with the LGBTQIA characters and is definitely with them. Why not let people who are transgender see characters who are like themselves in a game? Most importantly, why not give them that these characters treated like they often fantasize about: Being treated and reacted to entirely like everyone else.