How to be transphobic, the Alpha Colony Kickstarter way

The opening screen for the Alpha Colony trailer on Kickstarter.


Danielle Bunten Berry was one of the more influential video gaming pioneers in our industry.  The designer and programmer was known for her work on titles that were always ahead of their time, such as M.U.L.E., The Seven Cities of Gold, Modem Wars (the first PC game that could be played across multiple computers online), and Heart of Gold.  Formerly Dan Bunten, she underwent sex reassignment surgery in 1992 and started living full-time as a woman.  Dani Bunten passed away in 1998 due to lung cancer at 49 years old.

A Kickstarter has been underway for a game called Alpha Colony, a tribute to the classic M.U.L.E. in which DreamQuest Games secured the license for the IP from Dani’s family.   Over $36,000 has already been raised towards a lofty $500,000 goal, with 18 days left to go in the project.  So what’s wrong with this picture?  This seems like a wonderful way to give tribute to an underrated game industry veteran who made a huge splash on innovation, right?  Cue the transphobia.

The text in the Kickstarter refers to Dan Bunten, and the asterisk along with the name reveals the following: “Dan Bunten was the creator of the original M.U.L.E. game in 1983 and the  family would prefer that we refer to him as Dan instead of Dani.”

This certainly isn’t the first time I have seen this kind of thing after a transgender individual passes away.  Danielle Bunten did say some controversial things about her decision to transition, stating that she became a woman in the hopes that she would feel turned-on all of the time and telling other people who want a surgical sex change not to do it because it’s more trouble than it’s worth.  That might make this situation slightly more complicated, but the fact of the matter is that Dani lived as a woman 100% of the time up until she passed away.  She suffered through being treated like a second class citizen, and even talked about how her family and old friends abandoned her as a result of her transition, making access to her children more difficult.  She was inducted into the Academy of Arts & Sciences Hall of Fame as a woman, as Dani Bunten Berry.  And it’s apparent that her family is attempting to erase her female identity to make things more comfortable for them.

Did Dani regret her transition?  Perhaps.  But until the end, she was committed to her life as a woman.  Her family is openly showing that even after her death, even after her life of success in the game industry, they still cannot support her for who she was.  They are ashamed of her.  I understand DreamQuest’s desire to capitalize on the license and legitimize their game by attaching the original creator’s name to the project, but what a slap in the face it is that they cannot use the name Dani preferred to go by.  And if Dani’s family is going to make any revenue off this project aside from recognition (hell, even if they’re not), shame on them for using their privilege to erase her identity so they can feel more comfortable with it all.

(h/t to Jason B. for the tip)

About Tami Baribeau

Lead Editor and co-founder of The Border House, feminist, gamer, lover of social media, technology, and virtual worlds. Pansexual, equestrian, dog lover, social game studio director and producer. Email me here and follow me on Twitter!
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24 Responses to How to be transphobic, the Alpha Colony Kickstarter way

  1. Alexandra says:

    I noticed this exact same problem when the family put up some sort of official M.U.L.E. website last year. As a trans woman who’s seen many trans women’s identities non-consensually erased upon incapacitation or death I find this “transwashing” disgusting, offensive, and sad.

    I’m not sure anything can be done to change it in this case, though we can certainly draw attention to it.

    • Chris Smith says:

      God yes. I think the most egregious example of this is Boys Don’t Cry – a transploitation film which couldn’t even manage to explicitly say that he was transgender because his mother went court-ballistic over any such implications.

  2. K. Cox says:

    The family, who are also the owners of the MULE IP and the reboot project, are super adamant about “he” and “Dan.” Like, scary adamant. In several places on the website, in e-mails, in all press releases and communication — like it’s the most important thing about the game. Which it’s not.

    It makes it a huge challenge to write about, because everything I’ve ever been taught and understood tells me that I should write about Dani Bunten, and use female pronouns to refer to her, and that to do otherwise is, at a bare minimum, hugely disrespectful. (And that’s just the bare minimum. As the OP and the comment from Alexandra above me clearly illustrate, to do otherwise is outright damaging.)

    It puts most writers in a no-win situation. And ordinarily I take the approach that anyone is whoever they tell me they are and I’ll stick with it, but when someone’s been deceased for fifteen years and the estate is doing absolutely everything it can to muddy the waters, things get ugly. I’d never write about Bunten using male pronouns, because to do so feels utterly wrong, so I end up leaving Bunten out of stories I write about the games. (Other writers I work with have run profiles and historical pieces on Bunten, separate from the Kickstarter and reboot.) Which really isn’t any better at all.

    • SurprisedUnDead says:

      If they are so adamant is it possible that part of the contract for the IP state the new developers MUST refer to Dani as “Dan”?

      • Mike W says:

        I would not be surprised by that at all–I think that’d explain the parenthetical reference to the family’s wishes, which feels to me like a mea culpa.

        If that’s the case, I could imagine that they started working on it, contacted the family to get the OK, and only learned about their perspective later. And they were put in the position of either scrapping their work or kowtowing to the family’s demands. And they weren’t strong/good/concerned enough to take the first choice. Shamefully, I don’t know if I’d be strong enough at that point, either.

        (Also shamefully, I’ve never actually played M.U.L.E. But I hear it’s great, intend to play it some day, and I totally understand the impetus to remake a great, somewhat obscure game from the past: both to show respect to Dani and her work, and to introduce a new generation of fans to it.)

        Or maybe not–they might not have cared at all, maybe profit is all they care about. I’m probably being too generous by assuming motivations.

        One lesson from this: if you intend to work on a M.U.L.E.-like, don’t contact the family, and it’d probably be best to not formally advertise it as such (since if it’s similar enough, perhaps they could sue you for copyright issues, due to the precedent established by the recent iPhone Tetris clone lawsuit) and just rely on informal channels to get the M.U.L.E-ness across.

  3. FFR, could one sign some sort of legal document to prevent family from doing this after one’s death?

    • Ms. Sunlight says:

      You can certainly make a will which makes sure that your intellectual property goes to someone who will respect who you are, or put it in a trust with codicils on its use. But no, nothing can stop family members being arseholes after you die. Not even legal recognition of your gender and the reissue of your birth certificate in your preferred gender (like we have in the UK) can stop them saying “he was really a man” or “she was really a woman”.

  4. auntie says:

    could we stop qualifying any discussion of dani bunten’s gender with “she wrote about having regrets, but…”? gender identity is a big, complicated, messy deal. especially when you live in a time when trans women were pressured into getting the kind of surgery that often goes wrong and leaves someone unable to experience sensation for the rest of her life. if a single cis woman here has never felt sad or frustrated about her gender identity, please stand up. i’m sick of having people – even trans people – justify any instance of misgendering dani bunten to me by saying “i thought she said she regretted it, though?” let’s drop this from our narrative of dani bunten, please.

  5. Korva says:

    “The family would prefer”? What the hell! Why does THEIR opinion so utterly trump the choices and identity of the person whose game the Kickstarter is making a tribute to? That is disgusting.

  6. Timmy_Mac614 says:

    When things like this happen, it reminds all of us to take the legal precautions before our death or debilitating injury to make sure that our wishes are respected by those we leave behind.

  7. Doone says:

    I’m so glad I didn’t support this Kickstarter. I almost did, but the game sounded lame. Whatever the excuse of the creators is, one thing we can all be damn certain of:

    1) They were making a MULE clone and wanted to capitalize on the previous game’s legacy in marketing it. Regardless if the game releases at no cost, the capital they would gain from such exposure is what’s in their mind’s eye.

    2) They should refer to the original creator in the way the creator referred to themselves.

    There’s no two-ways about it. No one every said that living an honest life is an easy life. The choice was there’s and now we know exactly where they stand. They could always change their position but I’m just going to hope this doesn’t ever get funded until they make such a change.

    It’s disrespectful to the very person they owe their inspiration. If that’s not a betrayal of the creator, then it’s definitely a betrayal of the self. Sell outs.

    • >No one every said that living an honest life is an easy life.

      If the family has control of the rights, then in order to be ‘honest’ they are legally obligated to go along with this nonsense. Their only other choice would be to drop all references to the original project completely, which may to them feel equally disrespectful.

      I’m not saying their choice is the right one, but it sounds like it’s not a simple situation. What it is, overall, is very sad.

  8. Lake Desire says:

    I am of tired of this “what the family wants” crap because it assumes that families are healthy places that want the best for their loved ones. In actually, many families disregard and/or are hostile to the choices their adult children/siblings make. As an activist, I’ve seen a similar debate around political prisoners & victims of state violence, where people are ignoring what the actual prisoner / victim wants/wanted.

  9. Melanija says:

    I’ve been following Alpha Colony on kickstarter, and just noticed that the most recent update (from 21 hours ago) referred to her as Danielle:

    “One of my favorite quotes from Danielle Bunten (the original designer of M.U.L.E.) was that No one ever said on their deathbed, ‘Gee, I wish I had spent more time alone with my computer.’ ”

    Don’t know if this was just a slip, or they actively decided to go against the family’s wishes or what.

    • Matt says:

      The page seems very inconsistent now. Maybe slow cracks under the pressure and/or some dissent from within???

  10. Chelsea says:

    The only way this would be acceptable would be if Dani’s will said that because of her regrets, she would prefer people refer to her as a male. The point here is to respect her wishes and to treat her as she preferred to be treated. If she had regrets, then fine. It’s not an easy choice and some people do have a certain level of regret, but if she never went on record officially stating she wanted to be referred to as Male at any point, then you continue to refer to her as female.

    This is just ridiculous, I don’t blame the company, the family can probably choose to sue and even tho they’d get laughed out of court, the company may not want to risk it for what they see as a very minor change in wording. I wonder if a letter writing campaign can be done to her family?

    • Ms. Sunlight says:

      I would feel deeply uncomfortable about a letter-writing campaign aimed at the family. Whilst I think they’re dead wrong, for them this is a personal issue with how they are dealing with the legacy of a late loved one and there’s no way for an outsider to understand the history and dynamics involved.

      A campaign directed towards the company doing the kickstarter, on the other hand…

  11. Pingback: Alpha Colony Hints At Transphobia | GeekMom |

  12. Before you start your letter-writing campaign, maybe just try reaching out to the Kickstarter or to me as a person? What exactly is it that you would like me or us to do? It’s been amazing watching as me and my company have been demonized and labeled as bigots by the LGBT and gaming community. And for what? Referring to Dan Bunten as the name printed on the box and Danielle did use when she wrote M.U.L.E. and for over 10 years afterward? Yes, we have also referred to her as Danielle when quoting her or referencing her later in life because that feels both historically accurate and what Dani would have wanted. Regardless of what the family’s wishes may be, both of these decisions feel correct to me.

    Yes, transphobia is awful. However, as the owner of DreamQuest and the person trying to stand in the shoes of the most famous transgendered game developer, I am deeply saddened that you would chose to label me and my company as a bigot and transphobic. If I really was transphobic, would it make sense for me to pick Dani as my hero and mentor and choose to try to continue her wishes after her death?

    I have nothing but the utmost respect for the brevity Danielle displayed in her life before and after her S.R.S. I have extensively interviewed Dani’s family and friends, have read almost everything Dan or Dani ever wrote, and even have access to her private notes. I am doing my
    absolute best to build the game Danielle wished before her death, juggling the requests of her difficult family, the retro fan community, the LGBT community (that has been wronged in the past, but not by me), the historical nature of this game, and my own personal dreams.

    If you were to get to know me as a person, you would see that I have supported past transgender Kickstarter campaigns (a matter of public record), my only daughter’s best friend has two moms, my best friend in college was transgender, and, most of all, my childhood hero was transgender as well. If you are looking for someone to pin the wrongs done by the world to the transgendered community, I think you could find a better poster child.

    Fault me for being overly ambitious about building a 3D tribute to my two favorite games of all time, fault me for reaching out to work with Dani’s family, or my many mistakes, but please don’t label me as a bigot or transphobic for the use of a single name and pronoun in our Kickstarter because the facts simply don’t support it.

    • shaed says:

      When you misgender your hero by referring to her as “he,” you are disrespecting her. Referring to someone as the wrong gender because you are talking about a point before they transitioned is not “historically accurate.” It is offensive.

    • Quinnae says:

      Hello there, Mr. Williamson, thank you for replying to this article.

      As an editor of TBH and a trans woman myself there are a couple of things I should make clear about the question of transphobia and the nature of this sort of criticism– its purpose, necessity, and its actual meaning.

      To start with, all of us– myself included– have at some point said or done something transphobic. Transphobia is not an ontological element of your character, it is not who you are. It is contained within acts, practises, words, and so on. This means that it can be chronic, or it can be inadvertent. Prejudice is not about who is and isn’t a Snidely Whiplash-esque “Bad Person (TM)”– if you made a mistake here, it’s not because I think you’re an evil man who hates trans women every where and part of some misbegotten conspiracy.

      I believe everything you’re saying about your genuine admiration and passion for Dani Bunten’s work.

      What neither Tami nor anyone here has said is that you are the “poster child for the wrongs done by the world to the transgendered community.” I know from personal experience that reading critiques like this is awful. You’re a good person, you know yourself to be, and along comes something like this which accuses you of being something you know yourself to loathe. It’s a terrible feeling. But the thing is, this isn’t about *what you are*– it’s about *something you did*, surely you can see the difference. No aspersions against your character are intended, no insinuations about your moral constitution are meant, no slight against your passion as a game lover nor against your skill as a developer are part of this critique.

      What is being questioned is the misgendering of Dani, and that’s something that I think a lot of us have a right to question.

      For example, if you talk to a lot of trans people you will know that “chronological misgendering” (i.e. referring to someone as the wrong gender because you’re referring to them at a past point where they hadn’t transitioned yet) parses as deeply disrespectful to a lot of us. I understand why it makes sense to cis people, but it reinforces the idea that trans people don’t ultimately get to define their genders or have control over the meaning of our histories. (I know you didn’t intend this, and that’s fine– but I was not questioning your intentions, which I know were good).

      One of the people I look up to in my field, Raewyn Connell, who is a remarkable sociologist if ever there was one and perhaps every inch a heroine to me as Ms. Bunten is to you, is a trans woman who transitioned relatively late in life. But even when I’m referring to her earlier works, like her 1977 Ruling Class, Ruling Culture I still say “Raewyn Connell wrote this and she said x, y, and z”– because that feels right and “historically accurate” to *her* and to other trans women.

      So, yes, I understand Ms. Bunten is a hero to you, and I understand that you have nothing but the best, wonderful nerdy intentions with this project. I’m sorry if you feel that was glossed over. But I promise you, the goal here is not to make you into a bad guy straw man. A mistake was made, one that touches a third rail of trans politics because it’s an issue (and a fear) a lot of us have to grapple with. Hence why it has inspired such passion.

      Let me put it this way: Ms. Bunten matters a hell of a lot to you, yes? Now imagine how a lot of trans women nerds and geeks like me feel. She’s not just someone I can look up to in general, she’s *one of ours*– a trans woman who *made it*. Gods know that’s hard enough to find in a society like ours. Are you surprised that we’re protective of her and her legacy?

      Think about that. :) Once you get past the understandable hurt you feel from this incident you can see how our concern should flatter the woman you so admire.

      You’re carrying the legacy of someone very important to us, and as someone who admires her so perhaps you can understand our passion. We’re not looking to tear *you* down, we’re trying to protect Dani’s memory.

      In the meantime, I’m sorry that you feel so hurt. Tami’s criticism was entirely fair, but I also wanted to make a personal plea to you to see trans women’s side of this question. It’s not enough to say “I have trans friends and admire a trans woman.” That’s not the best way to deal with criticism of this nature. If you were my friend, I’d like to be able to tell you that you said something that– regardless of intent– parsed as troublesome, and that I could do so without fear of a negative reaction.

      I hope this helps explain why the pronoun use grated on so many trans folk. I took the time to write this up to you because I have hope that understanding can be achieved around these issues.

      ~Quinnae Moongazer

  13. Madotsuki says:

    I have to say, though, it sucks BIG time that this game won’t get funded. Really would have liked to see it.

    But yes, I have noticed this, and always thought it strange people keep refusing to refer to her as “Dan”. Planet MULE does this too. It seems it was the family attempting to do this. It’s funny how they think they are the best to discern what’s best for the brainchild IP of their daughter/sister/whatever relation when they keep refusing to respect her themselves :/

    Also I am MAJORLY surprised that such an obscure thing would be known by the editors here. Brownie points :3

  14. Mike W says:

    Potentially dumb question: sometimes in the article, the comments here (including my own), and elsewhere, she’s referred to as “Dani Bunten.” Other times, her full (?) name is given as “Dani[elle] Bunten Berry.” Was Berry her last name? Or Bunten? Or Bunten Berry? Did she ever express a preference?

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