Tag Archives: heteronormativity

Bunk Bed #1: Everlove

Welcome to the first ever Border House Bunk Bed, a feature in which Zoya and I respond to a game’s treatment of gender and sexuality with two short essays. Each half of Bunk Bed is written in isolation; we are forbidden from reading each other’s work until the feature is done. Bunk Bed is meant to capture the unedited, honest (and sometimes divergent) feelings of two queer games critics. Readers are invited to try the featured game and share their own responses in the comments section. 
 
Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

Welcome to Border House Bunk Bed!

The Game:

Everlove: Rose (Silicon Sisters Interactive, iOS, $3.99 USD) is a romance game by women-run Canadian games studio Silicon Sisters. The studio is committed to improving the representation of women in games, and recently ran a game jam for projects with female protagonists. This medieval fantasy adventure combines branching dialogue with hidden object and jigsaw puzzles. Everlove also allows the player to romance four different men (albeit one at a time). Beyond the flirtation, another story unfolds, a story about magic, control and resistance to power.

Top Bunk: Zoya

I have never been a woman in love, but I spent many years of my life roleplaying as one. Even before I used the word “transgender,” I knew I could never be a woman on the inside, but I felt that I had to learn to act as one. Nobody would ever love me otherwise, I thought.

I remember the first time we kissed. I remember it as the first time in years that I actually had enough friends to have a proper birthday party. It was working. I was finally lovable. When I broke up with him years later, I learned that he didn’t kiss me because I was lovable. He kissed me because I was vulnerable. I was easy to manipulate. I wasn’t going to say no.

I was nervous about playing romance game Everlove. Other romance games that I have encountered have taken me back to that dark place in my life when, in trying to be a good girl, I lost control of my own boundaries. Romance games are so often about trying to please other people.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

Rose, the protagonist of Everlove.

The protagonist, Rose, is undergoing past life regression therapy, which feels functionally similar to time travel. She wakes up in the body of a past life version of herself in medieval Europe. Immediately, one of the dialogue options you can choose for her is “I’m not sure about this… being in someone else’s body and taking control of it.”

This concern for consent is carried through fairly consistently. When Rose gets the opportunity for a tryst with the man you have chosen to pursue, you can decide to refuse his advances. The same applies when he proposes marriage. It seems obvious now that choosing to pursue a man isn’t the same as wanting to sleep with him, but I was brought up to think that it is wrong to disappoint a man after you’ve “led him on.” Everlove imagines Rose’s motivations more complexly than that.

Rose’s dreams are haunted by a frightening creature called The Beast. It is hinted that The Beast may really be about social control, but Rose has decided to try and work out what in herself is causing these terrible dreams.

Rose is discovering who she is through her relationships with men from her past life. Acting in a way that is true to how you want to play the character is always rewarded with personality points. In addition to Rose’s own self-discovery, the men she is pursuing are attracted to some traits more than others, each one having different preferences. Although Rose has to reach a minimum level of compatibility with at least one man in order to complete the game, beyond that she doesn’t have to change herself to please any of them. Every romance can end in failure and still be the right outcome for Rose as an individual.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

The swarthy woodsman Garrett.

Everlove is at its strongest when romancing swarthy woodsman Garrett. I loved the witty banter between him and Rose. When she stood up for herself, he admired her all the more. I trusted him with her, because he seemed secure in himself. The weaker personalities in the game reminded me too much of the fragile ego of that boyfriend who so needed me to be a perfect girl so that he could feel like the perfect man. Because I trusted Garrett, I trusted Rose, and because I trusted Rose, I trusted myself a little bit more. Roleplaying as her gave me some space to forgive myself for the mistakes I’ve made in the past.

In the end, Rose has to find a way to release the hold The Beast has on her, or else she is destined to become The Beast too. Escaping its influence won’t be easy, but I hope that she and I can get there together.

Bottom Bunk: Samantha

The experience of having a man hit on me would be funny if it didn’t make me feel so uncomfortable. As a queer woman and a transgender sex radical, I am so far outside of a straight man’s erotic economy that a successful bedding isn’t even a remote possibility. It’s like watching an octopus try to have sex with a hummingbird: I’m not sure what he’s hoping to accomplish but it’s not going to happen.

Getting hit on is an incessant reminder that so many men instantly perceive women as objects to be valued, owned and exchanged. It’s like they’re all wearing little RoboCop visors and, as soon as they register a woman’s face, their programming kicks in. Prime directive number one? “Sleep with her.”

For me, Everlove is a horror game about the discomfort of being a queer woman in a heteronormative world. The men of Everlove are relentless in their advances; no matter how often I rebuff them, they always come back for more. In the absence of an “I’m so gay and even if I weren’t you wouldn’t stand a chance!” dialogue option, I have to settle for the next most hostile response: “You try anything and you’ll be so ridiculously sorry!”

But Everlove translates my resistance into romance. When I utter the above warning to a befurred mountain man named Garrett, for example, a little heart pops up to let me know that my self-defensive threats have piqued his interest. He likes my “will,” it seems. He finds it endearing. The game encourages me to play up the “traits” that appeal to my desired mate. I shudder to think of Everlove in the hands of young girls, the game implicitly instructing them that saying “no” is just another way of saying “yes.”

There is one character in Everlove, however, that manages to pique my interest: my best friend Fendrel. She’s strong and stubborn with a brooding energy behind her eyes. But there is a sweetness in her loyalty that tempers her otherwise hard-nosed demeanor. And, like me, Fendrel seems to inhabit a space outside of the world of men and royals. We share a similar social station, a common lot in life.

Corey and Samantha.

Corey and Samantha.

Fendrel reminds me a lot of my own partner, actually. Corey and I are a study in contrasts. My California girl skips like a stone across her deep pool of New York cool. Her dark, wavy hair makes my fluffy blondeness pop. But we are also held together by a fundamental sameness. We are both women, both queer, both soft in the right places. My eroticism is located in this interplay between sameness and difference, not in the heterosexual mystification of difference itself.

One late night in Bloomington, Indiana, Corey and I stopped for a slice at Rockits on the way home. As we sprinkled some crushed red pepper on our greasy pizza, a man came up to us and told us that we should each be out with individual, male partners. We’re depriving the world of women by spending our night with each other instead, he explained. He would make a great Everlove character.

Suffice it to say that I tried my hardest to be with Fendrel. I repudiated all four of my male suitors and said the sweetest possible things to Fendrel. Corey thought I was cute. Fendrel would too, right? But an early turn in the plot took Fendrel away for a time, leaving me stranded with four overeager medieval men.

My experience with Everlove—mercifully—came to an early end. My therapist-cum-aunt informed me that I was “not very compatible with any of the men of Heart’s Home”—quelle surprise!—and that I would have to “revisit previous conversations to generate additional compatibility points” with at least one of my suitors. Some games have a gear check; Everlove has a heterosexuality check.

I exited my conversation with my therapist and looked again at the overworld map. Sure enough, there were four paths with men’s names by them but no path for Fendrel. I closed the game and I haven’t opened it since. Four roads diverged in a yellow wood and I turned around and drove away in my U-Haul.

The heterosexual gate.

The heterosexual gate.

Game of the Day: Violet by Jeremy Freese

Today’s GOTD was submitted by reader Tobias. Violet, winner of IF Comp 2008, is a story about a relationship; it’s funny and a little bit heartbreaking. It’s also the only game I’ve ever played that has a “heteronormativity off” command, which is just one of the many delightful things about it.

If you have made or played an IF or indie game you would like to see featured on The Border House, send it to us at editors (at) borderhouseblog (dot) com. You can see our past featured games at this tag.

I’m bored of hearing about your wife

Almost every time I go to a tech- or gaming-related conference, I hear middle-aged white men in suits talk about their wives and children. This would be lovely and rather sweet, were it not for the fact that they all seem to be married to the same woman, and they all seem to be raising the same children.

A photograph of a blonde woman smiling and holding two blonde children. FlickrCC image by Micah Taylor

“The wife”, as she is often called, is frequently described as “not very good with computers” or “not a gamer.” Often, I hear humbling stories about how The Wife provides an amazing insight into the human condition. Or how she teaches The Exec about what it’s like for the ordinary user, who isn’t familiar with the high-end technological wizardly in which he is apparently so accomplished.

“My son”, says the exec, “is already using an iPad, and he’s only a year old.” There are older children in the family too. “My daughter would be so embarrassed to be seen using a Blackberry!” remarks The Exec, concluding “young people are all using iPhones.”

It’s taken me a while to figure out why this bothers me so much. So what if the people running technology companies make public reference to their wealthy, heteronormative lifestyle in an attempt to give examples of use cases from ‘ordinary people’? They’re bound to draw on their own experience in their work. Far be it from me to tell them to leave their personal life out of it.

I’ve realised that it bothers me because they never once talk about focus groups, and only ever reference market research on a macro-level. These two things combined – coarse, macro-level demographic data and constant reference to the upper-middle-class nuclear family, are leading to design and product decisions that are bad for women, bad for the elderly, and not even that good for business.

I don’t care about this guy’s wife. What she spends her time on is her own business. I do care that he gives his technologically inept wife as the key example when talking about the vague demographic of ‘women aged 35-50′. I don’t care how talented his children are. I do care that he calls tablets “a technology that doesn’t require any training – your children will teach you how to use it” – someone actually said that at the Global Mobile Internet Conference this week. What if I don’t have any children? What if my children don’t have their own iPad?

The Exec decides where to allocate the product development budget. He decides what products get made. He decides the direction the tech industry is moving. And the future he sees is one in which women are removed from the means of production, and anyone who cannot afford to buy an iPad for their children is irrelevant. All because he can’t be bothered to carry out a focus group or buy some qualitative survey data.

This narrow-mindedness appears particularly stupid when you consider the millions of elderly people who are completely neglected by the tech industry. Many of them have a sizable disposable income and lots of leisure time on their hands – perfect for selling computer games to, as long as you get the platform and design right. I always wondered why they were being ignored by the market. Could it be because they don’t fit into the image of the nuclear family with which execs feel compelled to ally themselves?

It’s Time to Talk About it: Atlus, Naoto, and Transphobia

(Trigger Warning: Transphobia, Passing Anxiety)

(Spoiler Warning: Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, Shin Megami Tensi: Persona 4, Catherine)

A young, androgynous boy tipping his violet cabbie hat in a black school uniform. Reminiscent of a character in a high-school anime.

A young, androgynous boy tipping his violet cabbie hat in a black school uniform. Reminiscent of a character in a high-school anime.

Earlier this year, I wrote a research paper on representations of gender and sexuality in video games where I chose Bayonetta from her eponymous game and Naoto in Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 4. The wealth of critical discussion on Bayonetta speaks for itself; I had no trouble supporting my own argument about her because of the importance the gaming community attributed to shaming or empowering her (and, of course, options other than these). However, my research on Naoto resulted in pretty much nothing; from what I could tell, the gaming community felt he (it is debatable which pronoun to use, so I am using he as it is my interpretation from my playthrough) was a cross-dresser and would be referred to as a woman. There are mentions of Naoto in articles related to Kanji’s (a fellow party member) questions about sexuality, but nothing at all about the complicated politics the game design promotes in concern to transgender topics. So let this be an ode to Naoto, as he deserves a critical analysis, but also my questioning of and challenge to Atlus about their representation of transgender characters. While Persona 4 makes the player interact with the issues surrounding someone who is transgender, the games before and after featured transgender characters more in the background. It shows a deliberate move by the development team to include transgender characters in their games, and therefore make a statement about them; it is extremely rare for a transgender character to appear in a game, much less three in a row. I investigate Altus’ position on transgender topics (as shown in their games) while informed through their depiction of Naoto in the context of these other characters.

 

In Shin Megami Tensei: Persona 3, your party gets a small reprieve on an island, where the boys eventually go to the beach to pick up women. They are unsuccessful until they meet one that seems especially receptive to them, who will “show them a thing or two” and is otherwise outlandishly suggestive. Before she can take anyone back to her room, a party member notices she has hair on her chin, outing her as transgender; she admits her plan in tricking the boys and keeps the offer of sex open before departing. To say the least, this is an atrocious depiction of trans-women that relies on the sexual anxieties and (perceived) deviances of heterosexual men. Many took it as a comical and lighthearted scene from the rest of the morbid and dreary storyline, however, this is one of the very few ways trans-women are characterized in media overall, which is extremely unrealistic and damaging. Persona 3 carries on transphobia by failing to offer a character different from conventional imagining of trans-women as sexual deviants deceiving hapless heterosexual men. It also relegates them strictly to the sexual realm, as if that is the only place transgender women appear, and those are the only qualities unique to this group of people.

Three boys talking to a girl at the beach. The dialogue text reads "Beautiful Lady?: If you decide you want to try something a little spicier, then you know where to find me. Tee-hee."

Three boys talking to a girl at the beach. The dialogue text reads "Beautiful Lady?: If you decide you want to try something a little spicier, then you know where to find me. Tee-hee."

 

Based on that experience alone, seeing Naoto in Persona 4 would seem to be a cause for celebration, as he is an extremely well written character and overall engaging and respectable. However, the extremely problematic character Erica in Catherine throws the intentions behind Naoto into question. There is little information during gameplay to let the player know Erica is transgender, however in hindsight, these hints are rather malicious. Throughout Vincent’s time in the game’s bar, he and his friends are amicable to Erica but also say rather disparaging things about her femininity. The group of men seems to put up with Erica rather than appreciate her friendship, and is vaguely trying to steer away the youngest member, naïve Toby, from pursuing his attraction for her. The second hint comes when Erica shares that she is starting to have nightmares, which only men are supposed to be having, however it is easy to overlook this, as it appears everyone who goes to the bar has these dreams. The player finds out directly only if they achieve the True Lover’s Ending, when it is implied the guys told Toby Erica is transgender and expresses regret losing his virginity to her. It might be tempting to say that because the only real overt transphobia comes from the main villain, who happens to be her employer, and that Atlus is taking a favorable position on transgender representation in Catherine. However, like the character in Persona 3, she is the deviant, sexual trickster who seduces unsuspecting men to their sexuality questioning doom. Her friends don’t show any support and have extremely little respect for her identity as a woman; as well, her boss is constantly hitting on her, despite that he was punishing her for transitioning into a woman and seeking romance as a trans-woman. Erica herself is a great character with relatable dialogue for the most part, but the politics surrounding her doesn’t provide any optimism for trans-folk and their allies.

A woman with red hair in a waitress outfit winking as she playfully throws her arm around the neck of a young, blonde man with a beanie. Her dialogue text reads: "Sorry, but once that hold is punched, there's no refund!"

A woman with red hair in a waitress outfit winking as she playfully throws her arm around the neck of a young, blonde man with a beanie. Her dialogue text reads: "Sorry, but once that hold is punched, there's no refund!"

Transgender topics were blips in these games, which is why they more so provide the context of how Naoto is interpreted rather than stand on their own to inform the player how Atlus, or gaming overall, is treating transgender characters. A brief synopsis of Naoto’s presence in Persona 4: Naoto is a 16-year-old detective prodigy that appears at first as a mysterious character with clues surrounding the murder cases. His appearance is noteworthy as Kanji starts feeling attracted to him, and this is a tense topic as he is apparently struggling with his sexuality (that’s a whole other topic). Naoto’s relationship with the group is tense at first as he realizes they harbor secrets relating to the case, but they all see him as respectable, intelligent, and capable (it is also worth mentioning that he has a resemblance to male protagonists in other Shin Megami Tensei games). He eventually uses his fan following, who calls him the ‘Detective Prince,’ to his advantage to gain a lead in the case. In the Jungian-like TV world where Naoto confronts his ‘Shadow,’ the player finds out that Naoto is female and the Shadow wants to perform sexual reassignment surgery on him. As this scene depicts, Naoto presents himself as a man because of the environment of the police force; no one would take him seriously if he were a woman. After defeating his Shadow, Naoto decides he doesn’t need to become a male to succeed as a detective, and joins the party.

The previously pictured boy talking to a sinister version of himself wearing a labcoat. The dialogue text reads: "Shadow Naoto: How could you become an ideal man when you were never male to begin with...?"

The previously pictured boy talking to a sinister version of himself wearing a labcoat. The dialogue text reads: "Shadow Naoto: How could you become an ideal man when you were never male to begin with...?"

This is when Atlus promptly fails Gender 101. The game text begins to refer to Naoto as she and her, and makes no distinction between sex and gender. Whenever there is a need to divide the characters along the lines of gender, Naoto appears with the women instead of the men. In general, they keep his personality the same and make more references to androgyny to keep in line with the character they have built up. The game continues to depict Naoto as an awesome personality through the main storyline, and receives a generally warm acceptance by everyone even though there is a question about his true sex. However, the essentialist attitude similar to the antagonist’s in Catherine exposes a lack of understanding about transgender issues and tucks in an almost sinister transphobia in what seems to be overwhelming support and popularity for Naoto as a character. Most (if not all) people who are transgender face an internal struggle with sexual reassignment. There is a heavy amount of reinforcement from society to have it in order to achieve (some amount of) social acceptance. This is a source of tremendous anxiety, especially for those cannot attain resources that allow them to transition. More importantly, not everyone wants to change their sex, or better yet, don’t feel that changing their sex should be a requirement to being treated as the gender they identify as. I saw that scene with Naoto at first as a brave proclamation to continue as a man without aiming to become male, only to be confused and devastated when the game started to turn him into a woman. This happens in attention to the assumed romantic and sexual intentions of the player by making Naoto accessible as to not threaten the assumed player’s (a heterosexual man) gender and sexuality. Because all of the females are open for romance (don’t get me started on just that thought), the logic of the game decides Naoto should be as well, and he becomes the antithesis of what he wants during his Social Link with the protagonist. There is a clear disconnect between the Naoto in the main story and the Naoto in the Social Link. While you are able to become intimate with Naoto while encouraging him to still be a man, there are options for you to persuade him to act and dress as a woman. What makes this disturbing is Naoto’s identity hinges on the player’s choices, and the gameplay mechanics encourage the player to nudge Naoto towards becoming a woman. For instance, the first trigger that can initiate romance with Naoto when choosing “I’m glad you’re a girl” when he is having a moment wishing he was born male. The second romance flag comes when you choose to protect Naoto from harm, for which the protagonist frustrates him by making him feel weak when treated as a woman.

 

A close up of the boy with dialogue choices. The choices read: "I'm glad you're a girl."; "Your gender doesn't matter."; "Nothing you can do." The first option is selected.

A close up of the boy with dialogue choices. The choices read: "I'm glad you're a girl."; "Your gender doesn't matter."; "Nothing you can do." The first option is selected.

All of this is after he expresses little interest in wanting a relationship, and that he makes no indication of his sexual orientation; the game allows the player to force him into the romantic fantasies of a heterosexual man. If this wasn’t enough, there is a scene after you confess your love for Naoto when he asks the player if they want him to start talking with a higher pitch to his voice to sound more feminine, and if they choose to have a higher pitch, he will dress up in a girl’s school uniform during the Christmas event. This event is more poignant in the Japanese version of this scene; instead of the pitch of his voice, he asks the protagonist if he minded Naoto’s use of ‘boku,’ which is the ‘I’ that men use. Telling him that you want him to stop prompts the above scene, but you also can opt for Naoto to stay the same. The scene when Naoto dresses up in a girl’s uniform completely transforms his personality; he’s now always blushing, stammering, quiet, scrunched up as much as he can into himself. Very typical Japanese schoolgirl as this is just before an implied sexual scene. This scene trivializes the pressure transgender people feel to perform their gender well enough not to violate their partner’s sense of sexuality, and the incredible burden to make sure they are always passing as the desired gender. Naoto’s Social Link was an extreme waste of an opportunity to explore the intricacies of a relationship when at least one partner is transgender, something I don’t think I’ve ever been able to witness in the media.

A close-up of the boy now in a girl's school uniform, blushing. There is a dialogue choice in response to "I know this what all the girls wear, but, um... Isn't the skirt too short...?": "You look cute." "I prefer your other clothes." The first option is selected.

A close-up of the boy now in a girl's school uniform, blushing. There is a dialogue choice in response to "I know this what all the girls wear, but, um... Isn't the skirt too short...?": "You look cute." "I prefer your other clothes." The first option is selected.

I do find value in Atlus including transgender characters in their games, but in order for these instances to be progressive, they have to be positive and enlightening depictions. Each one of these characters appeared in the game and interacted with the player in a way that is specific to heterosexual men, and uses said culture to define their character arcs. Despite the flaws Atlus implanted into Naoto, I enjoyed his character and explored my feelings of being romantically attracted to a trans-man (which wasn’t something I considered at the time), and find this type of game to be a powerful avenue to promote diversity and understanding of those underrepresented in the media. It also shows how much other characters in games revolve around how they relate to heterosexual men, which prompts said group to inform game developers of their interest in more diverse viewpoints.