Tag Archives: transphobia

Please Stop: The Trans Joke at the Spike Video Game Awards

A stylized logo that says VGX.

[TW: Discussion of transphobic joke, real-life experiences of transphobia.]

Like many graduate students, I was still finishing up last week’s work at 6 PM on a Saturday. I put on Spike TV’s annual Video Game Awards (re-branded this year as VGX) to have some background noise while I put the finishing touches on a paper.

I expected the usual: some Michael Bay-esque graphics packages, some puerile pandering to their core demographic of adolescent boys, some Mountain Dew, some Doritos, some trailers. I can stomach that, even laugh at it. Less than five minutes into the program, however, co-host Joel McHale jokingly put the rumors to rest that Wario had “undergone sex reassignment surgery.”

If you’re reading this, you might know that a joke like that is politically ill-advised. It violates the comedic wisdom that one should punch up rather than punch down. It not only repeats the exoticizing focus on transgender people’s genitals, it also casts transgender identity itself as something scandalous and laughable.

What you might not know is what it feels like to hear a joke like this, what it’s like to be triggered. To that end, let me tell you a story about a period of my life that I don’t often discuss. Seven years ago (prior to my transition), I was still in a place where I could only present female occasionally. I hadn’t yet had the earth-shattering realization that I needed to transition but I still needed space to explore crucial aspects of my identity. I was fortunate enough to be dating someone who supported me in that endeavor.

We were in New York one night while I was presenting female. The night was warm, the sky was clear; we decided to be tacky tourists and go to the top of the Empire State Building. In line, some boys approached us and tried to talk to us. At the time—without the benefits and, indeed, the privileges of experience and hormones that I have now—my appearance did not hold up under close scrutiny and they “read” me, they recognized that I was not cisgender.

They laughed and laughed and laughed. They howled. They followed us all the way through the line and into the elevator where the laughter continued in our faces. My very existence was hilarious to them. The fact that there was a human underneath the sloppy eye makeup and the tattered dress either did not occur to them or, worse, it didn’t matter to them. I realized for the first time that night that, were I to transition, I would be a living, walking joke. It’s experiences like this that keep people from transitioning for years.

I am lucky to have had just one experience this emotionally brutal and I’m immensely privileged to have been safeguarded from the acts of physical violence that predominantly effect transgender women of color. Over the course of my transition, the smirks of passersby have faded, misgenderings have all but stopped, and that howling laughter has faded into that long-ago New York night.

When I hear a trans joke in a venue as public as a nationally broadcast television show, I’m instantly back in that elevator. I’m no longer the confident woman that I’ve become over the last couple of years; I’m a scared little girl cowering in the corner, reeling from the ridicule, wondering if they’ll follow me all the way home.

Spike, do you realize what you do to people outside your target demographic when they try to engage with your work? If you realized, would you still do it? Do I want to know the answer to that question?

I could write you an angry polemic about video game culture right now. I could undertake educational efforts to help video game commentators understand transgender identity. I’ve done that. I keep doing it and nothing happens. Nothing changes. There’s always another gaffe, another joke, another game.

So tonight, Geoff Keighley, producers, journalists, if this note manages to make it to your desk, all I’m asking is that you stop. Please stop. Please stop.

Update: Immediately after this article went live, Joel McHale introduced a reader comment by saying, “He, she or he-she says…”

A Rundown of What’s Going on with Penny Arcade Now

It hasn’t been that long since the last time Penny Arcade did something that cast the company in a negative light, but here we are again with another fiasco that’s been making its way around Twitter today.  I thought it would be helpful to do a quick rundown of the events from today to make everyone aware of the situation and help answer some questions about why you might want to rethink supporting Penny Arcade, PAX, or anything affiliated with that organization.

It all started today when this panel was posted from PAX Australia, titled “Why So Serious? Has the Industry Forgotten That Games Are Supposed to Be Fun?”.  The original screencap of the description is below.

Read below for full transcript.

 

“Why does the game industry garner such scrutiny from outside sources and within?  Every point aberration gets called into question, reviewers are constantly criticised and developers and publishers professionally and personally attacked.  Any titillation gets called out as sexist or misogynistic and involve any antagonist race other than Anglo-Saxons and you’re a racist.

It’s gone too far and when will it all end?  How can we get off the soapbox and work together to bring a new constructive age into fruition?”

There is so much wrong with this panel description that I don’t even know where to begin. The idea that games as a medium are exempt from criticism because they’re “supposed to be fun” is ridiculous and immature.  This complete and utter display of privilege and a total dismissal of the concerns by women and people of color is awful, but then conflating ‘a new constructive age’ with a time where we disregard the concerns of marginalized gamers is flat out embarassing.  Naturally, the internet responded.  As a result, the description was altered and the line about sexism and misogyny was removed. Continue reading

A Mile in Her Shoes: Teaching Transphobia through Video Games

A photo of nine students playing games in a large computer lab: six in the background on desktop machines and three in the foreground on laptops. Text at the top reads: "Introduction to Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies at ECIT."

My students playing games at Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching.

I had tried to teach my students in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies 100 about transphobia before. When I unwittingly assigned them a classic feminist essay that contained some transphobic language (including an uncritical quotation of Janice Raymond, the use of “him/her” rather than “her” to refer to a transgender woman, and an argument that transgender people fail to subvert gender boundaries), I was furious.

Using my conventionally feminine high-heeled boots (sorry transphobic feminists!) for emphasis, I stamped around the front of the classroom and loudly complained that the author’s arguments were not only conceptually unsound but also completely insensitive to the experiences of violence and marginalization that transgender people face everyday.

But, in the middle of this display of rage, I was worried that my remarks would be reduced to just that: a display, a spectacle that my students could observe but not one that would require their active engagement. As I fumed, my students could just sit back and think to themselves, “Look at her go!” Once it was over, I worried that I had taught them nothing except that transphobic people made me mad.

So, when we came to our dedicated unit on transgender, I made a last-minute change in the syllabus and took my students to Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching (ECIT) so that they could play Anna Anthropy’s dys4ia, Merritt Kopas’ Lim and Mattie Brice’s Mainichi—three accessible games that allow players to experience various facets of transgender experience, or at least a specific subset of transgender experience.

In sharing my students’ responses with you, I hope to contribute to an ongoing affirmation of the utility of games as educational tools (see, for example, this article by Merritt Kopas). My students had meaningful experiences with these games; the lessons they learned from playing dys4ia, Lim and Mainichi went beyond what I could teach them in a lecture format alone. The interactivity of the video game medium, I would argue, played a significant role in adding this depth to our lesson on transphobia. As my student Caitlin put it, “[the games] gave me a unique perspective that I don’t think I could have achieved any other way.” The interactive format of the class also required me to shift the way I thought about my role as an educator when teaching with games.

I’ll share my students’ reactions to dys4ia, Lim and Mainichi in turn, highlighting both common themes and exceptional insights. If you haven’t played these three games, I recommend that you do so before reading the rest of this post.

dys4ia

My students learned the most about the specific difficulties of a male-to-female gender transition from their experience with dys4ia. Both Rhea and David described it as “informative” while others, like Matt and Laura, described it as an “illustration” of a personal struggle. Beyond simply absorbing this new information, however, my students were also stunned by the complexity of a transition. Jonathan wrote that it was a “long and complicated” process. Mina discovered that “transition” was indeed a suitable label for it because it was not “a sudden, instant happening.” Carl and Caitlin found the game to be “eye opening” in this respect and Bryan found it to be “unbelievable.” Caitlin reported that she identified with Anna as she went through the difficult process of transitioning: “I felt that I was really in the woman’s shoes while playing through the game.”

My students, generally speaking, did not feel like dys4ia was as “interactive” as the other two games but that sense was offset by a heightened attention to the game’s aesthetic choices. Laura noted how “colorful” dys4ia was while Rebekah and Liz enjoyed the “pixelated, colorful stages” and the “retro style graphics.” Ivan, in particular, produced an astonishing reading of the visual choices Anna Anthropy makes in the representation of bodies:

“ … the human body manifests in abstract, disjointed ways, a visualization that captures the psychic and physical segmentation transgender bodies often undergo. Indeed, transgender people are forced to contemplate individual body parts in isolation and sometimes to reject or alter these parts in pursuit of a sense of ‘wholeness.’”

Wow. And I thought I was the teacher.

A photograph of a student playing Anna Anthropy's game dys4ia on a laptop.

Ivan reaches the end of dys4ia.

Students also took note of Liz Ryerson’s soundtrack for dys4ia and its symmetry with the subject matter. Rebekah felt that the music created a sense of “lingering confusion and tension.” And Ivan wrote this dazzling interpretation of the crowd noise in the game’s soundtrack:

“The murmuring voices that follow you through the game never crystallize into clear, distinct messages. The content of the conversations that surround you seem inaccessible and perhaps hostile, and the corresponding sense of unease is palpable.”

If the word “dysphoria” describes a sense of unease, discomfort and confusion—and if that sensation is often experienced as an unresolved and sometimes threatening tension—then Ryerson’s soundtrack, with its distinct mixture of quizzical notes and conversational hubbub, was a particularly effective medium through which my students felt something akin to dysphoria.

Lim

My students almost unanimously described Lim as “frustrating.” As Mina summarily observed: “… it was one of the most annoying games I have ever played.” The frustration of being attacked by the blocks in Lim affected at least one student on a physical level. Liz reported that the experience was “super stressful” and “caused me to grind my teeth.” Carl was “freaked out” and “scared” by the sudden attack of the aggressive squares.

Commenting on the group’s frustration as a whole, Ivan located some sort of catharsis in the mass playing of Lim. Recalling that, when we all played the game together, the room was “filled with exasperated sighs and cries,” Ivan argued that the “din in the room … seemed to verbalize what is usually a secret, inner dialogue within transgender individuals.”

It was fascinating for me to observe a room full of students playing Lim simultaneously. After a few minutes, several students asked me, “Is this a game you can win?” Matt, in particular, was determined to get to the end of the maze only to get knocked out repeatedly.

But each student had different experiences with Lim that I could observe from a distance. Some, like Mina, “gave up” early on when squares blocked their progression. Others, like Rhea, tried to play through the game multiple times to try out different strategies. But even when Rhea tried to stay “on the outskirts” of the course, she “found the other blocks going out of their way” to confront her. About half of my students, like Matt, got kicked out of the maze at some point. But, in Sarah M.’s case, “the blocks continued to follow my block when it was on the outside.” In addition, several students encountered another flashing square in the maze that caused their screen to go black.

A photo of a row of students, taken side view, as they play games on desktop computers.

Matt (front) was determined to reach the end of Lim.

Students produced rich interpretations of these diverse outcomes. Matt interpreted being ejected from the maze as “feeling like you don’t belong in society.” Commenting on the way in which some squares continued to chase her even after being ejected from the maze, Sarah M. wrote that this “represent[s] how people can ‘police’ the behavior of others and ensure that those who deviate from the norm are not allowed back into the main groups of society.”

But my students produced the most interesting interpretations of the “meet-another-flashing-square-before-black screen” outcome. Jonathan interpreted the black screen as “the end of life.” Others interpreted it more cheerfully as a sense of relief upon meeting a kindred spirit. Sydney was flexible in her interpretation, noting that this outcome:

“ … can be interpreted as a win (finding the person who understands you best / finding your mate / finding an outlet to be oneself) or a loss (getting stuck and losing yourself in the imitation of all other people and never truly winning the game of life.”

My students seemed to be in agreement, however, that this plurality of interpretations was a result of the game’s abstract aesthetic style, at least relative to the more authored experiences of dys4ia and Mainichi. Cody and Jonathan both commented on the “abstract” quality of the game while Laura, David, Bryan and Caitlin noted that it could be read as a pliable “metaphor.” During class discussion, students told me that there was something about the sparseness of Lim that allowed them to project their own experiences into the game. As Laura put it, Lim works “with nothing but blocks, colors, sounds, and a maze.”

On this same note, Camila speculated that Lim could “be molded to fit other things that people are oppressed by,” specifying that “having a disability could have fit in perfectly with the same metaphors.” Sarah M. and Rebekah also commented on the universality of the game’s message. Sarah M. wrote that the game shows how anyone outside of social norms “can be bullied and eventually ostracized from society because they are different.” And Rebekah observed that “people can relate to this game because they all, at some point, felt put down based on their own individual characteristics.”

Mainichi

Mainichi is a game in which the quotidian details of any given day become focal points of stress and anxiety. It was this everydayness of Mainichi that impressed my students the most. Carl wrote that the game showed the “everyday realities of living as a trans* person.” And Rebekah, who noticed that the game’s title means everyday in Japanese, commented on the way in which “small actions such as … paying with cash instead of card” could have a drastic impact on the player character’s daily interactions with others.

Several students identified with the player character in Mainichi as they navigated her through her everyday experiences. But if the division between sympathy and empathy is marked by whether or not a person has experienced another person’s struggle, then Mainichi, by virtue of its interactivity, blurred that division, or at least invited a variety of responses on either side of it. Indeed, my student’s responses to Mainichi ranged from sympathy for the character to an almost physical embodiment of her emotional state.

A photo of a student seated at a desktop computer, wearing a green shirt. She is facing the camera and smiling.

Liz plays through Mainichi.

Some students expressed sympathy for the character in Mainichi. Sarah H. expressed amazement and dismay at “the extent to which transgender people must plan for the varying situations that may occur.” David wrote that Mainichi “gave you a sense of how even just going down the street … can be a difficult experience.” And Laura, along these same lines, realized that “life was harder and a lot more depressing for my character when others noticed that she was transgender.”

Still others, in an empathetic vein, placed themselves in the character’s shoes. Susan observed that the game “made me think how I would feel if people were whispering around me.” And one student, citing her own experiences with street harassment, said that playing Mainichi was “similar to many experiences I have had going out at night.”

In her reflections on Mainichi, Rebekah revealed how the interactivity of the medium helped to foster an empathetic identification with the player character: “By being able to decide things for the character, it helped build a connection [with her].” Echoing Rebekah, Jonathan wrote that Mainichi “really provided an interactive experience by letting you control your character.”

This interactivity, I would argue, is what allowed Camila to form such a close and affecting bond with the player character in Mainichi. She wrote: “I think the fact that I was the person who was being slandered for being transgender was very striking. I can feel bad for someone all day long, but to feel it in my own flesh was heart-breaking.” When the man at the cafe spoke with her at the end of the game, Camila ignored it because she couldn’t “handle any more rejection.” She concluded: “I just wanted to forget everything about gender, sex and attractions.”

But, for at least one student, the degree of interactivity in Mainichi played against her expectations for the genre. Ruby wrote: “Unlike [other] RPG games that I had played … I did not feel proactive at all when playing the game; sometimes I had the feeling that the main character tried to live her life unnoticed.” She observed that the game made her feel “passive,” as if she had no control over how the day unfolded. For Ruby, then, the expected degree of interactivity seemed to make her experience of passivity even more poignant by contrast.

Concluding Thoughts

I’m content to let my students’ responses to the games speak for themselves as evidence of the effectiveness of this exercise. I would like, however, to comment firsthand on my experience as an educator using games in the classroom for the first time. Using games to teach is, simply put, a profoundly different pedagogical experience.

When I give my students a lecture on a reading, I am in charge of the room. This power dynamic isn’t a completely arbitrary imposition; rather, it’s necessitated by the discrepancy between our levels of disciplinary knowledge: I’ve been working in feminist and queer theory for the last six years and my students haven’t. When I lecture on a reading, then, I have a responsibility to provide a summary of an author’s argument as well as a historical context for that argument. Students can fuel the discussion (when they’re in a talkative mood!) but, at a minimum, I need to be able to provide them with some basic tools for digesting what they’ve read. This isn’t a responsibility I can shrug off entirely; we can’t play games everyday!

But our class at Emory’s Center for Interactive Teaching allowed me to take a step back and let my students do some unguided, exploratory and experiential learning on their own. I circulated the classroom to answer some basic questions but, otherwise, I simply surveyed the room and listened to the cacophony of blocks hitting each other in Lim. Now that I have read their wonderfully idiosyncratic and insightful responses, I know that there were twenty unique experiences happening concurrently in that room and that it was best not to interfere. It can be terrifying to give up control—to let your little monsters run loose—but I’m so glad I did.

Let’s Discuss: Apologies

Originally posted on Vorpal Bunny Ranch.

Oh no! Suddenly your social media feeds and inbox are full of irate people peppering you with accusations of being insensitive, a bigot, all because you used a sexist/racist/homophobic/transphobic/etc. word, image, or phrase. What do you do?! Fret not, I will go through a list of actions you should take and avoid.

DO: Apologize
“I am sorry for <insert thing I did/said/insinuated here>.”

DO NOT: Shift
“I apologize if I hurt or offended you.”

Why?
It may come as a surprise, but people are not always collectively unintelligent. Indicating you are apologizing for offending shifts the blame on the people to whom you are offering the apology: “I would have gotten away with it if it wasn’t for those knee-jerky, want-to-be-offended kids! Ooooo!” Instead, apologize for what you did, which can help the conversation move forward.

Note, the longer this process takes, or the more steps you toss in along the way to an actual apology, the more difficult it will be for some to take the apology seriously.

DO: Understand and listen
The world is a big place. You do not know everything. You will make mistakes. When someone is angry, try and listen to the words they are saying.

DO NOT: Think you understand
Making assumptions about what people are saying, rather than actually listening, can cause problems. If you receive a variety of complaints, take a moment to look into the common underlying themes, try searching the internet for resources, and learn what it is that went wrong.

Why?
Very few of us are perfect. When I was a freshman in college, I said some pretty heinous things to a black friend of mine regarding Egypt and its ancestry. I was just parroting back what I’d learned in school, and only a year or so later did I educate myself enough to learn of the historical significance of discounting Egypt as part of a rich narrative of black accomplishments — a tactic often used to belittle African Americans as ‘obviously’ inferior, as they had no culture that was noteworthy.

I felt like a tool. My friend was incredibly patient, and when I apologized, and explained why, he was glad that I had learned from the experience and that I had taken the initiative to educate myself (largely because he realized sometimes we have to come to something ourselves, and he didn’t want to argue over this — it was not his responsibility).

DO: Show consistent actions
It’s difficult, but once you’ve made one mistake, people will look out for others. If you take what you hopefully learned and make sure to educate anyone else on your team about this, slip-ups may still happen, but you can easily and quickly rectify course on the matter in the future.

DO NOT: Apologize and go do it again and again and again
Drat! We totally just did the same thing again a month later. Oh no, now we’ve happened to do this wrong! It’s a cascade!

Why?
Just because you apologized, someone does not have to accept it. By showing consistent actions, you can help repair any harm done. The focus is not necessarily to make sure everyone likes you, it should be to do no harm. That person who won’t accept the apology may never come back, but you can make sure you do not replicate that instance.

Also, whether unfairly or not, the internet is a place that can dredge up past mistakes. If you’ve been suffering foot-in-mouth disease multiple times over a short period of time, it will be that much easier to bring up past mistakes and transgressions. Remember that bit about learning? Please go look over that again.

Again, we all make mistakes. The question is whether you genuinely apologize and see what you did as wrong, or if you dig in your heels and alienate potential customers, friends, users, or whatever your case may be. While the impetus for this is the numerous game companies I’ve seen this apply to, I believe it is much more general than that.

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)

dys4ia: A game about hormone replacement therapy

The level selection screen for dys4ia. Level 1: Gender Bullshit. Level 2: Medical Bullshit. Level 3: Hormonal Bullshit. Level 4: It Gets Better?

 

[Trigger Warning: Transphobia]

Anna Anthropy, also known as Auntie Pixelante, is an occasional guest writer for us and the author of the new book Rise of the Videogame Zinesters.  It would be an absolute shame not to talk about her newest game, dys4ia, an example of how anyone can make smaller game experiences (like zines) that tell personal stories.  In her own words:

dys4ia is the story of the last six months of my life: when i made the decision to start hormone replacement therapy and began taking estrogen. i wanted to catalog all the frustrations of the experience and maybe create an “it gets better” for other trans women. when i started working on the game, though, i didn’t know whether it did get better. i was in the middle of the shit detailed in level 3 of the game, and at the time i had no idea what the ending would be; it was hard to envision a happy ending.

I played through the game and found it remarkably clever how game mechanics can be used to portray emotions.  I found myself being frustrated in solidarity with Anna while trying to navigate my way through her experiences as a trans woman seeking hormone therapy in a cis-centric world.  dys4ia explores issues such as clothes not fitting, insurance not covering the necessary medications, shaving, and struggling through hearing people use the incorrect pronouns.  All of the mini-games are quick to grasp, using only the arrow keys as controls, which lends to a quick game session that leaves an impression that lasts longer than the actual gameplay.

I found myself cheering for Anna Anthropy in the end, happy that things have gotten better for her.  While she does state that her experiences are not meant to speak for all trans women, I can’t help but be hopeful that it will ‘get better’ for all women like her.

Try out dsy4ia, and leave your thoughts in the comments.

How Not to Write About a Transgendered Person

The following is a guest post from Anna Anthropy:

Anna Anthropy is a white transwoman, game designer, critic and sadist, a classic dyke in the “Elizabeth Bathory” mode. Did you know her first book is coming out in March? Now you do, and you’re so excited for it!

on february 15, kotaku ran a “feature” on dani bunten. i’m not linking it – you can find it pretty easily if you want – because it’s disrespectful in a way that, as a transgendered woman, makes me cringe. the article, written by luke plunkett, perpetuates a misinformed attitude about trans people that is downright dangerous in a culture in which we’re already as marginalized as we are.

specifically, the kotaku article is rooted in the idea that a transgendered woman lives a dual-gender identity, that she “was male” prior to her transition. the article opens with a photo of a trans game designer pre-transition, and goes on to refer to her by her given (birth) name and male pronouns. halfway through the article, it springs her gender identity upon the reader like a plot twist, finally showing us a picture of her post-transition and using her chosen name and pronouns. if a feature on me called me by my birth name and had a picture of me with a beard, i would shit myself and then the author.

as a transgendered woman, let me DISPEL SOME MYTHS.

transition is not some BEFORE / AFTER DIET PILL AD. a transgender woman isn’t a man before she A) chooses to identify as a woman or B) has her genitals operated on. and the latter is in fact irrelevant to the former: i identify as a woman, but i have no plans for surgery. when you are born into this society, you’re assigned a gender. i was assigned “male.” but though i spent many years struggling to fit myself into a male identity that doesn’t mean i consider myself to ever have been a boy or man. i had not yet come to terms with my identity as a woman.

identity is a complicated thing, one that every person, trans or otherwise, experiences differently, and i can’t claim to speak on the late dani bunten’s behalf. but i can speak as a trans woman who deals with transphobia on a daily basis, especially in spaces related to videogames. and i can tell you on authority: if someone identifies as a woman, you call her a woman. if she internalizes female pronouns, you use female pronouns to refer to her. if she tells you her name, you use that name and not one that was chosen without her consent. oh, she expressed regret once about leaping into surgery she might not have needed to get? doesn’t invalidate her identity.

transphobia is rampant in games culture: it’s dangerous to all transgendered people and all women. it’s dangerous to everyone who participates in this culture. i remember a tigsource thread on “girl game designers” where someone said: “if you go on a blind date with a female indie game designer, you have a 50% chance of ending with a dick in your a**” (i think the word the poster dared not type is supposed to be “ass.”) to perpetuate incorrect myths about trans people and our identities is grossly irresponsible for a site like kotaku.

i posted on twitter about the article this morning, angrily, because I WAS FUCKING ANGRY. stephen totilo, who currently runs kotaku, reacted defensively, calling the article an “earnest tribute” and that he thought the “word choice” was “valid.” he didn’t say this to me, of course. i don’t know whether he blocked me or was simply ignoring me, but he refused to engage me, tweeting his responses to my concerns at courtney stanton, who i think was retweeting my tweets so that he could see them. while i was writing this post he finally buckled under the pressure of piles of tweets from trans people and allies, and changed the pronouns in the article and announced plans to change the top photo, but that doesn’t address the fact that the article – whose title includes the words “transgender video gaming pioneer” – is more about the novelty of bunten’s transition (“the narrative,” as totilo put it) than her actual contributions to videogames.

so let me tell you about dani bunten and how much we all owe her. she was one of the earliest voices in games to recognize that videogames were becoming solitary experiences, and that they had tremendous potential as interpersonal, social experiences that they were failing to actualize. “no one ever said on their deathbed, ‘gee, i wish I had spent more time alone with my computer,’” is the quote most often attributed to her. her digital game design was strongly informed by that of board games, which has been really good at this interpersonal dynamic thing for quite a while – her best-known game, m.u.l.e., adapts a number of traditional board game ideas, like auctions, to videogame contexts. and if you can’t see how this is relevant to my work in 2012, you haven’t been reading my blog.

Poison from Street Fighter X Tekken: A young white woman with magenta hair, dressed in a white tanktop, belt choker, and black cap.

Doing it Right – Playstation: The Official Magazine Handles Transphobic Hate Speech

(Trigger Warning- Transphobic slurs)

Poison from Street Fighter X Tekken: A young white woman with magenta hair, dressed in a white tanktop, belt choker, and black cap.

Poison from Street Fighter X Tekken: A young white woman with magenta hair, dressed in a white tanktop, belt choker, and black cap.

There are a lot of nay-sayers to social justice activism, even jaded, pessimistic gamers within the cause who feel big companies who profit off of the discrimination of minorities will never change. It’s easy to see why, with years of writing, speeches, and conventions only chipping at the seemingly invulnerable armor of those who hold the most sway in games. While the tireless battle still continues, I believe an experience of mine lends a little hope.

Senior Editor at GameCritics.com Brad Gallaway is a subscriber to Playstation: The Official Magazine (PTOM), and noticed in the recently released March issue an article about Capcom’s upcoming Street Fight X Tekken. The article posed teams of fighters against each other in a mock tournament, writing snippets in a sports-caster/trash-talking way in good fun to add some hype to the game’s release next month. Good fun until Gallaway saw this written about one of the characters, Poison:

Excerpt from the article, reads: "The Final Fighters: Hugo and Poison. You really don't want to know why these two are paired up. Hardbodied she-male (?) and permed 'roid rager; a logistical nightmare. Just rest assured that someone online has written something far worse."

Excerpt from the article, reads: "The Final Fighters: Hugo and Poison. You really don't want to know why these two are paired up. Hardbodied she-male (?) and permed 'roid rager; a logistical nightmare. Just rest assured that someone online has written something far worse."

And this:

An excerpt from the article, reads: "It's King vs Hugo in the wrestling stakes, and Yoshi vs. Poison in the "what the hell are you?" stakes. And to be honest, the Tekken originals have the edge from the start -- maybe because we actually know what we're doing with them. There's so much of Hugo to hit that big man takes quite a pounding, and ol' Jag-Head and Ninj-Face have no qualms about putting their collective boots into their maybe-lady opponent."

An excerpt from the article, reads: "It's King vs Hugo in the wrestling stakes, and Yoshi vs. Poison in the "what the hell are you?" stakes. And to be honest, the Tekken originals have the edge from the start -- maybe because we actually know what we're doing with them. There's so much of Hugo to hit that big man takes quite a pounding, and ol' Jag-Head and Ninj-Face have no qualms about putting their collective boots into their maybe-lady opponent."

For those who haven’t followed Poison and her controversial history, it could be said that she is video games’ first and most popular transgender character. Though many things that surround her are problematic, and Capcom won’t officially comment on her identity, she serves as an idol to some transgender gamers as a recognition that they exist in their favorite activity. There are many arguments for and against her, but what actually matters is how she is treated by Capcom and media.

Despite her notoriety, Gallaway didn’t like what he saw- unchecked transphobia in a major publication. Reaching out, he couldn’t find many people who reacted strongly to it, most likely because the community is used to seeing incidents like these brushed off with non-apologies. Eventually he brought the issue to me, and I knew I couldn’t let it die. Thankfully, I was able to get in contact with PTOM’s Editor in Chief, Roger Burchill, and bring the matter to his attention. Here’s a little snippet of what I said to him:

“I was very surprised this slipped past the editing process. I understand that this is meant to be in the spirit of trash-talking, but if sexist and racist slurs would be unprofessional to publish, I believe the same applies transphobic language. Any public support for your transgender subscribers and confirmation that transphobic hate speech is unprofessional and unwanted would be extremely appreciated.”

I find that while society is becoming more aware that discrimination exists, we are still learning what to do with it. Being accused of discrimination is a hefty charge, and all parties involved might not know how identify and resolve the problematic behavior. In the end, I didn’t want to call Roger or anyone at PTOM transphobic, because that’s most likely not the case. Instead, I wanted to identify to them “Hey, that’s not cool” and gain assurance that they don’t stand for discrimination at their publication. Because in the end, that’s what we’re fighting for, right? Recognizing what’s wrong and resolving to remove discriminatory and oppressive qualities from our actions? Here’s how Burchill responded:

“[U]ltimately the blame lies with myself as I performed the final edit on that piece. I did initially recognize the inappropriate nature of the passage and did attempt to change it to something less offensive while retaining the trash-talking “voice” of the piece. As evidenced by what made its way into print, I did a horrible and clumsy job. I was not happy with the edit when I made it and I regret that I didn’t listen to my inner voice at the time I approved it to publish. The obvious solution was that I should have changed the passage to something that doesn’t pander to the basest elements of gamers and people in general. I failed badly in this instance and I pledge to do better in the future.”

Done and done. Perfect. I was surprised and relieved when I got his response. Too many times have I received non-apologies or accusations of being too sensitive. It was almost too easy, however, I realized that this wasn’t exceptional behavior; it was just being compassionate and professional. I know of some online publishers who could follow Burchill’s example: find out why what you did was wrong, honestly apologize, and make a stand for higher standards next time. His apology wasn’t just to me, but to everyone for contributing to a problem that plagues our industry. PTOM will be running my letter in the Mail section of their May issue, publically apologizing to their subscribers, and using the incident to bring into light the undercurrent discrimination in gaming. Thank you Roger Burchill, because this is what a decent human being would do, despite how rarely it happens.

This is also a testament to the power of allies; to my knowledge, no one else involved in contacting PTOM was transgender besides me, but I had a few hands help me along the way. Just because you may not be a certain minority doesn’t mean you can’t stand up against their oppression. What’s more, it’s not a shameful to be an ally. The more visible it is that everyone has a stake in fighting against discrimination, not just those offended, the more others will feel inspired to take their stand and push us forward to a place inclusive and safe for everyone. PTOM might not be scouting for transgender writers and producing a fixed segment on social justice activism, but I believe if this attitude is adopted across the industry and games media, it won’t be long until that does happen.

Activist Games

A screenshot from Auntie Pixelante's Defend the Land. Women in white dance in a field; the caption implores you to find the impostor who has a penis!

A few items from the past month that I wanted to bring to our readers’ attention:

First, Auntie Pixelante has created a game called Defend the Land, which is a satire of transphobic “women-born-women” policies at music festivals like MichFest. It was created in response to a self-identified feminist posting a list of names and other identifying information of trans women who attended MichFest despite of or in protest of the policy. Auntie writes:

obviously i was fucking pissed off at having to interrupt work on my new game to have to worry about the safety of fellow transwomen at the hands of self-identified “radical feminists.” so i took a four hour break to make this game about defending the land from trans wolves in womyn’s clothing. (it took four hours because i made it in stencyl.) it’s a FIND THE HIDDEN OBJECT game. the hidden object is a penis. (there’s no violence or slurs in the game, if you have a hard time dealing with that stuff. but this is a game about transmisogyny, and we should all have a hard time dealing with that stuff.)

Border House author Denis has some in-depth analysis at GayGamer.net. This is definitely an important game to check out.

Our second item is another game Denis wrote about recently for GayGamer, Molleindustria’s Phone Story, an iPhone game that tells players about the human rights abuses that go into making the device they are holding and further shows through gameplay how the player is complicit in the process. The contrast of the cartoony style and minigames with the disturbing subject matter and horrifying actions the minigames represent makes for effective satire.

The game was only available on the iTunes App Store for a few hours, but Denis was able to grab the game, and a video is included in his post. According to this Gamasutra interview with the developer, the game was carefully designed so as to comply with Apple’s guidelines, but it was pulled anyway. However, the game is now available for Android.

In the Gamasutra interview, Molleindustria’s Paolo Pedercini explains the team’s goal in creating this game:

“We don’t want people to stop buying smartphones,” he notes, “but maybe we can make a little contribution in terms of shifting the perception of technological lust from cool to not-that-cool. This happened before with fur coats, diamonds, cigarettes and SUVs — I can’t see why it can’t happen with iPads.”

Lastly, Kill Screen has an interview with Dr. Michael Baran, creator of a game called Guess My Race, a 2011 Games For Change finalist. The game asks players to choose a person’s race based on just a photograph. It is inspired by exercises Dr. Baran did with children:

I took pictures of hundreds of people at Election Day—I just took pictures of whoever let me, and laminated them, and used them to make little games for kids, just like cards: Sort these people into groups by who looks the same and who looks different; tell me about this group; what makes this group different from that group? I did these little games that were kind of like cognitive psychology experiments, and tried to be really systematic; be inspired by academics but make the research fun to figure out what kids know about race.

The fact that the game is quite difficult shows how race is socially constructed and that you can’t necessarily tell someone’s race by how they look. The game is available for iOS devices.