What it’s like to be trans in the gaming space

Posted on February 7, 2023

To be a transgender gamer is a unique experience. If you are transgender, you probably know what I mean. And if you are not transgender, it’s unlikely you will ever be able to fully comprehend it. Only in more recent years has nerdom become more publicly interrelated with the LGBTQIA+ community. Part of this is thanks to games being more open in their storytelling and further accommodating to those of diverse backgrounds, but the remainder comes from the same way other queer people try to live and survive in their day-to-day lives: finding like-minded people elsewhere.

Hell, it’s what I do. Knowing how harsh, cruel and uninviting the world can be out there, I try my best to stay in my lane where I can. Engaging with people and art that matters and respects not only my time but also me as an individual.

Without further ado, here’s what it’s like as a trans person to exist and be in the gaming space. Every trans person is different, I’m no spokesperson. Please take at least some of what I say with a grain of salt, and accept that this is my personal experience in the scene.

Games that speak to me

There’s something of a meme about trans women liking both Fallout: New Vegas and Celeste. Sure, they’re both excellent video games, but what is it about these two games that make them such a hit with trans gamers?

Fallout: New Vegas is a 2010 RPG created by Obsidian Entertainment. In it, you’re an adventurer in an apocalyptic wasteland, overflowing with Americana vibes. In that context, players create their own characters, making and dressing them up to their fashion. Then it’s out in the world you go, with threats (human or otherwise) after you at every turn.

What perhaps draws me (and perhaps others) to New Vegas more than any other entry in the Fallout series is its politics in particular. Every step you take feels like a political battlefield. There are deep characters and factions, always hunting for your attention and possibly even your recruitment. Some feel like they want you dead from the get-go, just for existing. Now that’s a familiar feeling. In America today, trans people are closer than ever to having their right to exist in public life stripped from them. 2022 has been the worst year yet for transgender Americans, with bills being pushed that threaten trans people’s livelihood, like their right to participate in sports, use public bathrooms, and receive gender-affirming healthcare. Massively underrepresented in politics, trans people are largely powerless against these attacks. While I may be Australian, the anti-trans rhetoric pushed by American politicians is often echoed by the Australian right-wing.

In Fallout: New Vegas, you hold some power, at least. For every person trying to sway you against your own lifestyle, you can simply turn your back. Or, you can bite back. You can sock a blow to those that will never listen to you, or simply talk it out. Follow through on your beliefs in the world of New Vegas and you can soon impact an entire region. That’s a power fantasy trans people will never see become reality, and it is why other games with more complex and involved politics (such as the poetic masterpiece Disco Elysium) also appeal to me in the same way.

Celeste’s appeal is more literal. The game is an incredibly difficult 2D platformer where players are encouraged to breathe, take it all in and be more forgiving of themselves. Death is never the end; soon enough you’re right back into the action. It’s all about a climb of a gargantuan and apparently never-ending mountain. Reminders of the player’s need to take a breath will be peppered in. The two simple words “Just breathe,” remain to be so important to me to this very day. When the going gets tough (and believe me, living every day as a trans person will often be like that), I always try to remember. Just. Breathe.

Each death is a lesson in Celeste. With how tough the game can be, you’re quickly taught to deal with only what you can control. Tackle a level a slice at a time. Often, this is not too dissimilar to the battle LGBTQIA+ people face every day. The ‘taking one day at a time,’ mantra holds more weight when you’re in this community, facing oppression all too often.

“‘The ‘taking one day at a time,’ mantra holds more weight when in you’re in this [LGBTQ+] community, facing oppression all too often.”

At one point in your journey through Celeste, a memorial stone can be found that delivers a guttural punch. It says, “This memorial [is] dedicated to the ones who perished on the climb.” This isn’t the only time the game has hinted that it’s exploring a trans narrative, but it is the most palpable. In these very words and with this moment, Celeste provides a memorial service to the trans people of the past who tragically did not make it through the fight that comes with being in the community.

Marsha P. Johnson and Ellie Che. The thousands that we lost, including those whose names we’ll never know. Everyday trans people that were fighting for the rights of you and I. Some of them trying to make a difference, and some just trying to live their own lives. Every single one that did not make it is a great loss. This kind of remembrance in a game has never been seen before, so of course trans people gravitate to Celeste. Even further, we received the eventual confirmation that protagonist Madeline themselves is trans and this very game was worked on by brilliant trans talent such as composer Lena Raine and Maddy Thorson. It’s no wonder Celeste is a touchstone.

You might notice the lack of multiplayer games mentioned so far, and that’s for good reason. Toxicity in online gaming spaces is a minefield for those of diverse backgrounds. It’s no secret that it can sometimes feel like the wild west hopping into a game of League of Legends or Valorant. Unfriendly and discriminatory language can be found wherever you go in online gaming and as such, many tend to play with their microphone off, or, if you’re anything like me, you largely avoid the genre completely.

Discord and other relevant community apps with gaming links can often be a refuge. I can’t count on my hands the number of servers I’m in where I can find like-minded people all across the world that I can message in an instant. Any day of the week, I’d rather hop into a voice channel of people I know who remind me I’m loved, playing our own private games together than brave the alternative.

Character Customisers

It’s of no surprise that character customisers were of great importance to me in cracking my egg. The wealth of possibilities in games with character customisation is exciting. I can create anyone, and be anyone I want to be.

The Sims franchise was just one of my go-to games for diverse character customisation. What initially begun as tooling around with game systems became a form of self expression. In my childhood and teenage years when I still identified as male, I was very curiously creating characters that looked like ‘effeminate’ versions of myself. This made me feel entirely gender euphoric, able to discreetly express myself in ways I didn’t quite fully understand at the time. If only my younger self knew the freight train of self-revelations that awaited.

I may have drifted away from the series over the years as I diversify the amount and variety of games I play, but that fondness always remains. It’s heartwarming and touching to tune in to the occasional updates that the series has, and see The Sims 4 better itself more and more. Just last week, an update included the ability to add top surgery scars, bindings and more important tidbits for trans character design. Adding on top of that a 2022 update that allowed players to tweak the pronouns of their sims and I can’t help but feel so proud of the series. The Sims has come a long way in its 23-year existence.

Then there is perhaps the most infamously well-intentioned but messy attempt at a gender diverse customiser. Yes, it’s time I talk about Cyberpunk 2077. The latest gigantic RPG from CD Projekt Red was entirely ambitious. Where the game disappointed me most was not in all the technical shortcomings that existed at launch but in its lack of regard for trans people.

The crux of the cyberpunk genre is that you can be whatever and whoever you want. Transhumanism is naturally a gigantic component of this. Thousands of different possibilities for self-expression and one’s presenting gender exist. CD Projekt Red clearly thought of this, as their character customiser includes an array of gender-diverse options. Some of those options are great, but others are so poorly thought out that it makes you wonder if they even consulted trans people in its creation.

At first glance the character customiser looks to be diverse, though that only goes skin deep. For one, I found the choice between a ‘masculine and ‘feminine’ body type restricting. While the genitalia can be assigned to either body type, the same cannot be said for generally gendered features such as breasts and facial hair. Therefore, your character technically cannot look visibly trans. Yes, your character can at least sound trans, but the game assigns your pronouns, and therefore your perceived gender, based off this choice. If your voice sounds deep, you are a man. If your voice sounds high, you are a woman. There is no in-between.

It was enough to discourage me from truly engaging with Cyberpunk 2077. A genre that is often made by and for people like me, and in its first step CD Projekt Red already shuttered its doors to me. It’s a shame because there is likely at least some decent representation in there; Claire, a prominent quest giver in the game happens to be trans. Why can’t more games have just that? A trans character who is just there, apropos of nothing?

At the end of the day, character customisers can be an extremely mixed bag. Games are so close to getting it right, but there are still egregious examples to this day. Need I remind people of the zealous customiser in MMORPG Black Desert Online? This is but one of those games where you can bend apart and break the customiser to make impossibly proportioned women with giant breasts and an infinitesimal waist. What a waste; all this effort in the service of giving players something to ogle over. It could be going elsewhere. I want more games that give me trans bodies. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Realistic. Trans bodies.

A slow build of representation

If you search online for trans representation in games, the list is frankly a little depressing. What’s worse is that in prior years a lot of examples are either unconfirmed, or confirmed but incredibly insulting stereotypes of trans people. For instance, you have Shablee from 1993’s Leisure Suit Larry 6 — you can probably guess how respectfully that title treats her. Also released in the same year was Police Quest: Open Season, with a cross-dressing killer. If that doesn’t strike your fancy or tickle your representation bone we have… Birdo from Super Mario Bros. 2.

The point I’m trying to make here is that in many media, games especially, the representation of trans people has been weak at best. Name a long-running JRPG franchise, be it Final Fantasy, Dragon Quest or the Tales of series and you’ll find at least one game where there’s a gender-transcending villain.

If I’m to take this at face value, it’s entirely cool to see a gorgeous, ethereal character with inventive costumes being so powerful. But in reality, it’s a harsh reminder that in video games, even gender-non-conforming people are always the enemy. They are always a force to overcome. While they’re there in the limelight, they’re never to be taken seriously and assuredly won’t still be around by the time credits roll.

In more recent years, a handful of games have gotten trans representation a lot closer to the mark, but their stories are still a little too rooted in trauma for my liking. The Last of Us Part II, for instance, has Lev, a young transgender male. They are introduced as part of the story wholly authentically, but their treatment at times leaves a bit to be desired. Similarly, we’ve got one of Tell Me Why’s lead protagonists in Tyler. They are in a better place in the game’s present day, but trauma has shaped them into what they are today.

Not that this is the representation Olympics, but if I’m honest, transgender men are almost non-existent in media. It’s fantastic that we are finally getting to see some trans men in Lev and Tyler. Though the fact remains, no matter their strength as characters, their arcs are incredibly similar to the tropes we’ve historically witnessed for characters that are gay.

It’s not so much that hardships are inauthentic for the trans community. Of course, it’s quite the opposite. But it doesn’t define us, and it’s not the only story we have to tell. If I had it my way, there would be a welcome blend of both. By no means do I want trans stories enveloped in bubble wrap, free of sharp edges. I do want many, many more stories of trans joy

Being trans is beautiful, incomparable and life-changing. Had I not discovered my gender identity, I do not believe I would be here today. I’m now transitioning and in a beautiful, loving relationship. I get to experiment with my body and gender expression in ways I never got to before. Some days I go hyper-feminine, going the whole mile with makeup and clothing. On other days I dial it down and that’s okay. Not every day is easy. Regardless, I’m blossoming. That’s what I want for people like me. I want trans stories to blossom too.

Like many movements, representation progression is slow, but I’m ecstatic we’re getting there. Recent examples like the revelation that long-standing Guilty Gear character Brigette is canonically trans are thrilling. My mind races with the future possibilities. There are likely indie games in development I can’t even imagine. Ones that, hopefully, make great leaps in representation.  I want a happier and easier life for trans people of the future. That future’s possible, we just need to keep working for it.

If I were to leave you with one important takeaway from all of this is to seek deeper and more diverse art. Gaming has been around for about fifty years now. It’s only natural that some stories and experiences will release that feel like re-treaded ground. So that’s where I implore you to turn your attention towards games where diversity is at the forefront. Read queer-led media and journalism. Play games made by teams full of people on the LGBTQIA+ spectrum. Champion excellent stories with diverse characters. Continuing to do so is the only way we get more in that space. I promise it’s worth it.

If any tough topics or themes discussed today have aggregated concerns for yourself or your safety and you believe help is needed, know there is always help.

Please feel free to use the following resources below:

Lifeline Australia phone line: 13 11 14

Many helpful resources for trans people in Australia can also be found at transcend.org.au.