I’ve been out as non-binary for around 4 years now. In that time many mainstream video games with character creation or personalisation have come and gone, and frankly the vast majority of them have failed to account for people who don’t subscribe to or engage with the gender binary. Whether it’s through limiting clothing options to traditional gender roles, restrictions of physical features to stereotypical gender ideas, or a lack of gender neutral language, non-binary genders have been overlooked within AAA games.
A lot of character creation fits into deeply rigid ideas of binary gender. This means that the character options follow traditional ideas of what gender is, usually based on wider cultural beliefs of male and female. What I’ve found in mainstream games is that female characters are more physically sexualised for the male gaze, but have more varied styles of clothing and expression; male characters, on the other hand, tend to have more bland clothing but are closer to my physical appearance (I am DMAB, designated male at birth). Either way results in me feeling deeply uncomfortable, since neither choice reflects who I am.
A good example of this is the recent 3DS entries into the Pokémon franchise. Although female avatars in those games’ character creation aren’t as sexualised as some other games, they follow the aforementioned trend of having more varied styles of expression whilst their male counterparts don’t. This was frustrating for me as I have always played Pokémon games as myself, but in those instances, since in prior entries to the franchise I was still under the assumption I was cis, I couldn’t be who I am. I couldn’t fully express my identity without compromising it, and so my journey to be the Pokémon master on 3DS was hampered somewhat.
These games also don’t tend to offer an option for what your character’s pronouns should be. They stick to whatever pronouns are associated with the gender option you chose earlier. Again this is something that makes me deeply uncomfortable, as I’m unable to choose my preferred pronouns for my character – a character that should be an extension of me, who goes by they/them, within the game – and it’s consistently disappointing. I understand that with voice acting it might be difficult to record more lines to include gender-neutral people. However, the solution should be simple – just treat the dialogue the same and use gender neutral pronouns, such as they/them, in place of the usual he/him or she/her pronouns. Many games are already programmed to play different voice lines depending on the players’ choice of binary gender, so why should it be that much harder to do the same with neutral pronouns?
All this prevents me from expressing myself in digital form in some of my favourite games. I have to compromise and use a male character if I want someone that looks vaguely like me, but in doing so I am betraying my identity as someone trying to distance themselves from the masculinity they were assigned at birth. On the other hand I could lean more into my femininity and choose a female character, thus opening up more expressive options for clothing, but this still leads me away from who I really am, as I don’t identify as a woman either. What would be best for me, and likely many other non-binary/gender neutral gamers, would be the option to have whatever body type the player wants, without restriction on that or other options such as hair and clothing. Want a character that has as few discernible sex characteristics as possible? Or want to wear a skirt regardless of the avatar type you picked at the start of the game? Want your masculine character to have as many good fashion choices as a feminine character would? These are the kinds of things that aren’t possible in so many games, and yet a for many would be pretty simple to implement.
Bizarrely, I've recently seen gender neutral pronouns used in a mainstream video game with Far Cry 5. No matter which of the two gender options you chose, the dialogue is all the same with the player being referred to with they/them or simply as 'the deputy'. It’s nice to see a game use gender neutral pronouns – even if it wasn't from a genuine want to be inclusive, as the physical characteristics of the players’ avatar and the options provided stick to traditional gender ideas. However, with the news that the wider public appreciates the game, this could be a sign that mainstream gamers are happy to accept gender neutral pronouns in their games.
There are some mainstream games that do already implement mechanics that take non-binary or non-gender conforming people into account, namely the recent Animal Crossing games. In the 3DS entry New Leaf, as well as the mobile foray for the franchise Pocket Camp, players still need to choose a gender when they’re creating a character, but the differences in physical appearance are negligible. The most important part of these games for a non-binary player such as myself is that the clothes found in the game aren’t restricted by gender in any way, and the other characters in the game rarely if ever comment on this at all. This means that I can create a character that has some masculine characteristics whilst also staying true to my gender identity by wearing whatever I want.
In the end all I ask of the AAA games industry is for a wider breadth in gender options when it comes to character creation. I want to be able to express myself fully and accurately, without compromising my gender and identity. I want to have the ability to play as someone who looks like me whilst also enjoying games without attention being called to the fact that I’m transgender & non-binary. I want to be able to have the same gaming experience as anyone else, to be immersed in a game without it reminding me that reality exists. Video games, like any other work of fiction, help people live out their fantasies, but for me these escapisms still include being misgendered. I suppose I must hold out hope, and seek out character-creation in indie games and the queer games community.