Gender in video games is very binary. There’s little fluidity other than the stereotypical cis-gendered male and female protagonists. Often, the side characters don’t even provide much diversity in terms of gender. But have there been any successful titles which managed to portray a more diverse cast?
The Borderlands franchise has always pushed the frontier of LGBTQ+ representation, featuring many characters across a broad spectrum of sexualities. Borderlands 3, the latest addition to the much-loved shoot-and-loot franchise was released late in 2019, and one of the playable protagonists, FL4K, was revealed to be non-binary, with the pronouns “they/them”. This was unexpectedly met with a mixed response, leading to many fans to rejoice at the new playable character’s identity. However, the announcement did spark some controversy online. Select players deliberately misgendered FL4K, referring to them as “he/him”. Gearbox were quick to rectify the matter, swiftly banning any players who made the effort to misgender the Beastmaster. Also featuring in Borderlands 3 is Lorelei, a side character you meet on the planet of Promethea. While she is referred to by female pronouns, the game’s writers have confirmed that she is non-binary, and before the corporate wars, was considering transitioning. The casting for the character and the portrayal of her struggles with gender identity was genius, with trans voice actor Ciarán Strange bringing Lorelei to life perfectly.
Over three decades before the release of Borderlands 3, though, there were already transgender characters in games. Back in 1988, Nintendo released Super Mario Bros. 2. The game featured a new dinosaur-like creature, Birdo. The official character description from the game’s manual describes how “he thinks he is a girl and he spits eggs from his mouth. He’d rather be called “Birdetta”. Although the misgendering isn’t very appropriate in 2020, the introduction of a potentially transgender character in a video game was new and groundbreaking. Since then, Nintendo has clarified that Birdo is, in fact, of indeterminate gender. Since, Nintendo has further increased gender identity options in their franchises. This year’s bestselling Switch game, Animal Crossing: New Horizons, offered a multitude of options to completely customise the gender identity of your character. With a non-gendered start to the game, opting for the masculine/feminine character options instead, the customisation continues throughout the title. The player can give their avatar any customisation they want, without gender restraints. The villagers are also non-gendered, removing any gender-specific player-villager interactions.
However, one game that falters compared to Animal Crossing in terms of customisation options is The Sims. While options have been added to customise different aspects of a sim’s gender, such as whether they can get pregnant or how they pee, there is still no space for non-binary and gender non-conforming sims. Also, it is not possible to change a sim’s gender in-game, reducing accessibility to trans players, who are unable to accurately build themselves in the simulation. EA, the publisher behind The Sims, oversaw some non-cisgender diversity in the 2019 battle royale Apex Legends with the character Bloodhound, despite being voiced by the female voice actor Allegra Clark. The choice of voice actor-led many fans to believe the technological tracker is female, yet the team behind the game confirmed that Bloodhound is non-binary in the canon of the Titanfall universe.
While much progress needs to be made to include more non-cisgender characters in video games, the representation is moving in the right direction. The importance of gender in a character’s story is no longer necessary, and the joy of playing fully fleshed out protagonists, with important and detailed backstories, is the most important aspect in modern character design.