In the early days of video games, depictions of transgender characters were mainly limited to crude examples of gender ambiguity, surrounded by endless discourse and debate. Birdo in Super Mario Bros. 2 (1988) and Poison in Final Fight (1989) are often cited as the first trans characters to be featured in games, but their portrayals left much to be desired. These characters were regularly misgendered in official material, described in derogatory terms, and depicted as simply being confused about their identity. Still, they are considered by many to be the most well-known trans video game characters to date.
Thankfully, trans characters have come a long way since the days of Birdo and Poison. Trangender Day of Visibility marks the perfect occasion to draw attention to how modern trans characters in AAA video games are depicted and what the future might hold for trans representation in gaming. Though representation has not been a perfect or linear journey, increased advocacy by LGBTQ players and organizations, including GLAAD, have proven that audiences are no longer willing to settle for the bare minimum. Trans characters that are written with respect and authentically cast are becoming more common, and over a dozen major trans characters have graced AAA games over the past five years, putting a spotlight on narratives that are historically underrepresented.
While not all recent attempts at inclusion were executed successfully, characters like Tyler from Tell Me Why, Lev from The Last of Us Part II and Catalyst from Apex Legends have been highlights of quality representation in recent years. Not only are the characters authentically cast with trans voices behind the stunning performances, but their identities are also explored in-game and through supplemental media, allowing them to be multi-dimensional characters who aretrans, rather than side characters siloed to the fringes of the games they inhabit.
However, there is still progress to be made. Looking at trans characters that have debuted in AAA games still shows a stark lack of diversity. The majority of mainstream trans characters are white or white-coded, with Lev from The Last of Us Part 2, Paolo from Far Cry 6, and Justicia from Need for Speed: Unbound serving as the only notable exceptions in the last five years. They are also overwhelmingly young adults, and though canon ages are rarely provided for characters, there is a lack of middle-aged or senior trans people. Even Cagliostro, a trans woman alchemist from Granblue Fantasy Versus who is implied to be centuries old, is depicted as a young child. Visible and invisible disabilities are another aspect scarcely seen within video game characters. Considering that 52% of transgender adults in the U.S. self-report as having at least one type of disability according to a 2020 Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, the focus on able-bodied trans characters ignores a large percentage of trans people who may look to gaming for representation.
And data shows that players are likely to react positively to varied types of characters that reflect different identities. A 2022 Gamer Sentiment Study by Newzoo found that 42% of U.K. players and 51% of U.S. players identified diversity, equity, and inclusion as a top priority within games, and that those feelings were more prominent with players that also identified as queer, disabled, and/or a person of color. Exploring intersectionality within video game worlds would offer a unique look into lesser known trans stories, and GLAAD encourages game developers to explore how trans experiences may vary within different communities.
The authenticity of transgender representation is just as important off-screen as it is on-screen. Conversations regarding casting are complicated and rife with controversy as game studios have a history of casting cisgender actors to play transgender characters. Erica from Catherine: Full Body (2019), Ladiva and Cagliostro from Granblue Fantasy Versus (2020), and Bridget from Guilty Gear -Strive- (2022) were all played by cisgender actors for both the Japanese and English dub. Queer Vox, a “not-for-profit training academy and community for LGBTQ+ voiceover actors,” explains it best in a series of tweets that draw attention to the fact that cisgender voice actors are regularly chosen over trans voice actors even for trans characters because studios have misconceptions regarding what certain identities sound like. Though Queer Vox’s tweets were directly responding to Arc System Works’ decision to cast a cisgender woman as Bridget, much of what they say is relevant to all instances of inauthentic casting.
Queer Vox’s Response to the “Guilty Gear Strive” Trans Character Casting 1/2 pic.twitter.com/JETnxRwnAM
— Queer Vox (@queervoxacademy) August 10, 2022
Trans voice actors like Meli Grant (Catalyst), Ian Alexander (Lev), Xavier Lopez (Paolo), Sena Bryer (Justicia), Maddie Taylor (Claire from Cyberpunk 2077), Elliot Fletcher (Pelagos from World of Warcraft: Shadowlands), Ciaran Strange (Lor from New Tales from the Borderlands), Nicole Maines (Osa from Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Siege), and August Aiden Black (Tyler from Tell Me Why) are all examples of trans voices in recent games. The number of talented trans actors is staggering, so a lack of trans talent can no longer serve as a proper excuse for AAA studios when they have the resources to find suitable voice actors to play trans roles.
Until trans actors are fairly considered for cis roles, it’s *imperative* that trans actors have the opportunity to play trans roles.
— Erika Ishii (@erikaishii) August 9, 2022
So what can the future hold for trans characters in video games?
A desire for meaningful inclusivity opens up a world of possibilities, and complex characters with layers of identities are not only more realistic, but better representative of the players that encounter them. It is not enough for developers to shoehorn in a didactic trans character for the sake of being inclusive without actually fleshing out how they fit into the narrative. White trans characters still dominate the AAA gaming scene, and there’s an opportunity for developers to create intersectional trans characters that players have not seen represented before. Paolo’s experience as a trans man in Far Cry 6 is unique because he is also Yaran, and the turbulent cultural and political state of Yara directly affects his path to transition. Likewise, Justicia’s Mexican background in Need for Speed: Unbound informs her relationship with gender roles and machismo while also fitting seamlessly into the street racing social scene that has historically been influenced by Black and Latino culture.
There are many unexplored storylines regarding how culture impacts gender expression, how transitioning can be affected by disability, and how the lives of trans people change and evolve with age. It is difficult to name specific types of trans characters that are lacking in AAA games because studios have hardly scratched the surface of what it means to be trans and how diverse trans people truly are. Video games in general are barely starting to escape the straight white male protagonist archetype that has had an inescapable chokehold on the industry, so trans characters of color, disabled trans characters, senior trans characters, and authentically written trans characters in general are a welcome act of creativity against the status quo.
Players and voice actors alike have voiced their eagerness for a renaissance of diversity in AAA video games. Trans Day of Visibility is an opportunity to highlight both the achievements and oversights of transgender inclusion, and while fewer video games today treat their trans characters with the same disrespect that Birdo and Poison faced, there is still a long way to go before all players have the chance to see themselves in mainstream games.
Interested in checking out games that feature trans characters? The GLAAD gaming team compiled a list of trans-inclusive games in a blog post for Transgender Awareness Week in 2022.