First of all, a disclaimer is in order. I am a privileged, straight, white female who has never felt the need to question my gender, sexuality or anything else of that nature. I am also not a person who plays video games… at all. So I may not have much of a right to write about this issue, because I don’t fall into any of the populations affected, by life or by choice, by this controversy. However, I am a storyteller. I write fictional stories with fictional characters in fictional situations and try to make them as relatable and human as I possibly can. At its heart, this is exactly what video game creators, such as the massively imaginative people over at Bioware, are doing as well. And because this controversy centers on character creation and development, I just felt a need to respond.
For those not familiar with the brewing controversy, here is a brief summation of what’s going on: Recently Bioware, a major video game producer, released the much anticipated Mass Effect Andromeda, which was the fourth installment in the Mass Effect series of games that tells the story of humans traveling across space to find new planets to colonize. The game garnered so much attention and excitement due to its 4K graphics and the story it would tell, as it has been five years since the last chapter was released. In Andromeda, there is a transgender character that players interact with in order to further the story and their mission. Hainly Abrams is the scientific director of the colony of which your character is leading on this journey. However, critics of the game assert that Abrams’ portrayal of a transgender person was handled sloppily without adequate research to create accurate representation.
Now, I am not going to dismiss the feelings of actual transgender people about this portrayal. I’m sure that no representation of any sort of minority is anywhere near perfect. I’m sure there are things that bothered transgender people about things the character says or does. In an article by Sam Greer on EuroGamer, Greer points out various missteps made by the game’s creators in portraying a transgender person. The main complaint seems to be that the character offers her former male name in conversation. As I understand it, this “dead-name” is something that is immediately dropped from all conversation because it, “tied to a period of their life filled with great distress and can be a painful reminder of that,” Greer writes. This is understandable.
However, in the format of a video game, where almost all knowledge is learned through dialogue, this would be the only way for writers to tell Abrams’ story. I’m sure that the practice cutting dead names out of every aspect of life is a widespread practice, but I know several transgender people who offer this information when they feel comfortable or are asked honest questions about their journey. Many people want to move on from their life before their transformation, others are open about it because they want the issue and the journey to become more of a mainstream topic of discussion. Because this is a fictional character, I don’t believe anyone has the right to force creators to change their creation simply to fit the needs of some people.
If you disagreed with the behaviors of a violent villain who kills an innocent civilian in a movie, book or video game, would you demand that this character be changed as well? Would you demand the Joker be changed because you disagree with his habits of manipulation and blowing up hospitals? No, because then the story wouldn’t be the same. There would be no story. It is entirely plausible that a transgender person would want to take the journey that Abrams is, because she want’s to escape her past. If she wants to offer that information to someone essentially responsible for the success of the journey, than that would be her choice. And that’s what writers decided she would do. It is a creative choice about a fictional character and a fictional world — all of the decisions are the right of the creator to make.
I also don’t see anything inherently derogatory or discriminatory in their portrayal. If that had been the case, then yes, we should be up in arms. But this nit-picking over a small, inconsequential conversation is doing nothing to help mainstream the conversation about transgender representation. If anything, it is taking away the rights of transgender people to make decisions about their own choices, and it is taking away the rights and opportunities of creators to tell interesting and engaging stories. Pretty soon, we will all be experiencing the same kinds of stories over and over again because storytellers will be afraid to take risks. No one can please everyone all the time. This is a simple fact of life.
On the topic of representation: I have read that Bioware is often good at including a diverse range of characters, this was merely a logical next step in that practice. But this is also such a new area within the issue of diversity — can you really blame them for trying to tell the story in a clear and engaging way? I’m not. I believe that we should be grateful for any sort of representation of LGBT+ in mass entertainment. It is a signifier that this particular company cares about diversity and visibility and are working with what they can to make it a more inclusive experience for all.
The bottom line is: if there weren’t a transgender character at all, would you still be up in arms? You probably wouldn’t have even considered it as a missing plot line. But the fact that Bioware creators made the effort to include it at all is commendable and I would love to see the fascinating story of Abrams’ journey unfold even more in future games (as my husband continues to play them.)
What I am really trying to say is that, instead of nitpicking based on personal belief, we need to respect the institution of storytelling as a creative, subjective endeavor (as long as its intentions are not derogatory or discriminatory), that enriches our lives as a whole.
What do you think of the controversy? What do you think of Mass Effect Andromeda? Do you think Abrams’ portrayal was handled with adequate respect? How could creators have improved their portrayal without losing the story of a transgender space scientist? Why is it important for video game creators to include diverse characters? Let’s talk.