Pick Your Poison: Character Creation & The Gender Binary

Dragon Age

Any game that allows me to customize eye color, hairstyle, and nose size is the game for me. Theres a reason why I lost literally years of my life playing The Sims 2, and its the same reason why I have ten different Inquisitors but only one completed game of Dragon Age: Inquisition. I just love making a wide range of characters, all complete with painstakingly imagined backstories and carefully styled cheekbones. But every time I open up a game with character creation, be it Skyrim or Fallout 3, Im faced with a horrible choice: man or woman? What I pick here will affect clothing, hairstyles, voice, body shape, and pronouns. That is an awful lot to have riding on this question considering that, for me, there is no right answer.

Of course, not all OCs are meant to represent the player themselves. I love inventing characters to inhabit a game, and there’s no reason why they have to share my gender experience. But it’s a bummer to never even have the option of seeing yourself represented canonically. So this is where headcanons come in. Headcanons are great, and outwardly gender-conforming nonbinary folks do exist and do count, so this is totally possible. But as LGBTQIA+ people spend so much of our time headcanoning characters as queer and so little of our time getting official representation, that gets real old real fast.

The thing is, if you can play as any number of made-up races, but not as anything even approximating your own gender, it’s incredibly isolating. Its like the devs are saying, “Yes, cat people and giants and aliens and nuclear fallout Romans all totally exist, but a trans gamer who wants to play as someone the same gender as them? That would be Too Far.” I’m not asking for much—Id just really like to be able to play a game where my elf who fights dragons and shoots lightning bolts from their fingertips actually shared my pronouns in-game for once.

The obvious solution to this whole thing would be for games to just do away with the whole which genderquestion and have a gender-neutral character creation screen. Just give me a bunch of body types to choose from without forcing me to adhere to the gender binary. And then I’ll waffle around, choose my eyebrows and move my jaw and cycle through a load of equally awful hairstyles, whatever. Finally, when I’m done, let me pick my own pronouns, give myself a name, and then I’m off. Dragon Age: Inquisition already has gender-neutral clothing. I honestly cant imagine combining the man’ and womancharacter creation options into one gender-neutral screen would make all that much of a difference—except to trans gamers, to whom it would mean really rather a lot.

Predictably, when any kind of gender-neutral character creation is suggested, all the naysayers come out of the woodwork to complain about how impractical the whole thing would be. Now, I have never made a video game. I have no clue what goes into making a video game. I’m about as technical as a loaf of bread. So while this suggestion seems fairly simple to me, people may be right when they say it’d be very difficult to do. But even if it would require a whole lot of work, I refuse to believe it’s impossible (and also, it would be worth it). It’s partly because with the rate of video game development, nothing that’s impossible right now is going to stay that way for very long. And also partly because the prototypes for that kind of character creation setups already exist.

The End

In the free philosophical platformer The End, you quickly create an avatar by choosing skin color, clothes, hair, and a bunch of facial features and accessories. At no point does it ask for your gender. For someone like me, that’s invaluable. And it’s not just The End that does this. There are several similarly small games with a gender-neutral character creation, including Choice of the Dragon where you not only don’t have to specify a gender during creation, but can answer “I’m a dragon” to any later gender questions.

In fact, all of the Saints Row games (barring the first one) have a slightly more adaptable character creation mechanic as well, allowing you to select body type and voice separately. This is obviously still a far cry from gender-neutral or trans-friendly character creation as you still need to select a gender, and this doesnt mean your character is canonically trans, but it makes for a far greater flexibility than we’re currently getting elsewhere. Diverse Gaming Lists on Tumblr has created a beautiful (and painfully short) list of games with trans protagonists/the option to create a trans protagonist, which you can find here

Unfortunately, there are very few games that support a canonically trans protagonist (and no mainstream RPGs at all), despite how maddeningly easy it would be to give trans players the chance to validate their own gender. Just give me the option to say “Me too!” to Krem, Bioware! (Or even just an option that’s not horribly transphobic and ignorant. Please.) But the fact that some games have trans-friendly character creation goes a long way. I dont need sweeping plotlines about my OCs gender—Im happy with just some basic representation. A game that doesnt assume my character fits neatly into the gender binary, a character creation screen that gives me the option not to buy into that. If I want to conform to the gender binary, let it be on my own terms. I realize itd take some jiggery pokery to get that all to work on a technical level, and narrow-minded cis gamers would definitely be up in arms over the whole thing. But they already are every time even the possibility is mentioned, so I assume they’d get over themselves eventually.

Of course, the gender binary isn’t just visible in character creation. One of the biggest problems I have when playing these games is the amount of gendered language that turns up (usually completely unnecessarily). I get enough of that in the real world, thank you very much. I came here to this fantasy world, this far-flung spaceship, this futuristic wasteland for escapism. It’s especially jarring in Bioware games, which use a lot of gender-neutral language to refer to the player character (Warden, Champion, Inquisitor, Commander), to suddenly hear a ‘woman’ or ‘mistress’ being flung at me out of the blue. Even if I am playing as a girl and forgetting about trying to be me, this still hits a little close to home. The frustrating thing is that a lot of this language could be cut or tweaked into gender neutrality very easily with absolutely no loss to character or plot.

So a gender-neutral character creation screen is viable, and cutting gendered language would be easy to achieve. However, giving the player a choice of, say, three sets of pronouns would require a lot more work, and I get that. Recording all the dialogue for a big game like Dragon Age or Mass Effect with more than two sets of pronouns would be a massive job, especially considering that even then all pronouns and gender identities wouldn’t be represented. But the thing is, it’s work that game developers are willing to put in—for other people.

While the second Dragon Age game referred to the player character only as ‘Hawke,’ regardless of gender, Inquisition has multiple possible names for the Inquisitor, depending on race and gender (Adaar, Lavellan, Mistress, Ser). Fallout 4 is putting in even more work, bragging that theyre recording dialogue with thousands of real-world and other popular player names. So if theyre going to all that trouble just so some kid can call himself Mr. Boobies’ (yes, that really is an option), surely it wouldnt be too much to ask that we get a choice of pronouns at the beginning of our game? Game developers are clearly willing to bend over backwards for the sake of ‘immersion,’ and gender is a pretty important part of that immersion for me.

Dragon Age

And not only for me. There are a bunch of trans gamers out there—and a bunch of specifically nonbinary trans gamers. There’s also a bunch of cis gamers who either would like more flexible character creation or, to be honest, could do with realizing not everyone is ‘like them’—even if most of the world likes to pretend that’s the case. Most importantly, though, there are a bunch of gamers who are figuring themselves out, and the opportunity to try out different gender identities and pronouns with no real-world implications could be invaluable to that process. I know I still don’t have answers to a lot of gender questions, and being able to feel out my gender through my virtual self would be incredibly useful.

In terms of practicality, I realize that Im probably being incredibly naïve. Gender-neutral character creation and support for nonbinary protagonists would take a lot of work; a lot of work that mainstream game developers likely arent prepared to put in. This is because trans gamers arent the audience that they listen to, just like any audience calling for greater representation isnt really listened to. Its not all doom and gloom, because games are slowly starting to wise up to the need for trans inclusion (even Runescape), but its a very slow process. I have no doubt we’ll make it there eventually; the small amounts of inclusion the trans community has seen so far are already a massive step forward. But in the meantime, while I can (and do) play as millions of made-up characters, I still cant play a game as myself. Which kind of sucks.

But don’t let me have the last word! Is gender-neutral character creation something you’d like to see in more mainstream games? Would a choice of pronouns affect your gameplay at all? Let me know your take on all this. And if I’ve inadvertently said something terrible, please spray me with a water bottle and I’ll go fix it.

Chin up, folks. Change is afoot. We’ll get there.

8 thoughts on “Pick Your Poison: Character Creation & The Gender Binary

Add yours

  1. I don’t think it would necessarily take a lot of work.

    1) For voiced-dialogue games that are going to sink a whole lot of time into customized voice lines and whatnot, well, as you say, they ALREADY committed to putting in X units of work where X is a large number; X + 1 or X + 2 units is unlikely to make a huge difference.

    2) For voiced-dialogue games that don’t want to sink that much time into customized voicelines, simply avoiding direct gender in address is likewise not that much work. Especially relevant in sci-fi games where the player character might be a whole different species and millions of cultures away from the people they’re interacting with. The only “work” is some low-level thinking (in the software-architecture sense of “low-level”).

    3) For unvoiced-dialogue games, there is really no excuse. Look at Failbetter Games. Look at interactive fiction, whether parser-based, hypertext-based, or CYOA. Literally all you need is a text substitution, the same kind that is already used for player names.

    4) For dialogue-free games, likewise and even more so.

    Right now, though, the state of mainstream/AAA games is such that there are so many things that are just *twitch*. Boobplate, boobplate, everywhere. Unthinking racism galore. As for indie games, I don’t know if it’s just my personal gaming history or if it’s an honest-to-goodness trend, but most of the indie games I’ve played have had actual protagonists, not MMO-style character creation. I definitely would enjoy having more canonical trans characters, but that’s not quite what you were discussing!


    1. To be honest, I think you’re right. Part of the reason all this frustrates me so much is that I can’t help thinking it would be relatively easy to solve, it’s just a case of developers not thinking it’s worth the effort to include trans gamers.

      Ultimately I think the biggest problem is developers not realising that we exist in the first place – I’ll bring up the example of the conversation the Inquisitor has with Krem, again, because it’s such a horrible example of cisnormativity. It clearly didn’t even occur to them that a trans person might be playing their game and might want a dialogue option which reflected that. I think a lot of people hear ‘trans inclusion’ or ‘multiple pronouns’ and start freaking out because it seems like a massive job with massive implications. But, as you say, on a practical level it only requires a few small changes. (I could go off on one about needing more genderqueer game developers here, but I think you can guess where I’d be going with that.)

      I ~was~ focusing on broadening options when creating OCs in games, but hear hear for more canonical trans characters in general. It’s an important issue, and one that’s gaining traction, but we’re still a way off yet.


      1. I’ve been developing games for about 10 years, and some of my closest friends and colleagues are trans folks. One of the things we all collectively seethe about is how easy it WOULD be, technically and creatively, to be more inclusive, at least beginning on the more basic levels. You are in no way being unreasonable in asking for developers to put in that little bit of extra effort, it’s really more of an issue of consideration than production – much less important things are given much more development priority, so there’s no real excuse for the state of non-binary representation in the industry right now. In terms of both character creation and NPCs, the problem has not been technological for years at this point, it’s pretty much entirely cultural. Progress is slow, but my peers and I have been trying to push other game devs to be more conscious of how they populate their worlds, and who they are allowing (or forcing) their players to control. But in the meantime, don’t let people tell you that it’s an issue of production, because it’s not. It’s an issue of empathy.


  2. I don’t know what the answer is, but as a non-binary person I feel the same as you. My dissertation for my degree focusses on these kinds of issues though, and I’m looking forward to exploring the issues in more depth.


  3. Honestly, I don’t know what the answer is. But it’s very translatable across the spectrum of diversity under represented in video games. Sure…..yes I can make a character the same skin tone as me…or pretty damn close but the hair? Not even close.

    I think games are listening and the steps are small in general for all forms of diversity to be represented in games. I think this year alone has taken huge steps in that direction. I do believe if developers took more time to listen to different groups of their audience it could effectively produce a game all fans would feel comfortable with.

    I do agree we are getting there.


  4. Unless they changed the rules (and they may have, or previous games may have had bugs…) “Ser” is actually also gender neutral, fyi.

    I just don’t see how it would be MORE work to simply have a character-body select screen than a “man or woman” select screen. That sounds like naysayers trying to make it more of an issue than it really is. It would be *different* work but not more (and while I know dick about coding I know enough to know that creating two things like that are roughly equal in effort because regardless of what you *call* that screen it’s the same damn thing under the skin, so there’s no excuse there!)

    I was also disappointed by no option to not come across like a dick to Krem. It was so thrilling to see someone so much more like me (in some ways, I’m hardly the warrior type or someone who would even want to be) but that was somewhat tarnished when I realized that having more dialog with him meant I had to be a douchenozzle. I think, though, – or would like to think – this point has been brought up enough that in the future Bioware will probably be aware of that (at least, it feels like to me nearly everyone happy and talking about Krem has also mentioned it, and they’ve proven that they listen to what people have to say) and will fix that issue with any potential future situations.


  5. I’ve never understood the industry striving to give “open” experiences, but then going to more effort than needed to arbitrarily restrict it.

    Any game that advertises a big, robust character creation system is only hobbling itself by forcing a binary. We simply do it this way because we have always done it this way.

    For the vast majority of players, being able to create non-binary gender in player-characters doesn’t matter one way or the other, so the developers don’t make it a priority. But, for a small number of players it matters a lot and it really isn’t a question of more work. So why not just let the people who care have what they want?

    There’s another small group who care out of some bizarre need to police the private lives of strangers. They are unreasonable. Unreasonable demands shouldn’t be met.


  6. In Saint’s row you can change your gender during the game from 2 onwards. There are no non-binary genders however. The game and it’s characters will treat your person as if they are entirely the gender they have transitioned to.


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