Diversity is a tough nut to crack in videogames. This isn’t because developers and writers have the wrong tools, a nutcracker works as long as it’s a nutcracker. It’s because they use their tools—their creativity, inclusivity, empathy—in the wrong ways, like using a nutcracker as a hammer. It’s great to see the effort in many recent games to crack the shell that keeps representations of race, gender, and sexuality in stereotypical spaces, or excludes them at all, but it’s become clear that this step in the right direction is more of a tip-toe and certainly no leap. Simply slapping different colors on characters, including different sexual or gendered identities, or giving less hetero-normative roles to female characters (or male, for that matter) does not a diverse game make. To be truly diverse, the social constructs that limit or damage these identities and their experiences of understanding their own identity as such need to be explored and problematized.
One such developer recently learned this lesson and responded. Bioware’s recent, highly anticipated release of Mass Effect: Andromeda was met with an outcry from its transgender community due to a misrepresentation within the game. The series’ first transgender character, Hainly Abrams, explains in her introduction to the player that she is transgender and has fled the Milky Way galaxy in search of a space less inclined to discrimination. Hainly has fled an entire galaxy because of the discrimination she faced, particularly in that others continually used her pre-transition name, her dead-name, effectively refusing to recognize her true self. Then, without provocation, Hainly reveals this dead name to the player. With no qualms about it, after traveling light-years to escape the pain that name continued to cause in the hands of others, Hainly promptly places it in the player’s.
This representation is contradictory, lazy, and insensitive. As Bioware attempts to problematize an experience of transgendered people, they quickly trivialize it with a simple utterance, no explanation given. Game critic Laura Dale explains in her Polygon article how painful a dead-name can be for some transgendered people, as it brings up a period in their lives often characterized by inner pain. She comments that for a transgender character to express such extreme discomfort with their dead-name only to voluntarily reveal it exposes the developer’s surface-level knowledge of the issue. This is an example of diversity without depth, an inclusion of a marginalized identity without a truly meaningful exploration of the vehicles of marginalization that have plagued that identity.
So Bioware got called out on their good intentions and reacted, not by removing the character, or with a simple apology or platitude, but with an apology accompanied by an overhaul of the interactions players can have with that character. In a tweet yesterday, Bioware announced that it would change interactions with Hainly such that she will only reveal her dead-name to players that have earned her trust over the course of the game, as with most Mass Effect characters. This fix, which should be updated within the next two months, is a great way to follow up their error rather than avoid or duck it. It’s another step in the right direction, and their apology indicates their recognition that inclusion alone does not represent diversity:
It remains to be seen how meaningful an interaction this will be after the update, especially since I’m not convinced revealing Hainly’s dead-name at all does anything meaningful, but I’m excited about the change and Bioware’s willingness to grow. Creation is iterative, and though it would have been great for this misrepresentation to have never occurred in the first place (especially after Bioware’s fantastic inclusion of a transgender character in Dragon Age: Inquisition ), it’s good to see the creator in question hold themselves responsible to their community-at-large.