Inclusiveness and Diversity in Games
October 1, 2014 11:51 AM   Subscribe

Help me understand how to make trans-inclusive games.

Up front: I apologize if anything I say in this question uses insensitive terminology. I appreciate any corrections / tips.

That said:

I design and publish board games. It's important to me that these games be as inclusive as possible, in terms of gender, race, sexuality, etc. In most cases, I have a decent idea of how to accomplish this; it's not hard to make it a point to include a diverse cast in any art that is created, or include flavor text that indicates two women are married, etc.

Where this becomes more difficult for me is transgender people. I'm struggling to figure out how to include them in a way that doesn't feel really hamfisted. Unlike race, I don't think this is something that can come across via art (and in fact, any such attempt feels fraught with offensiveness). At the same time, I don't know how to work that information into flavor text without it feeling like each person represented in the game is being assigned a "gender identity" statistic.

How do I include transgender people in a game in a way that just lets them be people like anyone else, but without them being functionally invisible?
posted by tocts to Media & Arts (21 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Can you give us some more specific examples of how gender currently comes up in your games? Because I realized that all my initial thoughts about this are applicable to RPGs instead of board games -- I don't understand how gender is even a factor in board games?
posted by Jacqueline at 11:57 AM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

How do I include transgender people in a game in a way that just lets them be people like anyone else, but without them being functionally invisible?

by treating everyone's gender as "functionally invisible"? Seriously, why does gender even need to be brought up in a board game? (Same with race. Why does someone's race even need to be brought up?) Can't everything just be gender neutral? Use "They" or "The Player" instead of "he" or "she"..?
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:00 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Regarding how it comes up, in terms of game mechanics, it doesn't. However, it's not uncommon in a game to have art on cards, or text on cards or in a scenario write-up, that depicts people. When that happens, it's relatively easy to include people of different races, different body types, different ages, etc. Depending on the context, it's also possible to imply or outright indicate different sexual orientations. But, I don't know how you include transgender people in a visible way.

As far as keeping everything neutral, I'd prefer not to. I don't believe that "neutral" is really a thing, in this case; by that logic, I might as well just default to all visible people being white men, but I feel frankly that's not right.
posted by tocts at 12:05 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

if you need to provide names for individuals in your game, can't you just have them be made up/gender neutral names, and then people can decide for themselves what gender they are?

reading your update:
Do you need them to be detailed drawings of people? What if you used stylized representations. For example, make everyone blobs and have them be rainbow colours. Orange blob and Yellow blob are married but what gender are they? Who knows! They are blobs!
posted by PuppetMcSockerson at 12:06 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Look at the art on Robot-Hugs. All people are kind of blobby and of a variety of skin shades with super neato hair unless the person specifically needs to be a specific sort of person for plot reasons (not often).
posted by phunniemee at 12:14 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Make games where if one person doesn't know everyone else, it's easy for the rest of the players to help that person enjoy themselves - and maybe there's a way for players to easily join mid-game.

The most common complaint I hear from trans gamers isn't that the art doesn't represent them but that they're worried about whether people at a game night will want to play with them.
posted by michaelh at 12:21 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Unlike race, I don't think this is something that can come across via art (and in fact, any such attempt feels fraught with offensiveness)

Wait until you are NOT at work, and then check out Oh Joy Sex Toy. It's a sex toy review comic which makes a huge point of being inclusive of all types of bodies, identities, sexualities, etc. I actually can't think of a better example for an illustrator looking to make more inclusive game art.
posted by showbiz_liz at 12:22 PM on October 1, 2014 [7 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to be clear, and I will stop thread-sitting after this: I'm not interested in options for side-stepping the question by making everyone indistinct. In some cases, a game works well with that approach, and that's fine. In other cases, I want a game to include realistic depictions of people (both in art and in text). In the latter case, I feel it is important that the people thus depicted come from as diverse a subset of humanity as I can.

As the question states, when it comes to transgender people, this is where I'm at a bit of a loss as to how to proceed. (And truthfully, maybe the answer is, there isn't a way to do it, but I figured I might as well ask)
posted by tocts at 12:25 PM on October 1, 2014

I was going to suggest Oh Joy Sex Toy as a great example of showing diverse bodies in a fun way in an artistic context. However, since they are usually drawing people without any clothes on, it's easier for them to depict a wide variety of trans body configurations. I imagine in a board game context that type of nudity would not necessarily be the way to go. Another thing that crosses my mind is to look at some genderqueer and genderfluid fashion blogs to get some ideas of the wide variety of ways people express their gender/genders/agenderedness through clothing, hairstyles, and other personal accoutrements.
posted by matildaben at 12:28 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

The best way to include transgender people in games is to involve them in the making of the games.
posted by Jairus at 12:30 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: You might be going about this the wrong way. For instance, you didn't ask "How do I depict intersex individuals" because presumably you aren't depicting characters' genitals.

If you depict a wide range of gender expression, I think trans*, genderqueer, and other non-cis, non-binary folks will feel included. So mix it up: beards with skirts, breasts with bald heads, all sorts of body types, clothing types, hairstyles, makeup, etc., without regard to traditional gender roles.
posted by rikschell at 12:33 PM on October 1, 2014 [31 favorites]

Best answer: However, it's not uncommon in a game to have art on cards, or text on cards or in a scenario write-up, that depicts people. When that happens, it's relatively easy to include people of different races, different body types, different ages, etc. Depending on the context, it's also possible to imply or outright indicate different sexual orientations. But, I don't know how you include transgender people in a visible way.

Yeah, that's a toughie. You don't want to error on the side of indicating someone is transgender by exaggerating some gross stereotype of what a transgender person supposedly looks like.

If I were you, I would purchase stock photography of transgender models and/or hire local transgender models and use those images as the basis of your drawings/paintings of transgender people in your game art. They might not be "visibly trans" but by using real people as models you'll at least know that you're depicting transgender people in a realistic way.
posted by Jacqueline at 12:37 PM on October 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Best answer: One option would be to have the occasional character who uses alternate pronouns in your writeups. This would be similar to mentioning that female character X is married to female character Y. So, when describing this character, use ze instead of she or he (or some other gender neutral pronoun...take your pick as I don't think there's consensus on which is best to use, as long as you're not using something like "it").
posted by rainbowbrite at 12:41 PM on October 1, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I understand where you're coming from: Clue was a board game that depicted colorful characters both through photos/illustration and through backstory, and that added immensely to the game. Yet it's theoretically possible the creator intended for Miss Peacock to be a trans woman, but by not calling attention to it, trans people don't see it and don't feel represented.

I second Jacqueline-- use trans people as models/illustration reference. Ask a trans person to help lend a perspective to a backstory without calling it out explicitly. Let them inform your characters without hanging a sign on it.

Later when you're doing press or showing off your game at cons or whatever, when someone comments on the admirable diversity of your game characters, you tell them this story and let them have an "Oh!" moment.
posted by ejs at 12:46 PM on October 1, 2014 [2 favorites]

Best answer: My trans friend had this suggestion: "I would depict obvious females, obvious males, masculine females, feminine males, and maybe a character or two in which you can't tell."
posted by hishtafel at 1:00 PM on October 1, 2014 [15 favorites]

Could you use something to represent characters that is more puzzle-like or interchangeable? I.e., feet, middles, heads, whatever? Then everyone can pick their colors, styles, etc., to be who they want to be in the game..

Or clothes? shoes? hair? accesories? for the character depictions could be something that is interchangeable with a solid basic Person thingie?

The possibilities here are endless. Also probably very tiny and hard to make, depending on the size of your character depictions in your game. Especially if you go with meeples, but I guess puzzle-type meeples might be possible? That would be fun. My main worry would be quality of the components and how they would old up to constant reconfiguring, and whether they would come apart when you pick them up to move them around a board.

I think if you don't know a bunch of people who are trans already then you might want to do a survey of some sort to ask what is missing from their favorite board games or what they wish they could have to depict their character during the game.

I spend a fair amount of time playing Agricola ACBAS wishing I had a border collie for my sheep. Surely other people are wishing they had this or that instead of ___ for the item depicting their character? All you have to do is ask.
posted by AllieTessKipp at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: For things like game art, it depends on what you're thinking of when you think "transgender".

Some transgender people live as the gender they've transitioned to, not only with the goal of passing, but, like, actually passing. These people aren't visibly marked as different from other people, of whatever gender identity. Imagine an illustration of Laverne Cox. She looks like... a woman.

Other transgender people are genderqueer or genderfucked, transcending gender. In terms of representation in game art, you could google "genderqueer" and model your art on that aesthetic.

You could also strive for general inclusiveness of all forms of gender expression. I'm a cis woman, but it still bugs me when 100% of representations of women in graphic art -- and this gets even worse the more abstract said art gets -- involves pink, skirts, pigtails, hair ribbons, etc. None of that has anything to do with how I present, genderwise.

Another thing to consider is that, a lot of the time, this stuff doesn't come up in art at all, but in assumptions made by the game. For example what's the German board game vaguely based on colonialism that has the "natives" pieces as brown colored wooden people? Ugh. In terms of gender, you've got the pink and blue gendered figures in The Game Of Life. (Not to mention it always tells you whether you've had a boy or girl child, and I'm pretty sure hetero marriages are the only option.) I love Cards Against Humanity and I get that it's meant to be no holds barred offensive, but isn't there a "t****y" card in there?
posted by Sara C. at 1:04 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The apparent gender of the character's name does not have to match the apparent gender of the character art. Or either/both can be ambiguous.
posted by aimedwander at 1:05 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Interesting and respectful question!

Trans/trans* encompasses more than just people who "swap" on the binary. Trans encompasses a diverse spectrum of gender identities, many of which subvert the idea that there is only M and F.

Check out the Genderbread Person. This might give you some guidelines for how to break up binary gender into a bundle of characteristics.

While rigid structures and classes/categories are important for game mechanics (I'm thinking card suits, chess), I think they're often over-applied to other elements of the game. Gender IS a spectrum, so where could spectrums be worked into game design? I know you said your question falls outside of game dynamics, but if you're interested in incorporating trans identities as more than just backstory, this might be something to investigate. (Possible side-note, but this makes me think of the difference between Western and Eastern game design strategies, i.e. Chess vs. Go).
posted by elephantsvanish at 1:18 PM on October 1, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Hi, intersex trans person here. I appreciate your question!

If the only way that sex and gender diversity are going to come up in your game is via artwork, and the artwork shows one character at a time, and they are not naked, that does place some limits on what is possible for you to show. The easiest things to illustrate will be an androgynous body, or a genderqueer self-presentation. Many intersex and trans people do have androgynous bodies, but while some of us embrace them, others feel dysphoria about that fact. People don't get to choose the bodies they are born with, and if they want to alter them, there's only so much that can be done. And the icon of sex-policing bigots is the broad-shouldered, beard-shadowed trans woman. For all these reasons, depicting physical sexual androgyny is loaded territory.

Gender expression, on the other hand, is a safer choice for illustration on a card, as it is something we choose. There are all sorts of nonconforming gender expressions that are easy to illustrate, and that genderqueer people may display: wearing glam makeup with a jacket and tie, or combat boots and buzzcut with a 1950s sundress, for example.

The problem with dramatic gender-f*ckery being the sole way that trans (let alone intersex) people are represented is that many trans and intersex people have run-of-the-mill binary gender identities and are not genderqueer. Furthermore, lots of people who are gender-fluid or agender or neutrois don't express this through dramatic genderbent clothing, hairstyles, or makeup at all.

So, I think illustrating one or two trans or intersex characters in a deck of cards meant to embrace diversity in a way not likely to offend gives you a narrow range of possibilities, none of which would look much like me. (I just look like a short guy with facial hair, who is broader in the butt than average should you happen to stare at it, which most people don't, wearing jeans and a button-down shirt.)

To my mind, therefore, the better way to go is with backstory, which can be as brief as a single sentence per character. You don't have to give each character a "gender stat" (or an "ethnicity stat" or what have you). Each character could just have one interesting thing about them mentioned, which would occasionally relate to sex/gender. "Professor Plum, inspired by his own intersex status, made a career of studying the environmental impact of earthworms, those plentiful and vital hermaphrodites." "Mrs. Peacock, the trans gender heiress, heads with her wife a national charity organization sheltering homeless LGBT youth."

The backstory approach could of course be combined with illustrations to broaden the possibilities. Identifying a character as trans or intersex and having them look as gender-typical as your average illustration, while having another character appear very gender-nonconforing and saying nothing at all about their sex, gender or sexuality in the backstory, would be a good way to break down some assumptions.

Good luck with your game design!
posted by DrMew at 3:52 PM on October 1, 2014 [11 favorites]

Best answer: This is a really neat question, thanks.

I don't know that there is a perfect solution, but having an androgynous-appearing character who has a clearly-gendered name/uses gendered pronouns might help serve as a sort of shorthand for all the various ways people can identify. Likewise, unremarked-upon but visible tattoos, piercings, or even just unique hairstyles/clothing can normalize various ways people choose to present themselves to the world, even though those things are not directly connected to being transgender.

Do you ever have characters based on real people? I'm thinking of Danielle Corsetto's drawing of a fan who turned out to be transgender (strip, reaction post), which struck me as one of the best possible ways to "include" transgender folks.

On preview, I concur with DrMew all around!
posted by teremala at 4:18 PM on October 1, 2014

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