Privilege, thy name is entitled gamer.
With the gaming world coming perilously close to representing the real world with actual real people (and I’m not just talking about VR) clearly some people aren’t having it. The latest controversy is regarding a character in the new Baldur’s Gate expansion, Siege of Dragonspear. For those who don’t know, Baldur’s Gate, based on Dungeons and Dragons, is one of the most revered game franchises, developed back in ye’ old days (1998 for the rest of us) and clearly has a special place in many a gamers’ hearts . It would make sense that they would be touchy about any new changes being made to their beloved franchise over time but this seriously takes the cake.
The character in question is an NPC (Non Playable Character) called Mizhena who is transgender. This is revealed when the player goes to talk to her and is told that she changed her birth name. If the player asks why, she replies that her birth name was unsuitable and on further questioning, replies, “When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me, it is the truest reflection of who I am.”
Nothing about this sounds difficult or even radical. Mizhena is not even a very important character in the game. She cannot become a player’s companion; she really has no effect on the game whatsoever. And yet this character has caused a meltdown in the gaming community, with gamers accusing Beamdog and particularly writer Amber Scott of trying to ‘push politics’ into gaming. Several people have even peppered the reviews section of the game’s Steam and GoG (Good Old Games) stores with reviews that seem to be blatantly transphobic. Point to be noted here, there are also reviews which point out that the game is buggy with lots of problems, but there is also an alarmingly large number of reviews which talk about the “SJW writing” in the game – SJW meaning ‘social justice warrior,’ a term that is often used both as as put down and a matter of pride, depending on who’s speaking. Here are some of those reviews:
So on and so forth.
There are also far darker statements such as a video, entitled “Tranny Abuse” uploaded to Youtube which shows the player killing Mizhena, a scarily potent reminder of the actual abuse trans people face in everyday life.
In response to this, Beamdog’s founder Trent Oster issued what could be seen as a potentially problematic statement, “I usually spend most of my time lurking here, but I’d like to ask a favour. It appears that having a transgendered cleric and a joke line by Minsc has greatly offended the sensibilities of some people.
“This has spurred these people into action, causing them to decide this is the worst game of all time and give it a zero review score on Steam, GoG and meta critic. Now, I’d like to ask for that favour. If you are playing the game and having a good time, please consider posting a positive review to balance out the loud minority which is currently painting a dark picture for new players.”
Yeah, asking for good reviews (even if it is to balance out the unfair bad reviews) could be seen as pretty dicey and did Oster no favors with the gaming crowd.
It’s interesting to note that even among the negative reviews there are those who state that their problem with Mizhena isn’t that she’s trans, it’s that it’s a blatant attempt at tokenism. What is funny about this statement is that if they truly feel that is the case, surely there are better ways to discuss this issue than the review section of a video game? One may certainly argue that Mizhena is a token character, what with her only being an NPC who exists to tell her backstory to the player and little else. But taking her out of the game isn’t surely the answer to tokenism, as these so called critics seem to claim.
The other issue that seems to be controversial in the game is regarding a line spoken by a character in which he says, “Actually it about ethics in heroic adventuring,” a reference to the Gamergate controversy, which pro-Gamergaters have always insisted has been about “ethics in video game journalism”. Facing the ire of Gamergates, Beamdog eventually removed the line from the game. It is ironic though as Gamergaters have always posited themselves as anti-censorship and have protested the likes of removal of a “butt pose” in Blizzard’s new online shooter Overwatch, or changes made to western version of games such as Fire Emblem: Fates and Xenoblade Chronicles. Apparently they’re only anti-censorship as long as it’s about things they like, and then it gets ugly.
Beamdog eventually caved to all the pressure and have stated that they would be reworking Mizhena’s character to flesh her out more, which I suppose is the most decent response to the ongoing debate. But this raises interesting questions about the position of the gaming community and gaming in general. Quite a lot of the ire seems to have been directed at writer Amber Scott who has stated:
“As I’ve said before (and I won’t say much more on this subject other than to get my perspective out there): I’m the writer and creator. I get to make decisions about who I write about and why. I don’t like writing about straight/white/cis people all the time. It’s not reflective of the real world, it sets up s/w/c as the “normal” baseline from which ‘other’ characters must be added, and it’s boring.
“I consciously add as much diversity as I can to my writing and I don’t care if people think that’s “forced” or fake. I find choosing to write from a straight default just as artificial. I’m happy to be an SJW and I hope to write many Social Justice Games in the future that reach as many different types of people as possible. Everyone should get a chance to see themselves reflected in pop culture.”
Apparently this is not a case of artistic freedom (as so many gamers have insisted on before) but simply a case of politics being shoehorned into games. Which seems to read as the very existence of a trans character being read as political and by extension, disruptive.
Gaming has to have a talk with itself, and more specifically with gamers. Because as the world changes, more and more people will turn to gaming to reflect it. These are not new things that are being added to games, these are things that have always been there. Trans people have always played games, as have people in the entire LGBQTIA+ spectrum. To ask for representation is not a privilege, it is a right and all gamers are asking for theirs. With a greater scope for discussion and representation, we may see games being made for everyone in the future. Then we might look back at incidents such as these as birthing pains for a brave, new world.