Hannah just wanted to be a farmer. Not a male farmer. Not a female farmer. Just a farmer that didn't have to suffer NPC after NPC lumping them into one gender or the other. Hannah's hopes rose with the release of Stardew Valley, but after jumping into the farming sim they discovered it offered only male and female gender identities, with he/she pronouns to match. As someone who identifies as non-binary, Hannah couldn't help but be disappointed.
"I’ve almost come to expect little to no representation," says Hannah. "Being able to play a character that is different from myself is fun and interesting, but playing one true to myself I find is often more fun. It feels more real if you are in the world rather than just an observer playing a person in that world."
Unwilling to sit idly by, Hannah took it upon themselves to broaden Stardew Valley's gender diversity, modding the game so that NPCs referred to the protagonist with gender-neutral pronouns and replacing the gender symbols in the character creator with ungendered body-type indicators.
The response from other players was overwhelming.
"Hi! Thanks a ton for doing this, makes it much more comfortable to play the game ^.^" - MattyToo
"thank you so much for doing this!! im agender and its really awesome not having to misgender my character in the game. :)" - EchoGaladrial
"The feedback has been phenomenal," says Hannah. "So many people just enjoying the mod and even telling me when I missed a pronoun or two."
Much of Hannah's support came from a post they stumbled across on Stardew Valley's official forums. The post echoed Hannah's disappointment in the gender dichotomy, calling for a mod to add a non-binary gender option for the player character. Many other players had thrown their support behind the idea, proving to Hannah that they weren't alone in yearning for broader representation.
While Stardew Valley might not have initially lived up to Hannah's expectations, it's hardly the only game to adhere to an outdated gender dichotomy--it is, in fact, better than most, supporting same-sex marriage and child adoption. Other games, though, tend to be significantly less progressive.
"By and large most games fall short," says Hannah. "There are a few games that I’ve heard do a good job of LGBT representation with pre-set characters, featuring canonically gay, bi, or even trans* characters, but I’ve yet to see any games that have canonically non-binary or asexual characters."
Worse, when games do attempt to portray non-binary characters, they can often do more harm than good. Whether it be the casual transphobia levelled at Erica in Catherine, or the disgusting slurs hurled at transgender NPCs in GTA V, non-binary characters continue to suffer prejudice and discrimination under the lazy guise of 'humour'. Precious few are granted personalities and purposes that extend beyond their gender identities.
"It’s easy to use the character’s identity to define them," notes Hannah, "but that’s not what a good, well-written character should be."
Though Hannah wants to see more non-binary representation, they say that it doesn't belong in every single game, and shoehorning it in only makes it seem artificial and out-of-place.
"Not all games have to include LGBT representation and not all should. But there are games where LGBT representation is appropriate and definitely should be included."
It might not seem like a big issue to some, but when you have to deal with people misgendering and misjudging you on a daily basis, being able to play a game that recognizes and accepts you for who you are can be tremendously empowering.
"I really just hope people are able to enjoy Stardew Valley as a gender-neutral player," concludes Hannah, "and that players will be more comfortable when addressed by their correct pronouns or otherwise in a gender-neutral manner."
Hannah is far from alone in their dissatisfaction with gender representation in games. LGBT organisations like GLAAD provide free media reference guides for writers of both creative and non-creative works, advising on the best practices for inclusive representation of LGBTQ people. The GLAAD guide echoes many of Hannah's points, emphasising the importance of using a person's preferred pronoun whenever possible, and defaulting to the gender-neutral 'they' when uncertain. Similarly, GLAAD encourages representation that looks beyond mere biology, noting that 'a transgender person's gender is much more complicated than a simple glance at external anatomy can capture.'
It's for this reason that Fallout modder Grabstein set about removing the gender bias present in Fallout 3's perk system. Grabstein's mod allows characters of any gender to pick the Black Widow and Lady Killer perks, which give you a 10% damage bonus in combat with men and women respectively, as well as adding in a new perk, "Charismatic!", that boosts the player's attraction to both genders regardless of their own. Free of arbitrary gender norms, Grabstein could finally role-play a character that felt true to themselves.
"I [found] it highly annoying, to be honest," says Grabstein. "I consider myself bi-romantic and play as a female in any game I can, despite being born male. I like to have my options open to pursue any gender in a relationship and not be tied to gender bias."
Grabstein has long felt non-binary characters are the 'exception to the rule', limited to a scant few praise-worthy examples like Krem from Dragon Age: Inquisition and Miranda Comay from Watch Dogs 2. Gender-neutral and -diverse pronouns are also becoming more common in games like Sunless Sea and 2064: Read Only Memories. But even as progress is made in some games, others continue to lag behind when it comes to gender diversity. For Grabstein, this can tarnish a lot of games.
Mods like Hannah's and Grabstein's allow games to tell more personal stories, ones that we can better identify with. The more of ourselves we see in our digital avatars, Hannah and Grabstein say, the more intimate our connection with their plight.
"I believe we should all be the heroes, or villains if we prefer that, of our own stories," says Grabstein. "I believe we should all have a chance regardless of faith, gender, or sexual preference. With increasingly more non-binary exposure through games, I hope that more people are given the chance to live, and play, their stories as they feel is correct for them."
As important as non-binary representation is at the personal level, Grabstein argues that it can be just as valuable on the larger, societal level, too.
"The more non-binaries and non-genders are 'in the public eye', the more accepting people will become," says Grabstein. "I would like to see others attempt mods that balance the playing field a bit more for non-binaries."
"I honestly think games reflect reality and vice versa," they say. "Simply learning about and understanding LGBT issues in games leads to a greater understanding and acceptance among game players."
As empowering as mods like these can be, their bespoke nature severely limits their ability to effect social change. To reach the broader gaming community, gender diversity needs to be addressed during a game's development, not after.
"I would love to see more representation not just in video games, but in tabletop or even board games," says Grabstein. "More non-gendered NPCs, or even PCs, that aren't just droids or amorphous aliens."
Grabstein points to BioWare as an admirable example of a studio pushing the boundaries of representation, even if it doesn't always get things right. In light of criticism regarding the transgender character Hainly Abrams in Mass Effect: Andromeda, BioWare has apologised to fans and pledged to address the issue in an upcoming patch. Grabstein applauds this approach.
"I'm glad that BioWare listened to consumer complaint and isn't looking to remove the character," they say. "She may have been presented a little heavily [but] BioWare, thank you for listening and responding appropriately."
While mods can do great things, they're limited by the parts of games that are hard-coded or otherwise beyond the reach of modders. In Grabstein's opinion, the best way to improve non-binary representation in games is to first improve it in the industry itself. "There's still far too many CIS [cis-gendered] in charge of the gaming community who don't take others into account," they say. "Almost every point of view in gaming is from a male perspective. We require more types of people in the game design field, period."
Hannah hopes to see more developers recognize the powerful role pronouns play in one's identity. "It might be nice to allow us to choose pronouns in the future," they say. "Alternatively, games could avoid pronoun usage altogether, in which case pronoun selection is unnecessary."
The most important advice Hannah has for developers, though, is to set aside their reservations and simply give it their best shot. The inclusion of just one non-binary character would be a welcome step in the right direction.
"My advice to developers would be 'Just try'," they say. "If you’re afraid to do it wrong, ask an LGBT person to help write or proofread your character’s story. If you try to be compassionate and treat that character’s story like any other character, you’ll do fine."