Non-Binary Characters in Mainstream and Independent Video Games

This essay was originally written in 2021 for the Game Design course at Middlesex University.

Content Warning: This essay contains mentions of homophobia, transphobia and racism. 

Question: Compare, contrast and assess examples of representation from two specific games, making reference to contemporary debate and discussion as well as established theories. 

A non-binary person is someone who deviates from gender norms, one who is neither wholly masculine, nor wholly feminine, or some combination of these that wholly aligns with neither, as these are conceived in a particular social context, and who identifies themselves as such. 

Within hours of the release of Apex Legends (Respawn Entertainment, 2019), the gaming news site Rock, Paper, Shotgun had published an article wherein community manager Jay Frechette confirmed that one of the game’s first 8 characters, Bloodhound, was non-binary, saying: 

“Our studio is comprised of a diverse group of people, the playerbase of battle royale is comprised of a diverse group. Having a diverse cast is super important. You want everyone to have someone they can connect to.” (Frechette, 2019) 

A few days later, queer news site Pink News published a longer article, containing the responses of many fans on Twitter, entitled Apex Legends has two amazing queer characters, and fans are losing it (Jackman, 2019). The game would even be nominated in the category of Outstanding Video Game in the 31st GLAAD Media Awards, an award show to “recognize and honor media for their fair, accurate and inclusive representation of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) community and the issues that affect their lives” (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 2020). Borderlands 3 (Gearbox Software, 2019) and Apex Legends, both first-person shooters, were the first nominees in this category which included non-binary characters. 

 Figure 1 – 31st Annual GLAAD Media Awards logo. 

A year before, Wandersong (Lobanov, 2018), featuring an unnamed protagonist known as “The Bard” and referred to with singular “they/them” pronouns, launched, also featuring non-binary supporting character Ash. Wandersong was not nominated for the GLAAD Outstanding Video Game award that year, with the eventual winner being The Elder Scrolls Online: Summerset (Bethesda Softworks, 2018) (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, 2019). Pink News did not publish any articles concerning the game, while Rock, Paper, Shotgun published several, though none concerned with the gender of the Bard or Ash. Months after release, designer Greg Lobanov would eventually discuss the genders of the Bard and Ash in an interview, stating: 

“With Ash, it’s not very explicit. We never included that stuff to go, ‘hey, this person’s non-binary!’ We want to make a game that was very inclusive and had all kinds of people in it and I think definitely the game really reflects just the kind of people I know in my life… 

… I know lots of non-binary people and honestly just felt really natural to include them in the world of this game. Not even as, oh, well I’ve got to check that mark off. It just seemed really normal. That character especially, just the way they were conceived – yeah, they just were a non-binary person. It’s not the most important thing in their life. It’s just a fact about them.” (Lobanov, 2019) 

Apex Legends was developed by Respawn Entertainment, a studio where it is estimated that between 51 and 200 employees work, and published by Electronic Arts, a company older than the Nintendo Entertainment System and employing an estimated 5,001-10,000 people. Wandersong was created by Lobanov after a successful Kickstarter for $21,963 (Lobanov, 2016) and with the help of A Shell in the Pit. While one game makes non-binary people tokens without an understanding or respect for them in order to appeal to the “diverse” playerbase of battle royale games, the other included them as “natural” and “normal”. 

Figure 2 – Wandersong’s successful Kickstarter page. 

This essay shall compare, contrast, and assess these examples of representation from Apex Legends and Wandersong, referring to the discussion surrounding each and established theories. This essay must, therefore, establish the framework in which these examples of representation will be considered. 

Distinguishing between “good” representations and “bad” representations requires a basis upon which to do so and a corresponding justification. While some offer up so-called definitive frameworks, such as Tori Schafer’s Four Pillars (2020), they often fail to give reasonings for their methodology, or for the very purposes of the representation in the first place. The framework upon which this essay shall assess representation, and its potential impacts, from a primarily sociological perspective. 

It is generally accepted that consumers of media seek out media that does not actively challenge their existing worldviews, and when consuming media, are less likely to change their worldviews dramatically than they are to have them reinforced or undergo slight shifts. While this essay shall borrow terminology from many frameworks, its focus shall be upon a few theories: selective exposure theory (Klapper, 1960); agenda-setting theory (Lippmann, 1922); the knowledge gap hypothesis (Tichenor et al., 1970) and cultivation theory (Gerbner et al., 1986).  

Gaming audiences, like Frechette said, are diverse, as are their views, but it is a common stereotype that gaming audiences want as little in the way of “politics” in their video games as possible, epitomized by the 2014 Gamergate controversy (Warzel, 2019). While studies have shown that people are equally likely to play games regardless of their gender (Nofzinger, 2014), it is also more likely that men will identify as “gamers” than women will (Duggan, 2015). Game developers, necessarily in order to profit, seek to court these “gamer” audiences, and so it is important that they do not reinforce or perpetuate the ideas that contributed to the Gamergate controversy and should instead focus upon drawing potentially already radicalized players towards softer attitudes wherever they can through the representations they provide, or to avoid courting them at all. 

 
Figure 3 – An infographic from the article Platform, not gender, drives gamer differences – EEDAR (Nofziger, 2014). 

For the advocate of Gamergate, the individual who believes “politics” do not belong in games, non-binary people are outsiders. This is a term from labelling theory, describing an individual from a group “who cannot be trusted to live by the rules” (Becker, 1994). The outsider is typically subject to a separation from the group so that their rule-breaking will not affect or corrupt other members, typically by social ostracization, exile, execution, or imprisonment. As mentioned previously, a non-binary person is one who differs from gender norms, but it is important to note that the norm is not the same as Becker’s rules. The norm, described by Butler (2004), is the collection of signs and symbols which allow for the interpretation of gender, and from which the spectrum of non-binary gender defined at the start of this essay derives.  

To elaborate upon the concept of rules, they may be constructed to make certain expressions of gender deviant. Consider the following, from the United Nations Human Rights Council: 

“In many countries, transgender persons are unable to obtain legal recognition of their preferred gender, including a change in recorded sex and first name on State-issued identity document. As a result, they encounter many practical difficulties, including when applying for employment, housing, bank credit or State benefits, or when travelling abroad.” (United Nations Human Rights Council, 2011) 

In those referred countries, the rules are such that transgender and non-binary people are made outsiders simply by the nature of their identity insomuch as it differs from the norm. However, even in those countries which do allow individuals to legally acquire a change in gender, it is still possible for them to be punished as though they were deviant by the culture of the country, as “homophobic and transphobic violence has been recorded in all regions”, being perpetrated both during acts of “street violence” and organized en-masse by “religious extremists, paramilitary groups, neo-Nazis and extreme nationalists.” 

 Figure 4 – A map of countries which criminalize ”the gender identity/expression of trans people”. (Human Dignity Trust, n.d.) 

In such cases, the gender norm in the culture does not just “govern the social intelligibility of action”, as Butler describes, but also serves as a rule, which “define[s] situations and the kinds of behavior appropriate to them, specifying some actions as ‘right’ and forbidding others as ‘wrong’”, as put by Becker. Non-binary and transgender people do, by their very nature, stray from the norm, although they are still “being defined in relation to it”, and this makes them a swift target on rules that limit the expression of gender. However, characters in video games cannot be said to be always governed by such rules. Johan Huizinga describes: 

“All play moves and has its being within a playground marked off beforehand either materially or ideally, deliberately or as a matter of course. Just as there is no formal difference between play and ritual, so the ‘consecrated spot’ cannot be formally distinguished from the play-ground. The arena, the card-table, the magic circle, the temple, the stage, the screen, the tennis court, the court of justice, etc., are all in form and function play-grounds, i.e. forbidden spots, isolated, hedged round, hallowed, within which special rules obtain. All are temporary worlds within the ordinary world, dedicated to the performance of an act apart.” (Huizinga, 2003) 

This, taken in context with the established sociological framework and understanding of deviancy, allows this essay to expand upon a point previously made by the author: 

“The magic circle generates new meanings – and thus can generate new norms.” (Brown, 2019) 

Accepting the premises that the intelligibility of gender is governed by norms, and that some enforce the adherence to norms as rules, and the magic circle, the place in which play occurs described by Huizinga, may generate different norms and generate different rules, it stands to reason that within the magic circle it is possible to create non-binary and transgender characters which stray from the norm without becoming deviant and reinforcing the views of players who may be transphobes. This, in essence, is this essay’s framework for assessing the positive representation of non-binary characters in games: does their identity make them outsiders within the magic circle? 


Figure 5 – Bloodhound. 

Bloodhound is shown in figure 5 in their default outfit; one which obscures their entire face, body, and even their body shape, leaving no visible indication of primary or secondary sexual characteristics. Meanwhile, Bloodhound’s entire personal history, including their place of birth, their parents’ vocations, their places of residency, their uncle’s name – but not Bloodhound’s own – their accomplishments, and their belief system are all known (Electronic Arts, 2020). Consider that Judith Butler states that the intelligibility of gender is governed by norms, and the premises stated earlier in this essay; can, then, Bloodhound be considered non-binary if they are completely without any signifiers of gender, any means through which they may be interpreted?


Figure 6 – Ash. 

The Bard and Ash are always shown with their faces exposed, as in Figures 6 and 7. While Ash’s long hair and pink-hued color scheme have typically feminine associations, this is contrasted by the fact that they wear a tuxedo, and hold themself with a hunched, masculine posture. Meanwhile, the Bard has an apparent baldness and masculine clothing set against their neutral, green-yellow colors, campy cape and hat, and an eagerness to burst into song. These combinations of signifiers, neither wholly masculine nor wholly feminine, and the fact that both characters embrace this, actively identifying as non-binary rather than falling into the vague “unknown”, is what makes them non-binary. 

https://static.tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pub/images/the_bard.png
Figure 7 – The Bard. 

It is clear from the previously mentioned articles of Rock, Paper, Shotgun and Pink News that Respawn Entertainment, or at least Jay Frechette, outwardly appear to believe that in Bloodhound they have created a non-binary character, and that at least some players also regard them as such publicly, through their statements on social media. This analysis, then, shall continue under the assumption that Bloodhound can be interpreted as a non-binary character by a player. 

Bloodhound is the only character whose belief system is described, a belief system very similar to Germanic Neopaganism, also known by various other names including Ásatrú and Odinism. It is described from the perspective of an outsider to the group by Stefanie von Schnurbien, a German literary scholar and Professor of Modern Scandinavian Literature who has been in contact with Ásatrú, in the book Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism as “a group that [bases] its religion on Norse mythology.” (Schnurbien, 2016), very similar to how Electronic Arts say that Bloodhound calls “on Earth’s Old Norse Gods to guide them”. Later in the book, Schnurbien goes on to say that “Germanic Neopaganism is a field in which alternative, dissident spirituality and ultra-nationalist, racist, and radical right-wing ideology meet and influence each other.” Since within the fiction Bloodhound was largely raised by their Uncle, an adherent to the Old Ways, among others who followed this spiritual tradition also, their life would largely have been governed by the rules of this religion. 

Ásatrúar believe firmly in loyalty to traditional North Germanic culture and race, with many Ásatrú organizations explicitly proclaiming this: 

“Asatru is our native religion. It gave our ancestors comfort in millennia past, and it can give us strength and inspiration today… The soul of Asatru, however, is not confined to the Scandinavian model but encapsulates the belief of all the Ethnic European Folk. Indeed, Asatru reflects the deeper religiosity common to virtually all the nations of Europe.” (Asatru Folk Assembly, 2020) 

The Southern Poverty Law Center, an institution advocating social justice in the United States of America, specifically identifies many Ásatrú groups including the Ásatrú Folk Assembly, which was quoted above, as hate groups (Southern Poverty Law Center, n.d). It is important to repeat the SPLC’s statement here, that “no form of paganism is inherently bigoted” but that Ásatrú is a breeding ground for bigotry. Schnurbien continues to say that Ásatrú “remains fairly conservative with regard to questions of gender, family, and sexuality, and tends to view forays into such alternative ideologies with great suspicion.” While Ásatrúar generally regard men and women as spiritually equal, their roles are described as “complementary”, and belonging to separate spheres. Ásatrúar often also, according to Schnurbien, define homosexual acts as crimes against nature. Bloodhound’s gender would, with ease, make them an outsider among the people who share their faith, a fact seemingly even acknowledged by Respawn, as it is stated that Bloodhound defies the Old Ways and its adherents by their embracing of modern technology. This could mean that they find fellowship with people and society outside of the Old Ways, but even beyond their fellow adherents to the Old Ways Bloodhound is still an outsider. 


Figure 8 – The Ostara Blot of the Gythia Funk, in Carolina (Qualls, 2019). 

It is important to reiterate that no other so-called Legend has their belief system or religion stated, and that, if we assume that Bloodhound is white, that makes them one of five white-Germanic characters in a roster currently composed of fifteen. Apex Legends is set in the kind of future dystopia that racists often use to justify their beliefs and actions, one in which civilization has devolved into violence and degeneracy, epitomized by the bloodsports that are the Apex Games, the namesake of Apex Legends, where non-whites are dominant. Consider the racist, antisemitic, and explicitly violent “Fourteen Words” slogan of white supremacist David Lane, who co-founded the terrorist organization The Order, the organization which assassinated Alan Harrison Berg (Simpson et al., 2009): 

“We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.”

Many of the Legends have explicit reasons for participating in the Apex Games. For some, like Mirage and Pathfinder, it is as simple as fame, but others seek the monetary rewards of the games for personal reasons, like Bangalore, Crypto, Horizon, Lifeline, and Rampart do; others are personally involved in the games, like Wattson and Wraith; some have connections to other competitors, like Gibraltar, Loba, and Revenant; some have purely selfish reasons, like Caustic and Octane, but all have motivations. Bloodhound has no stated motivation, leaving theirs up to interpretation, and with their alias “Bloodhound” and the violent connotations their faith conjures, it is implied that Bloodhound participates out of bloodlust. To have the only character with an explicit faith be an adherent to the same set of religious principles which produced the fourteen-word slogan, participating in a blood sport where they repeatedly kill non-white characters makes Bloodhound an outsider amongst the rest of their society too. 

By contrast, the Bard and Ash are not apart from the rest of the world, but a part of it. The narrative of Wandersong primarily concerns the quest of the Bard, as they are tasked by the messenger of the Goddess Eya, to prevent an impending apocalypse. To do this, they require knowledge of the Earthsong, whose pieces can be obtained from Overseers, minor protector-gods, who themselves can be summoned in their region through Overseer songs, known by the local inhabitants, one of whom is Ash. 

This pantheon is not like the “Old Ways” to which Bloodhound adheres, in that the Old Ways, just like modern-day Ásatrú, mostly seems to exist on the fringes, among small and isolated groups, while the pantheon of Wandersong, including the Overseers and Eya, is the folk religion of all the world. The role that those who know the Overseer song play within their community is a lofty one, as they hold a particular means of commune with the gods, like that of an oracle in Rome or, indeed, seers in Scandinavia. In this way Ash is not an outsider, but a pillar of their community. 

Meanwhile, the Bard’s objective on their journey is, at its core, the prevention of the apocalypse, but most of their interactions are with ordinary people in their daily lives. Their companion for most of their quest, Miriam, is noted for her temper and pessimism compared to the Bard, who engages every person they meet with hope and friendliness. While the player does not see the Bard in their hometown for long, they do see them at every stage of their journey, where they never struggle to make friends and bring joy into the lives of others, making them not a force for destruction, but a force for good – an outsider nowhere, and belonging everywhere. 

While this may be attributed to an aesthetic difference between the games, the division runs much deeper. Certainly, it is a contributing factor; while Apex Legends is a games-as-service first person shooter battle royale, Wandersong is a cute, story-based puzzle-platformer, and the former would necessarily tend more towards violence than the latter. However, both are no strangers to the realm of the other. For example, take Gibraltar, another of Apex Legends’ playable characters. Canonically a gay man, Gibraltar’s backstory includes a story of a motorcycle adventure with his boyfriend, resulting in them being trapped under a mudslide and saved by his parents, although he loses and arm in the process, motivating him to go out and save lives in the future. Apex Legends’ only non-binary character could have had a similarly humanizing backstory which would give them clear, positive motivations for their involvement in the Apex Games, but instead, they are left threatening and mysterious. Likewise, Wandersong has plenty of bleak moments. The game is fundamentally occupied with the impending end of the world, and its primary antagonist whose journey is parallel to the Bard’s, the so-called Hero, kills each Overseer in turn in the vain hope of becoming “special”. The Bard or Ash could easily have been similar, with selfish ambitions driving the plot, yet they were not. 

Lobanov has stated that Wandersong was “inspired by his 5,000 mile bike ride across the United States” (Lobanov, n.d) which reaffirmed his love for game development, after having been in the public eye since the release of his first game Wolf (2009). He described the ride in a brief GDC talk:  

“I climbed mountains, crossed deserts, faced high winds, freezing cold, simmering heat, bustling cities and bitter, bitter loneliness. I met many people, many strangers, and depended on the goodwill and kindness of many individuals who kept me going and for that I’m thankful to the universe and the goodwill of humanity at large.” (Lobanov, 2015). 

Figure 9 – Greg Lobanov indicates his route across the United States during his GDC talk.

To Respawn Entertainment, Bloodhound is a way to “check that mark off”, to expand their potential audience to progressives and the LGBT community, a group that battle royales like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds (PUBG Corporation, 2017) and Fortnite (Epic Games, 2017) had not attempted to court as strongly. To Lobanov, the inclusion of non-binary characters meant the inclusion of people he already knew, and the representation of the diversity of humanity to which he was so thankful for its goodwill. Bloodhound is the way that they are because that is how Respawn Entertainment conceives non-binary people – dangerous enigmas, outsiders. Lobanov conceives of them as people, who deserve a place in the world just as much as anyone else, and a society which does not outlaw their gender expression.  

As stated, Wandersong received no GLAAD nomination and no Pink News article. While it has been argued here that it is a better representation of non-binary characters, it has far from the mainstream recognition that Apex Legends received. However, it has been released on Steam for Windows and Mac, on the Nintendo Switch eShop and on the PlayStation 4 via the PS Store, and an Independent Games Festival finalist for Excellence in Narrative in 2019, far more recognition than many of the thousands, or even millions of independent games released every year. Positive representation will, following examples like Wandersong, enter the mainstream, however gradually, and soon we may hope that the GLAAD nominees will include such positive games. 

References

Bibliography

  • Becker, H. S. 1966, Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance. New York: The Free Press. 
  • Brown, M. 2019, How Can Video Games Be Most Accommodating of Gender Performance? 
  • Butler, J. 2004, Undoing Gender. New York: Routledge. 
  • Gerbner, G., Gross, L., Morgan, M. and Signorielli, N. 1986, Living With Television: The Dynamics of the Cultivation Process. In J. Bryant & D. Zillman (eds.). Perspectives on Media Effects. Hilldale, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. 
  • Huizinga, J. 1949, Homo Ludens: A Study of Play-element in Culture. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. 
  • Klapper, J. T. 1960, The Effects of Mass Communication. New York: Free Press.
  • Lippmann, W. 1922, Public Opinion. New York: Harcourt. 
  • Mead, G. H. 1934, Mind, Self & Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
  • Schnurbein, S. von 2016, Norse Revival: Transformations of Germanic Neopaganism. Erscheinungsort nicht ermittelbar: Brill. 
  • Tichenor, P. J., Donohue, G. A. and Olien, C. N. 1970, Mass Media Flow and Differential Growth in Knowledge, in Public Opinion Quarterly, 34(2). 
  • United Nations Human Rights Council 2011, Discriminatory laws and practices and acts of violence against individuals based on their sexual orientation and identity

Ludography

  • Epic Games 2017, Fortnite. [Online] Available at: https://www.epicgames.com/fortnite/en-US/home [Accessed 8 January 2021]. PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5, XBox One, XBox Series S/X, Nintendo Switch, Windows PC, Mac, Android, iOS. Cary, North Carolina: Epic Games. 
  • Lobanov, G. 2009, Wolf. [Online] Available at: https://gamejolt.com/games/wolf/172 [Accessed 5 January 2021]. Windows PC. 
  • Lobanov, G. 2018, Wandersong. [Online] Available at: https://store.steampowered.com/app/530320/Wandersong/ [Accessed 22 October 2020]. Windows PC, Mac, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4. San Francisco, California: Humble Bundle. 
  • PUBG Corporation 2017, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds. [Online] Available at: https://www.pubg.com/ [Accessed 8 January 2021]. Windows PC, XBox One, PlayStation 4, Google Stadia. 
  • Respawn Studios 2019, Apex Legends. [Online] Available at: https://www.ea.com/en-gb/games/apex-legends [Accessed 8 January 2021]. Windows PC, XBox One, XBox Series S/X PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5. Redwood City, California: Electronic Arts. 

Webography

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