Traditionally, videogames have adhered to the gender binary: male and female player-characters, with little room for fluid interpretation.
Sadly, most games often look at what’s been made before to inspire what’s yet to come, which means we end up playing the same narratives of white, straight, cisgender men.
There are limited opportunities for players to create non-binary characters, or be referred to with gender neutral pronouns.
That said, several recent game releases have been willing to take innovative risks in terms representations of gender, with non-binary genders are included in the medium.
Recent gaming hit, Pyre (by Supergiant Games) is one of few games that allows a player to choose the pronouns – rather than gender – of their player-character at the beginning of the narrative.
This decision happens naturally the first time the player is referred to in conversation: by default, an NPC calls the player-character ‘she’, and interacting with the word allows the player to change this to ‘they’ or ‘he’, depending on their preference.
This no-fuss approach to pronouns does wonders for normalising gender neutral options.
Where choosing ‘she/her’ or ‘he/him’ pronouns results in particular NPCs referring to the player-character as ‘sister’ or ‘brother’, selecting ‘they/them’ replaces these labels with gender neutral pet names, which still suggest intimacy.
And the game facilitates fluidity too, allowing the player to alter their pronoun selection in the menu at any time.
Another popular game with a non-binary player-character is Undertale (2015). This game has been mocked for being fervently loved by online communities like those on Tumblr, but the game’s cult-following can be attributed to the way it made underrepresented minorities feel like they were finally being welcomed in games.
A House of Many Doors (2017) and Hollow Knight (2017) followed in its footsteps, assigning they/them pronouns to the player-character without giving the player a choice.
Although many games might still be bound to the tradition of populating their worlds with only male and female characters, these exceptions to the rule are allowing – or forcing – players to understand that there are more possibilities out there, and allowing developers to access examples of how they might include gender neutral options in their own games.
Another recent release Yonder: The Cloud Catcher Chronicles (2017) disrupts gender norms, encouraging players to wear dresses and moustaches simultaneously, and complete quests like helping Katie to grow an impressive beard; however, despite allowing players to experiment with gender presentation, Yonder still requires players to select whether their player-character is male or female during character creation.
Why? Likely for the same reason most character creation screens include these options – it’s just what you do.