The They/Them Option in 'BattleTech' Is About So Much More Than Choice


#1

BattleTech, like a lot of video games, lets you create your own character. In this case, the tiny pilot who resides inside the hulking metal beasts that fling rockets and lasers at one another in pursuit of wealth and power. But quite unlike a lot of games, BattleTech provides players with far more options, especially when it comes to pronouns: he, she, they. A character using a they pronoun doesn’t just have access to every gender portrait, but every character trait, too. All of BattleTech’s beards, hair, scars, makeup—nothing’s gender locked.

Because it’s 2018, and we can’t just have nice things, it produced an incendiary reaction.

“The inclusion of any ‘non-binary’ gender pronouns doesn't validate those gender pronouns,” wrote an angry Steam user named Joe Stanley Laserpants on the BattleTech forums, when the feature was announced on a stream in early April, “or make them any less the fantasies of unbalanced minds. It's purely an economic decision on the part of the developer.”

It speaks volumes about the lack of options available to a regularly ignored group of people that merely announcing non-binary pronoun options for BattleTech managed to provoke any emotion—joy or anger. But it’s also not entirely surprising. Even for non-queer folks who may proudly accept a broad rethinking of sex and gender, it’s a relatively new concept. Non-binary, agender, and genderfluid identities, which may encompass masculine or feminine (or both or neither!) qualities, challenges longheld societal norms.

Even though hardcore BattleTech fans already knew what developer Harebrained Schemes was up to, it didn’t reach a wider audience until the game was formally released in late April, and folks like Austin and Rob spent hours poking and prodding the game’s character creator. The next steps were predictable: BattleTech’s Steam forums were spammed with folks arguing about the SJW’ing of the game (the threads were quickly locked by the developers), and small but vocal subset decided to review bomb the game, citing the same “problems.”

The vast majority of the reviews on Steam—2,506, as of this writing—are positive, and the vast majority of the negative reviews have legitimate gripes with the game crashing, performance issues on otherwise good PCs, and other issues. It’s possible some bad actors are hiding their social grievances behind those bullet points, but it’s impossible to know.

Harebrained Schemes declined an interview on the topic, but released a brief statement.

“At Harebrained Schemes we believe in making great games that are welcoming to all,” the company told me. “The character creation system in BattleTech reflects that belief.”

What we do know is how the people it was meant to speak to are reacting.

“I never felt quite at place with my gender since early in high school, having fantasies about being different than what I was,” said non-binary BattleTech fan Eli Bah. “These fantasies went wild in a direction of me in various genders and shapes that I couldn't quite understand.”

Not knowing what to do with this information, Eli chose the easiest path: ignoring it. In the past few years, however, Eli decided to start more deeply considering their complicated identity, one that still hasn’t settled. What “non-binary” provides, however, is a framework.

Eli wasn’t aware of BattleTech’s options prior to launching the game, and was “pleasantly surprised” to have the option. The rhetorically violent reaction by some players bothered them, obviously, but the situation provided hope for the future. Maybe games can get better.

“Growing up black I already had the issue of not seeing good representation myself in games even before I started exploring my gender identity,” said Eli. “While it has been nice seeing customization options improve over the years with me being able to create much better avatars of myself and nowadays even having better pronoun options. I'd gotten pretty used to poor representation and I generally accepted it as gaming just being behind the curve.”

“I'm really just hoping to show people a world where queerness is normal and unremarkable."

Though Harebrained Schemes didn’t want to talk about their thinking, we have some clues. Kiva Maginn, lead designer on BattleTech, responded to a fan thanking her for the option.

“I'm really just hoping to show people a world where queerness is normal and unremarkable,” said Maginn.

Coffeeframe, a 26-year-old individual who doesn’t identify “with any particular gender identity,” pointed to moments like this as direct consequences of pushes for diversity. (Coffeeframe is obviously not their given name, but in light of the way non-binary people are often treated and given the BattleTech backlash, they asked to keep their real-name private.)

“Hiring and listening to POC, trans people, women, neurodivergent people, etc. can make a better product,” said Coffeeframe.

(Coffeeframe did have one suggestion for the developers. While some folks do use and identify with “they/them,” there’s a growing movement for neopronouns—i.e. ne/nim/nir or xe/xym/xyr—with more nuance. Letting players add their own pronouns would solve this.)

Similar to Eli, Coffeeframe chose to ignore their gender growing up, unsure how to conform into the traditional buckets of masculinity and femininity. It wasn’t until their sophomore year of college, a moment where they still weren’t considering gender, that everything changed.

“One of the other students did a presentation and showed a video about gender identity,” said Coffeeframe. “One of the people in the video said they were agender and didn't identify with a binary gender and it just immediately clicked. Up until that moment the idea that I might not be on the gender binary never occurred to me, but now it all fell into place.”

That was five years ago, when non-binary issues were hardly at the mainstream.

And while BattleTech has garnered notoriety from certain toxic circles of the Internet for including non-binary pronouns, another recent game went completely unnoticed: the fantasy sports game from Supergiant Games, Pyre. Though players control a wide set of characters during action sequences, the visual novel-esque story sections, which take up a huge part of the game, are from the perspective of a single person, the purposely ambiguous Reader.

“From the very start of the game, we wanted to begin building the impression that in the world of Pyre,” said the game’s creative director and writer Greg Kasavin, “you will be accepted no matter who you are and no matter what you've done. All my decisions around the story and the choices in the game stem from this.”

Early into the writing, Kasavin needed to reference the Reader’s gender. The first set of characters in the game need a way to talk about you, and Kasavin couldn’t find a way to make it work without referencing gender, which he deemed a consequence of English “being a beautiful and labyrinthine language” that’s “an utter mess of illogical rules and exceptions.”

In the finished game, one option has the game’s characters making no presumptions about your gender. For the rest of Pyre, the Reader is referred to using gender-neutral terminology.

When Kasavin stumbled into this moment, he said it immediately lead to extensive research, hoping to ensure the option was framed “in an appropriate way.” He started reading up on modern and historic uses of gendered terms in English and non-English languages, and contacting people outside the studio, gathering feedback on how the moment played out.

“As a writer, if not just as a semi-functioning member of society, it's my responsibility to have as much knowledge as possible about human experience,” he said. “I'm naturally interested in what makes people different, and what brings us together, and what divides us. Each of the stories I've worked on explores differences between people and the bonds and conflicts that form as a result.”

When developers have been asked about their decision to (or to not) be more inclusive, the response (or excuse) has often been framed in terms of the additional work required to pull it off. The developers behind Far Cry 4 were infamously dragged for saying the game was “inches away” from having a woman as a playable character, but it was a “workload issue.” Other developers, even those part of big-budget games similar to Far Cry 4, have pushed back on this, citing the need to merely consider these questions earlier in development.

Being the writer, it fell on Kasavin to pitch the rest of the team. This wasn’t merely a textual change; the song that plays over the game’s credits reflect the player’s gender, which means hours additional work for a number of members of Pyre’s extremely small team. And yet...

“Once the team experienced the choice in context, everyone was on board,’ he said. “This was a fantasy setting of our creation, filled with a variety of characters of all shapes and sizes. Letting players either self-identify as they wanted or role-play how they wanted was important to making them feel immersed in the world of the game. It also says something about the characters you meet, in that the choice is framed around their perception of you; they're willing to see you however you prefer.”

Games have been long defined by, if nothing else, choice, whether it’s who to shoot, which platform to jump on, or what your character looks like. BattleTech and Pyre are baby steps, but in a conservative, risk-averse industry inclined to mine the status quo before embracing the radical change that is allowing people to simply be as the are, it has to start somewhere.

And it means so much more than making a cool character. It’s about feeling accepted.

“It’s the little things that go along way to normalizing us and makes just existing safer than it currently is,” said Rori O, another non-binary BattleTech fan I spoke to, “as sad as that is.”

Follow Patrick on Twitter. If you have a tip or a story idea, drop him an email: patrick.klepek@vice.com.

Have thoughts? Swing by Waypoints forums to share them!


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://waypoint.vice.com/en_us/article/qvx7jb/the-theythem-option-in-battletech-is-about-so-much-more-than-choice

#2

That’s some great insight on the decisions behind inclusive options in games. However, I do have a question. Why bother even mentioning the BattleTech Steam brouhaha in the first place? It might have prompted the reporting, but what does it add to this piece? Even the article mentions that the complaints are only a tiny fraction of the negative reviews for the game. The people pushing against more options in games are simply not arguing in good faith and don’t deserve anything more than ridicule.

I get trying to present as much context as possible, but I would prefer the article to take a tack of “look at these developers actively being more inclusive, that’s cool” rather than “these developers are soldiering on despite a tiny number of morons complaining”. The thesis of the article remains but we are able to exclude toxic actors by going with the former route.

Apologies if this comes across as too harsh. I really like the article, but these “controversies” being repeated by big gaming sites annoys me. Let these idiots sit in their increasingly irrelevant corner of the internet and let the rest of us enjoy their absence.


#3

I think that pointing out that the loudest voices on this are a tiny minority is far more valuable than “ignore them and they’ll go away,” because they really, really won’t go away unless we actually do something about them.


#4

So I think that reporting these sorts of things are important because it’s very easy for someone to assume that there isn’t any backlash, or that it isn’t a big thing at all. For many people it’s easy to assume that something is not happening if they don’t see it happening or don’t go out looking for it.

I understand where the thought comes from, I’ve seen enough bad faith NYT Opinion| pieces to see how this sort of inspection of hateful people can be poor form. But I feel it is important to consistently remind folks that there is still resistance to things like this. Perhaps I would have talked about it in the latter half of the piece as opposed to using it to set the tone of an otherwise very positive, insightful piece, but I think this consistent reminder of the sort of hate inclusive actions get is important to show why they are so important in the first place. Just my 2 cents.


#5

@Glorgu @dogsarecool

I totally get what you both are saying with the calling out of shitty takes like this, and perhaps my original post was more hardline than I intended. And yeah, I’m totally ok with later in the article mentioning some people not liking these design decisions, but it needs to be general and not shine a light on specific complaints. Unfortunately, the article basically starts by presenting these (dumb & cynical) complaints as the jumping off point of the discussion, and goes as far to name a specific Steam user and their comment. It gives that user (and the broader gooberglop “movement”) a greater platform that will amplify their message. It’s standard right-wing baiting, and this article fell for it hard. I think Waypoint can do better.


#6

I remember last year when Pyre came out, the inclusion of they/them pronouns had me over the moon with joy. I’d never seen it in a game before. It felt great to finally like be included in a game.

It does have me curious why chumps on Steam are mad about this game. I don’t recall any rage around Pyre, but maybe I’m misremembering. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but it’s really weird to see why this game is getting the targeted hatred and that game wasn’t.

edit: Wow maybe I should have read more than half the article for posting my Pyre thoughts since Patrick literally addresses Pyre in the thing lol. My bad.

However, I do have a question. Why bother even mentioning the BattleTech Steam brouhaha in the first place? It might have prompted the reporting, but what does it add to this piece? Even the article mentions that the complaints are only a tiny fraction of the negative reviews for the game. The people pushing against more options in games are simply not arguing in good faith and don’t deserve anything more than ridicule.

It gives that user (and the broader gooberglop “movement”) a greater platform that will amplify their message. It’s standard right-wing baiting, and this article fell for it hard. I think Waypoint can do better.

I think it would be disingenuous to not talk about the negative reviews on steam. It’s an article about how folks who use they/them pronouns are often excluded in games spaces, and the backlash on Steam is a pretty clear cut example of the ways we are excluded. That won’t change by simply ignoring people who say my identity is “the fantasy of an unbalanced mind.” If enby folks are going to be included in games spaces, our struggles must be too. If reporters didn’t want to cover targeted hatred of enby folks that a platform like Steam enables, then they aren’t doing their job.

Reporting on bigots does not amplify their voices. Especially in a piece which loudly condemns bigots. If we just ignore the existence of bigots, they will keep on being bigoted, and when marginalized folks complain about bigots, the majority gets to say “I had no idea that was happening.”


#7

This is pretty much it for me. Being a white, cisgendered, heterosexual male, I am insulated from a ton of harassment marginalized folks receive. Perhaps there’s a question whether hateful voices being exposed for the sake of the insulated majority is a good thing and maybe the majority should just be more aware (yes), but I’d much rather the possibility of amplifying hateful voices than remaining silent and allowing those voices to harass folks (source: fucking GG).


#8

I don’t really have much to add, but didn’t Sunless Seas have a gender neutral option as well?


#9

I’m not sure if Sunless Sea did because I haven’t played it, but I did play Fallen London, the browser game that preceded it, and Fallen London did have nb options. I remember playing that at like 15 or something and my little closeted mind being blown.


#10

Yup. When asked for your gender you can tell the game that it is none of the game’s business and that it is QUITE RUDE to ask. Unless that’s Fallen London.

I think the titles available for your captain are Sir, Madam, Citizen, Captain, My Lord, and My Lady, and none of them are tied to any of the cameos you use as a picture.


#11

You don’t real choose any gender option in Sunless sea- iirc you get bunch of portraits that admittedly are grouped in three categories but you can choose whatever and then you get titles that are again not locked to anything. So you are never real asked for PC gender in sunless sea (you can choose titles like sir but the game doesn’t then assume you are a man, or at the very least it shouldn’t). Fallen London was supposed to change how they approched gender to be more in line with how sunless sea handled it but I haven’t played it in a looooong time so I am not sure.


#12

I just checked, and Fallen London is the one where you can tell the game that it is rude to ask someone’s gender.

BTW for anyone who hasn’t played Sunless Sea (you should!) The Four Genders, based on my memory of the cameos, are Vaguely Masculine, Vaguely Feminine, Fishperson, and Sentient Diving Suit


#13

Yeah, a lot of the portraits are pretty androgynous.


#14

I played Pyre when I was first really starting to question my gender, and having the option to go by gender neutral pronouns really warmed me up to the idea of trying out a non-binary label.
I’m really glad that it got it’s props in this article because while I might have ended up sticking with he/him for myself, Pyre helped me realize I would prefer not to be seen as a man.


#15

Same here. Playing games with non-binary and androgynous options helped me figure out that “they/them” fit me better in real life, too. Honestly, the fact that Battletech has the option is enough for me to go buy it after work. Budget? What budget? :grin:


#16

i was never interested in mech game, but after seeing a tweet where it was shown that you’re able to use they/them pronouns in BattleTech, i became interested.

i still remember the beginning of Pyre, where it asks your pronouns. it was just the time when i was starting to figure out things about myself, and i think it stuck with me.
even if Pyre was a bad game gameplay-wise, i would not care.
it gave me an ability to choose something that other games i’ve played in the past did not.
and i appreciate it very much.


#18

I still don’t get how people have a problem with having other pronouns being available. It’s not like it’s forcing you to play a NB character in the same way NB people have been forced to play NB characters for years.

Also just going to throw it out there but if you are making a game with player customization and it’s all text based dialogue but you don’t give people the option to choose their pronouns then you should strongly reconsider. It’s not exactly a hard task to just store their choice and then do a check later before printing a sentence. Incredibly frustrating to come across games like this and ranks up there with not being able to rebind controls because someone didn’t want to take the time properly setting that up.

No joke at this point I feel as if someone just needs to put together a website that shows you step by step how to do these very easy things that mean a lot to players just so we can see more games using them.


#19

After hearing about it on last week’s Beastcast and wasn’t really interested, like other people a they/them option piqued my interest quite a bit.

There’s a type of thinking among the right-wing gaming sphere that think that only other people in their sphere are the only people that buy games. It’s crazy to me that the steam reviewers think that they’re the ONLY ones who supported the million dollar Kickstarter campaign.

This type of gatekeeping is not new at all, but this type of attitude is still so common and still aggravating. There are STILL people who quizz other people (mostly marginalized people) about whether they’re a true fan. Since most if my interests are pretty much dominated by cis, white, straight dudes, finding someone who doesn’t tick those boxes still excites me.

Also, I bought Pyre a couple of months ago and haven’t played it. Now knowing that it has a they/them option, I’m gonna bump that game up on my “games to play” list.


#20

The option for non-gendered pronouns seems like an essentially free feature to implement (at least in the case where there isn’t voice acting to record a 3rd version of, and even then it isn’t often the player character is spoken about and not to) and if it makes a typically excluded group feel included then developers should go for it.

I think they as a pronoun for a single person is a bit clunky though, does “what was they thinking?” become a valid sentence?


#21

Can be easily reworded as “what were they thinking?” and have it apply to all pronouns.