So a while back I wrote about the concept for “Gender Swap”/”The Machine to be Another” and touched on how it relates to trans-ness. And yesterday, Polygon also covered these things. This coverage was problematic for a number of reasons so I’ll dip into them now.
first of all, and perhaps most importantly, a big problem is this:
Ben Kuchera is not the person to speak about these issues. Were the topic covered by someone with experience and a deeper understanding of them, many of the problems I talk about here would not have come up. However, looking through Kuchera’s feed this morning it looks like he appreciates this and hopefully we can expect Polygon to have more diverse writers, covering topics that they are knowledgeable of – though, time will tell on that one.
I’m not optimistic that this will happen though, partly because video games “culture” has beaten the optimism out of me, and also because Kuchera has already burned a lot of bridges with people who could really enrich Polygon’s opinion section and will avoid pitching to him, or would probably turn him down if he approached them. A change of heart is nice but he already has a reputation for being inconsiderate and having the first response to criticism simply be ignoring it because it’s just people that “dislike him“. Trust doesn’t come easily so soon after being consistently dismissed.
Anyway, on to the post itself.
“The demo Girl Mirror Look is a very rudimentary way for someone to experience inhabiting the body of a woman”
Problems start with some accidental sexism pretty early on, the implication is that “someone” is not used to this experience, when ~50% of someones already experience it pretty regularly. Maybe Kuchera doesn’t assume all or most of his readers are men, but the language used suggests otherwise.
“by using low-cost virtual reality equipment to achieve something that sounds like science fiction: They’re allowing people to trade bodies.”
If you haven’t already, please read my original post on this. You simply can’t trade bodies. Saying that you can is dismissive of a whole mountain of things that people have to go through and are forced to experience because of their bodies.
The article then goes on to discuss how seeing things from another person’s physical perspective could perhaps create empathy. It’s an interesting idea on the surface but it doesn’t paint people in a good light: that many can’t empathise with another person without literally seeing through their eyes for a few minutes – I don’t think that gives credit to people’s ability to empathise.
It’s not hard to just look at another person and imagine what it’s like from their physical view point, but the empathy connection comes from bridging a gap – it’s not what you see but what you imagine. You have to imagine what it’s like to live that life, what that person has to go through and the struggles they face. Changing your perspective of this person’s body and life is really not that much – you’re still not living it, you’re still not listening to what they say.
Using visual perspective as a path to empathy also indicates a massive lack of trust – you can’t trust a person’s description of their own life, you need to put your eyes in their head and “have a go” for a few minutes before you decide what their life is like? No, people should speak for themselves. There is quite a bit here in common with hijab tourism and how “trying on” another person’s life for a little bit robs them of their own voice – a worthwhile read on that at this link.
The article then goes on to describe how in Gender Swap, participants are always matching each other’s movement and in constant agreement, that with this, “The sense of empathy can be powerful” we’re told – but I wonder how much use it is to have a tool that can be used to empathise only with someone you already completely agree with and respect?
Then arguments are made that this system relates to studies that “show seeing yourself as someone of another race may decrease your implicit bias”. The one study linked had full control of virtual avatars, and was not a shared consensual experience. I suppose that might apply here, but it just as well might not – the experiences are substantially different. But this is really not my main problem, that starts when Kuchera says;
“While Bertrand is quick to note he’s not a scientist and has no background to discuss the potential mental health benefits of this technology, I did speak to at least one expert who thought the ability to explore the body of another gender could be helpful in treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria.”
OK, I’m just going to do my best to unpick everything that is wrong here.
1) “ I did speak to at least one expert” – as far as I can tell, here “at least one” means “one” (and that ‘expert’ says some really problematic things herself).
2) “the ability to explore the body of another gender could be helpful in treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria” – I have NO idea what is meant here, either it’s a trans-person swapping viewpoint with a cis person of the opposite birth sex (in which case BOTH bodies have the same gender) or it’s two cis people of different sexes, and couldn’t be said to help “treat” anyone suffering from gender dysphoria.
3) the notion of “treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria” in this way at all is problematic. Honestly I think this is just as likely to be actively harmful to a person with dysphoria. (If pushed I might be able to articulate why, but honestly this is enough of a strain for me as-is, I would rather not go into it right now – though Sam Prell, quoted in the polygon article, touches on some of my concerns).
“Gender dysphoria is a state in which individuals identify as a different gender than their birth-assigned sex. My feeling of discomfort and unease at seeing a female form looking back at me from the mirror in the Oculus Rift demo gives one an indication of what it must feel like for someone who knows they are a man or a woman, but sees and feels the opposite reality in their body.”
Just because you look in a mirror for a minute or so and see a body that you don’t feel fits you does not give you even an *indication* of what it’s like to live with that body (again; see my original post, and again; the idea that YOU need to figure it out like this and not just listen to what trans people tell you their lives and experiences are like is dismissive of their voice).
From here we start to get into some especially unpleasant stuff, Kuchera’s “expert” says… well, a bunch of unacceptable harmful bullshit (I couldn’t find a more diplomatic description than that for it). She begins;
“I can see where this sort of virtual gender-role expression could be at least temporarily helpful,” – “It is a form of cross-dressing in a way. The image you see on the outside is much closer to what you really want, than what cross-dressing would give.”
Dr. Vitale here, is WAY off the mark. For one, when trans people cross dress – they wear clothing typical of the gender they were assigned at birth. A transwoman wearing a dress is NOT cross-dressing, and it’s harmful to say so. Another issue is the conflation of how we want to dress and how we want our bodies to be. They are not equivalent – a lot of doctors treating trans people insist that we spend a certain amount of time (we’re talking years here) acting and presenting as the gender we say we are. Essentially we are expected to conform to various stereotypes associated with being a woman or being a man that seem to be more about making sure we fit in the “normal” gender-binary boxes and are not about helping us find out who we really are when it’s outside their stereotypical expectations. We are judged for not wearing dresses if we say we are women, or vice versa. Despite the fact that our issues with our body and how we relate to clothes – though often linked – are not the same thing. Yes, some trans people will wear clothing typical of their gender as part of an exploration of who they are, but not all – and the requirement of it is problematic because it discourages trans people who just don’t want to. I never wore a skirt until years after coming out as trans, and any doctors I spoke to or who saw me always wore a highly skeptical look – a dangerous and scary thing when they are the gatekeepers between me and effecting changes I want on my body. I felt a pressure to conform to stupid stereotypes from these people who held power over me, and here Dr Vitale is perpetuating that system.
Later, Kuchera says;
“Dr. Vitale was skeptical of how useful this technology could be to treat those with gender dysphoria”
So if Dr. Vitale wasn’t the “one expert who thought the ability to explore the body of another gender could be helpful in treating individuals suffering from gender dysphoria.” I wonder who was, because they certainly aren’t quoted anywhere.
Dr. Vitale is quoted again saying:
“”It should help cisgendered women partnered with gender dysphoric males to appreciate what gender dysphoria is and what drives their partner to seek relief through hormonal and surgical means,”"
The doctor botching gendered language here, the implication is clearly that the cisgendered woman’s partner is MAAB (Male Assigned At Birth), and gendered female – the partner is therefore female and should be addressed as such. Honestly I worry that a doctor who can’t get stuff like this right is treated as an “expert”.
Dr Vitale goes on to say;
“The machine allows her to retain her female gender identity while seeing herself having a muscular hairy body, no breasts and penis and testicle appendages she might experience as being ‘very wrong.’”
This description is… well, it’s yet another problematic thing. For one, not all transwomen have “muscular hairy bodies” not all of them have “no breasts” not all of them have “penis and testicle appendages” (who the hell says “testicle appendages” anyway?) but most importantly – some transwomen do have some (or all) of these things and don’t experience them as ‘very wrong’.
It is super common for doctors to impose certain expectations on trans people – they imply that gender dysphoria is black and white – either you want to have a sex change and hormones and other surgeries and treatments and ALL of that, or maybe you’re just not gender dysphoric after all. It creates an atmosphere were transpeople have to “act” the expected part and/or lie to get the treatment that they actually need. Plenty of women have penis and testicle appendages without feeling ‘very wrong’ – and the implication that they would is the implication that they should. It’s shaming bullshit.
A thing that is missed here is that a hell of a lot of people experience gender dysphoria but don’t align with “traditional” or expected trans narratives. This article and especially Dr. Vitale’s quotes in it could do real harm to these people – they see an article like this, (one with an “expert” consultant, published in a notable and respected publication) and they will see no place for their identity in any of this talk about dysphoria. This kind of erasure inhibits a person’s ability to explore just who the hell they really are and can result in repression when that is the last thing they need. Dysphoria and transgenderism do not begin and end with people who want a sex change and to fit into a neat stereotype invented by a cis culture.
My final (and relatively minor) Kuchera quote;
“Bertrand admits that the technology is new, and he’s unequipped to deal with the possible medical or scientific value of the work the team is doing. They’re looking for partners in the scientific or art world to help with taking the next steps, and of course funding is a part of that process.”
Just wanna say you shouldn’t give this guy any money for scientific research, the equipment required is relatively cheap anyway and this appears to be someone who has viral impact closer to heart than scientific advancement. Art folk though, this is right up your street I guess.
Ultimately it seems the focus of the piece seems to be that Gender Swap helps cis people empathise with (some) gender dysphoric people, but it is never made clear how it could help anyone who has gender dysphoria. It’s for cis people, it’s so cis people can understand us. We are given no agency – Gender Swap simply isn’t for us, but somehow it’s still about us.
I feel I should say that not all of the article is problematic, quotes from Sam Prell and Jessica Janiuk are informed by experience and understanding (much more-so than the so-called “expert” Dr. Vitale) and I especially appreciate the inclusion of the point “For those of us who live that feeling of dysphoria, we don’t have that relief of being able to just lift the helmet off” which is a key point the article otherwise ignores – that unless you are TRAPPED in another body, you won’t have the slightest idea of what it’s like to be trapped in another body.
I’d like to thank you for taking the time to read this, and especially to thank Andi McClure for proof-reading this and giving extensive feedback and suggestions. Comments are disabled but if you’re not going to be a jack-ass then feel free to get in touch with me on twitter.
So I’ve noticed recently a few folks seem to be very impressed by “Gender Swap” an experiment using The Machine To Be Another (a couple of VR headsets with cameras on them – each headset displaying the view recorded by the other).
So I’m gonna say a couple of things about this, firstly; yes, it’s a fascinating idea. Spending a few minutes seeing what it’s like from someone else’s physical viewpoint is way cool. And who knows, looking in a mirror one time and seeing someone of a different race/gender/whatever might trigger empathy in people who were incapable of relating before. And of course it certainly appears to be an inventive way to get intimate with a person you respect and care for (because I’m asexual, I don’t get it myself but if this is the kind of thing you and your sweet want to spend some time doing then you guys rock on <3).
It’s not about swapping gender, it’s about tricking your brain into thinking you’re a different sex – for a few minutes, in a safe environment where you can quickly step out if things aren’t going how you please. Sure you can put your eyeballs in the head of another for a few minutes (and yes, this is really interesting stuff!) but you’re not in that head yourself. You don’t know what it’s like to have had to live with that body.
You haven’t had to experience with how people treat that body. You haven’t felt pressure to change based on the expectations of having that body. The bodies we are born with force us to have experiences which are outside our control. These experiences shape us as people and who we are in our minds is not so easily separated from them. You can put on the headset and look at a mirror, but you have no idea what life the body’s owner will return to when you take the headsets off. Like I say, it’s an interesting idea but it’s important nobody thinks “Oh, so this is what it’s like to be X” because your life is more than what you see – it’s also years of other people seeing you, speaking to you, touching you AND how they do all that. It’s what you see happen to people who are like you and people who are not. It’s your own head thinking for years on end trying to come to terms with all of this. You can’t be someone else without going through this.
I do believe ‘the machine to be another’ could certainly be an aid to help in understanding and relating to others, but I think it’s very important that we’re all clear that both the machine and the experiment are… well, at the very least they are wrongly named. You can’t ‘be’ another by spending a couple of minutes in a safe and controlled space where everything is mutually agreed – that’s not much like life. And you can’t ‘swap genders’ just by looking down and seeing a body that’s sex doesn’t match up with your own gender (I have a lot of experience on this point).
I’m pretty much done so if you want to stop reading now that’s fine, but because I know people will ask otherwise;
To head off any idea that because it’s not swapping gender it might give you insight into being trans; it really cannot. That wouldn’t happen short of putting on the headset, and finding you couldn’t ever take it off again. That everyone treats you like you were always in this mismatched body, that you have complete sensation of the body, and that you don’t have a ‘partner’ you’re sharing the experience with anymore. – and that’s only a slight picture, you probably won’t have had to go through the horror of puberty in that body.
Like I say, you can’t be someone else – You can wear someone else’s shoes but you can’t truly understand unless you also walk everywhere they have been in them.
I’m not feeling it though, maybe I was a little optimistic back when Gabe Newell said the same thing in February last year, but there hasn’t been anything said about it since. so I’m going to assume Valve are sticking to the same tune of “Greenlight isn’t perfect, but it’s getting better!”
And it’s true that a lot more games are making it through the system than did when I first began to criticise it. But better is not good, and the system remains deeply flawed and harmful for developers.
But the optimism of many developers that somehow, behind the scenes, Valve are working tirelessly to do the right thing is an thing that won’t go away. ”Well they are good guys, and they said they would do it… it’ll happen in ‘valve time’!”
Let’s say I believe that (I don’t), just what exactly is it that are we getting excited about again? The prospect of steam being more ‘open‘ to developers, right?
…how open though?
An opening door is going to stop opening at some point, just how wide will the gap be?
The optimism takes hold of so many developers; “open enough for me!” – open enough that you can get your game on there, but it will keep out all those other games that aren’t as “good”. We’re all competing for shelf-space after all! a more crowded store means less sales for those that ‘deserve’ to be there, right? If there is a flood of games, the quality of the storefront will drop and it’s bad for everyone!
Except that’s not the case, because get this; How open a store is, and how much bullshit is on the store front are entirely different things.
Sure, if a distributor has a limited selection of content to offer then it’s going to have both the time and space to feature every game on it’s store – people are going to get used to the idea that access to the store is the same thing as access to all the store’s visitors.
But that only applies to a store that curates at the back door – the content it lets into the store is hand-picked and that means there is a human limit of how much can get in. A limit that gives the store time to feature a game before the next game comes in.
Steam opened the back door a little with greenlight (around a hundred games each month are getting greenlit), the games are coming in at a rate that makes it unreasonable to feature everything. Even if it was possible to feature it all, the window to highlight every game is very slim – regular steam users won’t see the majority of the games getting featured.
Access to sell on a store is not the same thing as being entitled to the store giving you exposure. Don’t expect it, don’t hope for it, it’s just not possible for any store that is even remotely ‘open’ because there are many more games than yours.
But that doesn’t mean that quality games won’t get exposure, that the store can’t curate, that users will be forced to wade through the proverbial “flood of crap”. A store can swing the back doors wide open and let every game in, and still not show a single game to it’s customers without choosing to do so first.
Rather than curate and gate-keep at the same time, simply let everyone in and pull the content you want to feature from what does come in. All those “connections”, “publisher relationships” and “trusted developers” that get features? They will still get you your game featured if you have those privileges.
What developers need right now is access, not exposure. Because exposure we have a chance at doing ourselves. But access? – that’s a rigged game and not in developers’ favour.
If we want exposure it’s not easy, but there are hundreds of channels open to us, all of them desperately looking for new games to share and talk about.
If we want store access so we actually have a place to sell our games then we are *much* more limited, though our options are getting better all the time (have you seen itch.io yet? this is a store that LOVES developers – I’ll write about it separately some time) but let’s be honest; there are a lot of gamers who are just going to refuse to buy your game if it’s not going to appear in their Steam library.
So, we’re back to the question, if steam is opening up, how open is it going to be? Just how accessible will it be for developers?
It could be entirely open, and I think it should be, but is that the way Steam is likely to go?
Valve avoids being open at every opportunity. Wven at the Steam Dev Days event, half of the tweets about the conference I saw were “Am I allowed to talk about what’s happening here?”
When Valve first planned greenlight they did it behind closed doors. And I expect them to continue operating that way too. It works for them when it comes to games development, so why not the store too? It’s not like developers and stores should be working together or anything…
My expectation of how open steam will be? “Open enough” – but it will be open enough for Valve, and not for developers like you or me… Of course there’s no way to know for sure what (if any) changes will come because Valve isn’t saying, they don’t have to. All Gabe Newell has to do is once a year say “we’ll be phasing out greenlight” and developers let their optimism fill in all the gaps.
(I would like to point out, that Steam is pretty much the dinosaur in the room at this point, I’ve reached out to talk to Valve about some of this several times before and never heard back, whereas everyone else is all ears, so mad props to itch.io, indiegamestand, humble, gameolith and even sony for realising that developers and digital distributors should be working this out together and not in isolation.
I would also like to point out that comments are going to stay disabled on this post because any criticism of steam results in more bile than I care to deal with right now.)
Note/TW: I talk about experiences of gender-dysphoria here, it’s probably gonna be a bummer if you can relate.
So among the many projects I’m bouncing between right now, is a game featuring just one character and that character is “me”. Well, she’s a “me” that I have invented to express a certain aspect of my life. I am framing her specifically to express this thing, and I’ve realised that what I’ve cut away from her personality to avoid distracting from “the point” says a lot about me.
Most notably, this character is not Transsexual.
I have been working on this project for months and it was only a couple of days ago I thought “Hey, why isn’t she transsexual anyway?”
My own automatic responses were immediate, numerous, and made me feel ill.
- “Nobody is going to identify with a transsexual character, especially not empathise.”
- “It’s not a thing *about* transsexuality, so don’t include it.”
- “Well you can’t make a transsexual girl look pretty, that’s for sure!”
- “A game with a transsexual character? Sophie don’t be stupid; that can’t make money and you’re broke.”
- “You know ‘Gamers’ will be complete fucks to a trans character. You really want that character to be your avatar?”
Yep, this stray thought is what finally makes me notice I’ve got a whole bunch of internalised cissexism! (rather than explain why each notion is problematic, you can re-read the list and imagine it’s about any other marginalised group if you don’t already see it).
I tried to reason it away quickly; I don’t want to have internalised this bullshit, surely I’ve at least written transsexual characters before now… right?
Nope. I’ve written hundreds of characters and not a single one is transsexual. Sure there have been a couple of heavily implied “was born the wrong sex but OH HEY MAGIC and now I’m cisgendered”. Such a thing is a trans fantasy (or at least one of mine), but it’s certainly not any expression of a character who is transsexual.
When I was expressing some of this on twitter, a few people said something along the lines of;
“What does it matter if the character is transsexual? Isn’t that something in the character’s past/backstory, why would it be relevant to the story you’re telling?”
I was floored for a little while, it’s clearly coming from a not-awful place; “Once someone announces they are <gender> then for the non-trans person the job is done; mission success! Sophie is a girl so let’s not treat her in a way that holds her back!”
… which is nice, but it’s not *my* experience. I struggle with my transsexuality every day, it’s a huge part of who I am, it informs almost everything about me.
What does it matter if this character is transsexual though?
Well, the character I’m writing, like me, is terrified of leaving her own house. She has panic attacks at the mere prospect of answering the front door. A ringing phone can, in less than a second, take her from comfort and fill her with fear just because she hasn’t prepared herself for the human contact.
That is stuff I experience, that is something I’m trying to express in the creation of this character and it’s what this game is about.
But the truth is I can’t unpick my transsexuality from my fear of people/the outside world. They are both aspects of who I am, and they are both things that I have had to live with for a long time. The relationship between them is hard to pin down, but there IS a relationship.
The two aspects of my personality exist separately but they overlap and influence one-another like… well, like any other aspects of a person’s personality! Sure I avoided pretty much everything social even before I knew “transsexual” was what I am. – I was afraid of walking through streets alone at night, I avoided family and friends whenever I could, and pushed back on everyone who didn’t somehow manage to stick with me long enough for me to grow accustomed to them.
And the problems I have with my transsexuality exist separately also; I have avoided many a bath/shower because “I just do not want to see my body today”. I used to become very accustomed to memorising where each and every mirror in my life was, so I could avoid accidentally spotting the reflection that looked nothing like me – this monster that grew over me during puberty, blotting out who I really am.
The two definitely exist seperately, but they also work together to be a problem for me also. There have been times when I’ve run out of food in the house, I decided that despite my fear of going out – I’ll do it anyway. I can cross the road to the shops, it’ll suck but I’ll get over it – then I discover my shaver has run out of charge, it’s not going to work again until after the shops shut. My options become either go hungry, or go outside with a little facial hair.
I choose to go hungry (if you could call it a choice, essentially I’ve been strong-armed by aspects of who I am that I wish weren’t a part of me).
And this happens in a hundred other ways too. It is *exceptionally* harder for me to leave the house since moving back home because there are people here who knew me before I ‘transitioned’. I’ve seen the looks old school-friends give me and one-another when I’m near. The fear of *that* social experience far outweighs the fear that maybe some stranger in a checkout queue might talk to me about something insignificant. As a result, I haven’t left the house for months.
What does it matter if the character is transsexual? – I don’t know how much it matters in this instance (or any other, really), but I know it does matter.
Being transsexual isn’t something that is a person’s backstory – it’s something they live with every day. It will always be that way, even if society becomes some magical sci-fi utopia where transsexual people can make their bodies the way they feel they should have been (without doctors telling them terrifying things like “with this procedure, there’s like a 40% chance you’ll be in pain the rest of your life, we don’t know why it happens”) – no ‘transition’ can erase everything we have been through, the conditioning, the way we have been raised, our personal struggles against all the mental obstacles that other people put in our way, and our struggles still tripping over these obstacles years after we figure out just who the hell we really are.
Like many other things, transsexuality isn’t some distant past event or lifestyle choice – it’s part of who a person is. How people deal with this aspect of themselves, and how they respond to how other people deal with it also… it’s gonna effect most everything a person is and does.
But I still don’t know if I can make this character transsexual, even if I can get past the other gross internalised cissexism, there’s an even more unpleasant reason I don’t want to make her transsexual;
Being transsexual sucks.
I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and every night when I close my eyes I dream up magical worlds and stories where “oh it turns out you’re not really trans, you’re a cis girl! everything up until now was a mistake.” – I hate being transsexual, I hate the very core of it and I hate all the baggage that comes along with it just as much. It really sucks to be distressed and disgusted by your own body in this way. It’s not something you can make right, not completely, not ever.
What I’m thinking right now is, I’m not ready for the transsexual character. I need them but I certainly can’t write them, not yet. They need to be a cartoon, something ill-concieved but acceptale and non-threatening. I need “The strong trans-woman” trope, I need a token “trans friend” for the protagonists, the shitty action movie with a trans-man hero killing hundreds of faceless henchmen with a machine-gun.
I can’t write these things, but I’m thinking they might be a necessary cultural intermidiary between something being a harmful joke character-trait (what we have now), and being an aspect of some well-written and relatable characters.
And, I think this thinking is utter bullshit. The reason I think we need shitty transsexual characters before we can have real ones, is because it turns out I’m kind of a self-hating trans-bigot and I’m terrified of making this character who is supposed to represent me into someone who *really* represents me.
I don’t know what I’ll do about it to be honest, but I can tell you my transsexuality is not some part of my past, it’s fucking me up every day.
Yes, you can put up videos of any parts of my games on any website you please, for any reason you please.
Yes, you can also monetise them.
BUT, I often don’t have complete rights to the music in my games.
If I am the musician you don’t need to worry, but if someone else is credited check below first or mute the audio.
more detail on music:
When I license music I usually do it just for inclusion in the game, I do not have permission to say you can include it in your videos. The people I work with make money through sales of OSTs and tend to need that money. So if they think you’re making things hard for them, I will side with the musician.
That said, I highly doubt any of them will ever flag your videos, but I’ll never say never on this one just in case.
Specifically for each game using musicians other than myself, here are the artists and policies:
Swift*Stitch / Linear Gear Solid:
- You’ll probably be fine, not yet asked him about it specifically.
Rose&Time / PhonePhantom:
- Kevin MacLeod
- His licences are here. I understand it is free and fine so long as you give credit (If you show my game’s title screens, the credit is already there)
There Shall Be Lancing:
- Stephen Hart
- You’ll probably be fine, not yet asked him about it specifically.
Sarah’s Run Preview:
- Unabanzie (Steven Lawson)
- You’ll probably be fine, not yet asked him about it specifically.
Any other game and you have full permissions to do what you please as far as recorded video goes.
all that said, if you plagiarise my shit (claim you made the game or some aspect of it when you did not) I’m going to flag your video so fast you won’t know what hit you