BattleTech

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

For individuals who never see themselves in games, the addition of a pronoun is about recognition, acceptance, and normalization.

Patrick Klepek

Patrick Klepek

Image courtesy of Waypoint

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.”

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