This post is part of Outward, Slate’s home for coverage of LGBTQ life, thought, and culture. Read more here.
The first time I was gendered correctly, I was 7 years old and playing Pokémon Sapphire. I agonized over the name I would pick (eventually, I settled on Robin, after the leader of the Teen Titans), and the “starter” Pokémon that would become my partner for the journey ahead (Mudkip, still a favorite of mine). But the choice of gender was immediate, instinctive: I was a boy. The game didn’t object to this, naturally; I was called “he” by every one of Hoenn’s inhabitants, and although it would be more than a decade before everyone in my real life began to do the same, the games I played all through my childhood accepted it without question.
As the Pokémon protagonists and I got older—I turned 16 the same year Black and White’s playable characters did—I lived out a parallel pixelated boyhood I’d never have had otherwise. Video games were the first space in which I got to explore and embody my own masculinity, experimenting with different save files and stories, testing the weight of an identity and how it felt to answer to it: Am I a Henry? Can I pull off “Alexander” in full, or is that too grandiose?
Playing Dragon Age: Inquisition at 17, I started to understand myself as a boy who liked other boys at a time in my life when real-world romance was impossible. I also met Krem, a mercenary who reveals his transness casually—once you’ve become a friend he knows he can trust—with an offhand joke about binding, the act of flattening your chest to relieve dysphoria and “pass” more successfully. He was a wry, capable hero and, to me, a revelation: a valued second-in-command to a leader and crew who trusted him, affirmed his identity, and stood ready to defend him against anyone who didn’t.
For nonbinary people, that kind of recognition has been harder to come by. Fallen London, a text-based game that was perhaps the first to allow “gender neutral” characters, did so almost by accident. Its creator, Alexis Kennedy, drew on his own experiences as a man with a “feminine” name who was thus never quite what those who’d corresponded with him via email expected. If you declined to specify your gender at the start of the game, you’d get a lot of stuttering from others in the story who are clearly wrong-footed by your ambiguous appearance—a joke Kennedy didn’t realize might strike a little too close to home for some trans or gender non-conforming players. Following their feedback, his studio amended the text and took the lessons to its next game, Sunless Sea, in which players are asked only to choose a form of address: As the character creation screen puts it, “Your actual gender is up to you.” Both titles are beloved by trans players as a result.
Other games are starting to incorporate these identities at the outset. Dream Daddy allows the protagonist to wear a binder, and other romance-oriented indies like LongStory and Monster Prom include “they” as a pronoun option. In April, BattleTech became the latest—and perhaps one of the unlikeliest—to take that step. The newest installment in the 30-plus–year-old franchise is the first to allow players to choose between “he,” “she,” and “they” when customizing their characters at the start of the game.
For a turn-based combat title with such a history to do so is unprecedented, and the decision prompted an outpouring of vitriol from a vocal minority of gamers (who, ironically, decried how the developers had ostensibly caved to a vocal minority). But the reality is that it’s extremely unobtrusive—and that’s one of its greatest assets as a feature. The game’s character creator foregrounds narrative above all else; it asks your pronouns, but it also goes far beyond that, establishing your personal backstory, professional affiliation, and any number of other details that inform how your protagonist understands and interacts with the world.
In other words, it lets you create a mech pilot who happens to be nonbinary, but whose arc is not defined exclusively by their identity—and more than that, one who’ll take on the kind of starring role that would never be afforded to a trans character in the equivalent genre film today. It may be many years before Hollywood is ready to fund a multimillion-dollar sci-fi action flick with such a lead, but with a single word on a customization screen, BattleTech gives players the option to see that story play out right now.
The fact that nonbinary people have a place in this universe is significant. Games are, for many, a matter of wish fulfillment. By the end of your 20-, 40-, or 60-plus hours of play, you’re almost always regarded in-universe as powerful and competent; you can solve the mystery or save the world and forge meaningful relationships in the process. It feels good to be the hero. For some players, though, it’s just as gratifying—and just as rare—to have the chance to be yourself.