Trans Awareness: Games and Reality

With the Day of Remembrance over, I thought I should also do a post that is more about trans awareness and education. This is it.

A while back I noticed a trans activist having a small rant about people portraying gender reassignment as a negative thing. An example given was an unnamed game in which a “sex change” is seen as a curse and prevents you from winning. “I know that game”, I thought to myself. It is Greg Costikyan’s Arabian Nights boardgame, and it is a favorite of mine. Really, it is. So what gives?

Well, the thing is that the characters in the game are not presented as trans people. The game is based, fairly obviously, on the Arabian Nights stories. Each player takes the role of a character known from the stories: Sinbad, Aladdin, Scheherazade and so on (the designers made an effort to provide female characters even though the stories don’t contain many adventurous female roles). Your character then travels about the world having encounters with people, artifacts and places from the Arabian Nights. You might meet an helpful Djinn, or a vengeful ghul; you could pick up a flying carpet or an enchanted lamp; you might even be lucky enough to find Aladdin’s Cave, or the Elephant’s Graveyard. And you might run across the Sex Change Spring, and end up undergoing a magical transformation.

The important point here is that all of the characters are assumed to be cis. So if they undergo a “sex change” they are not receiving medical (well, magical) treatment for a problem they have, they are being made trans. And if they happen to view that as “a curse”, well yes. For many people, it is.

Not all, I note. For some people who are genderqueer being trans may be the best thing in the world and an ideal expression of their personal identity. But for people at the far ends of the trans gender spectrum, people who are deeply uncomfortable in their bodies, it most certainly can seem a curse.

I suspect that most cis people, if they were magically transformed in this way, would also regard themselves as having been cursed. Indeed, if they were the sort of people who would say, “well that might be interesting”, then I submit that they are already somewhat genderqueer themselves, as they clearly have no great attachment to their gender.

The trouble we trans folk often have in explaining ourselves is that cis people consider the possibility of gender transition, recoil with horror, and decide that anyone wanting to do so must be mad. But trans people who want to transition are not doing so from a place of contentment with themselves. They have already suffered the curse of the magical transformation. What they want is to get back to being the people they ought to be. And from that point of view, what they do is not nearly so crazy.

Finally, what about that “unable to win” thing? Well, if you are deeply unhappy in your own body, and prone to fits of depression or self-harm, the chances of your becoming a great hero are not high. You should actually concentrate on fixing yourself first. But is there a way to play the game as a trans character, starting out under the supposed “sex change curse”? I think there is.

When I play the game I have an added house rule. The victory conditions for the game are based on the collection of Story Points and Reputation Points. Under my house rule, if you want to win as a sex-changed character what you have to do is go back to Baghdad, set your reputation points to zero, and then get back to the game.

The rationale for this is that while going through gender reassignment is a great addition to your life story, from then on people will tend to see you as a different person. If you transition in mid life you have to rebuild your career from scratch, getting people to know you and trust you again. It isn’t quite as bad these days. More and more trans people, at least in the UK, are able to transition and keep their jobs, their families and their friends. That wasn’t the case when I transitioned, or when I first encountered the Arabian Nights game, so the house rule made perfect sense to me.

If you think about it, then, the Arabian Nights game has quite a bit to teach cis people about the realities of being trans. And games are a good vehicle for educating people. You just need to make sure they understand the message.

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One Response to Trans Awareness: Games and Reality

  1. Some of the Munchkin games have a sex change “curse” too, though it doesn’t prevent you winning the game. The main role of gender in Munchkin is as a restriction on the use of a few items. So if you’ve got one of those items and can’t use it, getting hold of this “curse” card to play it on yourself will actually help you win.

    The end result is that, like everything else in Munchkin, the player is encouraged to think of the heteronormative gender binary as an arbitrary rule which exists to be manipulated to their best advantage.

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