By: Peter Miles Hamilton
March was Women’s History Month. March 31 was Transgender Day of Visibility, and April has brought in Autism Acceptance Month. As I consider this time of recognition, I cannot help but notice how poorly represented these groups are in the medium I love.
Although the representation of women in gaming is far better than it ever has been, I realize that it is still uncommon enough in the games industry to be remarkable when women workers are recognized for their contributions, or even just are not the subject of harassment.
Just last year, Ubisoft was the focus of a scandal involving covering up egregious sexual misconduct at all levels of the workplace. The games industry has always had a reputation of being something of a “boy’s club,” and any developer or game that purposefully breaks away to represent marginalized peoples are often met with backlash. While this industry may be littered with products that have difficulty making certain players feel safe and welcome, there is one series in which I cannot say that I have ever felt unwelcome or uneasy.
I have spent what should be a fairly embarrassing amount of time this past week playing Monster Hunter Rise, which released on March 26. I have written about my love for this weird and addicting action series before, and with every new release, the games continue to improve upon the series as a whole.
While revamped weapons, quality-of-life improvements and the new Wirebug mechanic that lets players swing around maps like Spider-Man are all great in this game, its most impressive feature to me is something most players take for granted; in previous Monster Hunter games, I took it for granted as well. However, when Monster Hunter World released in 2018, I was at a far different place in my life than I am now. I am, of course, talking about Monster Hunter’s excellent character creator.
Character creators often take up a lot of the player’s time, especially with how comically specific they allow players to be. I spent upwards of an hour just fine-tuning my character in Monster Hunter Rise, and I have plenty of stories to trade with friends of using character creators in other games to recreate anime protagonists, people in real life, or the most unholy abominations we could, just to see what was possible. While character creators can be fun of themselves, they pose something of an existential challenge to those who have bodies not quite like everyone else.
Both I and my other transgender, nonbinary or otherwise gender-nonconforming friends often struggle to be happy with character creators, because making a character that looks like ourselves (or who we want ourselves to be) can be difficult in games that lock players into gendered options for customization.
Things are better these days than they used to be, but I distinctly remember struggling to pick a character in games where males cannot have long hair or non-masculine clothing, or where female characters had more interesting clothing designs. I am fortunate enough to not experience much gender dysphoria (the physical and emotional feeling of “being in the wrong body,” as it is often put) on a day-to-day basis, but binary character creators often leave me needing to step aside so I can enjoy the actual game later on.
This is not the case in Monster Hunter. When I started up Rise, its character creator was as ridiculously elaborate as every other major game I have played. Options to move and mold every part of the body were present, but what immediately stuck out to me was that no options were locked behind gender or biological sex. The bodies, not “male” and “female” but “Type 01” and “Type 02,” do not exclude the player from selecting any type of hair style, body option or voice for their protagonist.
It lacks an option for selecting pronouns, sure, but Monster Hunter’s English translations never actually refer to the player in the third person, so it is effectively irrelevant. I was free to wear longer, more effeminate hairstyles alongside the beard that has really started to grow on me since the pandemic began.
Had I wanted, I could have put make-up on a Type 01 body or have a Type 02 body that is muscular and battle-scarred. Many games have different designs for armor and equipment between sexes, and while Monster Hunter does do this, it has a wonderful mix of sensible protective gear, visually complex fashion statements and half-naked absurdities that are admittedly more eye candy than reasonable designs. What is also phenomenal about it is that armor sets have the same traits across sexes; a single Type 01 armor set will be just as sexually charged as its Type 02 counterpart. A Type 01 armor set that should be impossible for a human to move in will have the same properties on a Type 02 body.
I hope that other games will follow Monster Hunter’s example for character creation. There is a large debate in media as to what extent film, television and games are and ought to be designed with the specifically male gaze in mind, and the non-gender-locked creation system seems to be able to make everyone happy.
Instead of forsaking questionable character designs, players can look as cool or as disastrous as they choose. It becomes even more inclusive this way, considering that transgender, nonbinary and gender-nonconforming people can represent themselves in whatever way they wish, all without imposing anything on players who lack a need for it.
Inclusion in media is often discussed as a zero-sum game, where making it more accessible to marginalized people is presented in ways that exclude the established base (such as taking fantastical designs out because they were previously altered for different sexes). But in truth, respect for marginalized peoples is beneficial to everyone, and opens up the media we love to be shared with even more people.