As games become more expansive, players are given more options to personalize the way they play games. This has led to substantial changes, such as accessibility options for people with disabilities, or assist modes for those who need help completing difficult games. Catering to the player in this regard can help games reach a broader audience. But games should not always cater to whatever the player wants. That can lead to dangerous decisions, and instead of broadening the people who are accepted into games, player choice can also cause more people to be shut out.
Triternion, the team behind medieval hack ‘n slash Mordhau faced backlash after an interview with PC Gamer stated that the team would add a toggle feature that could remove women and non-white characters from the game. Mordhau’s customization feature currently only allows for players to creative white, male characters. During the interview, artist Mike Desrosiers stated that they would “put the power in the players’ hands” by allowing players to toggle the existence of women of people of color from Mordhau.
Triternion has released a statement claiming that they never planned on adding “a customization option that would force a while male default,” and that Desroisers answer was misleading. According to Tritenion, the team was in the talks of implementing an gender toggle that would let people “play the game with only female characters, only male characters, or both,” according to the statement. But this idea was scrapped before launch.
While these features have not been placed into the game, I worry that as games continue to try to realistic in design, in story, and in mechanics, we will see more instances where certain people can simply be toggled out of existence.
Mordhau is advertised as a freedom of choice—that is, to choose between chest pieces, boots, and helmets. As the website states “Be anything from a viking to a crusader, or even a sharpshooting archer.” But the “endless” customization ends when it comes to race or gender. On the website’s frequently asked questions page, Triternion admits that they don’t want realism to detract from the fun of the game: “We do not want to limit the time period to a specific century, since we want players to be able to create the medieval warrior they want and have a lot of flexibility.” But again, that flexibility does not seem to fall toward people who don’t want to play as white men. Instead, choice is used to exclude.
As the PCGamer article points out, Mordhau’s community is rampant with hate speech, and while Triternion has stated before that they would expand their character creation to include race and gender, some fans have stated that including female characters would be unrealistic to the game. Triternion claimed it wouldn’t bog the game down by realism, and yet any talk of realism causes them to consider adding a toggle feature to opt women in or out. And sadly, Triternion is not the only developer that’s thought about toggling out certain characters to please hateful players.
In August 2018, Ryan Koons (known as HuniePot or HunieDev) released a video showcasing a new character for his upcoming sequel to his popular title, HuniePop 2. The Huniepop series is a dating sim where players must succeed in a series of time-matching games in order to date women and, eventually, have sex with them.
For the sequel, HunieDev announced a new character named Polly Bendelson. She is a 32-year-old Beauty Tuber who loves dancing, as showcased by her eighties-inspired dance leotard and bubble-gum pink headband. She’s Huniepop’s first trans character. As a game with an end goal of having sex with every character, the trailer makes sure to point to the fact that she is a trans woman with a penis. According to the video, Polly is “by far the most requested type of character” by Huniepop fans. And yet when Polly was announced, her identity seemed to be the most contentious part about her.
The same day Polly was announced, Koons released a strawpoll, asking whether players would prefer an option to entirely skip having a sexual encounter with Polly. With 8,620 votes, the votes were nearly split, with 56% on no and 44% on yes. Afterward, Koons announced an option to change Polly’s genitals based off player preference: “If you’re into her as a trans girl, you’ll get the full trans Polly experience,” Koons writes. “If not, she’ll be a natural born lady just like the rest of the cast.”
In an interview with Daily Dot, Koons stated that the option is meant appease players’ comfort levels, but this is just another example of the toggle as erasure catered to hateful people. The Huniepop dev went from claiming that a trans character was the most requested, to turning her genitals into an on/off switch. Polly is now the first character in the series to be dictated by player choice. Rather than being accepted outright by who she is, she is instantly negotiated as soon as some people feel uncomfortable. Huniepop2 is not yet released, so there may be a chance that Polly will not be alterable, but it’s a bad sign when Polly’s identity is dictated by player choice through a strawpoll.
Removing women from a game is not the same as turning on subtitles, or changing a suit of armor from black to gold. Players can have too much power, and MordHau and Hunipop 2 point to the ways customization could lead to erasure.
Whenever there’s a call for video game protagonists that don’t fall under the white, cis-male, and able-bodied umbrella, there’s always someone who suggests to play a game with character customization. Rather than demand more stories feature people from different backgrounds, we “put the power in the players hand” by creating our own heroes. And while character creation can be liberating and fun, it’s not a solution to wanting a diverse gaming landscape. Character customization allows marginalized people to be completely avoided by those who are uncomfortable seeing them. If games continue to coddle players who would rather opt out of including people, then games will only perpetuate the idea that marginalized people are optional.