Opinion: The Siege of Dragonspear drama and the video game community
The past week has seen an explosion in drama amongst a particularly vocal minority of gamers angry about the inclusion of what they see as “social justice” themes into Beamdog’s Baldur’s Gate expansion The Siege of Dragonspear. The conflagration has a few sources; some players are complaining about bugs they claim Beamdog has been slow to fix, but that has been disingenuously used as a figleaf by some of the outraged crowd to mask the true source of their vitriol. Said source is elaborated on in this Niche Gamer article, which complains about--among other things--the very brief inclusion of a trans woman character who has only a minor speaking role, a silly “actually, it’s about ethics…” joke, a Goblin who calls your character racist, and the “sultry voiced rogue” Safana becoming a “sarcastic dissenter” who occasionally insults the player character.
This is what occasioned days of rage targeted at Beamdog, the writer behind many of these “offensive” minor changes Amber Scott, and at anyone who dared to suggest they might be a good idea. The Steam forums for Dragonspear are a bit of a trashfire at the moment due to all of this and there’s a lot to unpack here. In the wake of the vicious assault directed at ex-Nintendo marketer Alison Rapp--which ultimately contributed to her firing--we should apply a heightened level of scrutiny to any organized effort by reactionary gamers that targets women deemed to be “SJW” or “feminist” with harassment, slander, and other forms of abuse.
We are at a point where we have all but normalized this sort of thing and if one claims to care about welcoming more women into the industry, then it behooves us to carefully consider why women are often the targets of these hatemobs.
At the heart of the rage is a minor NPC, a cleric named Mizhena, penned by veteran RPG writer Amber Scott (I’ve praised her work in the past) . If your character asks about her name, she says the following: “I created the name myself several years ago. My birth name proved unsuitable." If the player follows that up by asking why it was unsuitable, Mizhena goes on:
"When I was born, my parents thought me a boy and raised me as such. In time, we all came to understand I was truly a woman. I created my new name from syllables of different languages. All have special meaning to me, it is the truest reflection of who I am."
In short, she reveals she’s a trans woman. This is what occasioned so much outrage and even prompted some gamers to call for Beamdog to remove “the offending content.”
Storms of reactionary rage tend to go through multiple phases that roughly correspond to dawning self-awareness. The first wave is pure emotion and unbridled bigotry, the next is a collective hangover where many of the outraged realize they need something substantial to hang their hatred upon, especially if they are to convince others. Thus, figleaf arguments enter the discussion. In this case, the figleaf is twofold: one, assert angrily that this is actually about ethics in Beamdog covering up the bugs in Dragonspear, and two, assert angrily that this actually about ethics in representing transgender characters sensitively.
You see, there’s a significant contingent of the mob who suggests that the problem with Mizhena was not her very existence, but the fact that she was badly written and tokenized. No real trans person, they claim, would talk so freely and so quickly to a stranger about their history. An even more interesting permutation of this claim has mutated on the Steam forums, prompted by one transgender poster, Jinx, who angrily declaims Amber Scott and says:
“Thank you so much from a trans gamer for painting a target on our backs once again so you can virtue signal how progressive you are. It wouldn't be enough to just, I don't know, put a trans person in a game and have them there as a character. No, it has to be a political statement and you have to just let everyone know it.”
This led to a chorus of affirmations from angry cis gamers, eager to use her post as a shield for their own discomfort and prejudices. One man wrote: “Adding a half-♥♥♥♥♥ token which trivializes a life-destroying mental disorder with no known treatment is not inclusive. It's bigotry, and there needs to be an apology.” Yes, I’m a ‘life-destroying mental disorder’ to this man.
Another man, who has since mercifully been banned from the Steam forums, blamed Amber Scott by saying the following: “she bragged about it to Kotaku (of 'gamers are dead' fame), and proudly stated she didn't care if the community didn't like it IIRC.” Ah yes, ‘gamers are over,’ the most offensive words in the known universe. So what did Scott say to Kotaku?
“If there was something for the original Baldur’s Gate that just doesn’t mesh for modern day gamers like the sexism, [we tried to address that]. In the original there’s a lot of jokes at women’s expense. Or if not a lot, there’s a couple, like Safana was just a sex object in BG 1, and Jaheira was the nagging wife and that was played for comedy. We were able to say, ‘No, that’s not really the kind of story we want to make.’ In Siege of Dragonspear, Safana gets her own little storyline, she got a way better personality upgrade. If people don’t like that, then too bad.”
Ah. “If people don’t like that, then too bad.” Scott committed the worst sin a woman in this industry can commit: telling angry male gamers forthrightly that they can’t have something (oh, and that one of their favorite games was “sexist”). This paragraph is being passed around on Steam, Reddit, and Twitter as proof of Scott’s evil anti-gamer ways, in a manner eerily redolent of the shameful abuse to which Jennifer Hepler was subject to in 2012 for an interview in which she said she’d like to see RPGs where combat was skippable.
Punish a woman for speaking her mind, and round and round we go.
That’s, at heart, what all this is about. The concerns of that young trans woman on the Steam forums notwithstanding, much of this outrage is really just about the same old same old: a particularly complaintive and possessive sect of gaming being confronted with something that makes them uncomfortable. I’ve literally posted the entirety of Mizhena’s “offensive” dialogue in this column, and because of the 30-some-odd seconds it takes to go through it, we’re on another merry-go-round of misery that is sending a clear, unsettling signal to both women and queer people in this industry.
But as to the very issue that Jinx was talking about, note that she described Mizhena’s inclusion as “painting a target on our backs.” A target requires someone to shoot at it. She was pleading to Amber Scott that she not provoke angry gamers into making a target of trans people--indeed she even realises she has a better chance of reasoning with Scott* than most of the other people in that forum who are gleefully appropriating her words and waving them about like a bloody shirt to prove their own tolerant bona fides (or--what is it the cool reactionary kids call it--“virtue signalling”).
From my perspective, however, Mizhena was not a cheap progressive or tokenistic sop. I certainly advocate very strongly for the inclusion of more transgender characters with bigger roles than a 30 second cameo, but considering the limitations Scott was working with, she did a fine job with Mizhena. The discussion about her gender history emerges two queries deep into what begins with a discussion about her name, and explaining it in full requires some elaboration of her transition. Considering how weighty a name choice has been for me and just about every other trans person I know, that seemed entirely reasonable.
As to why she’s telling all this to someone she just met, well, one could easily say the same about the dialogue of thousands of other NPCs that dot the history of RPGs. It can also be theorised that such a change is not as stigmatized in this world as it is in ours--the historic silence of Forgotten Realms on the subject is something that lends itself to a variety of interpretations, after all. This is contrary to the bemused challenges lobbed at me on Twitter, such as one GamerGater who demanded: “just out of curiosity please explain HOW a trans person became transitional in a medieval period game? no surgery exists yet.”
Clearly they know next to nothing about Forgotten Realms.
We have evidence from within the Baldur’s Gate series itself, never mind FR as a whole, that suggests Mizhena’s situation is neither impossible nor shameful. In Baldur’s Gate 2: Shadows of Amn, Edwin Odesserion becomes Edwina for a while--and although this is played for laughs to a certain degree for an ostensibly cis player’s benefit, it’s not portrayed as horrifically unusual or heinous. In the wider Forgotten Realms lore, no less a figure than Elminster Aumar, the sage-like wizard who was purportedly an author-insert of legendary Forgotten Realms creator Ed Greenwood, changed genders. It’s canon that the goddess of magic, Mystra, transformed him into a woman “named Elmara to strengthen his bond with magic and to know what it is to be a woman. This change also allowed him to move within his enemies' circles without their knowledge that he was in fact the last surviving prince of Athalantar.”
The long and short of it is that the assertion made by some in the Steam forums that Mizhena “breaks the lore and immersion of the game” is false on a number of levels.
I would certainly like to see a trans character with more screen time, perhaps even as a companion--but I strongly suspect most of the people I’ve quoted here would not truly be happy with that. Why? Because most people of this ilk completely fail to understand that their very ability to judge whether something is “forced” into a game is severely crippled whenever they look at a non-male, non-white, non-straight, non-cis character. To them, the very novelty of their presence in a gaming world long dominated by white cis men is always going to appear awkward, forced, and slightly incredible because our game development has catered to the delusion that that’s what the world really looks like.
No amount of care, screen time, or elegant writing will satisfy these people; the very existence of these characters will be seen as “SJWs forcing their gender agenda down our throat” or some other suspiciously sexual metaphor.
None of these swarming gamers ask why trans people might be hesitant about coming out to others, and why Mizhena’s sudden revelation strikes them as so odd; they cannot look in the mirror and see that they are the reason.
To demonstrate that, I’d like to point out a YouTube video embedded in both the Niche Gamer and Crave articles I linked entitled “Baldur Gate’s Misogyny: Tranny Abuse.” It shows the brief scene with Mizhena in its entirety and then features the player actually killing her, to the whooping cheers of many in the comment thread below. So far it’s been viewed over 18,000 times.
“I tip my hat to you, my good sir. Keep the world clean of this shit,” writes Christopher Jacobsen in the comments. I shudder at the thought of meeting him somewhere out in the world.
That simulated murder, the gamer’s performative response to a trans woman he hated, uses visual language to say something very ugly in the same week a man in New York pled guilty to beating a trans woman to death because she “threatened his manhood.”
Given the popularity of that video, and the fact that it was cited approvingly by Niche Gamer without the slightest comment on its ugliness, it’s safe to say that bugs are not the only problem this sect of gamers has with Siege of Dragonspear and it’s disingenuous to pretend otherwise. Bugs have been a longstanding issue with all the Enhanced Editions, yet it is this expansion, with what Niche Gamer called “a dash of social justice” that occasions these paroxysms.
The same people who whine that the “media” is ignoring their pleas about bugs--as they will surely do with this editorial--will often moments later whine about “political agendas” being forced “down their throats,” by which they mean Mizhena’s 30 second backstory. Complaining about bugs has nothing to do with “revolting” over a trans woman.
That little moment with Mizhena, even if it was a simple exposition-dump moment--one among thousands in RPGs--possibly points to a world where the bigotry of people like the man who made that YouTube video does not wield the power it does in our own very real world. In a month that has seen trans people’s public presence all but criminalized in North Carolina, a similar law being mooted in Mississippi, and an actual bounty on trans women up for debate in Kansas, we in the gaming world should pay attention to what message we’re sending when we permit this kind of caterwauling in our forums and when we suggest that these people are “valuable customers” whose feedback should be listened to.
When you intimate that people like that fellow who said women like me have an incurable mental disorder are your audience, you’re sending a clear message that bigotry is acceptable “criticism” from “fans” and something that should be taken into consideration. When you align yourself or your company with these whining bigots, with their dissembling excuses and overt hatred alike, you say they matter more than the people harmed by their bigotry. That's not the side of history you want to be on.
*Author's Note: The original version of this article misattributed Jinx's pleas to Scott to her subconscious; she has since informed me that she explicitly stated her reasoning on this matter in the thread, and I updated the post to reflect that.
Katherine Cross is a Ph.D student in sociology who researches anti-social behavior online, and a gaming critic whose work has appeared in numerous publications.