Buckle in, everyone. This is going to be a doozy.
Full disclosure, I had no desire to play CD Projekt Red’s Cyberpunk 2077 until the outrage over certain elements in it caught my attention. Without wanting to support a game that was being called a transphobic mess of a game, I requested the game from interlibrary loan, and played about 25 hours of it before it had to be returned, which got me through the prologue and into the plot proper, while also leaving me some time to wander around and experience the dark, gritty, edgy, and dirty-GTA-esque world of the city symbolically named Night City.
As I played through it, I made a rather glib observation about the game on Twitter:
…which was a bit harsh, but also is still my opinion, based on my time with it. There was nothing terrible about the story, or the mechanics, or the graphics or art, but based on the backlash, I was expecting in-your-face transphobia with a side of anti-LGBT+. And I didn’t see that.
Instead, it was much more covert… which actually made it worse.
Cyberpunk 2077 was first teased in 2012, and more-or-less disappeared from the limelight as CD Projekt Red worked on finishing their critically-acclaimed The Witcher III: Wild Hunt. It seemed to fall into development hell, but then resurfaced with a fury in 2018 with gameplay trailers and more information about the game itself.
2018 also ushered in such “jokes” as the Cyberpunk 2077 Twitter “jokingly” responding to a fan talking about how they “WANT MORE GUYS” by saying, “Did you just assume their gender?”
For those of you who may not know, this phrase is often used to mock trans people, painting them as overly sensitive and looking for a fight, and making their identities seem frivolous opinions, rather than, you know, their identity.
And it went downhill from there, at least as far as the game’s reception among the trans community.
But What About The Actual Game?
Honestly, if you like cyberpunk, and you like first-person shooters, you’ll be familiar with the game’s expectations and mechanics, and maybe you’ll enjoy it. I’ve haunted a few streams of people I don’t know, who happened to be playing Cyberpunk 2077, and the streamers I chatted with (all straight males who thought that I, too, was a straight male so I assumed that they would be less likely to say one thing or another just for the sake of saying it) all said the game was a mess in one way or another, and not worth the money. So take from that what you will.
Putting that aside for a moment, the mechanics were easy enough to navigate, even for someone like me who endured headaches and nausea to experience as much of the game as possible before having to return the disc. The character creator is the most comprehensive one that I’ve found, although not perfect and, as it would turn out, part of the issues that the game had in terms of reception.
Plot-wise, it seemed like standard fare for a cyberpunk game. It seemed to be setting up for a very interesting thought experiment about identity, which made its reception by the trans community, and the greater LGBT+ community, a missed opportunity on the part of the developers. But, as a friend said, if you like the Deus Ex games, you’ll like the story in Cyberpunk 2077.
Why I Stopped Playing
Like I said, the most obvious reason I stopped playing was because the disc was due back at the library. However, I didn’t make any effort to renew it, either, nor request it again. So… I have no desire to pick it up again.
Honestly, I didn’t see the point of enduring headaches and nausea for 80 hours to experience the story. I wasn’t impressed with anything I’d experienced to wait for it to come up on interlibrary loan again. Without the controversy, I wouldn’t have picked it up at all.
Cyberpunk 2077 is not a game-changer, so to speak. Without the controversy surrounding it, it would be a middle-of-the-road game that had some fans, but didn’t make waves in the industry as the Next Best Thing. But because of its polarizing force, though, now it easily can morph into a game that people take A Stand on, even if they don’t realize it.
If you close your eyes to the social issues, the argument goes, you’re part of the anti-trans problem.
If you can’t appreciate the game because you’re so blinded by your anger, the other argument goes, you’re part of the snowflake problem that’s ruining games.
But Athena, I hear some not-trans readers say. You aren’t trans. You are One Of Us ™ but you are also LGBTQ+ and therefore One Of Them ™ , so is the game really worth the hate? It’s a solid game with many fans, good review scores, and you said yourself that the anti-trans sentiments aren’t slapping anyone in the face. The character creator was comprehensive! The ‘Mix It Up’ poster was supposed to be evocative of The System that everyone was fighting against! Everyone was exploited, and trans people were being treated no differently in that regard!
Isn’t that what equality means??
A thousand years ago, I wrote a string of articles about women in games, and women as gamers, and how developers sometimes “gender” mechanics. I thought to follow all these up with an analysis of GamerGate and how it was a microcosm of sexism in our society, and what we as a society could learn from it, but then I decided I didn’t want to take on that headache as long as a certain president was in office.
Now I wish I had written it, because I’m about to reference things I would have said in that article, because the concepts apply here.
By the time this article goes live, the reaction from the trans community and allies is quite familiar. Objectifying images of trans people inserted into the game were not received well. Comments made on social media by the developers that appeared to belittle the trans experience were also not received well. Words like transphobic began to be applied to one of the year’s most hotly-anticipated games. The game was accused of fetishizing trans bodies, perpetuating this unhealthy relationship media (and people) have with trans bodies.
In a time when the rights of trans people are actively under attack by the government, seeing such a big-ticket game play into pre-packaged stereotypes of trans people and tout it as “edgy” and “cool” is, at the very, very, absolute least, disheartening.
…although I’m sure some friends would have some stronger words for it, and I might agree with those, as well.
The Reaction to the Reaction
But what about the gamers? What about the poor people who want to just play the game and enjoy a cyberpunk dystopia after work? What if I didn’t see the themes as a big deal? Isn’t this all just a bit of an overreaction?
Gosh, wouldn’t it be so much nicer if all minorities just quit their whining and let me consume media that subtly reinforces harmful stereotypes about them because that is so much less emotional work for me? Gosh, wouldn’t it be nicer if my life existed in a bubble where my comfort and enjoyment of things is more important than the inalienable rights to respect and dignity that other people have?
GOSH, DID WE LEARN ABSOLUTELY NOTHING FROM GAMERGATE???
What Privilege Actually Means
Another emotionally-charged word, “privilege,” has been thrown around so much that its meaning isn’t really clear anymore. People hear “privilege” and they think that it means that they never have any hardship, ever. Or that it means nothing ever bad happens to them.
This is not the case. Let’s take a look at this chart, and then talk about it:
This is privilege. There’s a lot here, so I’m happy to chat in the comments, but the point I want to talk about is the expectation of always being comfortable.
Just think of how lucky someone must be to exist in a place of such privilege that when someone comes to them, saying they are being hurt by X or Y, they can look them in the eye and say, “But I just want to have fun, so I’m not going to acknowledge this.”
Privilege doesn’t mean your life has been easy. Privilege is being able to ignore serious social issues without your life being impacted in any major way.
Privilege is being able to ignore the serious social issues surrounding a game because you want to have some fun with your game, without wanting to feel bad about what you might be supporting.
This Game Wasn’t Made for You, and Other Very Wrong Things to Say
The most aggravating phrase I’ve heard surrounding this game is the defiant, defensive, “This game wasn’t made for you.”
Do you know what this sounds like?
It sounds like, “Get out of here, plebian. Let the Real Gamers ™ play, the ones who know what’s Really Important ™.”
Oh, you mean like positive media representation? Because that’s… oh, that’s not what you’re saying, is it?
Let’s take an example of games that are and are not made for a person.
Sports games aren’t made for me. I don’t really enjoy playing them and I find them repetitive. There is nothing about these kinds of games that draws me to them, other than when my nephews want to beat me at the latest NHL game.
RPGs, on the other hand, are made for me. They have (in my opinion) good stories, interesting characters, fun mechanics, and usually an interesting, full world that I can get immersed in.
Now, let’s pretend that I’m happily playing through my RPG, when suddenly, the only homosexual woman appears, and she is a villain, physically attractive, and only exists on screen when another woman is there, so they can interact in a very sexual way in front of the main character.
And it’s sold to me as “This is sexy! We are so progressive!”
The underlying history of this is that romantic relationships between women have been fetishized or demonized in media as long as they have been portrayed in media. So…
Was that game not made for me? Or was that game exploiting me by perpetuating a harmful (and very real) stereotype about gay women?
Surely I’m overreacting?
I couldn’t even tell you how many straight men have asked if I would kiss my girlfriend in front of them. Or they would make passive comments about how hot a threesome would be.
And then media throws in my face that that’s all my relationship is: something to be ogled. And as a bonus, it’s a kind of relationship that only villains have.
We talked briefly about violence against women recently. I drew similar parallels to representation then, about how what we see in media influences what we think is “okay” in terms of IRL behavior.
It’s the same here.
To say that because imagery exploiting someone just means that the media “isn’t for you,” is to say that you’re okay with people being exploited in that fashion.
If someone plays cyberpunk games, loves cyberpunk games, and then finds a caricature of themselves in a cyberpunk game, it’s not that the game wasn’t made for them. Rather, it’s that the game is exploiting the person.
And to be so tone-deaf as to not realize that your sexy, edgy, cool, inclusive game is actually perpetuating negative views toward a marginalized group, that doesn’t mean the game “isn’t made” for people in that group. It means the developers are unaware and uncaring, and shielding themselves behind fans who either don’t want to get involved (and who don’t need to because of their privilege), or the people who accept these stereotypes and harmful viewpoints as true.
And shame on CD Projekt Red for shielding themselves behind fans so they don’t need to change.
Shame on them.
Whew. Lost my cool there for a moment.
Saying the Right Things
What also struck me about this whole Cyberpunk 2077 drama was the apparently genuine surprise by CD Projekt Red at the game’s reception. Defenders bristled at the criticisms, saying that CDPR had presented a world where everyone was equally seen and treated as commodities. The fetishization that the trans community was so vocally opposed to was exactly, the defenders said, what the entire game was against. Gamers were supposed to be fighting against this rampant fetishization.
Sure, that’s great. Except…
As we talked about, the big, memorable marketing move was reducing trans people to their bodies-as-commodity, which also happens in real life, over and over again.
It presented an oversimplification of trans people and trans issues, and the way the backlash was handled actually defended the misinformation that is often applied to and accepted by our collective, cisgendered understanding of what “being trans” really means.
Why does it matter? Because this treatment is happening in real time, in real life, not just in a game, not just in a game developer’s office environment. This is an open wound, and salt is being rubbed into it in the name of “being edgy.”
The Bottom Line
I honestly have been sitting on this post for months, and I still I don’t know how to end it. I can’t recommend a game that is part of such a larger societal problem, and the gameplay is mediocre at best. If you feel a desire to experience it for yourself, I’d suggest checking it out from your library so you don’t waste money or shelf space on it.
So, how was your Wednesday? Take on any troubling social issues? Let’s chat in the comments!
**Please note, I’m happy to discuss opposing views, but let’s keep it idea-focused. I reserve the right to edit any comments that contain ad hominem attacks, bigotry, or overly-foul language, at my discretion. This is a place for intellectual discussion, and a place where everyone’s opinions can be expressed, as long as it is done respectfully and with a willingness to listen.**
Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you soon!
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