Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

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Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#1 Post by Widdershins » Tue Feb 06, 2018 5:45 pm

Hello! After playing buckets of VNs, I'm working on writing my own for the first time, and am in a bit of a quandry. With the goal of being as inclusive as possible, I'm opting not to visually depict the main player character, and also to offer a choice of preferred pronouns (he/she/they). My concern is that my story setting, while technically science fiction, does not take place in either a fantasy world or utopian version of the future/present: it's a character driven, time-dissonant setup where the main player character (living in the year 2012) stumbles into a remote small town where it is 1968.

Thus, my concern is whether I am right to think that including a non-binary/genderqueer pronoun option is still more net positive than negative, despite the suspension of disbelief required to think that individuals from 1968 will consistently use "they" and "them" without batting an eye. I don't want to be glib with an important piece of identity, but trying to directly address it head-on in a way that is true to the established setting only leads to thickets, as far as I can tell. I *do* explore the notion of non-binary gender identity a little with one of the primary characters, as well as something of what that looked like in 1968, but I'm not sure that doesn't make straightforward acceptance of the main character more jarring. Additionally, while I may include a relevant discussion late on that individual's particular 'route' which the main character can chime in on, gender isn't really where my focus lies on this story.

So, in sum: is it still meaningful/worthwhile to include the option, even if it requires a bit of a stretch to accept in the context of the setting? Or does not addressing it directly in the narrative reduce it to a superficial coat of paint, as it were, making it more ineffective and flippant than inclusive?

Thank you in advance for your thoughts!

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#2 Post by Ezmar » Wed Feb 07, 2018 8:40 am

At risk of sounding blunt, I think including a non-standard pronoun would shatter the suspension of disbelief, and anyone upset by the usage of the standard he/she/they in a 1968 setting can deal with it. I can understand placing importance on inclusion and such in your day-to-day life, but bending over backwards to include it in a period piece is a mistake in my opinion.

Put simply, in 1968, people would use pronouns based on your biological gender, end of discussion. If a reader has a problem with that, that's not really any of your concern as a writer. Despite what people in those subcommunities may believe, non-standard pronouns are uncommon, even today. Including them would be catering to a relatively niche audience, and it has even less place in a story largely set in the mid-20th century.

Just my opinion, though. If you want to be inclusive to reach a wider audience, using non-binary pronouns is probably not worth the time, as the entire narrative and its implications would have to change significantly to allow for the further time-dissonance that would represent between the protagonist and the setting. It would be an all or nothing sort of thing. Either you make the story about a genderqueer protagonist in 1968, or you make it about a non-genderqueer protagonist in 1968. Those are two completely different stories, and trying to include them both is a waste of time, in my opinion.

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#3 Post by Kinjo » Wed Feb 07, 2018 10:39 am

Agreed with Ezmar, it really has no place in the story unless it's going to be a central point of conflict. Especially in a small rural town, there is no way the protagonist's pronoun choices would be humored -- even in 2012 they rarely were, and today it is still a point of debate.

Also, since it would be a player choice, that means 2 out of 3 of your options would cause this conflict, while the final one wouldn't. You'd essentially have to write two or three different stories so that the other characters can react appropriately to the main character's pronouns. At least keeping the whole issue locked to a side character would not only give you the freedom to write your primary focus of the story, but would also allow the player to choose whether or not they want to delve into it themselves.

The question you need to ask yourself is whether you are willing to sacrifice immersion, conflict, and your story's main focus for "inclusion."

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#4 Post by Metatype » Wed Feb 07, 2018 11:53 am

I've thought about it as well, but unless they are an integral part of the story, it might be more trouble than it's worth. I've never met anyone who has used a different pronoun in real life from what they are biological, not to say there aren't people who don't (just confused myself here), so while it is a nice thought, it wouldn't do much for your story which is set in time period where that definitely wouldn't happen. That is unless you want to spend time writing different stories to make it work. Also, I believe you shouldn't be worried about trying to be "inclusive". I think trying to appeal to as many people as possible would ruin the story especially given the setting. There will always be people who would get offended no matter what so trying to cater to them and everyone else is pointless. If you really want "inclusion", the story would have to fit that instead of the other way around.

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#5 Post by Mammon » Wed Feb 07, 2018 1:24 pm

I agree with the previous posts, you cannot please everyone, the 'they' communities are small and their addition would only make the story less immersive for our much more broad he/she audience, and people from 1968 (and a lot of people from rural areas today) care not about gender identity so you as the writer may put that 'bigotry' on them in order to deny the uncommon genders.

Especially the latter, when done well, is a strong rule that writers may use to defend themselves with. Even white actors may use the n-word when playing a slaveowner like in Django unchained, because it's not them and it's period-appropriate. And that's a Hollywood movie that actually has a lot of people critising it with an actual chance of lawsuits if it weren't defendable. For a VN, as long as you're not actively discriminating it's a-okay.

In my current project one of my characters outright says that sodomy is illegal and punishable by death. Considering this happens in the 16th century and none of the actually named characters have such an extreme opinion nor will I get even close to actually describing such an event, I feel like I can add such a thing to the story. It's simply a historically correct representation of the community's and church's approach back then. Do I think homosexuals should be killed? No, of course not and any sane person reading the story will realise that. Might people think that I'm a gay-hating biggot? There's no such actual opinion hinted at in my writing, and I certainly hope that the yaoi undertones between two particular characters will avoid even doubt on the matter. Do the characters in my story (at least publicly) condemn or not condone homosexuality? Yes, because that's simply the way back then regardless of today's society and its norms. To change it is to ignore history itself for the sake of pandering.

If I can feel secure doing this, I sure hope it gives you the confidence to do something a lot more mundane as not adding a they option. A long as there's no reason to think that you are opposed to a certain ethnic or gender group, any fear or complaint that you are not so favouring towards them to the point of pandering is not a big deal.
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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#6 Post by Widdershins » Wed Feb 07, 2018 6:33 pm

(still learning the board etiquette here, I hope it's okay for me to jump back in)

First off, thank you all so much for the thoughtful responses! I really appreciate the input; reading through, I want to try to be more specific, so I hope you'll bear with me. I don't disagree with the concerns raised, I just don't think *I* succeeded in getting to the core of my question, and may possibly have misrepresented aspects of it (hey writer write better arrrgh).

To clarify, I'm not feeling hamstrung in trying to hit an inoffensive, all-appealing baseline: I began by writing a female protagonist, only to realize gender never really came into play, and so there was no reason not to open it up to another reading. Thus, Male, Female, and I decided to try challenging myself by writing a non-gendered option as well. A big part of this is primary character pronouns are very rarely used in the story, because the character is an active part of most conversations, rather than a passive listener being talked over or about. In effect, it's the difference between another character saying, "Yes, ma'am", "Yes, sir", or "Yes, indeed", with occasional bouts of, "I was talking to him, not you", "I was talking to her, not you", or "I was talking to them, not you". They/Them is used naturally in speech (if not as often in the singular), so its inclusion feels fairly comfortable in practice, hopefully might make a genderqueer player feel more welcome and immersed (I've known a few folks over time this would apply to, hence my desire to include the option), and it won't in any way affect a player who chooses to identify the main character as male or female, as it won't ever come up. It's a *functionally* superficial choice, not unlike the option to rename the character. I might think it stretches the story's credibility if the main character's name is Princess Lonelyheart, but if that's what someone wants to name them, I'd still like to provide the option-- and it won't in any way impact a more staid player who names the same character Bill. That example is an overly facile, apples-and-oranges comparison, but in terms of gameplay intended to enhance immersion, it's not dissimilar.

I specifically don't address the lack of definition head-on in the story, of course, for the reasons you list. You're all absolutely right, it was not a recognized thing in 1968, and certainly not in small town 1968. There is no dialogue to the effect of, "I don't identify with the gender binary, please refer to me as they/them", because a non-plot-derailing, positive response to that would require more suspension of disbelief than my grasp on quantum theory does. As stated a few comments up, to address it responsibly would require a whole story of its own. Even the deliberately androgynous character I mentioned presents as male, is referred to by others using male pronouns, and called by a male name by the majority of characters, so I'm at peace living with the restrictions of my setting, even if I soften some angles here and there. It might require a bit of an imaginative push from the player for the townsfolk to stick to "they/them", if that's what they choose, but it doesn't come up much, so I consider it more a bend to the practical laws of my established world than a break.

Since the implementation is less a true non-binary/genderqueer option than simply omitting gendered references, then, my question is perhaps better phrased thus-- as someone who might choose to play a non-gendered They/Them option, is this opaque approach an issue? If it's purely a superficial choice and gender identity goes unaddressed, is it then better to not have that option at all? I don't mind including an option only a few people (if any) might use, but as steward of the story, it is important to me that the options on offer fulfill their purpose in helping immerse the player as comfortably and seamlessly as possible into the world, and do no (actual) harm while they're along for the ride.

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#7 Post by cometgears » Wed Feb 07, 2018 8:49 pm

I'll give the other opinion, then, and say that if you want to add the option for a player to be referred to with they/them pronouns, why not?

I do see the point of not doing it if it's not relevant to the story. If you were trying to have the character tell others to use they/them in a small town in 1968, it would definitely affect story immersion/suspension of belief (or give me a strong opinion about what your MC is like). But you seem like you're not going to use it as a story point, it's more of an option for the player. I don't identify with they/them pronouns, so take this opinion with a grain of salt, but if I did, seeing it as an option in a game--not a huge deal, but just like being able to choose the MC name--I'd think it was a neat feature. I like escapist things, though, and don't mind if some realism is sacrificed so that I can feel like the world is a nicer place. But it is up to you if you think it might affect the integrity/immersion of your story.

Whether you should include it if it's a superficial feature is an interesting question. If I saw it was an option in the game, I'd probably be intrigued and try out each one to see if it influenced the story in any way. Would it be disappointing or confusing if nothing changed? But unless it was done well, I'm not sure that I'd really want some gendered interaction to come from it. I might be an outlier though, in that I'd probably find it interesting enough just seeing what changes you made to the dialogue and if it affected my perception of things.

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#8 Post by Mammon » Thu Feb 08, 2018 4:21 am

Widdershins wrote:I don't disagree with the concerns raised, I just don't think *I* succeeded in getting to the core of my question, and may possibly have misrepresented aspects of it.
To clarify, I'm not feeling hamstrung in trying to hit an inoffensive, all-appealing baseline: They/Them is used naturally in speech, and it won't in any way affect a player who chooses to identify the main character as male or female, as it won't ever come up. It's a *functionally* superficial choice, not unlike the option to rename the character.
We know, I and I assume most of us if not all know what you meant and answered accordingly. I didn't even refer to that part because the people before me already answered that part of the question pretty accurately, meaning I only had to agree with them in sentence 1.

Make no mistake though, writing completely new routes (a route where the player has it easy by being male, somewhat harder for being female, being harrassed by biggots for being neither) was not the tough and hard part we're referring to. Just adding that code to 'if $ = male: he' hassle that you'd have to add to implement the gender identification is already quite a lot of work. Unlike a name, you can't just add that later with Ctrl+H or even Ctrl+F. You'll either need to read through the entire story carefully looking only for he/she references about the MC and changing it, or implement it during the first draft. And I recommend you don't do the latter. It will take you out of your writing flow and make finishing the first draft so much harder and less likely. Don't underestimate how much work it will be.
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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#9 Post by Kinjo » Thu Feb 08, 2018 9:25 am

Mammon wrote:
Thu Feb 08, 2018 4:21 am
Widdershins wrote:I don't disagree with the concerns raised, I just don't think *I* succeeded in getting to the core of my question, and may possibly have misrepresented aspects of it.
To clarify, I'm not feeling hamstrung in trying to hit an inoffensive, all-appealing baseline: They/Them is used naturally in speech, and it won't in any way affect a player who chooses to identify the main character as male or female, as it won't ever come up. It's a *functionally* superficial choice, not unlike the option to rename the character.
We know, I and I assume most of us if not all know what you meant and answered accordingly. I didn't even refer to that part because the people before me already answered that part of the question pretty accurately, meaning I only had to agree with them in sentence 1.
While we clearly agree that it would be way too much work, I think you are misunderstanding the (very confusing) point.

If I'm understanding this correctly, OP is saying that the pronouns would be a player choice, yet this decision would have absolutely no impact on the story. In other words, it's just a courtesy to the person playing the game, and does not represent what the protagonist actually goes by. But this is a contradiction.

Protagonists can be renamed because their names are (in those cases) arbitrary. But pronouns absolutely have meaning, whether internal (identity) or external (others' perception). As someone just trying to enjoy the game, I would find the dissonance caused by arbitrary pronouns to be really strange. It would constantly break the 4th wall. Especially because of the setting (time period), there is bound to be something gender-related that comes up (school uniforms, friends, love interests, bathrooms, etc.) at which point I would have to question what is going on and whether anyone else in the story is even aware of it.

If I am playing under the assumption that the protagonist is male (because I chose male pronouns) then what am I supposed to think when the protagonist enters the women's bathroom? Or when they fall in love with a male character (homosexuality wasn't accepted back then so you can't say it doesn't affect the story). Do they hang out with the boys or the girls at school, and which uniform do they wear? Should your protagonist just avoid bathrooms and never find romance? Just some examples (maybe your story doesn't take place at a school), but my point here is that, unlike a name, gender makes a difference in the story that can't be ignored.

Now that said, I did think of a way to make it work. You could introduce an in-story justification for it. So it doesn't break the 4th wall. Since you're writing a sci-fi story, imagine something like a Black Mirror-like filter that just translates the pronouns other characters are using and filters them into whatever the protagonist wants to hear. It still wouldn't make any sense, but the player would be aware of why it doesn't. So when someone calls you "he" and you want to be called "she" it just translates that word into the other so that the protagonist just doesn't hear anything else. In other words, you've got an unreliable narrator, and we're not reading the truth but a filtered version of the truth. Though I'm not sure this is without its own problems, and it would also require you to bend your story a little to introduce this element, as it would definitely place this whole filter thing in the spotlight above whatever else your story is about.

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#10 Post by Widdershins » Fri Feb 09, 2018 3:34 am

I think CometGears nailed my thought process (thanks!):
cometgears wrote:
Wed Feb 07, 2018 8:49 pm
I don't identify with they/them pronouns, so take this opinion with a grain of salt, but if I did, seeing it as an option in a game--not a huge deal, but just like being able to choose the MC name--I'd think it was a neat feature. I like escapist things, though, and don't mind if some realism is sacrificed so that I can feel like the world is a nicer place.
The fact that I don't use the pronouns myself is why I want outside input. I subscribe to the idea that representation is important in storytelling, but it's equally important for that representation to be responsible, and that's where I'm wanting to dot my t's and cross my i's.
Mammon wrote:
Thu Feb 08, 2018 4:21 am
Widdershins wrote:I don't disagree with the concerns raised, I just don't think *I* succeeded in getting to the core of my question, and may possibly have misrepresented aspects of it.
We know, I and I assume most of us if not all know what you meant and answered accordingly.
I (attempted to) clarify because most replies focus on technical and narrative challenges in implementation, as well as individual perception of whether the effort is worth the work, given demand-- which makes sense, as I got lost in my initial post describing those issues myself before ever getting to my real point. There's certainly value in any and all seasoned advice for me as someone green to this medium, and I appreciate the time and thought taken to respond; unfortunately, very few responses actually address my intended question, which relates specifically to whether someone playing a they/them run of the game is likely to find a non-gendered option inclusive, or if instead it will read as alienating since, due to the restrictions of the narrative setting, it is not truly a non-binary/genderqueer option, and goes without being directly addressed.

Basically, the kind of feedback I'm seeking is closer to Kinjo's above-stated opinion that not codifying the player character's gender ahead of time and directly referencing it is likely to impact their experience of the story as a whole; and (more particularly) CometGears' questioning whether it would be disappointing to try the other options only to find the story is effectively the same, or if the mental shift in perception would be rewarding on its own. While I do truly appreciate the helpful pointers on the mechanical/narrative difficulty involved, I am confident in managing my workload/adjusting as needed, and on a first draft, I can also make the calls on what I feel aids or injures the story I want to tell-- what I can't do is answer for what Not Me's perception is likely to be, and on an often-sensitive subject not my expertise, I feel it best to ask for outside impressions, rather than merely going along with my gut.

This might be the wrong place for that particular question, I don't know. If so, I apologize, but I am thankful for the dialogue nevertheless!

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#11 Post by Mammon » Fri Feb 09, 2018 6:16 am

Ah, the question whether anyone plays them/they isn't really a question that would fit here indeed, but more because this is a forum where questions like these are also meant to be build upon and taken to new places by the responses. Not against you or that this is a wrong thread, but when it went to whether you should go to gender, that's part of this forum. To discuss something as opposed to yes/no. You are allowed to ask for an opinion in a yes/no fashion around here, certainly when accompanied by a broader question like this, but polls are not really preferred by the admins. So you actually posted your OP very well: You asked whether anyone is them/they (and if someone didn't start their post as 'Yes, I play as a they if possible' you may consider their answer to be a 'No, I don't.') and gave people a proper topic to discuss alongside this poll question.

I also agree that my second response is vaguely worded. Yes, I think that everyone got this first and basic question and answered accordingly by not explicitly saying they're playing as a they/them. No, I didn't properly word that in my post. And my first post is worse; I went a bit further beyond the original topic to entice people to discuss even more broadly (and thus keep this thread relevant longer so new posters can also contribute to the original question), but that was even less clear and well-worded. My apologies.
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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#12 Post by FriendlySenpai » Sat Feb 10, 2018 9:10 pm

Unless someone is exceedingly anal about getting every single details about societal norms correct, or just generally dislikes the idea of the use of "they" in a sentence, I honestly don't think anyone would even care. Like. The average person isn't gonna be looking that deeply into things.

A good example I can think of is A Foretold Affair, which included a gender neutral pronoun option for the main character and included a non-binary character despite the story being set in a very gendered society. It worked well because there wasn't any sort of emphasis being put on the pronouns, they were just there. You don't have to get into exploring the concept of nonbinary gender identities just because they exist within the story.

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#13 Post by Draziya » Sat Feb 10, 2018 9:34 pm

FriendlySenpai wrote:
Sat Feb 10, 2018 9:10 pm
Unless someone is exceedingly anal about getting every single details about societal norms correct, or just generally dislikes the idea of the use of "they" in a sentence, I honestly don't think anyone would even care. Like. The average person isn't gonna be looking that deeply into things.

A good example I can think of is A Foretold Affair, which included a gender neutral pronoun option for the main character and included a non-binary character despite the story being set in a very gendered society. It worked well because there wasn't any sort of emphasis being put on the pronouns, they were just there. You don't have to get into exploring the concept of nonbinary gender identities just because they exist within the story.
This.

I'd also like to add on that if you give players the option to choose pronouns, they will most likely choose pronouns they identify with. This means that anyone who has a problem with it breaking their immersion will not ever see their character being referred to with those pronouns. Those who do use those pronouns will have one more game where they can play as someone who uses the same pronouns as them.
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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#14 Post by Zelan » Sun Feb 11, 2018 1:47 pm

Speaking here as someone who does not use they/them, but I have had conversations with friends of mine who do:

Sometimes, going out of your way to address the realism of nonbinary pronouns can have a negative impact, especially with historical fiction. A good friend of mine played the demo for a game set in Victorian England, and while the protagonist was female, one of the love interests was nonbinary. However, the other characters knew that the character was biologically male; although most of the characters were respectful enough to use their preferred pronouns, they also often referred to them with gendered language, such as calling them a boy. They were also described as "eccentric" by the other characters, for no other reason besides their pronoun choice. This had the effect of making it seem as though the other characters were simply tolerated by them; my friend described their treatment as "othering." This is especially important considering how much my friend loved the same studio's portrayal of a nonbinary love interest in the last game, which was set in a sci-fantasy setting. Gender was barely even acknowledged - the character was called "they" and that was that.

Also, it's worth mentioning that, since you've got your story set in a small town, you have room for some flexibility. Not every small town is going to be made up of staunchly traditional Republican types. Even if that's the mentality of the town as a whole, you can still have characters who are more open/accepting of nonbinary gender identities and wouldn't bat an eye about it.
Draziya wrote:
Sat Feb 10, 2018 9:34 pm
I'd also like to add on that if you give players the option to choose pronouns, they will most likely choose pronouns they identify with. This means that anyone who has a problem with it breaking their immersion will not ever see their character being referred to with those pronouns. Those who do use those pronouns will have one more game where they can play as someone who uses the same pronouns as them.
I think this is the bottom line of the matter, honestly. Go for it - any players who use he/she won't be mad as long as they aren't humongous assholes about others' identities, and players who use they/them will thank you; representation is more common nowadays but it's often still a struggle for people to find games where they can use their preferred pronouns.

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Re: Question regarding offering preferred pronouns option for main player character

#15 Post by Katy133 » Sun Feb 11, 2018 1:57 pm

If you wish to stay more historically-accurate, but still want to add pronoun options for androgynous/non-binary player characters, you could use he/she/he--the third "he" would be considered gender-neutral versus the first "he," which would be the male option.

The use of "he" to refer to a person of unknown gender ("the generic 'he'") was used in manuals and school textbooks from the early 18th century until around the 1960s. An early example of this is Anne Fisher's 1745 grammar book "A New Grammar." Older editions of Fowler also did this.
The customer brought his purchases to the cashier for checkout.
In a supermarket, anyone can buy anything he needs.
When a customer argues, always agree with him.
Source: World Heritage Encyclopedia

Another method that has been used in the past is the "it" pronoun when referring to someone whose gender or sex is unclear (this was usually used for children, babies, and animals). Oscar Wilde commonly used this in his writing.

The visual novel's in-universe explanation could be that the speaker (a person of the 1960s) can't identify the player character's sex just by looking at them, so they refer to the player character using generic pronouns (rather than outright ask what their sex is, which could be considered a faux pas).
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