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World of Warcraft's first trans character is an important step forward

WoW Shadowlands screenshots.
(Image credit: Blizzard)

It’s easy to miss World of Warcraft’s first openly transgender character. Pelagos is a Kyrian Aspirant (basically an angel-in-training) who lives in the heavenly realm of Bastion, an afterlife set aside specifically for those who devoted their mortal existence to the service of others. But unless you join the Kyrian—which is only one of four post-mortem factions players must choose between—and go out of your way to chat up Pelagos, you won't hear him recall that he had a female-presenting body when he was alive.

This obscure bit of dialogue struck an otherworldly chord for me, both because I came out as transgender earlier this year and because this universe has been a massive part of my life since I loaded up Warcraft 2 back in 1995. It was my introduction to both strategy games and high fantasy, things that have remained hugely important to me since—predating my first read-through of The Hobbit and conquering my first world in Civilization. The fact that I still play its 16-year-old MMO successor today has more to do with my deep emotional attachment to the world of Azeroth than anything else. Beyond that, I’ve heard other trans people talk about dreaming that they might appear as their correct gender when they die and get to their afterlife. It’s a heartbreakingly relatable admission, and one that Pelagos embodies quite literally.

Warcraft hasn’t always done a great job with representation, especially when it comes to how it portrays the more 'monstrous' races. Darkspear trolls do an exaggerated Jamaican impression, even breaking the fourth wall to draw attention to it: "What do you mean what kind of accent is this? It's a troll accent! Jamaican me crazy…" Their more stately cousins, the Zandalari, borrow a lot of cultural and architectural elements from the indigenous people of Central and South America. And their gods, the loa, share their name directly with the spirits of the real world voodoo religion. Imagine if instead of "The Light," the humans prayed to a fictionalized version of "Jesus Christ" and you'll see how much less respect is being extended to non-Abrahamic spiritual traditions by these portrayals. This sends a message, even if unintentionally, that these cultures are less human.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

These issues haven't vanished, but in other areas Blizzard does seem to be making genuine, good-faith efforts to improve representation. Videogames in general really haven't gone out of their way to include transgender characters. There are a few exceptions. Maddy Thorson, creator of Celeste, recently revealed that game's protagonist, Madeline, is trans—as is Thoson themselves. As much I love Celeste, however, it's an indie darling that will never have the reach of a Blizzard blockbuster. A franchise as huge as WoW including a trans character is pretty notable.

Being trans is a part of Pelagos' story, but it's not what his story is about.

This does bring up an interesting question, though. Should games make a point of including trans characters specifically for the purpose of representation? Personally, as a newly-out trans woman, my hope for the future is that some day transness won't be remarkable at all. We'll just be a pretty average, boring part of everyday society, not seen as a novelty or a news headline. But it's undeniable that right now everyone from lawmakers to high-profile fantasy authors want to deny us human rights, legislate away our existence, or simply refuse to recognize that we are who we say we are. Trans women of color in particular face shockingly high rates of violence compared to the average person. I have very good friends who have been cut off completely by their families or can't even safely come out without jeopardizing their living situations in the middle of a pandemic. We're not there yet. We're not even close.

Does having a trans character in World of Warcraft do anything to help us? Maybe not, at least in the short term. But I'm glad Pelagos exists, especially because his transness is a side detail you kind of have to go digging for. Players who may not know an out trans person in real life being exposed to Pelagos in their favorite game could help start to normalize us in their eyes, partly because his transness doesn't define him as a person and is treated as not that big of a deal. And it's simply affirming to see a character who shares some of my most painful experiences in a game I care deeply about; a game that has traditionally been made mostly for the sensibilities of straight, white, cis dudes.

Were I feeling cynical, I could argue that Blizzard went to the bare minimum effort, including a trans character a lot of players might not ever realize is trans and patting themselves on the back for it. But would it have been better if this shiny, blue lad's gender identity had been a major plot point that got trumpeted from on high? Not necessarily.

WoW Shadowlands screenshots.

(Image credit: Blizzard)

Being trans is a part of Pelagos' story, but it's not what his story is about. It's certainly a part of my story, too. At the moment, so soon after coming out, it's probably the biggest part, to be honest. I'm constantly stressed about how I'm going to pay for hormones and laser hair removal just so someday I might be able to look at myself in the mirror again without feeling sick to my stomach, in a country with an unconscionably broken and dehumanizing healthcare system. I don't have the most difficult job in the world by anyone's standard, but having to do podcasts and live streams can be an ordeal when the sound of this deep, masculine voice absolutely makes me want to go hide in a cave and never open my mouth again. I don't want my life to be forever defined by this, obviously.

We need to be visible, and loud, and strident because it's our way of fighting back against portions of society that would rather we just disappear. I'd love to see more high profile games with openly trans protagonists that focus on trans struggles, of course. Especially if they're also written by trans people with first-hand experience of our unique challenges. Maybe one of you reading this will help make that happen. But if I died and ended up in the Elysian meadows of Bastion, hopefully with a new body that affirms who I know I am inside instead of this gangly, hair-covered ape-thing, I hope I wouldn't have to keep fighting that fight. And I'm glad Pelagos is free to focus his attention on threats of a more supernatural variety, not self-hatred and everyday prejudice from his fellow psychopomps.

There are definitely interesting, important, difficult fantasy stories to be told about trans people striving for acceptance, equality and inner peace in the face of very realistic hatred and dysphoria. I deeply believe in the power of video games to tell those kinds of stories, in ways no other form of media can. That unique narrative power is, ultimately, why I fell head over heels in love with and dedicated my entire career to games. But Pelagos lived and died in a shape that was never truly his. He carried that struggle all the way to the grave, and based on the fact that he's in Bastion, devoted himself to making life better for other people in spite of it all. He deserves to be allowed to lay down that particular burden and, as they say, rest in peace.